Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Authenticity: What It Is and Why You Want It

I remember being in graduate school twenty-some-odd years ago, and hearing fellow psychology students speak of "authenticity," which they defined as being true to one's own personality, spirit, or character despite external pressures.They were existentialists, I think, and even though I admired their integrity, I didn't pay much attention to them. In my mind, I was honest enough, genuine enough.

It wasn't until recently that the subject came up for me again. I had spent decades being a good person and having good intentions, but I realized that---as a Scorpio, an introvert, and a human---there were ways in which I had been slightly secretive, self-protective, and, at times even a smidge manipulative. There were ways in which I had traded parts of myself for peace or security.

I looked around and noticed that most people were in the same boat. Very few fit into the category of truly authentic, which I would define as deeply honest, ethical, transparent in one's thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and true to self and others.

To get a better sense of what authenticity looks like and why you'd want to be it, let's do a quick exercise. First, think of someone you know who you trust implicitly, someone who is forthcoming with their real thoughts and feelings, and who would never try to manipulate you in any way. When you're with this person, you can relax and let your guard down. What you see is what you get. This is an authentic person.

Next, think of someone who throws you off balance a little. Maybe they're nice sometimes and not so nice other times. Maybe they have a way of getting you to agree to things that you're not comfortable with, or you notice yourself feeling guilty, angry, confused or conflicted around them. Maybe they tell you half-truths, omit relevant information, or make promises that they don't always keep. Most likely, this is a person who has not yet discovered the joys of authenticity.

And where do you fit into this discussion? Chances are you're very honest and genuine in some areas, but not in others. For instance, maybe you tell the truth unless you know it will hurt some one's feelings, or get you yelled at. Or you're true to your friends, but not to yourself. Maybe you're honest and forthcoming about what you think, but not about what you feel.

Being authentic is not easy, especially if we come from a family or culture that operates on the assumption that we must maintain a cautious stance lest we make ourselves vulnerable to attack or manipulation. Or perhaps we come from a culture where communication is risky or indirect, and we've had to devise clever ways of getting our needs met.

This week, I invite you to do a personal inventory. Perhaps list the ways you are authentic, and the ways you are not. It might also be interesting to look at your background as well as current relationship to authenticity. Are you happy with your degree of personal integrity and honesty? Are you aware of when you are manipulating a situation for your own benefit, or because you don't know how to ask for what you want directly? Are you true to yourself and those around you?

This might be a humbling exercise (I know it was for me), but just being willing to do an honest appraisal of yourself and your relationships is an act of great courage, intention, and, yes, authenticity!