This post is not a completely thought-out post that feels clean in my brain like some of my posts do. It’s more like a conversation, a contemplation, a meandering through some questions that are on my heart.
I’m on a quest to understand more deeply what it means to live authentically. Almost all of my work – my coaching, workshops, writing, and teaching – is centered in that quest. I want to live authentically and I want to help other people do the same. I delight in those beautiful moments when someone sitting in front of me – in a circle I’m hosting, in a coaching conversation, etc. – admits something that emerges from deep in the vulnerable recesses of their heart, and in that moment takes a step into authentic living.
But… even though I’ve done so much of my work in this realm, I still find myself wondering what it really means to live authentically, why it’s so hard for many of us to do so, and what conditions best support authentic living.
With those questions (and more) on my mind, here are some of my random thoughts on authenticity…
1. Authenticity is a journey, not a destination.
I don’t think you ever arrive at a city called “authentic” and then set up camp there. All of your life, you’ll be on a quest to discover who you are and how you can live in that truth more fully. You’ll try new things, test out new ways of being in relationship, realize that some of those things work for you and some don’t, and then you’ll try again. At the same time, there will always be forces working against your quest for authenticity. Those forces – your own fear of failure and rejection, the voices of your ancestors, the oppression of your lineage, the judgement intrinsic to your religion, etc. – will try to convince you that it’s much safer living behind a mask.
Carl Jung used the term “individuation” to define “the process by which individual beings are formed and differentiated [from other human beings]; in particular, it is the development of the psychological individual as a being distinct from the general, collective psychology.” Essentially, individuation is our quest for authenticity. As we mature into adulthood, we individuate, separating ourselves from the worldviews of our parents, the teachings of our childhood, the indoctrination of our religion, etc. There is a risk inherent in individuation, and some of us never work up the courage to take that risk. (Living with three teenagers has been an immense opportunity for me to learn about the individuation journey. Each time they disagree with me, I try to remind myself that they are learning who they are apart from me.)
2. The journey to authenticity is not a linear journey.
Sometimes you’ll grow in authenticity and courage, and then something will happen to make you feel unsafe, and you’ll shrink back behind a mask (or behind the safety of the rules of engagement you learned in your youth). It might be a change in a relationship, a big move that finds you in a place where you don’t feel at home, or some kind of trauma that halts your growth. Or sometimes you’ll be part of an authentic community and you’ll feel at home there, but the relationships will change, betrayal will happen, you’ll grow in ways others in your community haven’t, or people who model authentic leadership will move away and the community will cease to show up in an authentic way for each other. This is not failure – it’s simply a detour along the journey and an opportunity to learn new things about yourself and/or your community.
3. Authentic living is supported by spiritual practice.
Authenticity takes a lot of courage, resilience, and self-reflection, and these things are best supported by a spiritual practice of some kind. Spiritual practice helps you peel away the layers of ego to reveal the authentic self underneath. It also helps you stay grounded, letting the waves of self-doubt and fear of rejection pass over you without destroying you. In mindfulness practice, for example, you are taught to simply label your thoughts and feelings as such and let them pass without attachment. They are not wrong, they just are. Let them come and then release them. When I find myself getting lost in an ego-place, with fear of rejection threatening my quest for authenticity, I go for a long walk in the woods and that helps me return to ground zero where the ego has less of a hold on my life.
4. Living authentically is easier when you are supported by people who make you feel safe.
When you fear judgement or rejection, it’s very difficult to stand in your truth and live authentically. Your ego will do its best to convince you that your safety is more important than your authenticity. When you’re alone in a crowd of people participating in an activity that runs contrary to your values, for example, it’s hard to find the courage to do otherwise. If you can find at least one person in that crowd who will stand by you when you buck the trend, your chance of success goes up exponentially. Growing up in a religious context that did not support women in leadership, for example, I found it difficult to speak out against what I believed to be oppressive. It was easier to simply go along with it and stay silent. Once I discovered there were other people asking the same questions as I was, however, I was able to find my courage and walk away from (or challenge) those places that did not honour me as a leader. When we create places of safety for each other, we all have the opportunity to live more authentically.
5. Shame is the greatest barrier to authentic living.
When you let shame control you, you hide. You convince yourself that you are unworthy and that nobody will love you. You don’t dare take the risk to reveal your heart to other people because you’re certain that your secrets will scare them away. As Brene Brown teaches, in order to let go of shame, you need to become vulnerable, to dare to share your shame stories with people who make you feel safe.
6. Authenticity doesn’t mean you have to “bear your soul” to everyone.
Sometimes people mistakenly believe that being more authentic means they have to share their deepest, darkest secrets on Facebook for all the world to see, but that’s not the case. You have to be judicious with how and with whom you share your most tender stories. If a relationship doesn’t feel like a safe place to be vulnerable, inquire into that feeling and ask yourself if it’s simply fear holding you back or a true sense that the person cannot be trusted. Sometimes the fear is unrealistic (and the person is ready to wholeheartedly accept you no matter what) and sometimes it’s well-founded (and the person really isn’t ready to see you in a different light). When my mom was dying, for example, I struggled with whether or not I needed to be more authentic with her and share some of the ways my belief-system and worldview had changed. In the end, I decided that the risk of wounding her was too great and I preferred to simply be present for her in the most authentic way that I could be without causing unnecessary pain or a fracture in our relationship.
7. Sometimes what appears as inauthentic is actually about respect.
Just as you don’t need to bear your soul to everyone, it’s not always necessary to offend people for the sake of your own authenticity. When you travel globally, for example, you may find yourself in situations where you’ll need to conform to the culture you’re visiting rather than risk offending people. Just because you cover your head in a Muslim part of the world, for example, does not mean that you’re being inauthentic about your belief that women have the right to choose how they adorn their bodies. Showing respect for people’s culture helps break down barriers that might keep you from meaningful relationships.
8. There’s a fine line between authenticity and over-sharing for the sake of getting attention.
I’m not sure what to say about this one. I don’t want to judge people’s motivation for sharing their stories. I simply want to suggest that sometimes people believe that being an open book is about authenticity when it’s really a cry for attention. (It’s a fine line and it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed it. If you find yourself on Maury Povich talking about your sordid affair, you may have crossed it.) If you’re seeking attention, you need to work on your self-acceptance first and foremost. If your quest for authenticity overpowers the conversation and means that someone else is silenced, then you need to step back and re-examine what it is you’re looking for and why you’re sharing. If you’ve found a loving, supportive community, they may help you recognize what it is you’re seeking and what is the most healthy way of having your needs met.
9. We are all responsible for co-creating Circles of Grace where people can live authentically.
As a citizen of the world, you are responsible for serving those around you and offering them safe places for vulnerability and growth. We do this together, all of us seeking healing, seeking truth, seeking grace, and seeking community. We do this by withholding judgement and allowing others to be fully seen in their weakness and their strength. We do this by holding space for each other’s courage. We do this by showing up in our own authenticity and modeling it for each other.
10. Authentic living is risky but it’s worth it.
You may lose relationships when you choose to live more authentically. You may have to stand up to people who don’t honour your truth or who threaten your safety. You may even need to quit jobs or leave communities in your quest for authenticity. These risks are real and your fear of them is not unrealistic. That’s why many of us choose to stay safe. BUT you won’t feel fully alive unless you take the risk to step more fully into yourself. Your freedom and your happiness depend on your courage to be authentic.
What are your thoughts on authenticity? I’d love to hear them. Be part of the conversation by leaving a comment, or sharing this post (along with your own thoughts) on social media.
If you are seeking a more authentic life, consider joining Pathfinder Circle, starting May 8, 2014.