We hear a lot about authenticity these days - about being authentically ourselves, and about creating workplaces where we can ‘be who we are’. We also happen to exist in a society that is full of examples of narcissistic leadership, increasingly polarised view points, and this dominant narrative of ‘giving less f*cks’. Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking that their ‘being authentic’ means they can treat others inconsiderately, I figured it was time for a more in-depth look into what authenticity actually is and isn't, and where it comes from.
What is authenticity?
Google asserts that authenticity means: “the quality of being authentic”. It then defines ‘authentic’ as:
- “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine” and
- “in existentialist philosophy, relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.”
These definitions tell us that authenticity has two prerequisites: consciousness, and intention. One cannot be truly genuine, or living an “emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible… human life” if they are also unconscious about who they really are. Coming to consciousness requires intention (the intention to become aware); what you do with yourself after you get conscious also requires intention (repress, deny, accept etc).
So, where does authenticity actually come from?
Authenticity is generated by our ongoing choice to look inwards, to see ourselves as we actually are, and to accept what we see without judgement. For ease of reference for the rest of this article, I’m going to call this the “Authenticity Process”.
The Authenticity Process generates authenticity in two ways:
- By helping us to find our genuine self: We cannot genuinely be ourselves if we do not genuinely knowourselves. Most people do not genuinely know themselves because so much of who we understand our ‘self’ to be has been inherited from others, and from society, at a time in our life when we couldn’t make conscious choices about whether or not it was a good fit with us (that is, we inherited it in childhood). But, over time, the act of looking inwards and seeing ourselves as we are, builds up a bank of self-awareness. We are then able to see what is ‘genuinely us’ and what about us has been unconsciously adopted from others.
- By removing the fear of living in alignment with our genuine self: As we give our self the acceptance that we deeply crave, three things happen:
- Paradoxically, our own transformation becomes possible when we stop fighting our self into a ‘should be’ and just allow our self ‘to be’;
- We start to create a deeply respectful, loving and caring relationship with our self. As such, we start to hear from our self more and more clearly, because we are no longer living in constant repression or denial or distraction; and
- Our desire to hide who we are (for fear of what others might think, say or do) diminishes in the face of our own self-acceptance, and thus, a natural ‘being yourself’ arises.
The Authenticity Process also has these side-effects:
- Our new-found self-awareness means that we can start to say with some confidence who we are, what is true for us, and what we need in order to be our best self;
- Because we now accept ourselves (at least, in increasing doses), we will start advocating for what we need, and we will stop staying in situations that do not support who we authentically are;
- We will develop a deep empathy for the way that others are in the world, because we have had to develop that empathy for ourself, first, in order to accept what we’ve learnt about ourselves; and
- We get far more tolerant and curious about the world because we realise that what is ‘true’ for us is so specific to our personality and our life experiences. We stop expecting that other people will see the world in the way that we do, because we start to comprehend how truly unique we all are.
What authenticity isn’t
I see too many people brand their own particular expressions of narcissism and lack of empathy as ‘authenticity’: a “This is what I believe, you can like it or lump it, I give no f*cks for your opinion about me”. That would be fine if you lived in a vacuum, but you don’t: you live on a finite earth with seven and a half billion other people, and if we’re going to survive as a species, then we have to care about the impact that we have on each other and the planet.
Genuine authenticity arises from a very conscious, intentional place. It doesn't come to you without a commensurate rise in empathy and curiosity. As such, genuine authenticity is not divisive - it's accepting, and kind, and thoughtful. It's about taking up space in yourself, not about taking over space from others. It's about being able to say "This is me, in all my glory and madness, creating room for myself and others to be, to be accommodated, to question, and to evolve."