The word authentic derives from the Greek, meaning “principal, genuine.” A thing that is authentic is a thing that has not been altered or compromised of its original qualities. The term authenticity carries a sheen of value and substance, as if the thing at hand comes straight from the source. We think that something authentic delivers the good stuff, the raw elements, the cleanest experience.
As consumers, we know what it means when a jacket’s label reads “genuine leather,” but what makes a person genuine? And what makes it so difficult for many of us to embrace our authentic selves?
Dr. Gabor Maté brilliantly discusses authenticity in the context of childhood attachment. In short, when we are children, we depend on our parents or primary caregivers for our survival. This dependence forms the basis of our attachment to our caregivers, and thus we develop attachment styles based on these early relationships. Where does authenticity come into play?
Well, well, well. Children are born authentic. From day one, there is no pretending, no saving face, neither augmentations nor alterations used to bolster an image, identity, or persona — there is only unaffected existence. Children are born naked, literally. Once born, they learn rapidly to conform to the expectations and standards set for them by well-meaning caregivers. These expectations and standards often stand in contrast to the child’s authentic ways of being, and thus a dilemma is created: an inner tug-of-war between the natural urge to remain authentic and the survival need to conform to the demands of the caregiver schema.
Dr. Maté emphasizes that when a child’s authenticity is threatened by a primary attachment, the loyalty to the attachment wins every time. In other words, the child’s survival depends more upon the attachment than on personal authenticity. In this way, the authenticity of many individuals begins to be suppressed.
The good news is that — as self-sufficient adults — we become independent of our survival attachment to our early caregivers. Now that we can take care of ourselves, we can theoretically live life on our own terms, authentically.
Authenticity as a concept carries big hype these days because gurus know how to puff up the positive emotions associated with living in our truth: the attitude of no-flips-given, the indestructible sense of self, the invincibility of personal truth, the beauty of what is real and not contrived, and the cool messages embedded in memes…
But one thing I feel is missing from the conversation is the secondary gains involved in being inauthentic. That is to say, the advantages a person gains by being untrue to themselves; the perks of not being oneself. Of these there are plenty! Being accepted by a group, to mention one major example.
The losses involved in practicing authenticity, on the other hand, are not sexy material. They don’t sell well. So, as people prepare to walk the path toward a more authentic state of being, they ought to be clued in to these potential losses and side effects. If properly prepared, the persons so daring will not feel like complete failures when their endeavors meet with the rocky terrain that is inevitable along this path.
Based on personal experience, the following is a list of uncomfortable realities that you, too, may encounter upon the path to authenticity. If you experience these things, fear not! You are not alone!
Facebook/IG/Twitter (ad nauseam) ain’t as into you. The number of likes on your posts will likely decrease as you adjust to being you, because you will no longer be giving your own thumbs up to others’ posts you find phony, dull, ego-driven, or overly sentimental… Generally speaking, social media likes you only as much as you like it. Furthermore, the authentic you is likely either withdrawing from social media altogether or sharing things of esoteric interest rather than broad appeal.
Don’t worry, the genuine likes will return and potentially increase again, once you’ve settled into the true you.
Everyday people ain’t as into you. Physical reality will follow the same suit as virtual reality. False friends and false acquaintances will drop out of your life like flies. Even one authentically-driven comment of yours may drive away a friend or family member faster than you can say, “This is me.”
Your talk is awkward. There will be awkward pauses in your speech where there used to be bumbling, approval-seeking phraseology. You will take awkwardly-placed deep breaths during uncomfortable encounters, when traditionally you would fill the space with slobbering empathy, obsequity, or conformity. Similarly, your authentic voice, while shaky and tenderly growing, will shock and potentially offend those who are unaccustomed to you using a real one. Instead of passively absorbing an insensitive comment, you will speak out against it, and this may bring flares of combat. Pro tip: you don’t need to get wrapped up in the combat. You just need to practice the courage of your convictions. And practice voicing them respectfully.
Veils of illusion crumble before your eyes. The false status symbols of physical beauty, sex, money, power, and fame will be revealed to you. The cloaks will drop. You will find, in many cases, that these symbols are propped up by very flimsy and very undesirable realities. While you will be thankful to discover the falsity of these symbols, you may feel pangs of regret for falling prey to their allure in the past. You will need to shake yourself clean of these illusions, and this will take time. Be gentle with yourself.
You are bored, boring, and mediocre. For a period of time, your ego will undergo rapid deflation, like a balloon, because you will no longer be pumping it with the air it needed to survive. You will stop proudly labeling yourself a “pescatarian” when the truth is that you eat McDonald’s chicken nuggets from time to time. You will discover that there is nothing that makes you more special than the next person. You are unique, sure, but you are ordinary, too. You eat, sleep, and survive by the same mechanisms as everyone else. In this sense, authenticity is rooted in common experience! Who knew?
Your ego will likewise shrink against the rapid expansion of your worldview. What once plagued you as uniquely your problems will suddenly occur to you as human problems, and you’ll see yourself under a common light. This will be a strange yet inspiring sensation!
You may be penniless. You’re a bootstrapper now, a scrappy beggar. You will have to quit the job that is entirely out of alignment with your soul’s code. Office life, be damned! Sabotaging, competitive workmates will have to go, and, consequently, you will feel as though you have very few places to go. Corporations cannot handle the glare of self-governed individuals. Corporations thrive on conformity. And, depending on where your authenticity takes you career-wise, you may have to suffer the loss of a regular paycheck for a while. As such, you may ride a rocky stream of discomforting realities for some time. The pluckier among us will find a thrilling adventure in this.
You learn humility. You may have to ask for help, such as state health insurance or food stamps, or you may have to—gasp—move back in with mom and dad for a while. A wise person once said, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.” The humility that sends us on errands for help is often the lesson that teaches us that we are an interdependent species, and our humanity is foundationally interconnected. Some of the realest connection happens in these humble waters.
Your artwork sucks. As you no longer live in the fantastical realms of ego, illusion, and what-ifs, you are now putting paintbrush to canvas and pen to paper, and it’s a sore spectacle, because you are out of practice—the practice of being yourself. Now that you’ve tossed aside your masks, you’ve lost your reasons for fantasizing about who you might be beneath your masks. You are no longer a someday artist. You now have the metaphorical paintbrush in your hand, and the colors are very real before you. You may not be a great mixer just yet. Things may be muddy and grey. Keep practicing.
You rush into failure more readily. You do not have time to theorize. To intellectualize. To strategize. To perfect. To procrastinate. You are allowed your ideals and your castles in the sky, but no programs or promises or institutions are going to lift you there. It’s just you and your hands in the clay now. You are naïve about how things really work, and sometimes this naïveté is on broad display. You do not know how to complete the task, but still you try in earnest. Failure generally ensues. Keep trying.
You cannot hide that you are not happy. Did Nina Simone sing happy songs? Nah, she sang the truth. She sang it with blues. Deep, harrowing blues. Would she have preferred to sing happy songs about being happy? Probably. She chose to be authentic instead. Authenticity was her soul engine. And what do you know, music was her glory and salvation in the end. In this sense, life can become worth living even when you are not completely happy. Life itself can be the humble, warm cup of tea on a rainy afternoon when your apartment is a mess. The various conditions of life itself can be the sustaining force behind your existence. Meeting these conditions with authenticity can be your life blood.
You are an angry monster. [Or, insert any previously suppressed emotion.] You are prickly and pissed off. Goodbye, Miss Lady. Goodbye, spiritual bypassing. Goodbye, concealing your sharp parts. Whereas you used to subscribe to habits of toxic positivity such as sending “love and light” to strangers who nearly cause traffic accidents due to being on their phone, you are now yelling, “WHAT THE F%$!?” and muttering curse words under your breath until the emotion passes. Your reactions and responses to the injustices of the world are REAL. Who is this monster? This is your power returning. Enjoy the new energy!
Your charisma morphs. Your charisma used to tickle the gallery; now it rivets only those on your wavelength. Let yourself have an ugly duckling phase, here. Let yourself roam the charismatic landscape. Let yourself be very strange.
The path of authenticity is thorny. It is nudity in the jungle. But the eventual clearing is unlike any you have seen before. In that clearing, you will breathe easier. You will stand taller. You will belong. Your blood will flow like water. You will meet the creatures who connect with you at deeper levels. You will dance again. You will taste sweet rewards, unending.
You will be you.