In the past few years, there’s been a lot of focus on the importance of being your true self. Especially in the shiny world of social media, where we are continually bombarded with polished and curated images of people’s lives (and if we’re honest, usually presenting our own highlights reel), it can feel as though authenticity is becoming a scarce commodity.
It’s not just our online lives that are affected by inauthenticity though. Sometimes our attempts to maintain harmony in relationships, to fit in with a social crowd or even to avoid judgement or criticism can lead to us watering down our opinions or making choices that aren’t 100% in line with our values or personal preferences. We might laugh at jokes we don’t find all that funny, go along with plans we’re not all that excited about or pretend we’re fine when we’re really not.
What does it really mean to be authentic though? We all have social roles we perform and so we can tend to slip in and out of character depending on the circumstances we’re in. When does this social role-playing turn into being ‘inauthentic’? Is it actually possible (or desirable) to be fully and completely yourself whether you’re at home with your kids, in a board meeting at work or socialising with acquaintances?
I think, while there will always be times we need to prioritise tact and diplomacy over brutal honesty, there are a few guideposts we can all use to help steer us towards being more authentic more of the time.
1. Start with self-acceptance
Pretending to be something you’re not usually stems from a belief that people wouldn’t like, accept or approve of you if you were really honest about who you are. When you accept yourself and (this is important) when you know deeply that you are a quality human even if your life isn’t perfect, your opinions aren’t popular or someone else judges or criticises you, then you are free to really be yourself. We get stuck in posturing, pretending and people-pleasing when we rely too heavily on other people’s approval for our sense of worthiness. Until you’ve truly learned to like and approve of yourself, you’ll probably struggle with being genuinely authentic.
2. Stay true to your values
Your values are the things in life you hold as most important to you and the principles you stand by. Honesty, respect, or equality are all examples of values you can express in every area of your life – personally and professionally. Authenticity means not compromising on those principles, and making decisions every day that align with your values, regardless of the context or the circumstances in which you find yourself. The good news is that knowing what matters most to you helps with the liking yourself part. The more clear you are about who you are and what you stand for, the stronger your sense of self-worth.
3. Honour your own needs.
If you regularly subjugate your own needs to accommodate others, defer to other people’s opinions or go along with plans when you’d rather not, aim to be more assertive in expressing your opinion and stating your needs. You might think it doesn’t matter, but in the vast majority of cases (that is, unless you’re hanging out with a narcissist), the people you’re with actually want to know your opinion and prefer you to tell them your preference. We all like to know where we stand and not have to guess at someone else’s position. If that feels uncomfortable perhaps due to bad experiences you’ve had in the past, start small.
If someone asks what you’d like to do, rather than falling back on the old, “I’m easy. Whatever you want is fine with me”, think about what you would really like to do and tell them! If doesn’t mean be uncompromising, it just means being prepared to put your preference out there for consideration along with all the others. And if it occurs to you that you don’t actually know what your own needs and preferences are, then that’s a good sign you could do with spending some time reconnecting with what matters to you. You may have become so adept at burying your needs to keep harmony with others that you need to dig deep and undo that damage.
4. Have honest conversations
Having difficult conversations is not something that comes easily to most of us and being authentic means owning up to what you really feel. We often err on the side of protecting someone’s feelings or avoiding awkward topics completely. At work, it’s easy to go along with majority opinion and in relationships we can stay quiet under the guise of ‘keeping the peace’. It’s also much more comfortable to maintain superficial banter than to discuss topics with a bit more emotional depth. Striving to tell the truth even when it feels uncomfortable or to have the courage to discuss the issues that matter to you is the way to build trust.
I’m not talking about being brutally honest or sacrificing tact or diplomacy in the name of truth-telling. But at the end of the day, authenticity is a prerequisite for trust. Trusting yourself to do what’s right for you and being a trustworthy person in the eyes of others so that you have a chance of creating deeper, lasting and genuine connections.
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