“To be authentic, one must be willing to show their contradictions.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and what it means to be authentic in everyday life.
The general definition of authentic is of undisputed origin; genuine. When applying this term to a person, I understand it to mean a person who is clear or transparent about where they are coming from, true to how they are thinking and feeling in the moment. A person who is honest about their contradictions.
In my psychotherapy practice the struggle to be authentic in relationships and at work is one of the topics that comes up most in my work with people. I work with many younger people who are resisting entering the workplace because they do not want to give up their authenticity.
It is my opinion that we are currently living in a culture which advocates for non-authenticity. We are expected to play a part, to not be authentic. If we are authentic, we worry about the harsh consequences that will occur. So many of our daily interactions seem to be built upon this unspoken expectation to not be authentic. If we are, we fear we will be harshly judged and even discarded. So, we hide who we really are and play along.
For whatever reason, authenticity has always been important to me. Maybe it is the residual effect of my more youthful punk rock values. I don’t like or respect myself if I am not being authentic and having respect for myself always trumps other people respecting me. At the end of the day I have to still live with me and if I am not practicing transparency in my life it is hard for me to like who I am. But still, it is often very challenging and even frightening to be authentic. Why? I have some ideas.
We all want to do what is right. We all want to be seen as being right and making the right decisions. We live in a culture that supports this idea that we should always do the right thing and be striving for perfection all the time. But the problem with this ideal is that it is impossible to achieve.
No one is consistent all the time. If there is a person out there who always makes the right decisions, always does the right thing, never messes up, is always on time and always says the right things and who has no contradictions– well then, good for them. But I doubt this person exists.
It is very difficult to be consistent all the time, in everything we do. There are often two parts to our brains; one part that always wants to do what is right for us (exercise, meditate, be kind, be honest, eat well, be organized, be on time) and another part of our brains that wants to do what is wrong for us (eat unhealthy, sleep too much, not do anything productive, skip exercising, skip meditating, watch mindless television shows, procrastinate, avoid and on and on).
It is very difficult for anyone to be as consistent as they want to be all the time. We often give into what is not best for us because of how we feel emotionally or physically. If we feel good it is easier to do what is right for us. But if we are not feeling well emotionally or physically it is much easier to neglect brushing our teeth or skip exercising.
The truth is that most likely everyone deals with an inability to be consistent. No one really discusses their contradictions, so this often goes unnoticed in our culture. But we all struggle to do what is right and best all the time. We all contradict ourselves much of the time, but yet we prefer to not talk about it.
Appearing to be this good and perfect person who has it all together is a false narrative that we have created as a society. This false narrative creates a constant and intense pressure in people to be always seen as perfect and doing the right thing. Especially in business. Authenticity is what gets lost as a result.
It seems difficult for people to admit their imperfections or contradictions out in public, since this stuff is not accepted by most. As a result people pretend, or play the role of having no contradictions within them. “I am not like that,” people often believe and as a result harshly judge those whose imperfections and contradictions show through. It is much easier to judge and discard others for their contradictions than it is to be transparent and authentic about our own.
Someone I know once called this “Bizarro Land.” A place where the norm has become everyone living their everyday lives where everything is seen as being great and perfect. A world where when a person’s imperfections show up they are harshly judged and even dropped. The problem with Bizarro Land is that it creates these standards of who you need to be that are so high, that we spend our entire lives (or at least until retirment) trying to achieve them. As a result we surrender our ability to feel authentic in our lives, because we are afraid of being seen as the contradictory person we really are.