Authenticity. To be authentic. What does that even mean? It seemed authenticity was another millennial buzzword of my early thirties. And though I couldn't quite describe or define it, I knew I wanted it.
I pictured this rather grandiose and vague destination that would only be the result of lasting and enviable introspection. You know, a lot like inner peace. Authenticity seems like a lofty concept, but on the other hand, an obvious choice for the woke millennial. But does authenticity belong on a spectrum, or is it a simple destination that would be obvious once I arrived? Perhaps I was inauthentic yesterday but now, who I am, is authentic, and I shall be so forevermore. Can it be so clear? Could someone show me where this line existed that I needed to cross? How much would I have to pay?
While I was embarking on my own journey of authenticity, or perhaps simply trying to recognize it, I was seeing clients in my psychotherapy practice daily. Their main goals were to control anxiety so they didn’t have to hide in the bathroom at work, or to break up with the boyfriend whose before explainable temper turned into assault or to get a promotion in a job they actually didn’t even really like. It seemed that everywhere I looked well adjusted fabulous people were living lives of isolation, loneliness, worry, overspending and sadness. There grasp of self was loosening at the expense of familiarity, comfort and control. Their choices were not in alignment with their authentic selves. They came to San Francisco with goals for success and balance and instead their best life was precariously out of reach.
I was also struggling during this time, as therapists sometimes do. I was sabotaging a good relationship, drinking way too much, dealing with insomnia and falling back into jobs I didn’t really like because it paid more. This higher pay was somehow validating. What was beyond my own self-discipline at that time was the understanding that if I just spent less on crap I did not need I could have had more freedom to choose jobs that supported my purpose or spent more free time doing things I loved that were good for my mental health. I was not living my authentic self.
“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” Coco Chanel
But I'll be honest, living authentically seemed like too lofty a goal for someone who kept cancelling her own appointments with her therapist. It seemed like a success in itself to get by each month in a city that can eat you up and spit you out. Though I was living paycheck to paycheck and with numerous roommates there was this feeling that "I was making it." But was this the way I wanted to live?
Now at 37 years old, I can honestly say I am living life authentically. The way that my family and friends see me feels very close to the way I see myself. I have boundaries and I know my limits. I don't feel guilty when I can't say yes to everything and in fact have taken greater pleasure in saying no, because I know I am protecting myself and my free time. I am living a life that may not be supported by everyone, and parenting in a way that is unconventional but which I feel extremely comfortable about. I am trying to read more, exercise more and make better choices for my body. I am taking time daily to stretch! I am not having outbursts that I regret... nearly as often. I look at my wrinkles, my grey hair and my stretch marks as inevitable and very clearly mine. It does not mean that I don't try to minimize them or cover them up but it also means I don't waste my emotional energy worrying about something as out of my control as the natural aging process. I am becoming more comfortable with having less and doing less. I keep a gratitude journal at least in my mind. Most importantly, I am very clearly happier.
“The authentic self is soul made visible". Sarah Ban Breathnach.
AUTHENTICITY HAS A PLACE IN THERAPY
A personal inventory concerning the topic of authenticity a few years ago would probably have been just the thing I needed to find myself amid the self-created chaos and shame that was taking over my life.
Guiding my patients through their own inventory of their authentic self versus their current state of existence would likely have validated their current feelings of distress and naturally highlighted treatment goals and progress.
An inventory can include some of these questions that help you identify your authentic self. Who are you, at your core? What are your values? Are you truly happy? What part of your life is being neglected at the expense of other parts? What do you believe to be true? And as a famous quote says “when you aren’t worried about being the person you are supposed to be and can finally be yourself” what does that look like?
Our authentic selves likely want love and affection, stable relationships that aren’t abusive and a healthy amount of validation. We don’t want to nag the one we are with, make sarcastic comments to bring co-workers down or sleep with someone we know isn’t good for us. We want to believe that our boss and our coworkers respect our opinions and care about our success. Our authentic self-wants to pay bills on time, not keep secrets and put healthy foods into our bodies. We want to feel confident in making friends and taking risks. Just because our behaviors would suggest the opposite does not make these things less true.
In fact feelings of depression, shame and anxiety increase when we are living inauthentically.
That is where the therapy or coaching conversation should start. Who are you really, at your happiest and most secure? How far are you from that person right now? How do we get back to our most true, most genuine and most authentic self? How will you know when you are living authentically?
Finally, when you are feeling slightly guilty for being so bougie that you have the privilege of even worrying about whether you are living your most authentic self. I mean, on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I am pretty sure that it can't get much higher. Just realize that when you become closer to your authentic self you will find you have less crisis and critical moments that need urgent attention because you are getting your life aligned and living life more intentionally and peacefully.