So in case you didn’t get the memo–it’s no longer cool to use phrases such as “being your authentic self” or “living an authentic life” on the internet. And…you can probably already tell that in this piece, I’m about to disregard the memo.
A few years ago? It was totally fine to talk about “living authentically” and “finding your authentic self.” It was completely understood that our consumerist-driven, materialistic world tends to make people externalize their happiness, turn away from themselves, and thus, to not live “authentically.”
Right around the time everyone started to use this word, the backlash began–people were sick of the word because everyone was using it (understandable) and at least half of the people using it were using it…inauthentically (which is to say, they were using it as a branding message that they didn’t actually live).
There are some words that I’m happy to toss from the internet lexicon, especially those that both say very little and kind of gross me out (top of my list? “juicy” living. Shudder).
Yet–I keep mulling over “authenticity.” I keep thinking that even if it’s not supposed to be cool to like it…I kind of like it.
Actually, I keep thinking that I really dig it–that it’s a quality of life and a characteristic in a person that I actually endeavor to seek out and connect with.
I keep thinking that maybe it’s a concept that can help us if we make it central to our lives, and that perhaps it’s not one of those that needs to be tossed away.
In case you haven’t looked it up, lately, here’s what I found:
Authenticity. noun. The quality of being authentic; genuineness (courtesy of dictionary.com)
And isn’t that what we most want in our friends, our jobs, our romantic partners? The genuine experience? Yes. No sense in denying that.
So how do you know when you’re not cultivating the genuine experience and when authenticity is not a core operating principle in your life?
>> You say “yes” to things you don’t really want to say “yes” to. You do this both consciously and unconsciously. You say “yes” to the extra errand you didn’t really want to run, or you say “yes” unconsciously–yes to more time in front of the television even though it doesn’t feed your soul or yes to the person who asks if you’ll pimp their new e-course, because you feel bad saying no.
>> If you got honest, you’d quickly identify the little undercurrents of resentment. Resentment that he won’t help out around the house, more. Resentments that the kids had a meltdown. Resentment that your sister’s life seems easier. Resentment that your life doesn’t look like your Pinterest board.
>> You compare yourself to others. Whether you compare yourself and come out favorably or whether you compare yourself and come out in the red, it doesn’t matter. Both of these are illusions (despite how it may seem, you’re not doing your life any better, or any worse, than anyone else–we all have our own paths) and ticking off the “I’m doing it better” boxes feels just as miserable as ticking off the “I’m doing it worse” boxes.
>> Your outsides feel at odds with your insides. You stand in front of the closet, thinking, “I have no idea what to wear,” because you have no idea who bought that tailored skirt and button-down shirt when you know you yearn for dreadlocks and a maxi dress. Or you walk into your house and it never quite feels like home. Or you find yourself having lunch with three co-workers and pretending to be interested in things that really, you have no interest in.
>> You aren’t telling the truth in important relationships–like your marriage, or with your family or closest friend. Every time you hang out with your cousin, you come away angry at the things that she says–but you never talk to her about it. You feel like you and your hubs are more roommates than partners–but you’ve never initiated a conversation with him about it, or you tried it once and then didn’t do it again because he wasn’t responsive.
>> You aren’t taking responsibility for your life. Check this out: Think of someone you’re currently in conflict with. Whose fault is it that there’s distance between the two of you? Play the situation out in your head. It’s probably “theirs.”
If your cousin’s words bug you, the focus goes to what she says and how she should have said it differently–rather than taking responsibility for your reactions, or for speaking up, and rather than considering other possibilities (maybe you misunderstood; maybe she just needs to be made aware that what she said was insensitive and she’ll apologize; maybe you’re the one over-reacting and the onus to get over it is on you). If your husband isn’t responsive to your attempts to resuscitate the marriage, the focus goes to what he’s done (or is not doing), what he’s saying (or not saying), how he’s not showing up for the marriage.
>> And now, the biggie: You’re tired. A lot. Maybe even all of the time. Living inauthentically is exhausting.
“Living authentically” is often painted as a place you can arrive at, a black or white land of “you’re either doing it, or you’re not.” Most people who embark on uncovering their “authentic self” tend to think that their lives are in need of a complete overhaul.
That’s a wonderful, dramatic, passionate, spicy…fantasy. Starting over with a blank slate is fun, but it’s impossible with “living authentically.”
Why? Because there is no blank slate. Your life’s experiences have become etched upon your soul. You already have preferences, aches, and the promise of new, ecstatic joy to be discovered.
All of this is uniquely yours. You can screw with it to a certain degree. But within each of us, there’s a place where you simply can’t deny who you are.
The work of “living authentically” is not about finding yourself. It’s about removing the obstacles to finding yourself.
It’s an ongoing process. It won’t be done in one fell swoop. Not one of the so-called “thought leaders” that you might look up to right now are “done” with living “authentically.” It’s a practice, a process.
Removing (self-imposed) obstacles
Stop saying “yes” to the things you don’t want to say “yes” to. Start with what’s easiest and most in your control before moving to the harder stuff (saying “yes” to the boss’s request).
Get honest with yourself about your resentments. Then see above.
Start telling the truth–and tell it clean. Tell it with the intention to connect, not to criticize or make someone else wrong. (P.S. it’s a perversion of the work to criticize someone and then use “What? I’m just telling my truth!” as a fall back).
Clean out a closet. This is an astonishingly potent form of inner work. It will bring up all your stuff (literally and figuratively).
Release the illusion of comparisons. If you’re looking to anyone else as a gauge for whether or not you’re winning at life, you’re looking in all the wrong places.
Take responsibility for your life. It is, after all, your life–your choices. Your happiness. Your ecstatic joy.
You’ve figured out what would fix everything–
- getting out of your marriage;
- leaving a soul-sucking job;
- firing that “energy vampire” of a friend;
- getting the success you’ve always wanted;
- finally losing the weight.
I vote no.
I vote that life is more nuanced than that.
Yes, there are those cases where one’s life needs a demo and rebuild, not an update. Funny thing, though–usually when someone’s life needs to come crashing down, that tends to happen far beyond their control.
Life is more nuanced than “If this, then that.”
Here is what I know for sure about people: you will take yourself with you, wherever you go.
That means: you will take yourself with you when you leave the marriage (so be very careful about fantasizing that life beyond this marriage will be better, and use this time to discover all that you can about who YOU are, within the context of this relationship).
You will take yourself with you when you leave the job (and project all of the same annoyances onto your new profession, whatever that will be).
You will take yourself with you when you leave that friendship (the part where you give anyone the power to “suck” your energy, for instance).
And of course–you’ll still be you, regardless of the proportions of your thighs.
As a path to happiness, both cutting things out of our lives (people, jobs) and attaining some new shiny thing (money, career, sexier people) is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.
You will always take yourself with you. You can’t swap out for a slimmer pair of pants to get to the fulfillment you crave, and bypass the necessary, and sometimes painful, initiation of truly seeing yourself.
Seeing ourselves is about telling the truth, and telling it clean. This is actually a skill that (I and) most people have needed to learn.
You’ve got to get down to examining the belief systems–because those belief systems are what inform the daily habits, which are then what inform the patterns, which are then what create…the marriage that isn’t working, the job you hate, the relationships that seemingly suck you dry.
The fact that your life does not need a complete overhaul? This is actually the good news (though it can, for some, carry with it a whisper of devastation–no new project? no exciting new self-help plan to map out? you mean it just comes down to me being with me?).
It’s the good news because the skill we most need to learn is how to be with ourselves, fully. It requires courage (of course) and a willingness to get a bit uncomfortable.
Really, the moment that you’re willing to get a bit uncomfortable is the moment that your “entire life” will change.
That’s really where all of this spiritual stuff leads–not to perfect marriages, or perfect careers, or perfect friends, or perfect bodies.
It all leads to feeling a greater sense of happiness because, paradoxically, there’s less resistance to life’s discomforts.
So: want to be liberated from all the stuff that “weighs you down”?
True liberation is when you realize that you take yourself with you, wherever you go–and you’re excited enough about who you are, that you’re happy to have all of you along for the ride.
Pretty much for the most part almost everyone is doing it.
Hiding out from core issues.
It’s easy to do; once you’ve started to get into a bit of self-help, you make a few changes in your life and those changes feel good.
“Great!” you think. “Life feels better.”
If you haven’t dealt with core issues, after awhile you’ll notice something: while things are generally better on a day-to-day basis, when life’s circumstances are challenging enough, all of these intense feelings pour fourth. You feel the same old struggles that you’d been wading through, before. Then you say, “I thought I had dealt with this, already. Why is this coming up, again?”
Most of us have done just enough self-help work to understand that we aren’t “supposed to” be critical of ourselves. We think knowing better means doing better, and we drive the real issue further underground.
Cutting to the Core
If you are really going to make true changes, you’ve got to cut to the core. Because this can be complex, first I’ll share why core issues are tricky, and then I’ll lead you through an example.
Core issues include:
- Feeling unworthy, not enough, perpetually lacking, unfulfilled, disconnected.
- Not having forgiven pivotal people or experiences that did damage to our sense of self.
- Trust or safety issues that lead people to patterns of control.
These are “core issues” because they are at the “core” of a whole host of other behaviors in a person’s life, and because they’re related to a person’s most basic sense of self.
Most self-help focuses on how to change the outer effects, the behaviors–recite some affirmations, use “I statements,” all of that. When someone decides to look at the core, to really understand how the issue is at work in their lives, they can make deeper, more lasting changes.
Here is what’s really tricky about core issues:
- Usually, there’s some kind of identity or role that the person has adopted in order to function in their lives.
- It’s very difficult for people to see the identities or roles that they have adopted; they’ve become “a way of life.”
- The identity or role provides some sense of safety and has been practiced for a long time. Thus, it’s hard to see how to let it go, or to feel comfortable with changing behavior. (DingDing! This is exactly why change is so hard).
- There are about a gazillion reasons we can come up with, all of which sound logical and justifiable, to avoid change. The #1 reason? People would prefer not to deal with a necessary change until they absolutely have to. As long as life is basically functioning, most people are happy to just not stir the pot.
I’m assuming you already see the inherent issue with this: life itself will inevitably stir the pot. No one escapes the challenges of death, relationship change, loss, economic challenges, illness, etc.
People who wait to avoid changing until absolutely necessary? They have a much, much harder time with change than those who are pro-active about looking honestly at themselves and the patterns at work in their lives.
Meanwhile, they also experience much less happiness and joy in their lives than they otherwise might, because the core issue is always at work in the background of their lives.
There’s also a lot of fear that working through a core issue will necessitate drudging up family history, childhood issues, etc. I’ll also share why that’s not necessarily true.
My own core issues were/are feeling like I was bad or not enough. (“Were/are, Kate?” Yes. I still see places in my life where they’re at work. I now have awesome tools and an amazing support system for working through it, each time that arises).
There was a lot of anger, and I didn’t trust in people or feel a basic sense of safety to be who I was, without consequences. I had not forgiven the people or pivotal experiences that contributed to that. Control was also part of the picture.
Somewhere along the way, I adopted the identity of “Over-Achiever! Please Validate How Good I Am.” Someone else might have adopted the identity of the “People Pleaser Who Just Wants Peace, Please Don’t Be Mad At Me.”
Most people can identify when they are being over-achievers or people-pleasers. Not everyone identifies why they chose that role, or sees how it’s dysfunctional in their lives, or why it’s so hard to stop. I’ll use the Over-Achiever and People-Pleaser identities as examples.
The over-achiever seeks validation. If she gets validated for what she does, the logic goes that she doesn’t have to feel so unworthy. Taking on a new project, being motivated, doing flashy things…all perfect things for someone to do, to get approval, love, and validation.
That is, until it leads to burnout, or until she notices the hollow emptiness of achieving something and then it’s “on to the next thing.”
Seeking validation through over-achieving doesn’t work. But the over-achiever doesn’t see that, or–if she does see it–doesn’t want to let that pattern go, precisely because…it actually does give her some benefits. Over-achievers are “smart.” They can “do it all.”
This is why it’s so tricky! Over-achievers feel just a smidge safer, a smidge more in control as a result of their behavior. Who wants to give that up?
Most don’t, until it’s clear that the walls are closing in and that they must. One benefit of being an Over-Achiever? Some will not wait for the proverbial shit to hit the proverbial fan.
The People-Pleaser also seeks validation. The People-Pleaser might resent the ways in which she compromises herself so that others can be happy, but at the same time…everybody likes the People-Pleasers. They get all of this validation for being “such nice people.”
Underneath it all, they feel suffocated by expectation and buried way, way, WAY down there, is the resentment. People-Pleasers control situations by giving up their control, in deference to what others want.
When they defer to others and they’re liked, they feel just a smidge safer, a smidge more in control as a result of their behavior. Who wants to give that up?
Most don’t…again, until it’s clear that this pattern is wreaking havoc.
Oh, And–By the Way
Over-Achievers and People-Pleasers, in particular, looooooove to shack up with one another.
The Over-Achiever has chosen someone who will let her control stuff, which is how she feels safe.
The People-Pleasers have chosen someone who will appreciate how they are such nice, accommodating people, which is how they feel safe.
You’re Not Alone
These are just two basic examples; there are many more identities. In my work with one-on-one clients, I find that it’s a universal fear to feel like change will be next to impossible.
Every over-achiever thinks, at least at the beginning, that she needs to keep achieving or else things will fall apart.
Every people-pleaser struggles, at least at the beginning, with learning the difference between people-pleasing and saying yes because it’s what she authentically wants.
How do they eventually change?
By dealing with what’s happening instead of sticking heads in the sand, starting with identifying what does, and does not work about the identity, and getting really clear about what patterns feed the identity.
Since a lack of safety and trust often fuel the dysfunctional patterns, people need time and support to build new patterns. This is why an impartial third-party who has experience with this (a coach, counselor, therapist) is so important.
Also sprinkled in there? Typically some forgiveness is needed. I always know that a client is really on her way when she’s willing to have some compassion for the person who caused the original wound.
A huge fear people have about doing this work is the fear that they’ll have to disrupt the family, leave marriages, confront family members about patterns, demand apologies so that they can be healed, etc.
Not true. The only person who needs to shift in this equation is the person who has identified that a pattern is at work in her life that isn’t feeling good. Other people don’t need to change in order for you to get the benefits of this work.
Focusing on others will only ever be a diversion from doing the real work, on yourself–that’s what it means to cut to the core. It’s not about what mom and dad did, back then. It’s not about anyone else.
At the core, it’s about you–and the best part is that you get to reap the huge benefits of that.