The difficulty of living authentically

In a world where being ‘authentic’ has been glamourised, glorified and used as a performative marketing tool, even the word ‘authentic’ has an inauthentic feel about it. If your idea of being ‘authentic’ brings to mind an image of an airbrushed picture-perfect yoga model looking wistfully into the distance while she ‘reveals’ the (sanitised) story of how she overcame a childhood trauma and used it as a tool for her wild success (which she will teach you about in her one-time-only webinar), scrap it now and let’s start over.

What I’m talking about is stripping away the expectations, the conditioning, the demands placed on you by society, your parents, your community and traditions, and really getting down to what will make you genuinely, deeply, soul-fulfillingly happy.

And if it’s honest, it probably won’t be pretty. It’s unlikely to sell webinars, and you’re possibly going to meet a lot of protest and disapproval on the way.

Those are all signs you’re doing it right.

Breaking the template

There’s something of a template for living that most of us fit at least partially into. Depending on your culture and upbringing, it probably involves parameters like marriage, children, formal education, home ownership, a (preferably prestigious) career path, a certain body type, and a positive attitude, and it dictates much of the way we present ourselves. Whilst some variations are prized as ‘individuality’, straying too far from the template tends to bring a variety of unpleasant responses.

As someone who has been openly pitied for being single, treated like a criminal for living in a van, assumed to be stupid for not pursuing an academic qualification until my forties, called selfish for not wanting children, and graced with many a gaze of distrust for my various expressive hairstyles, I bring you this article from an insider perspective.

What is true authenticity?

For me, the key to authenticity has been to understand that I genuinely love my transient (and single!) lifestyle and am not—as people insist—pathologically ‘running away’. It’s about knowing what I do want after stripping away the layers of what I ‘should’ want (and those layers can be thick).

It means no longer attaching my self-esteem to traditional societal milestones, or buying into the belief I have somehow ‘failed’ at ‘adulthood’ because I strayed from the template.

True authenticity means putting your energy into the things you actually feel, believe, want, and need, and doing these things even if people judge you.

It means constantly reminding yourself that you’re doing the right thing when the messages you receive from every direction tell you otherwise.

Explanations from social psychology

Our brains are geared towards survival, and back in the day, that meant not getting rejected by your tribe. So as an adaptive mechanism, our brains are always busy in the background, constantly making sure you fit in.

According to Social Identity Theory, we build our identity and ideas of ‘self’ based on the groups we identify with. These social identities give us a framework for our attitudes, behaviours, opinions and values, basic norms that we can refer back to and comply with to feel safe.

What groups are you part of, and how do they shape the way you show up in the world?

According to Social Comparison Theory, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others in the various domains of our lives to evaluate ourselves and understand who we are. We compare ourselves to other people like us to make sure we’re doing the right thing and we’re doing it well enough.

So what this means is, if you’re not conforming to the norms of your groups or the people around you, you are less able to reassure yourself that what you’re doing is correct and acceptable. This can get uncomfortable.

If your version of authenticity is a nonstandard combination of attitudes, behaviours, choices, and ways of showing up in the world, you may find yourself without a lot of role models or peers to compare yourself to.

It also means that other people may be uncomfortable about why you’re not conforming to their expectations.

Questions to ask yourself

What makes you feel at ease, fulfilled, inspired, and excited? And where in your life do you feel bored, stressed, stuck, or unhappy?

What makes you angry? Why?

What are your core values, and where in your life are they in alignment? Where are you acting in opposition to them?

Where and with whom do you truly feel you’re being yourself?

What beliefs, behaviours, and ways of being have you adopted to ‘fit in’ that may not be working for you? And where can you start to transform them?

When in doubt, trust your feelings to guide you.

The side effects

As noted in the intro, the road to authenticity isn’t an easy or glamorous one. You may lose a few friends along the way, and you’re likely to experience a fair bit of fear and doubt in the process. But when you wake up each day feeling free to truly step into this world as yourself, the ease, peace, and joy that comes with that will reward you a thousand times over.

If you’re finding that you’re not even sure who your ‘authentic self’ really is, be assured that this is completely normal. Remember, you have a lifetime of conditioning to peel away, and that can take time and work. Authenticity is at the heart of Gestalt therapy, and a Gestalt therapist can help guide you through the process of discovery. Get in touch with us today to book a free consultation call and get this journey started.