Move in your own direction.
Do you ever feel as if you're wearing a mask?
Perhaps you feel that you have to act in a certain way around your boss, or say certain things to your colleagues, so that you'll be accepted. Instead of being yourself, you're constantly playing a role to fit in, or to impress others.
Most of us have gone through times like this, at some stage or another. Instead of behaving in a genuine way, we tell people what we think they want to hear, and act in ways that go against our true nature. In short, we're living inauthentically.
Living and working this way is tiring, dispiriting, and confining. It can also hold us back from reaching our true potential.
The opposite of this is to live and work authentically. When we give ourselves permission to be ourselves, we can live free from others' ideas and expectations, and we can choose our own course in life.
In this article, we'll examine authenticity in depth: what it is, what it entails, and how we can be more authentic in our own lives.
It can seem that there are as many different definitions of authenticity as there are psychologists, philosophers, and scholars. However, a common definition is that being authentic is living your life according to your own values and goals, rather than those of other people.
Put simply, authenticity means you're true to your own personality, values, and spirit, regardless of the pressure that you're under to act otherwise. You're honest with yourself and with others, and you take responsibility for your mistakes. Your values, ideals, and actions align. As a result, you come across as genuine, and you're willing to accept the consequences of being true to what you consider to be right.
It isn't always easy to live authentically. At times, being true to what you know is right means that you go against the crowd. It may mean being unconventional, opening yourself up for the possibility of others hurting you, and taking the harder road.
On one hand, it does mean missing some opportunities – you do have to accept this. However, in the longer term, it's likely to open up many more opportunities; opportunities that simply wouldn't be available to someone who has been seen to be shifty, conflicted, vacillating, or inauthentic.
Living an authentic life is also vastly more rewarding than hiding your true self. When you live authentically, you don't have to worry about what you said (or didn't say), how you acted, or whether you did the right thing. Living authentically means you can trust yourself and your motivations implicitly.
There are several other benefits of being authentic:
Trust and respect: When you're true to yourself, you not only trust the judgments and decisions that you make, but others trust you as well. They'll respect you for standing by your values and beliefs.
Integrity: When you're authentic, you also have integrity. You don't hesitate to do the right thing, so you never have to second-guess yourself. Who you are, what you do, and what you believe in – all of these align perfectly.
Ability to deal with problems: When you're honest with yourself and others, you have the strength and openness to deal with problems quickly, instead of procrastinating, or ignoring them altogether.
Realizing potential: When you trust yourself and do what you know is right, you can realize your full potential in life. Instead of letting others dictate what's best for you, you take control of your life.
Confidence and self-esteem: You can trust yourself to make the right decisions when you're being genuine and doing the right thing. In turn, this leads to higher self-confidence and self-esteem; greater optimism; and more life satisfaction.
Less stress: How would you feel if, every day, you said what you meant, stayed true to yourself, and behaved in accordance with this? Imagine the happiness, and self-respect you'd feel! Being authentic to yourself is far less stressful than being someone you are not.
Honesty is an important part of authenticity. However, there's a distinct difference between being brutally honest and being truthful with others.
In her 1994 book "The Dance of Deception," psychologist Dr. Harriet Lerner distinguishes between these concepts. She states that honesty can sometimes represent our uncensored thoughts and feelings, while truth requires tact, timing, kindness, and empathy with the other person.
We should always strive to be truthful with those around us, since others sometimes view brutal honesty as aggressive, judgmental, or even arrogant. Uncensored honesty can also jeopardize our relationships and careers.
If you're like most people, you may have a number of different identities at work and in your personal life. For instance, you're a leader to your team, a co-worker or friend to your colleagues, a team member to your boss, and an expert to your clients.
Since you have several roles to play in life, do you have to act the same in each role, in order to be authentic?
It's an important question, especially since many of us seem to have seemingly conflicting "selves." In a chapter titled "Authenticity" in the 2001 book "Handbook of Positive Psychology," Dr. Susan Harter argues that our personalities can't be "fixed." So, we need to be flexible, and this flexibility can allow us to change and grow and realize new opportunities.
However, our true self remains the same no matter what situation we're in. Just because we have different roles to play doesn't mean that we have to wear different masks along the way.
You won't find and develop your authentic self overnight. Rather, it's a lifelong process of discovery. Take the following steps to make a start:
Living authentically means that you live according to the values and beliefs that you hold most dear, and that the personal goals that you pursue emerge from these. Your first step is to identify your core values, and then to commit to living and working according to them. You then need to set personal goals and career goals that align with these.
Sometimes you might have to make an ethically challenging decision; this is when knowing your core values will help you do the right thing. Our article on ethical leadership will help you find your way through these situations. (See our Book Insight into Ethics for the Real World for more on this.)
Is there a gap between who you are now, and the person you know you could be?
For instance, do you put on a mask when you're at work? Perhaps you're more abrasive with your team than you'd like to be, because you think that's how a leader gets things done. Maybe you adopt a flippant attitude, because you don't want others to think that you're boring, because you take a serious attitude towards your job. Or, maybe you're brimming with ideas that you never share, because you're afraid that your team will shoot them down, and this leaves you feeling stifled and unhappy.
Try to identify these gaps by writing a list of words that describe the qualities of the person you know you can be, and by thinking about how closely these reflect how you actually are.
Then, choose one word from this list that you want to start working on – for instance, perhaps you want to be more "open." Use personal goal-setting techniques, and resolve to work on this every day. It's more realistic to set small goals and work on one trait at a time than it is to try to transform your entire life, all at once.
It takes courage to develop and preserve integrity. Start by analyzing the daily choices that you make. You will often intuitively know what the right and wrong choices are: your goal is to learn how to listen to that "small voice" – that sense of unease – that tells you that something is wrong. Study each choice that you make, and ask yourself which one will make you feel good about yourself the next day.
Living with integrity also means that you take responsibility for your actions, including your mistakes. Own up to the choices you make, and work tirelessly to right any shortcomings.
It also means not playing games: you speak your mind and don't rely on cryptic hints or other tactics to get your point across. (You can learn more about the secret games that people can play, and how to avoid playing them, in our article on Transactional Analysis.)
Communicating honestly also means keeping your promises – if you give your word to someone, then treat it as an ironclad bond. Never make a promise that you can't keep.
It's easy to go through life making assumptions about others. Where judgment isn't strictly necessary, try your best to suspend your judgments. Let others' actions speak for themselves, and try to take their words at face value.
You might find that as you make an effort to be open-minded with others, they'll extend the same courtesy to you.
Authenticity requires strength of character, especially when others are pressuring you to act in a way that you know is wrong. This is why you should work on building your self-confidence. A strong sense of self, and the assertiveness needed to stand your ground, will help you get through challenging situations.
When you live authentically, you consider others' needs and you do your best to treat them with courtesy and respect. In stressful situations, this means knowing how to control your emotions.
This is an important part of living authentically, because it shows that you have inner strength and respect for those around you, and it's a skill worth developing since it will serve you well in all aspects of your life and career.
As we said earlier, being authentic may mean that you miss some short-term opportunities. After all, it's always tempting to puff yourself up, sell your best points, and, maybe, exaggerate a bit to get those great-seeming opportunities.
In reality, there are times when this may pay off. However, other times you'll fall flat on your face, and destroy your reputation in the process. Either way, you're not setting yourself up for long-term happiness by doing this.
It's usually better to understand your own values and your own, genuine strengths, and then to work hard to find opportunities where these values and strengths really matter for success. (Developing a career strategy is useful for this.)
That way you can be authentic, happy and successful, all at the same time.
Authenticity is living your life according to your own needs and values rather than those that society, friends, and family expect from you. Living authentically offers several benefits, including respect from others, the ability to realize your true potential, and happiness and well-being.
Developing authenticity is a lifelong journey. To get started, take the following steps:
Enjoy living authentically!
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Hall, L.M. (2010) 'Unleashing Your Real Self,' International Society of Neuro-Semantics. [Online] Available here. [Accessed 16 January 2012].
Lerner, H. (1994) 'The Dance of Deception,' New York: HarperCollins.
Harter, S. (2002) 'Authenticity' in Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, S.J. (eds.), 'Handbook of Positive Psychology,' New York: OUP.
Middleton, B. et al (2002), 'The Role of Authenticity in Healthy Psychological Functioning and Subjective Well-Being,' Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, November 2002. (Available here.)