“The shortest and surest way to live with honour in the world is to be in reality what we would appear to be…”
Socrates 469-399 B.C.
Personal authenticity has some diverse definitions, especially within philosophy. I define it within my work as a psychotherapist as involving “a commitment to being aware of and honest with yourself at any given moment; living your values, and being as genuine as possible in relation to others, whilst having the skills to protect yourself and meet your needs effectively.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful. But to understand it, it may also be helpful to say what personal authenticity isn’t. It isn’t trying to be perfect or trying to be better than other people. It isn’t trying to be self-righteous or superior to others. Personal authenticity, in my view, is driven by a genuine love of the truth, regardless of how convenient or inconvenient that truth might be. It is about being your truth.
When we are open to the truth then we are open to learning and to growing as people. In individual terms, ‘the truth’ tends to be confused with ‘the facts’ out there in the world, or a shared notion of truth. Science lays claim to a great many of these shared truths and, year after year, these ‘truths’ are superceded by revised scientific truths. So the idea that ‘facts’ are somehow permanent, superior forms of ‘objective truth’ tends to be a rhetorical device for suporting arguments that claim the inferiority of ‘subjective truth’.
Individual, experiential or ‘subjective’ truth, is much more humble in its claims, but no less valid. It is the ever-changing, unfolding truth of what you feel at any given moment, the truth of what you believe, the truth of how you actually experience yourself and the world at any given moment. Facing this kind of truth fairly and squarely is, in my experience, a crucial commitment on the path of self-knowledge and self-healing because it is about facing your reality as a being who is constantly changing and evolving. Adopting such a position allows you to face difficult things with openness. Things that you may have denied in yourself for a long time: feelings, beliefs, memories. It takes courage to face oneself, and so it is wise to undertake this process with someone you trust a great deal and someone who knows what they are doing.
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”―
This brings me to the next ‘isn’t’: personal authenticity isn’t about spilling your guts to everyone you meet. For a start, we don’t live in the Garden of Eden. We live in a fallen world that is, sadly, full of pitfalls and individuals who couldn’t care less about truth or personal authenticity. Indeed, there are many people in the world who will without hesitation use your truth against you or to their advantage. Telling everyone everything that goes on inside you is not only foolish, it can be a way of endagering yourself. Another aspect of personal authenticity is, then, the development of your skills in knowing when to open your mouth and when to keep it shut, who to reveal yourself to and who to be careful with, when to be candid and when to be guarded. In other words, learning how to be skilful with yourself, to be discerning with others, and to protect your own best interests without falling back into the trap of inauthenticity. You can practice authenticity and still take care of yourself.
We come across many people in this world who aren’t interested in the truth – your truth, my truth, their truth. There are many people who will hate you for disclosing your truth to them. Many of us only want to hear a more comforting version of events rather than the truth. Many people don’t want to be challenged on their behaviour or face the truth in themselves or others. And, of course, we can’t force the truth upon anyone and expect good results.
Besides, this isn’t about them. It’s about you, if you are interested in personal authenticity and it’s power to heal you. Because self-delusion and living according to comfortable and comforting versions of events will only get you so far in life. Sooner or later you will come up against a conflict between the story you have told yourself and the reality that you have sought to ignore. The longer you allow this process to go on, the more complex the narrative can become until, sometimes, we can face the existential crisis of being unable to run away from that reality we’ve taught ourselves to ignore and it feels like we are at the end of our rope.
“We are constantly invited to be who we are.”
– Henry David Thoreau
This is why, when you are motivated to engage in the psychotherapeutic process with any kind of depth, then you need someone who can accept and guide you through the discomforts of facing yourself in a way that helps you heal and grow. The good news is that the discomfort is usually only short-term, because when we genuinely begin to face the truth of who we are in our true emotions, our true beliefs, our true values, our true actions, then we open ourselves up to new possibilities and new ways of being. This is the essence of personal change and transformation.
So, to the question of whether personal authenticity is good or bad, it really is up to you to decide. We live in a fairly inauthentic world, and one only need look at the state it is in to wonder whether inauthenticity as a way of being is actually working. Clearly, I believe that personal authenticity is the wiser path, which is why I do the kind of work I do. But you may not have answered this question for yourself yet. And as I’ve already mentioned, no-one can or should force it upon you.
One way you might begin to answer the question is in answering the simpler question of whether you prefer to be in the company of people who are genuine and truthful and accepting of themselves; people who seem to have the courage to ‘be themselves’ without pretence, deceit or affectation. If the answer is ‘yes’, then perhaps the path of personal authenticity may be one you already value without having even realised it…
If you decide that this could be a direction you want to pursue, consider making an appointment to discuss how the process works, and how it might help you begin to liberate yourself to face your genuine hopes and potential for your life. It is, afterall, your only life, it is shorter than we expect, and it is worth living to the full.
And this isn’t as difficult as it sounds….