What does it mean to be authentic?

In an organization that’s all about authenticity, I must confess that this has been an exceptionally difficult concept to define in my 7 years of Authentic Relating. I’ve been wanting to give my input on the definition of authenticity in order to dispel myths about authenticity, which might be appropriately labelled “inauthentic”. But this is exactly the problem: labels.

If we label something “authentic” does that make it so? If the thing is authentic it doesn’t matter if we label it as such or not. And if the thing is inauthentic – a fake, an imitation – then it doesn’t matter if we label it as “authentic”. It is still inauthentic. I’d like you to spend a moment with this thought. Let it sink in.

In order to label something you must first define your label. Then you can go out into the world and find things that match your definition and label it. You do not have to be conscious of your definition. Nor can you label something without at least an unconscious definition.

What is your definition of authentic?

Any definition of “authentic” that includes behaviors, actions, words, beliefs, or thoughts would not include everything left out from that list. The left out behaviors, actions, words, etc. may be truly authentic for some person at some moment on Earth. Somehow an accurate definition of authenticity must allow for all behaviors, actions, words, beliefs, and thoughts.

If you’re like me you may be feeling a bit uncomfortable at this moment. It seems pretty clear to me that some behaviors are inauthentic. What if I lie? That wouldn’t be authentic. But what if I’m a liar? Isn’t it authentic for a liar to lie?

Who’s a liar?

To label someone a “liar” adds meaning to their actions: they lie. But when? When did they lie? And how often? Will they lie again? Maybe. Maybe not! And don’t we want to give space to them to not lie again? When we label someone a liar we are implying a truth about them: they lie. “Don’t trust them.” Perhaps it is wise to be caution around a person that has been known to lie frequently, but do we need to add this label that implies something about their identity? I don’t think so.

And now we circle around to authenticity. There’s something about “identity” in the word authentic. It’s as if to say when we are authentic, we are true to our self, to our identity. I might say that our behavior some how reflects our essence or is an extension of it. There’s something inside that is “true” (another word we need to define) and we want what is visible on the outside to match what is true on the inside.

“authentic: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”

— Merriam-Webster

Let’s look at inauthenticity for a bit. Why would you ever be inauthentic? The number one reason I can think of is… fear! Perhaps you’re afraid of being rejected. Perhaps you’re afraid of being shamed. outcast. judged. hurt. And so you pretend, lie, or hide out of this fear.

So to be authentic, we must address this fear. We either need to lessen the fear or increase our courage to act authentically. The best way I know to do this is to create a situation where “abnormal” behavior is normalized so that you can try out behaving a certain way that may be authentic to you. Or may be not. But the fear of judgement, hurt, shaming, etc. is less. And by trying something out and not having your fears realized you can then look inside and see if it rings true as authentically you. If so, you have done what psychologists call systematic desensitization.

Is this beginning to sound like an event you’re familiar with?

At Games Night we lean into our edge. We normalize leaning into our edge. We honor other and self as a way of making the container more safe (though, safety is never something that can be guaranteed). In this environment it’s just enough safer and just enough more normal to be abnormal that we can try to show ourselves to each other. A little. Hopefully. A lot if we’re lucky.

Part of what we’re trying to do is find out what is authentic to each of us. What is true to our own nature. I may not even know what’s true to my own nature. So how could you know? You may not even know what’s true to your own nature, so how could I know what’s true for you? (In fact, I think we do have intuitions for when someone is inauthentic, but that’s another post.)

I want to caution against having specific ideas about what authenticity may look like. It won’t look like eye gazing (which we do a lot in AM). It won’t look like sharing your feelings. It won’t look like being transparent with your intent. There’s a danger in holding an idea of what authenticity looks like. The danger is that you try to imitate this behavior in the name of authenticity all the while feeling deeply uncomfortable and unsettled with what’s going on. Another danger is that you judge and label others as authentic or inauthentic. This won’t help them become more authentic; remember the fear of being judged?

authentic: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features

— Merriam-Webster

“reproduce essential features”!!!??? I kid you not, this definition is part of the first definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The definition I gave earlier was number 3! If we are reproducing essential features of our idea of authentic then we are not being authentic. If we are reproducing essential features of our inner self then we are. Are you conforming to an original… to some idea outside yourself as to what is authentic? Or are you conforming to your inner experience?

These are surprisingly hard questions to answer because we have a great capacity for self deception. I think a good litmus test is in the level of effort it takes to continue to say and do things. If the effort is a lot or continues to increase then perhaps there is something not true to our self. To our spirit or essence.

This can be tricky because if we are afraid of rejection then it may take a lot of effort to share our inner world and overcome that fear. But once overcome, a likely response is inner relief. If we don’t share our inner world then the likely inner response is heaviness, effortfulness, tension, or other energy constricting results. (I would like to note that sharing your inner world is just an example. Being authentic does not mean sharing your inner world. Sharing your inner world is only authentic when it is authentic to you. Not when it is reproducing essential features of what we think it means to be authentic.)

I want to caution against having an idea of what it means to be authentic and then reproducing those ideas in order to appear authentic to yourself and to others. There’s no way to do that!

Being authentic requires a real self honesty. Radical self honesty. A looking inward and seeing without self judgment (good or bad) what’s there. There’s no need to share this with anyone else. There’s no need to withhold it from someone else. The decision to share or withhold is separate from being radically honest with your self.

Being authentic takes courage to act in the world in ways that are in alignment with what you see and experience inside. Being true to your spirit. Again, this doesn’t mean saying a thought that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean sharing a judgement you have. It doesn’t mean sharing how you feel. Though you may do any of those things. Doing those things is not authentic. Unless it is. What’s authentic is that if a person, after seeing you act, could see right through to your core, they would find a match inside with what they saw on the outside. (Assuming they had no projections, preconceived biases, triggers, etc. blocking or influencing their perceptions of you.)

If you think that sharing something may hurt someone, then I would challenge you to look deeper. Is there a deeper truth. Instead of sharing “you hurt me” perhaps it is more true to say “I feel hurt”. Instead of sharing “you’re mean” perhaps it is more true to say “I feel afraid when I’m around you.” Do you see how saying “you hurt me” or “you’re mean” hides the self. These statements are fear based statements that aim to protect the self from further injury. And sometimes they work. I would like to move beyond them to the deeper truth and connect there.

The deeper truth – “I feel hurt”, “I feel afraid when I’m around you” – may result in the other person feeling hurt, angry, or defensive. Or maybe not. But if it does, at least you’ve offered them something real and true. This is the starting place for real transformation: truth. Or perhaps you could say the starting place for real transformation is: authenticity. Or perhaps the ending place – after we’re already transformed – is authenticity.

If you’d like to join us, we lean into our edge frequently at Games Nights; where we discover our authentic selves together!

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