There’s a persistent buzz these days about authenticity. So much, indeed, that at times, it sounds a bit like a propaganda: “Give it up for the authentic ones!” or “Be yourself as everyone else is taken.”
Unequivocally, there’s value to be gained in being our true selves, in pursuing our goals as our true selves, or succeeding and being loved and respected as our true selves.
But, is being our raw unscripted versions really such a good idea? Maybe not quite so.
What’s with the hype then?
What is Authenticity Anyway?
Firstly, let’s settle on a proper definition. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be authentic means to be sincere and true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. That is, to align our principles, values and morals with our behaviour.
Within the realm of this context, genuineness is certainly not to be understood as lacking a filter — that we should say or do the first thing that comes to mind, without care, compassion, forgiveness and consideration.
Rather, authenticity is a social ability, which governs our conduct toward the world in accord with what we truly believe.
Naturally, we all favour the idea that we’d rather deal with others who are open, sincere, honest and moral human beings vs. the counterparts. We’ve raised the notion of authentic leadership on a pedestal.
But do we all truly grasp what this entails exactly? It sure sounds like a distant idealistic chant, similar to “cure world hunger” or “world peace”? That is, are we just in love with the idea of authenticity in the abstract?
The simple response is: yes, and no.
Undeniably, being ourselves is advantageous. Research seems to consistently reaffirm a positive link to well-being, life and relationship satisfaction, better copying with adversities, successful goal pursuit, and improved parenting styles, among others.
Here are the most prominent benefits:
· Behaving as one’s true self feels good. It’s liberating. It’s easy — we don’t have to think of who we need to be according to the situation. Just be yourself. Simple.
· And of course, in work settings, there are the “authentic leaders” — the role-models who are fair, passionate and caring about people and the company goals. They say the right things but they also genuinely believe in their own words. Their actions ensue from their inner beliefs and moral compass. They are, as far as the world is concerned, “the real deal.”
· Furthermore, authenticity is desirable as it’s intertwined into the significant and perennial to mankind quests for self-knowledge, self-awareness and subsequently — self-improvement and self-esteem. After all, how can we like and respect ourselves it we don’t know the man in the mirror well? And how can we express our true values and opinions, if we are not conversant with what these are in the first place?
Simply put, authenticity is the necessary foundation on which we can successfully build and nurture our relationships, careers, friendships, and even mental and physical well-being.
As Oprah Winfrey famously proclaimed: “I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.”
Given the above gains, who then wouldn’t want to be authentic?
Yet, paradoxically, many are painfully aware that our society is undergoing a tremendous crisis of honesty, openness, genuineness, and benevolence. A desire to create a certain outer image is often the major driver of our behaviours — even if it clashes with our inner value system. We just want to be “cool,” to be part of the in-crowd, to be accepted.
And sometimes, our true personalities can get in the way of these aspirations.
The Small Print
And what if the “real me” is someone who is shy, or has low self-esteem, or is overthinking too much? How are we supposed to pursue our goals, reach success, find our soul-mates, gain recognition and appreciation in a society which perceives these very same personality characteristics, that are part of our uniqueness, as major drawbacks?
So, perhaps it’s possible to open up to the idea that authenticity is a generally alluring and prescribed way of being, but it comes with some small print.
“Keeping it real” may not be the advisable nor the desired strategy to pursue — under certain conditions.
Here is a thought: Maybe, it’s worth speculating that absolute authenticity can be counter-productive at times.
There are at least few great minds of science who have also argued a nuanced view of genuineness.
· Charles Darwin, for instance, in his theory of the survival of the species and the process of natural selection, views the latter as a key mechanism of evolution. That is, he believed, species need to be flexible, adaptable, open to change, if they want to survive.
And while defying to adjust our own thinking, behaviours, attitudes toward the world as needed may not lead to obsoleteness (as in the original theory), it may harm our opportunities to be noticed and appreciated for our skills, talents or knowledge.
· The popular research by Prof. Brian Little of Cambridge University renders additional endorsement to the authenticity discussion. Our personalities, he claims, although largely permanent and fixed, can be mended. This relates to his concept of “free traits,” or the ability to behave against our true personalities, when needed. To ensure the successful achievement of our goals and “personal projects,” it’s sometimes necessary that we play roles and act as expected or socially required — to get the job done or to fit in.
· There is also the so-called Self-Monitoring theory, developed by the social psychologist Mark Snyder in the 70s. The idea is that individuals fall into two groups — high and low self-monitors (HSM and LSM).
HSMs watch and analyze people, their actions and behaviors, and project an appearance depending on the needs of the particular environment. They tend to have lots of friends and enjoy good popularity. LSMs, in contrast, like to stay as close as possible to their true selves. They have few close relationships, they are dependable and predictable.
Although it may appear that HSMs are somewhat uncandid, while LSM are the good, honest fellas, this is not quite the case, Prof. Snyder believes. It comes down to survival, and HSM are simply better fitted for this task, as they know how to adjust.
It’s also worth recognising that, generally, we all act “accordingly” with different people and in different settings anyway. We don’t speak to our loved ones, for instance, the same way we do to strangers or our co-workers. We may honestly believe that lying is a moral failing, but most of us would still tell a friend she looks slim in her jeans, although we may not truly believe it.
A “white lie,” we call it. Or, there is another word for it: we are being unauthentic.
. . .
The point here is that there is a difference between being authentic on one hand, and being flexible and “acting out of character,” when required, on the other.
Authenticity is, undoubtedly, a good thing — it’s our moral compass, an expression of our characters. It tells others the story of who we are and what we stand for. In a world that tries really hard to prescribe certain “standards” of behaviour and thinking and to tell us who we should be, it’s imperative to have a point of view — one that’s our own, different, unique, and which sources from the core of our personalities.
In other words, authenticity is good when it relates to things as knowing who we are, what our values and goals are, and standing up for what we believe in. That is, when it’s linked to self-knowledge and self-awareness, it is a desirable trait to express.
But sometimes, we also need to become whoever the situation calls for — an extroverted leader, when we are generally introverted; an encouraging friend, when we may not feel hopeful on the inside; an assertive role-model when our inner voice may be overcast by doubts.
And that’s also ok. We won’t be betraying the man in the mirror.
Rather, we will be fine-tuning our characters, developing, improving, and practicing survivalship.
*This piece was posted on the StartUp.