What keeps us from being authentic with others?
A few years back, before my coaching business existed, I was brainstorming ideas with a group of friends. One of my friend asked me about the courses I planned to offer my clients. I told her one of my ideas was to develop something for people who find it difficult to be authentic around others. I was going to call it “Learn to be your authentic self”. My friend blurted out: “But if someone is dishonest, they’re not going to want to work on that. And people who are honest don’t really need to change. I don’t get it.”
At that moment, I didn’t have the right words to point out that authenticity is very different than honesty. We don’t always act inauthentic on purpose. We do it out of a survival instinct, or learned behaviour.
In this article, I want to explain what it means to be authentic, why people don’t always do it, and how they can get over this. My goal is not to call out people who have difficulty being themselves, instead I want to offer advice to anyone out there who recognizes themselves in what I’m about to say and wishes they could change it.
Many words are used to define authenticity: it’s something that is legitimate, true, real, genuine, authentic. In the scientific sense, it represents an important artefact or document’s state of being real as legitimate and this is determined by several characteristics and signals, such as the way it was made, the age of its material, or the signature. But what about the authenticity of people? It the same sense, an authentic person is in a state of being that allows them to be real and genuine, and their true self. But the signals aren’t so clear because every person’s history is different.
So, how do you know if someone is being authentic? Short of being trained in recognizing body language or deeply knowing the person and recognizing when they’re not being “real”, it’s not easy. My goal here isn’t to give you the tools to recognize an inauthentic person though, it’s to help you learn to recognize in yourself when you’re not being authentic, and why. Yes, there is an element of honesty involved but not in the sense that my friend was thinking. The dishonesty here is with yourself, and likely not intentional. It may not even be a conscious choice but there are unintended negative consequences to not being you.
The most obvious one is that you don’t get to live your life the way you truly wish you could, or perhaps you find yourself in situations where you feel you need to put on a mask or be someone else. And, maybe you don’t get to experience the things that really light you up because you’re too busy living someone else’s version of what your life should be.
So let’s just get into it. Here are some of the reasons you might find it difficult to be your authentic self with others:
You were bullied in school. If you experienced bullying or even teasing, not just as a child but perhaps in a workplace, it’s possible you’ve learned to do or say things to avoid being bullied and teased again. You learned to not do and say the things that got you bullied in the first place. You may even be hiding who you truly are and putting on a mask every morning.
You were in a relationship with a partner who tried to change you. Many of us have been there. We meet the one, we fall in love, and when the new relationship buzz starts to wear off, our partner begins to nit pick some of our annoying habits, or worse, they start to “suggest” how we should eat, dress, or even wear our hair. Sometimes we do it because we trust their opinion. Other times we’re just trying to appease them to avoid conflict or worse, losing them.
You were in an abusive relationship. If you’ve been in a toxic or abusive relationship and were yelled at, called names, or worse, you likely learned to walk on eggshells around the person, trying your best to act in a way that avoided their wrath or bad moods. You became predictable and never stepped out of line, thinking it was your fault and you could somehow control the outcome by changing yourself.
Your parents were strict or controlling. If you grew up with parents who were very strict or even controlling, you probably learned to be on your best behaviour when they were around in order to please them. As children, we all want our parents to approve of us so we begin to do the things they feel are acceptable and proper in order to win their affection or approval.
You’re work puts you in the spotlight. If your career requires you to be “on” all the time, for example maybe it involves stage performance or you appear live on radio or film, or perhaps you command a large class of graduate students or are the CEO or director in a large corporation, it’s likely you learned to present yourself in a certain way. You crafted your appearance, you way of speaking, in a way that shows your expertise, talent and authority.
You come from a long line of people pleasers. If you’re parent was a people pleaser, and their parent before them was also a people pleaser, you likely internalized that behaviour and yourself learned to do things to make people happy. Maybe you were told that “girls should be nice” and not say what they think. People pleasers all have one thing in common, they mute their voice so as not to disturb others.
You were taught to follow the rules. If you come from a family where rules were made to be followed, and this was rewarded, you probably learned to do this and not really question it, even if it didn’t quite feel right at times.
You’re a perfectionist. If you’re a perfectionist, you likely hold yourself to impossible standards and often power through the stress or pain because you feel you have no other choice. Your desire to accomplish something may be stronger than your ability to listen to yourself and your intuition.
In all of these examples, the common thread is the desire to “do things right” in order to be accepted or praised by others. There are deeper reasons for wanting to do this, for example, you may have a lack of confidence or self-esteem and feel that you need to go above and beyond just to be at others’ level. You may have insecurities about your imperfections, and you allow these to drive your decisions out of fear of not being accepted. You may have received negative messaging during your childhood, and that led to unhealthy beliefs about yourself or a feeling of not being enough. You may have had a traumatic experience and developed ways of coping emotionally afterwards. This helped you survived but might no longer be serving you.
If you recognize in any of these examples, there are actions you can take. Here are 5 strategies for learning to be more authentic with others:
1. Pay attention to what you do, say, and most importantly how you feel about it. Are there are things you frequently hide about yourself? Are there specific situations that make you feel anxious or uneasy, and trigger the responses mentioned earlier?
2. Experiment and try new things out to see how you feel about them. If it’s hard for you to say no but you really wish you could, try it once and see how it goes. How do you feel after you say it? If it’s difficult for you to say what you really think in a work meeting, start by finding others ways to contribute your feedback and ideas. Participate in committees and office surveys, try sharing your ideas one-on-one in less formal settings.
3. Gradually begin to do things that are out of your comfort zone. Think of this as exposure therapy. When you start doing things or saying things people aren’t use to, at first they may react, but eventually it becomes normalized.
4. Work with a professional to figure out who the real you is: what do you like? Work on your self esteem and confidence: if you love yourself others will feel it. Delve more deeply into the reasons you may have learned not to be yourself around others in the first place. Often times, there’s a specific event or message that stuck with us. Work on the issues and free yourself from your past.
5. Stop comparing yourself to other people, you’re an original. Sometimes, we take the criticism of people who are long gone and use it to criticize ourselves. Stop being self-critical and accept that there’s no such thing as being perfect. Get comfortable with the idea that your imperfect self is perfect just the way it is.
Being authentic means being vulnerable. It’s sometimes more comfortable not to go there but the goal here is to help you grow and expand. Being authentic means being honest with yourself and others when you don’t want to do something. It means stepping out of your comfort zone and getting a little uncomfortable. It means trying something a little risky or out of the norm for you in order to learn and understand who we truly are and what makes you unique.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Why should you do this? Happiness. Once you understand fully who you are, you can begin to make small (or big) changes in your life and attract to you or create authentic moments that truly make you happy.
Copyright Authentic World Inc 2020, Michelle Thompson 2020
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My name is Michelle. I have over twenty years of experience as a group facilitator and public educator. I’ve helped thousands of people re-imagine their lives and create concrete plans for self-improvement. I’ve facilitated dozens of workshops and support groups on topics like stress management, mental health and wellness, goal setting, grief counselling, safety planning, and confidence building. I’m a former social worker and non-profit consultant, and after years of feeling anxious, confused about who I was and being unsure about what I wanted, I did the work and learned how to get out of my own way. Now I teach others how to find gratitude, balance, and eliminate self-sabotage to create the life they want. I created Authentic World Inc, to offer a supportive space for life coaching and self-directed courses. To find out more about my programs, click here.
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