Saturday 22 October 2016

The real deal: Living 'authentically' isn't as easy as it sounds

Published 07/06/2016 | 02:30

Brené Brown
Brené Brown

Living 'authentically' is the current buzzword in self-development circles. Recent books talk about getting in touch with the 'true self', while received wisdom and well-meaning uncles tell us to 'just be yourself' - whoever that may be.

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They make it sound so simple. It's not. When Carl Jung said, "The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are", he meant every word of it.

In theory, just being yourself is one of the easiest things to do - and yet it's also the hardest.

This is arguably the most challenging time in history to live authentically. Most of us have multiple personae - identities that we wear at different times throughout the day.

The online personality is very different to the offline personality, just as the work personality is often poles apart from the social one.

This is before we take on board the many identity crises that can occur throughout the life-cycle. Anyone who has had a quarter-life or mid-life crisis will recall a period when they didn't know whom exactly they were supposed to be.

Often we think we're living authentically but retrospect tells a different story. Our capacity for self-deception makes it easy for us to justify all sorts of bad choices, and it's generally only in hindsight that we realise our underlying motives.

Is it any wonder, then, that people don't go travelling anymore? Nowadays you go away to 'find yourself', as though your true nature has been hiding under a palm tree in Koh Pha-Ngan.

The milestones that we feel compelled to reach can also put us off track. We can lose ourselves in our rush to further ourselves, especially when we choose security over passion and status over self-fulfilment.

Author Brené Brown believes this is one of the most detrimental life choices a person can make. "When you trade your authenticity for safety," she writes, "you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment and inexplicable grief".

It's quite the list. Then again, it's easier to outline the symptoms of living inauthentically than it is to recognise the hallmarks of living authentically.

Life's elusive sweet spot is a little harder to define - but I'll give it a try. Living authentically means choosing the people, places and things that inspire and energise you.

It's the hobby that makes time fly; the subject that makes your ears prick up; the injustice that makes you rankle and the person who makes you smile when you think about them.

In other words, socialising shouldn't feel like an obligation; a weekly class shouldn't feel choresome and your job shouldn't feel like incarceration.

Living authentically means being true to yourself - walking your walk and talking your talk. Authentic people stay true to their principles and morals just as they honour their gifts and talents.

To quote Joseph Campbell, they "follow their bliss", yet they also know their limits and blindspots.

They can say 'no' without fear of being judged and speak out without fear of confrontation. There are no elephants in the living room or skeletons in the closet when someone is living authentically.

"Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen," continues Brown.

Still, there are all sorts of situations and scenarios that take us so far away from true north that we can forget our way back.

It's easy to end up in romantic relationships where one person sets the agenda and dictates the pace, or in workplaces that have cult-like corporate cultures. Even those with acute self-awareness can lose a sense of themselves in these situations.

Others can go a lifetime living up to the expectations that have been unconsciously thrust upon them by their families: The Fixer, The Jester, The Black Sheep... The trouble with these roles is that there is rarely space for growth or upward progression.

Breaking free from these expectations requires vulnerability. There is no front-door face or telephone voice when we live our truth.

We have to be willing to drop the guard and let people see us without the shield of a persona. It's an act of surrender that is both intimidating and exhilarating.

Authenticity also requires considerable self-acceptance. The more you accept yourself, the less you need other people's acceptance. Authentic people know who they are. More to the point, they like who they are.

Brown sums it up perfectly: "Because belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance".

Authenticity may be difficult to define, yet we know it when we see it. Authentic people are magnetic; authentic businesses are compelling; authentic art is captivating.

A miracle occurs when the three pillars of honesty, sincerity and integrity combine. Authenticity transcends and becomes so much greater than the sum of its parts.

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