Break Out of Your Authentic Self

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There is a current trend for Authenticity. We’ve all heard of authentic leadership, removing your mask, and bringing your whole self to work...but what is this whole self? How do you know if you’re being authentic?

Some of you may associate authenticity with ‘being yourself’. It sounds simple enough, being yourself, but that’s the part I struggle with. Being your authentic self might be letting how you feel dictate your behaviour, to say what you really think, or not to adapt your behaviour when your social or professional situations change. In essence, it is to not let any external influence change your behaviour.

In leadership terms, this might be to reveal your vulnerabilities and anxieties to your team, with the idea that they then feel more safe to reveal theirs. It might be to let your professional guard down, and create a more relaxed environment.

My first issue with this is the idea that we have one solid ‘self’ that we are constantly trying to hide in order to fit in with different societies or situations. The term authentic suggests that there is one original version and that anything else is artificial. Therefore any behaviour that doesn’t reflect how we are naturally feeling could be seen as superficial.

This HBR article The Authenticity Paradox links one of limitations of the word ‘authentic’ with how we associate it with art. A piece of art is either authentic or it is not. It is either an original created by the artist, or it isn’t. Our personal identities are more complicated. It is not about removing our ‘fake’ mask, to reveal the original below. Because let’s be honest, if we peeled back all the behaviours we install throughout our days to adapt to our different situations, the reality might not be that pretty, or that useful.

This idea of an authentic self is also restrictive. There is a danger of not exploring different aspects of your personality, strengths you didn’t know were there, or challenge yourself with situations that feel uncomfortable. The idea is that you are a finished perfect whole doesn’t quite sit right with me. I know my vulnerabilities, but I’m not entirely sure what my authentic self would be. I have surprised myself in the past few years by not behaving as my ‘authentic’ self, by pushing out of my comfort zone, and as a result redefining my sense of self.

This is not to say we shouldn’t explore the feelings or vulnerabilities beneath our social behaviour. However, the power of understanding how you react to certain situations, is the ability (or the choice) to ensure you respond in a way most beneficial to you. Perhaps taking a step back from your authentic self in these situations, might allow you to ascertain a different way to respond. For example, your natural response in conflict might be to become very defensive and not listen to the other person. With this knowledge, you might be able to push yourself away from your ‘authentic self’ to see the situation from a different perspective, listen, and be open. You might be surprised at what you can get out of conflict or relationships that previously were frustrating.

Ruth Whippman in her Guardian article, Authentic? Try being Polite Instead, touches on the issue of falling back entirely on our ‘authentic’ self. She suggests if she was truly her authentic self, she wouldn’t talk to the people she didn’t feel like, she wouldn’t change out of her pyjamas, and she certainly wouldn’t do the washing up (this does sound quite tempting). We might revert back to our teenage selves, a time where we frantically (or maybe less frantically) tried to ascertain what our sense of selves were.

Most of us come to realise that getting on with people (and doing the washing up) in some form is an integral part of life. Caroline McHugh suggests that children and old people are very good at being themselves, but that the bit in the middle is where it starts to become harder. You have to socialise, you have to accommodate, and you have to adapt. Suddenly your authentic self also has to exist within a social context with responsibilities. A conflict develops between how we see ourselves, how others see us, and who we would like to be.

The previous HBR article also explains this dilemma well. The author uses two professional examples where the authentic self is not necessarily the most beneficial for a leader. How you may naturally want to behave, may be at odds with what your role requires. Our perception of ourselves, and how we want to be seen, also needs to coincide with what we want to get out of a situation. It is not necessarily mirroring the people around us. It can be staying true to your values and opinions, but giving ourselves the space to be self aware, manage our responses in a way that allows the situation to play out in a positive way.

So my suggestion is that we take less time to worry about whether we are being more authentic, and take more time to explore our sense of selves. It is never completed, it can keep changing and developing. Who knows what you may discover. You can stay honest and open in the process, but it’s to stay curious, challenge yourself, and adapt. Our different layers in different situations should not necessarily be discarded as unauthentic. Can’t they be part of our magic?