Leading an Authentic Life--Accepting Loss

by Monica Ross

I want to write a bit about a topic that has come up for me personally in my own life and that I of course have witnessed causing havoc in the lives of others I love—the topic of not being fully authentic. Very early on in doing this work that I do, I saw the damage this issue caused in relationships. This is a topic that is hot right now in popular culture. I’ve written about it in the past. And again, it came up for me just this past week because I follow HARO or Help a Reporter Out, which is a daily digest of requests from reporters for expert opinions on a range of topics.

Seven days ago to be exact, a reporter put out a request for experts to give input on an article to be published entitled “Signs You Aren’t Being Fully Authentic.” The reporter wanted experts to weigh in on several things.

Here was her request:

“If someone isn't being their truest self, what might that look like? And how might it negatively impact their life? If you are a life coach or therapist, please see my questions below.

1. What are the signs you aren't being authentic? What might that look like? Please offer examples and explain.

2. Why might you struggle to feel and be authentic? And how might that negatively impact your life?

3. If someone is struggling to be authentic, how can they work to become more comfortable with themselves?”

Here was my response and ultimately with these things you sometimes don’t hear back immediately, or you may not hear back at all. Reporters get inundated with responses from experts. But anyway, it got me thinking and here is what I had to say on the topic.

Hi xxxxx,

I'm reaching out in regards to your HARO request Looking for life coaches and therapists to talk about "signs you aren't being fully authentic."  I'm a Licensed Professional Counselor working in Austin, TX who specializes in helping people to live more fully authentic lives.

Here are my thoughts on your topic.  People who are being inauthentic are

  1. Holding back part of themselves from other people.  They may be holding back things like their attitudes, beliefs, and opinions when offered the opportunity to express them
  2. Their behaviors may not be congruent with their beliefs
  3. They feel as though in some way they aren't being completely honest with themselves or other people and that is a very subjective thing

Examples:

  • A person who identifies as female but lives their lives as a male
  • A person who attends church but doesn't truly believe in the doctrine of the church
  • A person who goes into a profession that doesn't fit their true interests in life
  • A person who works for an organization that performs activities that are in conflict with that person's values
  • A person who sits at a family gathering and feels as though they cannot express their opinion on something for fear of disappointing their family
  • A person who values education or travel or art or starting a family, but who doesn't take classes, doesn't take trips, never practices their art, never gets started on the process of starting a family of their own

In that last example, that same person may have very good reasons for not being able to achieve those things, being inauthentic isn't about always being able to do the things you value, especially when there are other mitigating factors.

But it is about being honest with oneself and being able to express to others that this thing that I value and identify with is really important to me.  I wasn't able to achieve it because of finances, because of infertility issues, because of life circumstances that took me elsewhere.  Part of therapy is coming to terms with things like that.

But in all of these examples, a person is holding back a piece of themselves in some way.  There is an incongruence, a cognitive dissonance to borrow from a sociological term.  Their behaviors aren't congruent with their thoughts and beliefs.

And if the incongruency is not due to mitigating factors which the person is able to identify and express, but is instead caused out of fear of leading a life that does more congruently fit, then the person isn't in some way being honest with themselves or other people.

People struggle with being authentic out of a pressure to conform to expectations that others place on them.  But to always act in accordance with the ideas that others have about who we should be is never fully step into who we truly are.  It can impact a life by causing a person to feel a loss of meaning and purpose and it could lead to depression and suicidality.

Authenticity starts with radical self-acceptance, which is about accepting reality as is instead of fighting against it.  It is at the end of day to be able not to be as worried as much about what others think because the costs of continuously pleasing other people and fitting into societal norms and expectations without being true to oneself, first, as outlined earlier, are too high.

People can become more fully authentic by letting go of shame and guilt and by using techniques to get rid of false beliefs about themselves.  It's about getting in touch with one's true thoughts and feelings.  For some this is really hard because they feel all their lives they have had to forfeit these things in order to please others.   But it's about letting go of the need to please others, especially when pleasing others comes with the price of not being fully true to oneself.

So anyway, that was my two cents worth. I had to come up with a response in just two hours. That’s what I could produce in that time frame. But here are some other things that I’ve noticed.

For people who are in some way misleading others and not living authentically sometimes there is a sense of tremendous anxiety associated with it. To use the example above, of the church goer, they may have the thought “if all of these church members that I see every Sunday only knew the crisis in faith that I’m going through--I might lose all the friends that I’ve made here, so I’ve got to do everything within my power to hide my thoughts and feelings from them.”

That thinking would definitely lead to anxiety. Another example would be the boyfriend who is misleading his girlfriend about his true feelings for her, it could cause a sense of guilt on the boyfriend's part. For example, if my girlfriend only knew that I’m really in love with someone else.

Sometimes for people the thought of confronting the other person with the truth is so anxiety producing that lying seems like a better option. I think buried beneath the thought of the avoidance of confrontation is really the desire to avoid the loss the confrontation or conflict may invoke. So beneath the guilt of being immoral in some sense by being inauthentic or by lying is perhaps really the fear of abandonment.

So maybe then the person who is being inauthentic adopts an attitude of “what the other person doesn’t know, can’t possibly hurt them.” There would be no worry about whether or not the other person could handle the news of whatever it was that would bring potential conflict because that person will never get the opportunity to know and respond to what actually is going on. The person who is misleading will never let themselves be vulnerable enough to take that risk. Again, I’ve witnessed these things just in my own personal life and experiences.

But I think all of this comes at a cost...the cost is anxiety and guilt as mentioned earlier and perhaps shame and also possibly the feeling of being disconnected with one’s true self. The ability to be one’s true self, to accept oneself first, and then in turn to receive positive feedback and acceptance from those whose opinions one cares about is so important. But it starts first with identifying one’s true feelings and living them out without that fear of loss or rejection.