On Authenticity

I have been thinking a lot about authenticity of late. Lots of triggers here:

First, I’ve been doing all this reading and contemplating about coaching relationships and coaching support groups, and the thing is that you can’t get anything out of these relationships without being vulnerable. People who are truly open to change will, with very rare exception, find they have to be themselves before they can find themselves. Man, that is hard. It takes real courage.

Mulling holiday excess. I wrote earlier about holiday celebrations that are motivated by the joy of sharing versus those that are motivated by “display.” I’d mentioned that there are no simple dividing lines here, because it is pretty natural for us to both love pulling out our best stuff for people we care about and to get caught up in caring about what strangers think. I think I’ve always been fascinated by social status because it is so intimately tied up with questions of authenticity. In essence, they are contradictory goals, because the pursuit and display of status requires a focus on appearances, which in turn means that you hide your real self, not make it vulnerable!

I work with way more people now than I had to when I was in my graduate student bubble. It’s forced me to think really hard about when I can be myself, and when I have to play roles. There are times when it is really appropriate to play roles and keep your “self” self more on the down-low. Frankly, it is something I’ve always sucked at. Some people have real natural abilities in this area; I’ve had to work hard to figure out what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

So what have I figured out? This at least: you have to value your “authentic self” to not just give it away wildly, because the people and places who will genuinely value your “authentic” self are few and far between. This doesn’t mean that people are all horrible and can’t be trusted. It just means that you start with the default that people have to earn your trust, before you start spilling your guts. It is one of the most difficult lessons in self-esteem I’ve encountered: your “authentic self” isn’t an entitlement or a given state of being that must be expressed at all times. It’s a gift you keep for you, and share with the precious people who deserve it.

That kind of ties back to the status questions. I wonder how many people pour most of their energy into play roles to please other people or keep their guards up? I guess you can get by in life this way, but I can’t imagine being happy. There is a difference between playing roles out of a healthy sense of self-worth — that “don’t give yourself away thing above — and playing roles because you come to think that’s all that matters, or because it is the only way you can be in the world safely.

It’s actually pretty easy to make fun of people who are obsessed with what others think. It’s definitely one of the fun parts of being a sociologist because you see people playing roles and seeking status everywhere you look. It’s an occupational hazard, and its not without its comedic fodder. However, when it comes right down to it, with individual people, a compassionate response is required. The extremes of in-authenticity are ultimately motivated by fear and an abiding dissatisfaction with ourselves or our lives. We’re all vulnerable to those experiences, and they are painful. I just try to remember this so I can be kind even when the temptation is to be snarky.

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