When it comes to representing ourselves, our brand, or products online, there’s a lot of talk of authenticity. What exactly people mean by this, and how we can each act with authenticity, varies from person to person though.
First of all, I want to take a moment to ask – what does it really mean to be authentic? We all have some innate understanding of the word. To many it means being the real you, or being honest and open, and this is a big part of it.
However, that still begs a few more questions: what is the ‘real you’? Honest and open about what, and to what extent? Really delving in to these questions just might give you a bit of a clearer of understanding of what it is you mean when you come to acting with authenticity in any walk of life.
The belief that there is some deeply rooted, absolute you hidden somewhere in your psyche is a longstanding idea. The concept of your actual-self, the ‘real you’, is a popular notion in psychology. It is also part of the bedrock of the whole liberal viewpoint: trust in the authenticity and integrity of the individual self. The idea being that you, and only you, can access this inner-voice and know your true self.
To me, this actually causes some issues when it comes to thinking about authenticity. When it comes to accessing and trusting that ‘inner-voice’, which one do we listen to? People might tell you that you’ll just know, but how reliable is that? After all (unless it turns out I’m alone in this) we have several voices buzzing around in our heads. Several ideas of who we are, and what we want from life, at times all competing for dominance.
How can we reliably then just go inside and trust ourselves to act genuinely? Often, what comes about is that people simply act out their default behaviours – this being the most genuine (in reality just the most accessible) option. Alternatively, we might try to act in accordance with our concept of authenticity in some abstract way – which is likely informed by other people’s perceptions and judgements of how you ought to act. It becomes an external gold-standard, rather than an internal sense of guidance.
The thing is, the way we each currently engage with people or act in certain situations isn’t necessarily very beneficial to us or them. For some people, being genuine – as in, acting as they would generally act – might mean being rude, aggressive, and condescending. How valuable then is advice such as “just be authentic“?
When it comes to our actual-self, we all probably have some idea of what that is for ourselves personally. It is the version of ourselves that we feel most accepting of; whether that is a version of ourselves that we are happy with is a whole other story.
To put the point across more clearly, say we have a person who believes their actual self is somebody who is incapable and lacking self-esteem. That means that this is the version of themselves that they accept. It is the story they are telling themselves, and so it is how they act day-to-day. To anyone who has these negative, limiting-beliefs about themselves, the advice “be yourself” is pretty useless as they believe themselves to be these negative ways.
Another perspective on authenticity – from existential philosophy – is that it means acting in an emotionally appropriate, purposeful, and responsible way. This angle takes us away from the ‘just do what you’re doing’ approach, and instead gives us guidelines to acting with authenticity.
Rather than simply being true to yourself in the sense of how you generally are, keeping in mind the ideals you have and how you might best serve those you interact with gives you a whole new perspective. In this way, we can keep true to our values, not our habits.
Going back to psychology, a common breakdown of our many selves is the ought-self versus the actual-self (how we ought to behave, versus how we currently do). This can bring in to account other people’s and our own ideals regarding who we are and who we should be.
The idea of us having many selves is nothing new. We are all, to some extent, many versions of our self throughout the day. Waking up, tired and unmotivated, not wanting to move; we might later be full of energy, eager to get on with our day. We might be casual, funny, and chatty with friends; in a business meeting we’re much more professional, well-spoken, and even our body language is more composed.
We adapt to the environments we find ourselves in; our behaviour, language, thoughts, personality and so on shifting to suit the demands of our world. Even our mood and thoughts, our inner-world, impacts how we behave and are perceived.
So, when it comes to acting with authenticity – be that online, at work, or in any other walk of life – it isn’t always as simple as ‘ just be yourself’. Sometimes, the story we harbour of who we ‘are’ can hold us back from acting in a way that truly aligns with our ideals, and so being ‘yourself’ actually removes us from who we truly are, and who we want to be. Counter-intuitive, I know.
Instead, seeing authenticity as a practice – as something we can work with, align ourselves to, and strive to maintain – might bring us to a point of being able to better serve those around us as well as bringing us a more full sense of who we are.
I’ll be going back over some of the points I’ve made here in future blog posts, breaking down the ways in which we can incorporate authentic practices in to our daily lives, and how this can benefit us. I’ll explain some of the psychology behind these concepts, and how we can alter the story we tell ourselves of who we are, so that acting authentically and in alignment with our values does come naturally.
In the meantime, perhaps it would be worth doing some work yourself. Begin by asking yourself, what does authenticity mean for you? When do you feel it plays an important role in your life, and where could you be more aligned with your values?