Updated: Oct 7, 2019
What does it mean to 'just be yourself?'
We hear a lot about authenticity today. We are urged to practise ‘authentic communication’ and to be ‘authentic leaders’. As a child, I rarely heard the word ‘authenticity’. If we were very lucky, we might have been encouraged to ‘be ourselves’ …but generally that advice meant ‘don’t let stereotypes about your gender, sexual orientation, age, race or class determine who you aim to be in the world’. It was about resisting societal constraints that aimed to keep us in our places.
But as those constraints have loosened, why has authenticity become more of a buzzword, not less?
In an age when it is arguably easier to ‘let it all hang out’, why has ‘being true to yourself’ acquired such emphasis?
Maybe the multiple ways in which we gaze at our own reflections in the infinity pools of our blogs, posts and tweets , makes it harder to recognise ourselves. Is the ‘real me’ the one reading alone with the instagram-worthy latte or the one partying with friends until 2 am?
If life is a Hall of Mirrors, how do I get the real me to stand up?
In the corporate world, leaders are encouraged to choose their ‘personal brand values’ and then ‘walk the talk’. Authenticity is picking what you care about and acting accordingly. But are you really sure you value ‘creativity, empathy and curiosity’ more than ‘respect, excellence and drive’? Is consistency the key? Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, is ‘foolish consistency….the hobgoblin of little minds’
What if ‘being authentic’ is not trying to be a consistent version of who we are but embracing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of WHAT we are?
As humans we are both ‘beings’ and ‘becomings’. We learn and grow, we age and die. At any singular moment we are changing in response to others, to the world and to our own fleeting thoughts and feelings. As Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ states:
‘It’s no use going back to yesterday, I was a different person then.’
To embrace that means living in a state of being open to surprise not just at the mutable world but at my own ever-changing replies to it. It requires me to let go of stories of who I was, think I should be or would really like to be and welcome my current responses to life and allow them to inform me. At times, the ‘teenage rebel’ me moves into the background and the ‘responsible parent’ me moves to the fore. Can I hold space for the me that wants to ‘do my taxes on time’ whilst nodding lovingly to the ‘let’s run away to the circus’ me fuming impatiently in the background?
As Walt Whitman asks in ‘Song of Myself’:
‘Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
Being true to myself then requires meeting parts of myself, even and especially the ones I don’t much care for. Venturing outward with truth requires us to go inward with love and for that sometimes we need others who are prepared to see and embrace those parts of ourselves hard for us to meet and to welcome them home.