Minal works in a high-powered corporate law firm. Though she is competent and doing well on the job, she doesn’t share the gung-ho excitement that her colleagues feel whenever their firm clinches another client or closes a lucrative deal. She acknowledges that she is doing this job for the fat paycheque. Yet, for how long can she continue to toil at something that doesn’t ignite a spark in her?
Jason doesn’t particularly feel enthused at large cocktail parties, yet drags himself to one almost every Friday at his wife’s behest. “I can’t keep doing this,” he bemoans to himself. Every now and then, he voices his disgruntlement to his wife, who either ignores him or gives him an earful for being socially inept. As she doesn’t like going alone, Jason typically acquiesces, but a malaise within him festers.
Like Minal and Jason, many of us suppress facets of ourselves due to externals pressures, be it a job or a spouse. Stephen Joseph, professor and psychologist, spells out the importance of cultivating authenticity in his book, Authentic: How to be yourself and why it matters. Being authentic, he says, involves living your life in accordance with your own values, beliefs, inclinations and aspirations. It’s a continual process rather than a destination, wherein you need to know, own and be yourself “from moment to moment,” says Joseph. If what you “do, think and feel” are in sync more often than not, then you are paving the path for an authentic life. How we choose to spend our everyday moments is what authenticity is all about.
Our choices reflect our authenticity
If our fundamental psychological needs are fulfilled, then people naturally aspire to be the best or idealised version of themselves. Life is full of choices and decisions, from the mundane to the momentous. It is these choices, both the trivial and the significant, that reflect our authenticity.
Joseph cites the work of Carl Rogers, one of the leading figures of a humanistic approach to psychology, who believed that authenticity entails being in control of one’s life as opposed to being controlled. So, by and large, do you make choices that are in line with the person you think you are or aspire to be? Are you able to express your views and feelings with the people you are closest to without feeling belittled or threatened?
Don’t get this wrong. Authenticity does not imply that you care only about yourself and disregard the opinions and feelings of others. But when you make compromises, you do so without feeling diminished. When you do give in to others, you are in control of your decision as opposed to feeling coerced by them.
Authentic people also take ownership of their mistakes. But instead of ruminating over their missteps, they move forward by learning from them, and may even reframe their goals if required.
Knowing the self is key to being authentic
To lead an authentic life, we really have to know ourselves at a deep level. Instead of blindly obeying the nonstop mental commentary that plays out in our heads, Joseph exhorts us to connect with “our own inner voice of wisdom.” We are all imbued with our “own unique set of potentials” within us. The late American psychologist Abraham Maslow put forth a theory of human motivation based on a hierarchy of needs. People who attain self-actualisation —the topmost rung of his pyramid—use their talents and abilities for tasks they are “best fitted for.” Healthy development involves getting to know and using our unique constellation of strengths in constructive ways.
Further, as humans have an innate need for affiliation with others, our authenticity, or lack thereof, is also a function of the quality of our relationships, especially our closest connections. If we feel accepted and loved unconditionally for who we are, we are more likely to thrive. In contrast, if we feel hemmed in by family members or bosses or by social strictures, we are unlikely to fulfil our potential.
People who are “alienated from themselves” are often confused about who they are and what their emotions are signalling. As a result, they tend to do what pleases others or try to meet societal standards without necessarily cultivating their own internal compass. We need to be able to listen to and understand our contradictory thoughts, complex feelings and gut instincts.
Being authentic brings greater happiness
If you are being inauthentic most of the time, wherein your words and actions don’t reflect the person you feel you are or capable of being, then you are likely to experience “inner psychological tension,” which can be insidious in the long-run. Many psychological problems also stem from people living lives that don’t resonate with their true selves.
Research reveals that happier people score higher on authenticity than their more sullen peers. Joseph points out that being authentic doesn’t necessarily protect you from the vagaries of life, but by anchoring you with meaning and purpose, it helps you deal with setbacks and misfortune with greater equilibrium. He cites the research of an Australian nurse Bronnie Ware who found that patients on their deathbeds most often regretted not having lived “a life true to oneself.” Don’t let that be you.
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