Many of my clients asked me what does it mean to be authentic, how to live authentically, or how to be your true self. The answer is not as straightforward as we would want it to be for there are many aspects of our being contributing to the whole experience of authenticity. If I had to provide you with the simplest answer, however, I would say that authentic living is having a coherence between your thoughts, feelings, desires, needs and behaviours.
A particular perspective which could enable us to understand how to live authentically includes the idea of congruence between our experience and our self image. Carl Rogers explained this concept in terms of a harmony between what we experience and what we think we experience, and between who we are and who we think we are. This harmony enables us to live authentically because our the interpretation of our experiences is not getting distorted by our defence mechanisms and we are then able to be open to whatever happens to us.
As you can imagine, developing congruence or authenticity requires of you a certain amount of unbiased self-awareness. The key questions you might want to ask yourself in order to investigate a potential distortion or bias in your interpretation of yourself and your experience include:
- Do you experience some discomfort related to being the way you are? If yes, where does it come from? What triggers it?
- Do you frequently get frustrated with not getting the results you want? Do you frequently get disappointed with yourself? If yes, what could be potential causes of these feelings?
- Do you avoid some experiences or feelings? If yes, what do you gain by this avoidance?
Answering these questions honestly will provide you with clues on where a potential incongruence could lie. As you progress on this journey of developing authenticity, you might encounter aspects of your experience or yourself which you might find difficult to accept. We all have things about ourselves which we don't like and sometimes, we might even wish to be someone else or have an entirely different experience. If you encounter this block on your journey to authenticity, be assured that you are on the right path. As Rogers said: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change."
If authenticity requires of us to live in harmony between all aspects of our being, then it is quite natural to conclude that in order to achieve such harmony, we need to be able to accept everything that contributes to our experiences and self-image – regardless if we perceive is as good or bad. But why do we need to evaluate ourselves in the first place? What criteria do we use for such evaluation?
When I look at my dog, it's very difficult for me to evaluate every aspect of his personality. Sure, I might sometimes say that he's naughty when he steals whatever falls on the floor, or I might say he's very good because he listens when I ask him to do something. But when I look at him holistically, there is no room for evaluation and judgement. I accept and love him the way he is. My attitude is the same when I meet children. Surely, in some situations they might behave naughty and in other situations they seem like angels, but when I see them from a holistic perspective, there is no judgment because it's impossible to judge anyone without taking apart bits and pieces of their personality and evaluating them accordingly to the context. What's your attitude towards animals and children? If you can see them as whole and accept them for who or what they are (which is a position in which it's difficult to pass any judgment or evaluation), can you also look at yourself in a similar manner?
In order to judge or evaluate ourselves accurately, we need to be able to take into account a number of different variables: we need to think about what exactly are we evaluating, what is the context in which it happens, and what could be influencing the thing that we judge and the very judgement itself. If we say 'I'm a bad person' or 'I'm a nice person' – isn't it a generalization which doesn't really tell us anything because when we make such evaluation, we don't take into account the context in which we are 'bad' or 'nice'? To reverse this scenario, if you were truly 'bad' or 'nice', not only it would mean that you always act in such a manner that could be congruent with your evaluation, but that you can also provide evidence for always being 'bad' or 'nice'. Should I continue with demonstrating how ridiculous such self-judgment usually is?
Since you know that self-acceptance, authenticity, and congruence requires of you to look at yourself through a holistic perspective, such a way of looking at yourself is not compatible with self-evaluation, which demands taking your personality apart and evaluating how you acted in a specific context and under specific demands and influences.
How to live authentically
- The key word to remember is harmony. Harmony between your feelings, beliefs, thoughts, preferences, and behaviours
- Know your needs. There is a stereotype in our society which refers to being needy. And it's true – some people ask or even demand from others too much. But usually, such people are not aware of what they really need so they cling to whatever they can without knowing when their needs are actually met.
- Define your meaning of life. What's your purpose here? Why are you here? What do you really desire?
- Separate your own beliefs, what you define as 'right', and your opinions from the ones created by the society. We might often judge ourselves through the lenses of the social norms which might be actually in a direct opposition to our personality, needs, and meaning of life. Conforming to the society around us is a choice, not a demand. And only if you do it consciously and willingly you can create harmony between yourself and other people.
- Develop good communication skills and other means of self-expression.