- Authenticity is not the same as honesty, consistency, or being real.
- Authenticity is acting according to one’s true self and behaving congruently with values and personality.
- Authenticity is largely subjective; we feel it only when our appraisal of a situation justifies it.
Are you living a truly, genuinely, honestly, and fully authentic life?
There is only one correct answer to this question.
In recent years, being authentic has become a term to describe not just works of art, designer bags, or precious jewelry but people as well. Authenticity is considered an important quality and is portrayed as a requisite for a balanced and healthy life. Encouragement to be authentic has taken many forms and includes messages about overcoming our fears, being open to our vulnerabilities, and expressing our true selves freely. Evidently, many of us value authenticity and consider it a liberating force that empowers us to take a path in life consistent with who we truly are. We strive to be authentic and admire other people for being authentic. Besides, what’s the alternative? Striving to be phony? Duplicitous? Disingenuous? Fake?
What exactly does it mean to be authentic?
Authenticity is acting in accordance with one’s true self, and being authentic means behaving in congruence with one’s values, beliefs, motives, and personality dispositions.
Admittedly, striving to be authentic raises more questions. What is my true self? Is the self that I know my true self? What if there are aspects of my true self that are obscured from my awareness? Do I have to be my true self all the time? What if who I think my true self is and what others consider my true self to be, are a mismatch? Does that make me inauthentic? Or does it mean people who think I’m inauthentic got it wrong?
Perhaps to understand better what authenticity means, it may be helpful to consider what authenticity is not.
Being Authentic Does Not Mean...
Being Honest. Authenticity is not the same as honesty. Honesty is the quality of being truthful. It implies that we are willing and able to share a truth. Sometimes, however, we choose to withhold the truth. We may share some parts of the truth and conceal other parts. We may “massage” the truth and present it in ways that make it more palatable. We may even share something entirely untrue—the occasional white lie—if we deem it necessary to protect ourselves or someone else. Have you ever called in sick without being really sick?
Have you ever told someone that life is good, even when you think your life sucks at the moment? Have you ever pretended to chuckle when someone made a joke that you thought wasn’t funny at all? Sometimes we withhold the truth without intending to be dishonest or deceitful. Does that make us inauthentic?
On the contrary, we are being abundantly authentic, even when we are not being honest. If you fake-laugh at my not-funny-at-all joke, at that moment, you make a choice based on what you value (being kind over being honest), what you believe (telling me the truth may hurt me), and what you intend (to build rapport). You are being authentic.
Being Consistent. Authenticity is not the same as consistency. Consistency means that who we are, how we show up, and how we react and respond do not vary from situation to situation. It means that our behavior is repeatable and predictable. Like honesty, we value consistency because being predictable means being reliable, and being reliable means that other people can trust us. This is how we build safe and healthy social bonds.
Consistency, however, is relative. We are not the same person in each situation. We pick up cues from the context, and we adapt. In fact, studies in personality psychology show that people differ in how much they pick up and adapt to environmental cues without compromising authenticity. Most of us show up one way with co-workers and a different way with family. However, in both cases, we are being authentic. In fact, depending on the situation, we may have different reactions even toward the same person.
While you make a fake laugh at my not-funny-at-all joke because you choose kindness, you may choose to share what you really think if I asked you whether my joke would land well during a stand-up comedy routine. Fake laughs and “this joke sucks” are very inconsistent responses, but you would be authentic in both cases. You would have acted based on your values, beliefs, and feelings.
Being Real. Authenticity is not the same as realness. In a 2021 study about authenticity, psychologists defined realness as “behaving on the outside the way one feels on the inside, without regard for proximal personal or social consequences.” Being real means that our external behavior reflects our internal experience. We act the way we feel. The authors of the study consider realness a core component of authenticity. However, it is easy to see that we would often choose not to be real and remain authentic.
We often choose to mask our intentions, hide our feelings, and keep our thoughts private out of respect for social norms or out of fear of consequences. Applying this kind of social filter may not be “real,” but it may be wise, adaptive, and still authentic. In fact, it may be a sign of good impulse control! It appears that to be authentic, you don’t have to be real.
In fact, I could go through a whole list of attributes to demonstrate how unrelated they are to authenticity: assertiveness, vulnerability, originality, empathy, confidence, and self-love. Each term refers to an important quality, something that perhaps we need to understand better or develop more. But these qualities have nothing to do with authenticity.
So What Does Authentic Mean?
Most definitions of authenticity in the psychological literature highlight one aspect as its cornerstone: awareness. Awareness of our inner experience, our motives, our beliefs, our values, and our dispositions. However, even this definition falls apart when we consider that awareness for most people is an aspiration with varying degrees of success at achieving it. Insight is elusive.
Research has shown that we do not know ourselves as well as we think we do. Does limited self-awareness make us inauthentic? Should we be held accountable as inauthentic for not knowing things about ourselves? Aren’t our actions consistent with what we actually know, regardless of how shortsighted we may be? How could we be judged objectively about our subjective experience?
After reading more about authenticity, I began to wonder whether authenticity is not a personal quality or a personality trait. Maybe authenticity is an emotion. It has, after all, many of the attributes that emotions have.
- It generates affect. Being authentic makes us feel good and has a positive valence.
- It fluctuates. Sometimes, we feel authentic and other times, we don’t.
- It is hard to forecast. We can’t predict accurately whether we will feel authentic at some future point in time.
- It is affected by our progress with our goals. We feel authentic when we achieve the goal of acting in alignment with our values, beliefs, and motives.
- It may be self-referential or directed toward others. We feel good when we see ourselves as authentic or when we perceive another person as authentic.
- It has opposite emotions. Examples of these emotions could be fear, threat, disappointment, or disgust.
- It is largely subjective. We feel it only when our appraisal of the situation justifies the feeling. For example, we would probably never describe someone who engages in disruptive, vulgar, or violent behavior as being authentic. We reserve that assessment for things that make us feel good.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Authentic means showing up or not showing up. Whatever you feel, think, or do in the moment is authentic, even if it’s not what you want to be feeling, thinking, or doing. Even if you’d rather be somewhere else doing something else. Even when you are crippled by fear of failure, which makes you forego opportunities, you are authentic. You are being authentic when you are overdosing on confidence which makes you take unnecessary risks and when you are worried about what others will think of you if you show up. Or when you show up and judge everyone else around you, that's authentic. Whatever your predicament, whatever your actions, whatever your interactions, you are authentic.
So, are you living a truly, genuinely, honestly, fully authentic life? The only answer is yes. You are being authentic. In every situation, in every relationship, and in every decision you make.
There may be times when you feel inauthentic. A fraud. An impostor. But authenticity is not the issue.
Maybe you don’t like aspects of yourself. Maybe you haven’t been successful at managing the impressions that other people have of you. Maybe you think you can do more with your life. Maybe you haven’t tapped into your full potential. Maybe you are tired of hiding who you truly are. Discovering the underlying cause of feeling inauthentic creates a real path to balance and growth. Focusing your efforts on understanding yourself better, facing your fears, and being more forgiving with yourself is being authentic. And if you choose to ignore or disagree with my points, you are still being authentic.
There is no way out of authenticity. So, let’s keep it real.
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