So what is an authentic life and why is it so important to our mental health and well-being? Authenticity as a concept comes from philosophy and existential psychology/psychiatry and really has to do with how well a person is able to be true and honest to one’s own individual needs, personality, temperament, spirit/soul and/or character, despite the extraneous pressures of the outside world. The modern, outside world puts pressure on us to conform to the world rather than expecting the world to conform to us.
“Authenticity,” as a psychological concept was defined about 15 years ago by psychologists Brian Goldman and Michael Kernis, as:
“the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.”
While the Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology defines authenticity as:
“Psychological authenticity refers to emotional genuineness, self-attunement, and psychological depth. To be authentic is to live with one’s whole being in the moment, without guile or hidden agendas”
In other words, people who are authentic, live and act in ways that are true to their own sincerest core version of themselves. They “practice what they preach”.
Authenticity can help you live a fuller and happier life in a few different ways. Authentic people are usually able to lead more connected lives as their relationships with others tend to be more genuine and authentic as well. People who are authentic in living their lives also tend to be mentally healthy people because when you live a life true to yourself and your needs this leads you to be more content and comfortable in your own skin. When your view of self is congruent with how you live your life there is less room for internal conflict and this gives you the room to lead meaningful lives.
When we’re growing up, no one really tells us about the importance of living authentically. We’re told that many other things are much more important, things like always behaving properly, getting good grades, making the sports or debate team, going to the right college and then getting the right degree in the right field and then getting the right job and then starting your RSP’s. We effectively learn to make choices based on what other people and society think we should do rather than on what we think we should do, or even what’s really best for us.
Then suddenly, one day we wake up to find ourselves in unrewarding, thankless jobs and/or in unhappy, empty or unbalanced relationships. We find ourselves wondering about the lack of meaning in our lives, even though we make six figures and have all the accoutrements of a supposedly good life — like the big house, the right clothes, this seasons $1500 handbag and the new SUV or sports sedan.
At its very essence, authenticity requires us to start to explore our own self-knowledge and self-awareness. And to begin that process of discovery, it takes real courage! We have to look at ourselves honestly, looking at our life and probing at all of our past life choices. From the moment you ask yourself:
Am I living an authentic life with purpose and meaning?
Am I being true to my core self?
Am I living in accordance with my core beliefs?
Am I truly acting in authentic, genuine ways with the people around me?
Can I be myself around others or do I find myself putting on a mask?
By looking at these questions and self-exploration, you can begin a brilliant journey of discovery, self-fulfilment and maybe even end up living a more full and meaningful life.
Here are some great ways to start on that pathway to authenticity.
Developing Self-Awareness & Self-Reflectiveness
To be truly authentic you have to be self-aware. You have to thoughtfully and honestly consider who you really are at your core — and you even have to include and explore the parts of your personality you may not like quite as much. By engaging in the regular process of self-reflection and introspection you can figure out more about your true self and then discover and plan to live in a way that’s consistent with that self-identity. Great ways to become more self- aware and reflective can be through:
- Going to a good therapist that can help guide you on the journey to self-discovery.
- Learning strategies for quiet contemplation, meditation or even regular being in nature can all give us the time for more effective introspection.
- Regular journaling can be an excellent way to discover who we truly are. Here is a blog I wrote on journaling. https://roberthammel.com/can-journaling-help-improve-life/
Kindness, Empathy and Compassion
Authentic people tend to be of “good character” and really genuinely care about other people. One of the best ways to live a truly authentic life is to learn how and why it’s so important to be kind and compassionate to others. This may mean releasing yourself and others from the insidious and destructive process of holding onto anger or sadness from the past. It may also mean releasing yourself from judging others and developing a sense of acceptance instead. Interacting with the others in your life in healthy and empathic ways can truly help us lay the groundwork to living a more meaningful and connected life for yourself.
Develop A Clear Vision and Visualize
You can look at your life and find what hasn’t worked for you in the past, but do you have a clear idea of what it is you really and truly want? Who do you want to be? How do you want to act or look? Is your job fulfilling, is your marriage a good one, are you a good parent or a good friend? If not, what career might suit you better? How can you improve your marriage or be a better parent or friend?
You have to really explore, imagine and visualize your authentic life. Have some fun dreaming about it and fashioning your “new improved self” in your mind. Visualize as many parts of it as you can and really envisage how it would look and feel if you lived there in those different ways. Developing a clear and vivid vision of where you’re going, makes it so much easier to get there, and especially if the going gets tough or you have to make some big life changes to be true to yourself.
Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde
Having an Open Mind
People who make the effort to keep an open mind are also probably better at being authentic. People who are authentic have truthful beliefs about themselves, their abilities, and their self-worth — an open mind allows you to really see yourself accurately and fairly. If you see yourself fairly and accurately, then it’s easier to start making the changes you need to examine your beliefs and values and have a happy and mentally healthy life.
Your “life” up until today, was created based on a set of beliefs and thoughts about yourself and the world that you developed and held. However, maybe you were trying to please other people, like your parents, friends, a spouse or even a boss, rather than being your authentic self. Or, perhaps others in your life were unkind to you or put you down and this has unfortunately caused you to have flawed, inaccurate views about yourself or the world around you. To be authentic you need to challenge some of these pre-existing beliefs that may be holding you back and keeping you stuck in an uncomfortable life that may not fit who you are anymore!
“Always be yourself and have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and try to duplicate it.” Bruce Lee
With an open mind, you can actually begin to study your thoughts and beliefs and hold them up for a more accurate inspection. We can try to really see them for what they are. Maybe you’ve never thought you were talented enough or good enough or smart enough or attractive enough. Ask yourself why you might believe this flawed view of yourself. Did this belief truly come from you, or is it from your parents whose expectations were maybe way too high or perhaps from your sixth-grade teacher who challenged and criticized the way you saw the world or thought you were lazy? Or maybe it was from being bullied or neglected by the cool kids in high school? Regardless, the point is to really be open to the possibility that the view you take of yourself and your world might actually be flawed and inaccurate. You may be living based on assumptions about yourself that may not be true. That critical sixth-grade teacher very well may be wrong about you!
If you take some time for some thoughtful introspection and examination of your beliefs about yourself you can try to understand where they came from and decide if they are truly serving your best interests. For some, believing a flawed view of themselves can lead to a lifetime of heartache.
Find Some Help
Examining, taking apart your life, and then putting it back together again is no small feat and there may be times you feel upset, angry, sad, frustrated, confused, or even overwhelmed. While friends and family may lend a kind ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on, they can’t necessarily help give you what you need to really examine and then change your life. A therapist, on the other hand, is a great collaborator to have in exploring and providing practical tools that will help you explore your thoughts, beliefs and emotions and help you on the path to an authentic life.
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” — E.E. Cummings
Heppner, W. L., & Kernis, M. H. (2007). “Quiet ego” functioning: The complementary roles of mindfulness, authenticity, and secure high self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 248-251.
Lopez, Shane J. The Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology. Blackwell Publishing, 2009