On Being Authentic

Everyone is talking about being authentic, of being our authentic selves, and of leading authentic lives. The talk grabs our attention. It feels right to say, “I want to be authentic.” But, exactly what is authenticity? And, how do we know when we truly are?

When we are authentic, the dictionary says, we are genuine, real, true, and honest. These qualities feel right. Most of us want these attributes for ourselves and others. Once we move from the abstract to our daily lives, however, exactly how these operate in us can be much harder to pin down.

What does it mean to be genuine in our words and actions? How do we know if we are being true? True to what? And, are we really honest? Authenticity is an inside job and there s a lot going on in there.

We ask ourselves what is authentic for us. An answer comes. How do we know the answer is authentic?  One way is to look at inner and outer drivers.

Inner drivers include what feels right or what feels true in the moment absent of any interference from our environment. Inner drivers include understanding our reasons for acting in a certain way, acting from our own bodily wisdom, and living courageously allowing our creativity to flow. When we are authentic we decide for ourselves without intervention from external authorities or events. But, the inside is a complicated place. Much of what is happening interiorly is due to externalities that we have taken onboard. Traumas, hurts, slights, and misconceptions have dug deep into the very sinews of our bodies, minds, and souls.

Outer drivers include cultural norms, and/or peer, social, and religious pressures to appear a certain way. Our actions, behaviors and outward manifestation can be driven from external forces.  When what drives us is something bound up inside of us as a result of  our environment, experiences, or traumas then it is these externalities that are driving us. Even external events experienced by our forebears such as famine, war, prejudice, or enslavement can be passed down epigenetically and drive our living experience.

When we feel pressured to adhere to a certain way of living, dressing, or acting or we ignore our own inner objections (such as ‘this doesn’t feel right’) but we do it anyway because we believe we will fit in better or be able to live more comfortably in our surroundings we are living from outer drivers and not our authentic selves.

Authenticity isn’t about being nice. Authenticity is about being true to our inner knowing about what right for us.

Authenticity isn’t about removing ourselves from our environment or our connections. It is about being creative and courageous to act in a way that is being true to who we are as we also live in our environment and nurture our connections.

Sometimes it is useful to sit with ourselves and ask the question? How does this feel inside? Suppose a friend asks you to do something. You immediately say, “Yes, of course I’ll do it,” because this is your friend asking and you want to please your friend. You don’t want your friends, family, society, or culture labeling you as bad, unkind, or selfish.

But inside something doesn’t feel right about it. This thing that your friend has asked you to do doesn’t align with your inner knowing of who you are, your core values, and what feels right. Realizing this you let your friend know, “This doesn’t feel right for me, so, no, not this time.” This is your authentic self shining through.

So what’s authentic? Acting to please your friend even though the action doesn’t align with your core values is not authentic. Letting your friend know that this action doesn’t feel right for you and so you won’t do it is authentic.

Take note here. It is not about your friend, it is about you. When we are authentic, we are not judging others, we are being true to ourselves.

We want to please our friends, our families, and our colleagues. We are compassionate and want others to rely on us. We want to feel included in our environment, community, and among our networks of friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Something in us believes because we have been told this that this is the way to feeling whole, creative,and full of forward moving energy. But it isn’t. This is what ties us up in knots inside, binds our energy, and dampens our creativity. This is not the path to authenticity.

The process of discovering our authentic selves can have big consequences. It can take a long time and much effort.

So, it was with my own journey to authenticity. As a woman I felt a strong need to be able to make it in life with my own smarts and to depend on no one. After getting an MBA I began working in high tech. I got promotions and made a lot of money but was miserable. I was always trying to fit in, to prove myself, and to succeed according to what my environment defined as succeeding. I had the education, capability, and work ethic.  Those were all there. But, something was missing. It had to do with truth, the truth of who I am and the misalignment between my essential true self and the expectations of the environment of my profession. It was all very subtle.

Years went by. Then it happened. On a business trip, my left foot began hurting so badly I could hardly walk. Getting to and from meetings was agonizing. I felt cut off and physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained. Finally the meetings were over and I boarded my cross country flight, slumped into a window seat and fell asleep. On waking, I  looked out the window. There, thirty-three thousand feet below, the sparse and rugged southwestern desert was lit in golden light. In a flash, like a pop,  it was clear.  High tech is not for me. Immediately, I felt energy flowing and the pain subside in my foot. Two days later I quit my job and the unwinding began. My life began opening to me.

The Stuff of Happiness

Look around. Do you have a lot of stuff? What kind of stuff do you have? Stuff that you use every day or frequently? Stuff that you use once in a while? Stuff that you never use?

Take a moment and write a list of the stuff you use every day, whatever it is.  You might walk room to room to make your inventory. Maybe your toothbrush, your favorite cooking pot, a pair of summer sandals, a ring, your bed and bed linens, a towel, a bike, a table and chair, a mobile phone. Just write down the stuff you use every day. You’ll probably be surprised that the list isn’t that long.

Now write down the stuff that you use frequently. Maybe you don’t use your bike every day, but you use it every other day, three times a week, or every weekend. Maybe something is seasonal. You use your skis every week during the snow season, but not in the other months. This stuff can go on the frequently used list.  You’ll find that this list isn’t that long either.

Now look around again. Everything else, all your other stuff, goes on the almost never or never use list. Don’t worry about writing all this stuff down. Just take some time, look around, reflect, and make a mental note of everything on this list.

If you find this task overwhelming, then start with just one room in your house or your clothes closet. Write down what you use every day and what you use frequently. The same rule applies. Your winter coat goes on the frequently used list because it is seasonal. If you have five winter coats and only wear one frequently then put one on the list. The other four are out.

Now, you might ask yourself why do I have this stuff?

You will probably say something like this, “I like my stuff.” That’s a start. Now, dig deeper. But why? Especially when you don’t use most of it? Not sure?

The answer is, in large part, because we humans are collectors by nature. Searching, collecting, and storing is in our genes. Pre-agricultural hunters and gatherers sought and collected food to keep alive during hard times, materials, like animal hides, to keep warm and protected in the cold, and other things, like grasses, to make storage baskets.  This necessity of collecting and storing kept our ancestors alive and safe during periods of difficulty and enabled them to pass down their genes to us, the future generations.

We still get a sense of security from having stuff. We feel deep within us that need to search out, collect, and store stuff to be safe. Look at all the stuff we own! We must feel safe, right? Maybe, maybe not. A car may give us a sense of safety because we know it can get us where we need to go: to work, to the hospital, to the food store. But if we can easily take the metro, the bus, or bike to work, hospital, and market, then the car is a nice to have, not a necessity.

The car may give us something more. Acquiring stuff can be the pathway to feeling accepted by a group. If the people over there all have ski jets or cars and I want to belong to their group, then I will be motivated to get a ski jet or car, too. With my jet ski or car I not only identify with but feel accepted by the group especially if my jet ski/car is comparable in features and brand to those owned by the members of the group. This sense of belonging and acceptance also gives us a sense of status, especially when we believe that others in the group already have a high status. The jet ski or car gives us status, too, at least for awhile until it doesn’t give us anything and we feel empty and unhappy again.

The search for stuff gives us pleasure. We seek bargains, special features and functions, or certain brands. Once we have found what we have been seeking, we feel satisfied and happy in the moment but it is not lasting.

So, what’s wrong? The acquisition of all this stuff only gives us a temporary sense of  belonging, and pleasure. We feel happy but it is fleeting. The old insecurities and anxieties come right back. There is a point when we have the stuff we really need and beyond that acquiring more stuff doesn’t give us anything but a momentary flash of pleasure. Then, wham, we feel anxious and depressed again.

What’s going on? Why does this happen? Think about it. Once our basic safety and security needs are met. The searching, collecting, and storing genes have done their work. But, our culture has told us. If you have more stuff you’ll be even safer, happier, and more accepted. Wrong.  Unless the stuff and how we use it aligns with our inner values, there is no lasting effect.

If we acquire the ski jet and use it regularly, improve our skills, share its fun with others, especially those who may not own a ski jet, and spend time having fun and laughing with others in a group who share our values, then it is worthwhile.  If we buy the ski jet, take it out a couple of times, and then leave it sitting in the garage, then it is not serving us. If we buy the jet ski and meet up with a group of other jet skiers who after a couple of encounters we realize don’t share our values, then the jet ski is not serving us.  Time to get rid of it.

When we are honest with ourselves, the amount of stuff that we need, like a cooking pot, and the amount of stuff that brings us together with others and helps us have fun, like, perhaps, a jet ski, are few. A few useful and fun things are all we need. This pile of stuff which we accumulate does not bring us happiness. Cooking a great meal in our favorite pot or riding our jet ski with our best friend does.

So if we really want to align with our authentic selves and feel happy, a good place to start is with our stuff. Getting rid of the stuff that does not serve us frees us to seek out the activities that align with whom we really are. This brings ongoing happiness and joy.

I’m so Tired.

I’m so tired. We’ve all said it. We’ve all felt it. Why are we all so tired? Is it that we are really physically fatiguing our bodies? Or is it that how we are spending our days? Perhaps our actions and thoughts are not aligned with our values–with our authentic selves.  If we are not feeling joy in what we do every day, all day, then we are out of sync with our authentic selves. Being out of balance in this way is exhausting.

Think about this. Ask yourself. What gives me joy? Right now, write down five things that give you joy. If you are finding that difficult, write down four things, or three things, or one thing that gives you joy. You may find that the things that give you joy are also difficult. For example, suppose you are a writer. Writing is difficult. It takes disciple and organization. It takes effort. It takes time. And, it gives tremendous joy. So, most often what gives us joy takes effort, organization, and commitment.

Now, put down your pen and close your eyes. Image you are immersed in doing the first thing (or only thing) on your list and ask, “Why am I doing this?”  The “why question” connects you with your authentic self.  When the answer comes from your core values, it feels right to be doing it and your body and mind will respond with a resounding ‘yes.’  This ‘yes’ is telling you that your values and actions are aligned with your authentic self.

This alignment is beautiful. This is where, if you put your energy and time, in ever widening circles, you will reside in joy.

If you don’t get a resounding ‘yes, this feels right,’ this is a signal that this action, this behavior may not be totally in alignment with your authentic self. Perhaps you are doing it because someone or something else feels it is right. Because they feel it is right you believe that it should feel right for you, too.  Now, that you’re picking up the covers you sense that there is something more for you to explore.

This is a rich place to be. Be curious. In this place you can sit and gently and compassionately ask inwardly, “What about this whole thing?” You’ll be surprised how your body will respond, how it will show and tell you all about how this activity aligns or not with what feels right to you.  It will show you where your motivation is coming from, perhaps from the obligation or pressure coming from family, friends, work, society, or culture. This exploration takes time and a willingness to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. It typically does not express itself like a bolt of lightening. Be patient. It will unwind and open and show you where your true alignment lies.