Authenticity is the ability to act in accordance with deeply held inner principles, or deeply felt inner character. A person’s behaviour is authentic when it ‘rings true’ of their essential values or nature.
Inauthenticity, in contrast, is an inability to act in accordance with deeply held inner principles, or deeply felt inner character. A person’s behaviour is inauthentic when it seems inconsistent with their essential values, or with their nature.
PRINCIPLES AND SITUATIONS
Situations force us towards inauthenticity. For example, we may have deeply held values of honesty and kindness. One day, we may be placed in a situation where to be kind, we have to be dishonest; or perhaps, to be honest, we have to be unkind. We find a working solution, but we feel bad about it. Something does not feel right.
In other words, our principles, even if authentic, come under daily threat from a challenging world. We are made to compromise, to tell the white lie, or the hurtful truth. In particular, power dynamics push some principles underground, so that to defend ourselves, we break our own rules. In doing so, we lose a bit of our self-respect.
CHARACTER AND RELATIONSHIPS
In the same way, relationships can force us towards inauthenticity. We want to please the other, to appear kind. So we hide the behaviour we are bursting to display. We appease the other, but we feel bad about it. Something does not feel right.
Relational power dynamics come into play. Most of the time inner urges are kept in check by the need to fit in. But sometimes a suppressed behaviour bursts out of us. We lose our temper. Our natural self is trying to tell us that it feels trapped.
AUTHENTICITY IS A NEGOTIATION
Some people have a simplistic view of authenticity. They believe that if they act directly in accordance with principle, or inner character, then everything will automatically be OK. But daily life is a reminder that this is not so. Wisdom is necessary to determine which behaviour will find the best application of principle, or the best expression of character.
We are carpenters. Our values and our inner nature are our raw material, the wood that we bring to life. If our aim is to furnish the world with what is good, then we need tools. Without tools, and the skill to use them, we are helpless and naive. Life is necessarily political. We are always negotiating situations in an attempt at ‘workable authenticity’.
For some of us, the negotiation is too much. For instance, we may not have the skill to be honest and kind at the same time. We feel the loss of self-respect. To avoid the pain, we split the problem. The bit we can solve, we own. The bit we can’t solve, we blame others for.
- If we can do the honesty, but not the kindness, we may say: “I’m just being honest. If they want to be offended, that’s their fault.”
- If we can do the kindness, but not the honesty, we may say: “I’m doing my best to be kind. But they aren’t empathising with my point of view.”
The bit we blame others for turns into our own defensive shell. In the first case, we blame others for the fact that they are offended. In the second case, we blame others for the fact that we are offended. In each case, the purpose of the defensiveness is to maintain our self-respect.
To use the carpenter analogy:
- Sometimes we make furniture we like, but it doesn’t work for others. We blame them for not appreciating the authenticity of our furniture.
- Sometimes we make furniture others like, but it doesn’t work for us. We blame them for ignoring our preferences.
To avoid the defensiveness, we need to find ways of negotiating every piece of furniture we make (i.e. every action or behaviour) so that it works for others, but also bears the mark of our character and values.
Living becomes a joint design process, involving constant consultation and collaboration. We do not give up on our inner values and nature; but nor do we give up on the difficult communication exercise of finding common ground. We never lose sight of either our own authentic self, or other people’s.
Authentic living involves giving air to our own deeply held values and character. Putting it into practice is difficult. Life offers us daily situations and relationships, and we have to work through the politics of each one.
If we lack negotiating skill, we become defensive, and blame others for our difficulties. In contrast, if we develop negotiating skills, and become more wisely authentic, we become less defensive, stop blaming, and seek common ground.