Have you ever found yourself…well, not quite being yourself? Maybe you are in a situation that is unfamiliar, where you’re not sure what you should say or do. It could be you’re having an interaction with someone you’ve just met or someone of some esteem, and you want to make a certain impression. Maybe you have an image of yourself you’re trying to cultivate, you want people to think of you in a certain way.
I have often found myself in these situations and I’ve learned that the more I try to craft a certain perception of myself, the more I falter. The resulting outcome being the exact opposite of my intentions. When I let go of my need to be perceived in a particular way (mainly, as competent) and just am – being my true self – I experience a richer, more meaningful exchange than I ever do when I try to present an idealized image of myself. This is the paradox of authenticity – the outcome itself is achieved, by virtue of my not trying to achieve it. Conversely, the more I try to be authentic, the less authentic I become!
An inauthentic version of yourself is a lesser, weakened, ineffective version of yourself. For me, when I represent that image of myself, I become trapped in a game of cat and mouse inside my head. I experience a flood of thoughts – most of which aren’t actually about the topic at hand, but about the exchange I’m engaged in. I’m distracted, thinking about how I should be presenting myself, I’m playing a guessing game – wondering ‘should I say this or that’. I think about what I think is expected from the situation, how I want to be perceived, how I can demonstrate I’m competent and capable, how I can impress, how to not come off as an idiot. I’m no longer representing my authentic self, I’m an actor – portraying some idea of myself.
As you can imagine, when you lose that connection with who you actually are and enter into this theatre of the mind, you lose your ability to represent your thoughts and beliefs and thus begins something (an impression, a relationship, a course of action, etc.) created not out of who you are, but of something else entirely. And how hard it is play this imaginary game. When you engage authentically, you are drawing upon your own experiences, your deeply held beliefs, your worldview. To not connect with these foundations of expression, but to instead suppose we can somehow alter how we are perceived through a shaping of our language to fit what we think we should say. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Isn’t it easier to just say what we feel?
Why then do we sometimes shift away from authenticity and towards acting? At the root, it’s fear. By representing our true, authentic selves we make ourselves vulnerable. We fear that we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. That somehow we won’t be good enough. When we engage authentically, there’s nothing to hide behind – we’re exposed and that can be scary. So, rather than assuming the risks of showing up as ourselves – we project an image of ourselves. We step outside of who we are, and don a persona, we wear masks. It’s here where we lose our ability to create something real, meaningful and fulfilling. Instead, we engage in the guessing game and more times than not, do ourselves a real disservice.
Most of the time, authenticity is easy to spot. You can sense when someone is being genuine and representing their true self. It’s equally easy to spot someone faking it. Politicians seem to be a regular example of this cringeworthy phenomenon. Rather than saying what they feel, they say what they think their audience wants to hear. There’s no emotional connection. It’s rote, passionless, boring, meaningless and sometimes nonsensical. The same is true when we fake it. From the job interview, to pitching a new idea to higher ups. From the get together with old friends to the networking event with complete strangers. When we stray from our authentic selves and slip into the game of projecting an idealized version of ourselves, we lose connection. We lose the ability to build and create. We lose meaning. Instead of something powerful, we’re left with a simple transaction – one that typically fails to achieve what we had hoped.
How then, do you consistently show up authentically? It can be difficult, especially when we have so many roles to play in our daily lives: mother, partner, client, leader, friend, student, teacher, expert, colleague, husband, coach, peer. Each of these roles carries with it some expectation of how it is to be fulfilled. We naturally carry some bias into situations where we expect we’ll be asked to fulfill these roles. We try to imagine how we’ll assume the role – we search for scripts in our minds – we assess risk – always anticipating and plotting how to avoid negative outcomes. This is the natural response our brains take, etched into our wiring from eons of evolutionary survival: avoid danger.
So, if there’s a situation facing us where we feel as though we’ll be evaluated on our ability to fulfill one of the roles we assume: a big presentation to the Board, meeting someone important to us for the first time, enrolling a potential client, reconnecting with an old friend – we get scared, anxious, nervous. It’s the fear of failure, fear of being found out as a phony, fear of making a stagel of ourselves, fear of not measuring up. It’s fear that tells us it might be better to try to fake it – to project some image of ourselves that we think better fits the role.
Now, I’m not advocating that you say whatever pops into your head at any moment, despite the context of the situation. Of course we have to consider the circumstances and expectations of the moment. I’m advocating for an awareness of authenticity, the situations that provoke us to want to project an image of ourselves versus being our true selves and consciously making a decision about how we want to show up, balancing the expectations of the situation (our role) with representing who we are.
As you can see, authenticity is tricky. I’ve outlined four simple steps to take when you’re faced with a situation where balancing authenticity might be difficult:
- Get in your head and then get out of it. Take notice of what you’re feeling and thinking – Is this a situation that makes you want to fake it? What does being authentic look like in this situation? What are you afraid of? Take note and put it aside.
- Understand what role you’re trying to play. What is the need we are seeking but afraid won’t be met? Focus on being present in the moment, recognize there is no script. Listen and observe.
- Connect with what is important to you. Why do you care about what is happening in this situation? If there’s no connection, maybe there’s not much to be said.
- Contribute from your heart, balance with your head. Share what you feel, balanced by what you think. Engage with an awareness of your role, the situation and its expectations.