Authenticity is one of the most valued characteristics in our society. As children we are taught to just “be ourselves,” and as adults we can choose from a large number of self-help books that will tell us how important it is to get in touch with our “real self.” It’s taken as a given by everyone that authenticity is a real thing and that it is worth cultivating.
Even the science of authenticity has surged in recent years, with hundreds of journal articles, conferences and workshops. However, the more that researchers have put authenticity under the microscope, the more muddied the waters of authenticity have become. Many common ideas about authenticity are being overturned. Turns out, authenticity is a real mess.
Problems with Authenticity
One big problem with authenticity is that there is a lack of consensus among both the general public and among psychologists about what it actually means for someone or something to be authentic. Are you being most authentic when you are being congruent with your physiological states, emotions and beliefs, whatever they may be? Or are you being most authentic when you are congruent with your consciously chosen beliefs, attitudes and values? How about when you are being congruent across the various situations and social roles of your life? Which form of “being true to yourself” is the real authenticity: was it the time you really gave that waiter a piece of your mind or that time you didn’t tell the waiter how you really felt about their dismal performance because you value kindness and were true to your higher values?
Another thorny issue is measurement. Virtually all measures of authenticity involve self-report measures. However, people often do not know what they are really like or why they actually do what they do. So a test that asks people to report how authentic they are is unlikely to be a truly accurate measure of their authenticity.
Perhaps the thorniest issue of them all though is the entire notion of the real self. The humanistic psychotherapist Carl Rogers noted that many people who seek psychotherapy are plagued by the question: “Who am I, really?” While people spend so much time searching for their real self, the stark reality is that all of the aspects of your mind are part of you. It’s virtually impossible to think of any intentional behavior that does not reflect some genuine part of your psychological makeup, whether it’s your dispositions, attitudes, values or goals.
This creates a real problem for the scientific investigation of a concept such as authenticity. As Katrina Jongman-Sereno and Mark Leary conclude in their recent article “The Enigma of Being Yourself,”
“Given the complexity of people’s personalities, two seemingly incompatible actions might both be highly self-congruent. People are simply too complex, multifaceted and often conflicted for the concept of a unitary true self to be a useful standard for assessing authenticity, either in oneself or in others.”
So what is this true self that people are always talking about? Once you take a closer scientific examination, it seems that what people refer to as their “true self” really is just the aspects of themselves that make them feel the best about themselves. All around the world, people show an authenticity positivity bias: people include their most positive and moral qualities—such as kind, giving and honest—in their descriptions of their true self. People judge their positive behaviors as more authentic than their negative behaviors even when both behaviors are consistent with their personal characteristics and desires.
Even more perplexing, it turns out that most people’s feelings of authenticity have little to do with acting in accord with their actual nature. The reality appears to be quite the opposite. All people tend to feel most authentic when having the same experiences, regardless of their unique personality. In particular, we all tend to feel most authentic when we are feeling content, calm, loving, enthusiastic, free, competent, mindful of the present moment and open to new experiences. In other words, we tend to feel most authentic when our needs are being met and we feel ownership of our subjective experiences. Not when we are simply being ourselves.
Another counterintuitive finding is that people actually tend to feel most authentic when they are acting in socially desirable ways, not when they are going against the grain of cultural dictates (which is how authenticity is typically portrayed). On the flip side, people tend to feel inauthentic when they are feeling socially isolated, or feel as though they have fallen short of the standards of others.
It makes sense that feelings of authenticity would so strongly tied to social evaluation considering how important reputation and acquiring a unique role within a group was across the course of human evolution. This also may help explain why people’s evaluations of their authenticity is so strongly tied to their morality and most valued goals. Behaving in ways that are consistent your higher goals (such as announcing your new humanitarian nonprofit) is typically perceived as more authentic by yourself and by others than authentically watching Netflix while eating that stack of glazed donuts. Even though, sorry to say it, but both behaviors are really you.
Therefore, what people think of as their true self may actually just be what people want to be seen as. According to social psychologist Roy Baumeister, we will report feeling highly authentic and satisfied when the way others think of us matches up with how we want to be seen, and when our actions “are conducive to establishing, maintaining, and enjoying our desired reputation.” If you think back on your own personal experiences of when you’ve felt most authentic in your life (and are really honest with yourself), you’ll probably agree this largely rings true.
Conversely, Baumeister argues that when people fail to achieve their desired reputation, they will dismiss their actions as inauthentic, as not reflecting their true self (“That’s not who I am”.) As Baumeister notes, “As familiar examples, such repudiation seems central to many of the public appeals by celebrities and politicians caught abusing illegal drugs, having illicit sex, embezzling or bribing, and other reputation-damaging actions.”
While there doesn’t appear to actually be such a thing as the one true self, the concept of the true self may still serve a useful function. The science of authenticity does show that feeling in touch with your real self (even if there doesn’t actually exist such a thing) is a strong predictor of many indicators of well-being. Holding the idea of your true self in mind can play an important meaning-making function, and can serve as a useful guide to evaluating whether you are living up to your ideal of the good life.
After all, I do believe there is within each of us best selves—aspects of who you are that are healthy, creative, and growth-oriented, and make you feel most connected to yourself and to others. I would argue that getting in touch with your best selves and intentionally actualizing your most creative, growth-oriented and potentialities is a much more worthy goal than spending your entire life trying to find your one true self. In my view, there is such a thing as healthy authenticity.
Healthy authenticity is not about going around saying whatever is on your mind, or actualizing all of your potentialities, including your darkest impulses. Instead, healthy authenticity, of the sort that helps you become a whole person, involves accepting and taking responsibility for your whole self as a route to personal growth and meaningful relationships. Healthy authenticity is an ongoing process of discovery, involving self-awareness, self-honesty, integrity with your most consciously chosen values and highest goals, and a commitment to cultivating authentic relationships.
As long as you are working toward growth in the direction of who you truly want to be, that counts as authentic in my book regardless of whether it is who you are at this very moment. The first step to healthy authenticity is shedding your positivity biases and seeing yourself for who you are, in all of your contradictory and complex splendor. Full acceptance doesn’t mean you like everything you see, but it does mean that you’ve taken the most important first step toward actually becoming the whole person you most wish to become. As Carl Rogers noted, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”