Authenticity is popular these days. Celebrity media campaigns encourage marginalized youth to “be themselves.” Even my kids’ summer camp has “Be You” listed as a core value—not just for campers, but also for counselors and camp staff.
But what does it even mean to “be you”?
The fabulous Jeffrey Marsh, of #NoTimeToHateMyself fame and author of How to Be You, has a lot to say about authenticity. When Marsh talked with conservative TV host Dennis Michael Lynch (in a now-deleted clip), he ended the interview with this: “How to be you involves accepting, loving, and discovering who you are.”
Authenticity’s appeal is obvious. Who would you be if you could just “be you”? What if you didn’t have to worry about what other people think of you? Does your body sigh with relief at the thought of all the freed-up time and energy you’d have? Or do you seize up with fear or resistance to the idea?
How does a person even go about being fully authentic, anyway? Here are five tips to get started.
1. Don’t lie
Being authentic is at its core about being in total integrity with what is true for us. But most of us were not raised to be truth tellers, really—we were raised to people-please. We were taught that white lies are totally okay. We were taught to pretend and perform and make nice.
But pretending—even if it’s relatively meaningless, even if it is meant to protect someone else—is a form of lying.
And lying, even if we do it a lot or are good at it, is very stressful to our brains and our body. The polygraph test depends on this: “Lie detectors” don’t actually detect lies, but rather they detect the changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, vocal pitch, and breathing that the stress of lying causes. It’s as if all sorts of alerts go off when we lie, as if the body is howling for us to stop.
Fortunately, we become happier and healthier when we live our truth. It is also the only way to be authentic.
2. But don’t always speak the truth
There is an enormous difference between living your truth and always saying what’s on your mind. In a great many instances, it is not necessary or even a good idea to speak your truth.
Sometimes it’s not kind to say what you are thinking. But that doesn’t mean that you get to lie. You can still “be you” whilst keeping your mouth shut.
For example, let’s say a friend asks you if you like her dress, and you actually hate it. Instead of wrinkling your nose and telling her it looks like a muumuu, you can ask her instead what she thinks about it, whether she likes how it feels. You can invite her to tell you her truth, and then listen carefully and compassionately.
Sometimes this tactic—or staying silent—won’t work. Often a part of living your truth in a given instance does mean speaking your truth. If that is the case, and you know what you are about to say might hurt or confuse someone, be sure that you are speaking your truth instead of your judgment or what you imagine to be true for other people. Our feelings are always true; but our criticisms rarely represent objective facts.
For example, if someone is doing something that feels wrong to you, you needn’t stay silent. But you also don’t need to slap down a judgement. Don’t say, for example, “What you are doing is terrible and wrong and I think you should read this book so that you can see the error in your ways.”
Instead, tell them your truth: “I feel nervous and upset when you are doing that. It isn’t the right thing for me, and I don’t feel right about staying silent in this situation.”
3. Let your body point you towards what is true for you
Sometimes it feels really hard to know who we are and what we want. But fortunately, our body always already knows what we are feeling, even when we aren’t conscious of it.
Try listening to the feedback that your body is giving you right now. Say something really untrue out loud, preferably to someone else. Try something like, “I love it when my boss humiliates me in front of my team,” or “I adore having the stomach flu.” Then notice how your body reacts to the statement. The response will likely be ever so slight: a miniscule pulling back or tensing of your jaw or a tiny shoulder-raise. When I say something that my unconscious mind hates, my body tries to tell me through a little heaviness in my stomach. If I spend too long doing something that feels wrong for me, I end up with a stomachache.
“What is true for us tends to make us feel stronger and more free. And lies tend to feel like constraint and constriction.”
Now try saying something out loud that is true for you: “I love the ocean” or “I love the feel of my baby’s head on my cheek.” How does your body respond? When I say something that is very true for me, or when someone else says it to me, I get “chills of truth”—the hair literally stands up on my arms. And if I’m grappling with something hard, but the right answer comes up for me, I get “tears of truth.” Tears that tell me something is profoundly true feel qualitatively different than tears coming from grief or hurt.
What is true for us tends to make us feel stronger and more free. And lies tend to feel like constraint and constriction—our shoulders ache, our back hurts, our stomach churns.
4. Stay in your own truth—and out of other people’s business
Byron Katie teaches that there are only three kinds of business: Mine, Yours, and God’s. (Anything out of human control she considers God’s business.) She writes:
Much of our stress comes from mentally living out of our own business. When I think, “You need to get a job, I want you to be happy, you should be on time, you need to take better care of yourself,” I am in your business. When I’m worried about earthquakes, floods, war, or when I will die, I am in God’s business…
Being mentally in your business keeps me from being present in my own…To think that I know what’s best for anyone else is to be out of my business. Even in the name of love, it is pure arrogance, and the result is tension, anxiety, and fear. Do I know what’s right for me? That is my only business. Let me work with that before I try to solve your problems for you. If you understand the three kinds of business enough to stay in your own business, it could free your life in a way that you can’t even imagine.
Authenticity is always about being ourselves, rather than about helping other people be something other than they actually are. Who they are is their business.
5. Accept the ugly bits of yourself, including the difficult emotions
“Being you” is massively different from being perfect, or being the best possible version of yourself. We are all human, and by definition that means that we are often messy and raw and wrong.
When we love only the parts of ourselves we deem to be good or strong or smart, we reject the parts that make us real. This sets us up for inauthenticity. We start hiding what is real and showing off what is sparkly; but our seeming perfection is fake. The only thing to do with all our imperfections is to accept them with forgiveness and compassion. And to accept how we feel about our flaws (which is probably not so good). This does not mean that we are resigned to never growing or overcoming our weaknesses. It just means that we can be our true selves on this path. As Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Loving and accepting ourselves—and all our flaws, including our anger and fear and sadness and pettiness—is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to be authentic. It is also the greatest gift we can give ourselves. It is the reason why authenticity makes us happier and healthier and more connected to those around us.