Authenticity: Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?

It’s a common claim among participants of Mormon internet groups that people feel they cannot be themselves at church or can’t say what they think for fear of being ostracized.  They feel they are discouraged from being honest or authentic, that they would be rejected if they disagreed with the party line or articulated a non-conforming viewpoint.  Certainly many examples have been given of individuals who were viewed suspiciously for sharing unpopular opinions openly.  These are complaints that they feel they must be inauthentic to be accepted.

The History of Authenticity

We currently equate authenticity with honesty.  Anytime we have to “play a part” we consider it a pressure to hide our true selves, to be a hypocrite.  Authenticity is a virtue very much in vogue right now.  If you aren’t being “true to yourself,” you are living in the shadow, in misery, suborning your needs to others.  And yet, authenticity is a fairly recent virtue.  Generations before the self-actualization movement lived with a more communal, pro-social set of virtues, not one that elevates the individual’s needs above duty or others in the group.  It’s precisely the sustained emphasis on duty that spawned the authenticity movement.

First let’s unbox the concept of duty.  Consider the patriotic attitudes toward WW2 vs. attitudes toward serving in the Vietnam War.  If you were an 18-19 year old man during the 1940s, you felt it was a duty and honor to fight for and die for so great a cause.  If you were an 18-19 year old man in the 1960s, you likely felt more suspicious of the motives in going to a small war in a remote part of the world, fighting a cause even the country you were supposedly fighting for was divided about.  The threat was less clear.  The motives for war were more oblique.  Trust in authority was no longer an obvious greater good because authority was revealed to be untrustworthy.

The authenticity movement came about in the late 1960s and later, and now it is a foregone conclusion that self-expression, self-actualization, and self-awareness are critical to one’s mental well-being.  “I’m OK; You’re OK.”  Since the 1990s, leaders are deemed ineffective if they are not authentic, although historically leaders were expected to toe the party line and represent management rather than themselves.  We look for hypocrisy and people “playing a part” and distrust them instinctively.  This wasn’t always the case.

The Diplomacy Balance

Let’s take a look at what we mean by authenticity.  One of the best compliments I ever received was from my former boss who said she had never met anyone more comfortable in her own skin than I was.  I took her to mean that I was authentic, by which she meant I said what I thought, I didn’t seek approval, and I didn’t hide any unpopular opinions I held.  And yet she also said I was the peacemaker in our team, someone who could help defuse tension with humor, who could help disagreeing parties see each others’ perspectives, someone who was naturally diplomatic.

It’s certainly possible to be authentic while lacking diplomacy.  Some people seem to wear tactlessness like a badge of honor.  Part of being successful at authenticity is finding common ground so that who you are is not seen as a threat to who they are.

Discretion vs. Open Book

In sales, people talk about “opening the kimono” with clients, being transparent enough to reveal vulnerability in the sales process that leads to increased trust.  And yet, “opening the kimono” can backfire disastrously.  There’s a difference between opening your kimono in a doctor’s office (someone who knows what they are seeing and understands the human body) and opening your kimono on Times Square (basically being a flasher).  Authenticity will backfire if you don’t understand the difference.

Concerns that one can’t be authentic are at heart about approval-seeking and the fear of rejection.  The power to conform is ever-present in any group.  For example, you can make comments at Wheat & Tares or By Common Consent that would get you banned at Millenial Star, and vice-versa. You can say something in a Visiting Teaching appointment that you couldn’t say in Sunday School. You can’t ask for a Diet Coke at Pepsi headquarters.  Expressing an opinion far outside the group’s norm is never popular to the majority.  Authenticity is avoiding hypocrisy, but doesn’t have to mean picking fights or casting your pearls before swine.

Who Are We, Really?

Do we really know ourselves?  Our self-awareness changes, and our ability to articulate our perspectives also changes over time with experience.  Studies show that people whose beliefs change, including political affiliations, often change their memories of the past to match their current beliefs.  This can only be determined when comparing one’s current memory with an earlier written account of events, and yet, this process of confabulation is how memory works.  It’s happening all the time.

Whenever we think we were “wrong” in the past, our mind works hard to resolve this cognitive dissonance by making us right.  Whenever you hear yourself thinking “I knew all along . . .” or “Even back then, I suspected . . .” you may be rewriting your past memories to fit your current perspectives.  It’s like those interviews about serial killers in which people recall what the person was like before they committed the crimes.  Suddenly some of them knew all along that person was a bad seed, although nobody noted it at the time, or at least not enough to take action.  We recast the past in light of our current knowledge.

Add to that the fact that as human beings, we constantly change.  We are continually revealing ourselves to ourselves.  As we encounter novel experiences, we can sometimes be surprised at our reactions.  We think we will behave one way in theory, but the reality differs.

Seeking First to be Understood

Often when people express frustration at feeling forced to wear a facade, they approach relationships expecting to be understood and accepted for who they are.  Even in close relationships, this is a naive expectation.  Real understanding is quite rare.  If we struggle to understand ourselves, is it any wonder that people struggle to understand each other?

One difficulty is that we judge others based on observed outcomes (what the outcomes are from our perspective) but we judge ourselves based on intentions.  Even Hitler had, in his own twisted logic, “good” intentions:  racial purity.[1]  Stephen Covey talked about seeking first to understand others, then secondarily to be understood.  Trying to understand others is hard enough that if we really try to do this, we will see how easy it is to be misunderstood and perhaps we will lower our expectations for being understood.

It is also difficult for others to accept who you are if they feel that you are threat to who they are, either through association, affiliation or our perception of ourselves as a parent, child or spouse. This is one reason family relationships are so fraught.  Our identities are so wrapped up in one another in marriages and parent-child relationships that respecting and allowing differences can feel uncomfortable.  Others can’t believe or act in a way that we dislike without some of that rebounding on us, or so we believe.  How do you love what you don’t like?  Unconditional love is at best incredibly hard, at worst unfathomable.  As followers of Christ we say we love others, but as human beings, we wish the others conformed better to what we think is lovable.

Equally important to remember is that people seldom use relationships as a way to expand or challenge their perspectives.  It’s much more common to see other people’s stories as a way to confirm or bolster our existing worldview.  It’s often easier to change relationships than to change our perspective.  We eliminate drama from our lives by eliminating people who challenge us.[2]

Conclusion

How do we seek authenticity while acknowledging human limitations?  A few steps:

  • Seek self-knowledge, but recognize your inability to be objective about yourself.  Realize that you are in some ways a stranger to yourself, constantly evolving and (hopefully) growing and learning.
  • Be curious about others.  Ask more about others, out of a genuine desire to understand without judgment.  The way to empathy and love lies here.
  • Keep expectations for being understood in check, even among family members.
  • Let go of the need for approval.  The cost is too high.  But you don’t need to pick fights about it either.  Live and let live, and most other people will too.
  • Allow others their own worldview without feeling you need to correct theirs or explain your own.  Life’s too short.  You be you; let them be them.

Do you feel you are able to be yourself in most settings?  If not, why not?  What’s your advice?

Discuss.

[1] Good intentions + lack of empathy + a big dose of fear or insecurity = a recipe for genocide.

[2] see also firing personal trainers.

Comments

  1. This is so profound. Brava!

    Very important stuff.

  2. Great article with lots to think about…. Well said.

  3. Wearing tactlessness as a badge of honor. A great way to put it.

  4. We are hyper focused on worthiness. The pinnacle of the temple is to be accepted by God. We are so concerned about our own level of obedience and whether we are enough to be accepted by God that it creates a very judgmental culture. Any difference in interpretation is viewed as not sustaining our leaders. It either makes us arrogant because we believe that we are acceptable to God, but the person down the row tucking in her garments, or did you see the dress she wore to homecoming, or or or… The opposite of that is we take the message that we aren’t worthy of God’s love and acceptance because everyone else appears to be so together and we lose hope that belong in the community of saints. This is a legacy of polygamy and worthiness interviews and the cultural baggage in the church so engrained in our doctrine that it will take some serious work to get rid of.

  5. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Excellent observations – thank you so much for sharing. I especially liked “Allow others their own worldview without feeling you need to correct theirs or explain your own.” The world would be a much more peaceful place with this type of attitude. Thanks again.

  6. Being authentic seems to be a cultural value but not something I find much in the scriptures. Jesus talks about not doing things for appearances but his answer to that is to hide what we are doing that is good not express it. Such as giving alms or praying.

    Good post by the way.

    BL. Those problems are a result of human nature and not anything unique to our culture. Worthiness interviews are not the cause of it, rather pride is.

  7. Good post. I find that “authentic” gets tossed around pretty casually.
    Is our authentic true self what we instinctively desire or what we consciously choose? This was a good balanced piece in the NYT

  8. Really, really good. I wonder what the connection is between understanding others and understanding yourself.

  9. As usual, hawk, out of the park.

  10. “It’s often easier to change relationships than to change our perspective. We eliminate drama from our lives by eliminating people who challenge us.”

    This is so true. (Probably why I’ve never had a personal trainer.)

  11. Several years ago, I read “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny” by Amartya Sen. In it, Sen introduces two ideas, Immanence and Transcendence. Immanence is the idea of remaining within a conflict while Transcendence is the idea of stepping outside of the conflict, creating boundaries of right/wrong, better/worse, etc. But how does all of this relate to authenticity?

    Sen’s presentation of identity is that identity is not singular. You do not have “an” identity, or a “true self,” you have many identities, which stem from affiliations, and all of these identities create a self. I am: male, white, American, a Utahn, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, an ex-boyfriend, a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, a gun owner, and much, much more. By acknowledging this within myself, hopefully I can avoid labeling others with the all-encompassing “other.”

    The idea then is not “playing a role” but presenting an identity, a part of who I am. At Church, I choose to not present my political identity, rather choosing to present and emphasize my church, social, and neighbor identities. I am not being unauthentic, I am still being my “true self,” though a moderated self, based on what conflict I am willing/unwilling to engage in while at Church.

    This relates to self-awareness, understanding my identities and how secure I am in them. In this model, part of seeking that self-awareness is, when an idea is presented to which I have a negative reaction, I first need to ask myself, “which of my identities does this idea threaten and why?” Doing that, while having patience and compassion for others, goes a long way to reducing conflict and helping me be “authentic.”

  12. I used to think that the goal of becoming like God, of being exalted, was a worthy goal. I mean, that’s supposed to be the whole point, right?

    These days, my thinking is much more along the lines of: who could possibly want THAT job? And yet, if I authentically express that in church or, heaven forbid, at home, well, we can all pretty well figure out where that leads.

  13. JTB, I think the scriptures are urging people to be authentic in a different way. When Alma was talking to the people in Zarahemla, he asked if they could see God’s image in their countenances. Ultimately at the last day, the goal is to have your authentic self be so aligned with God’s will that the images become identical: “I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?” (Alma 5:19)

    The goal is to get to a point where following Christ does not feel contrary to our authentic self. I think Moroni was addressing a similar point with the importance of acquiring charity, the pure love of Christ (Moroni 7:47).

  14. Angela,

    You have given some very wise advice here. I wish I would have read this 5 years ago. It definitely would have helped me on my own journey.

    Out of all of the many wonderful insights you have, I wanted to comment on one, in particular. And that is to find common ground.

    I am a highly unorthodox mormon. And early in my journey, I felt compelled to share my “new” insights with those nearest around me. Ultimately all I was doing was metaphorically slapping my loved ones in the face with each new revelation.

    They didn’t want to know. They wanted to continue believe like they have always believed and my new worldview and how I was sharing it made them uncomfortable and was getting in the way of our relationships.

    I struggled with this concept that you have discussed hear about authenticity. I felt that I needed to share how I now viewed the world or I was somehow being deceitful by being silent. But I quickly realized that by opening my mouth in the way I was doing it, was being selfish and really was only an attempt to serve my own ego.

    Over the past 3 years I have spent so much more time finding and building upon the common ground I have with my wife, friend and families than exploring where we are no longer on the same page. That action of finding common ground and building upon it saved my marriage and friendships. And also has lead to a much more fulfilling life.

    I also do have a new and added network of friends who share other parts of my new found worldview that has highly enriched my life.

    I also feel very comfortable in my own skin now. I gladly will describe myself as a happy heretic to those in my mormon circles. But no one really wants to know what that means. And I am more than happy to discuss and enjoy all of the parts of my faith that I share in common with friends and family.

    Do they know everything about me? No.

    But I don’t hide anything. If someone wants to know more about me. Curiosity. Then I am more than willing to share.

    But building upon the common ground has helped in the relationships and has helped in staying true to what I believe deep in my heart.

    Great blogpost.

  15. Mary Ann–Amen.