I was at a concert and on the other side of the venue, I saw my ex-girlfriend’s new partner for the first time. I was still gloomy after we had broken up. After a while, he came up to me and introduced himself: “Hello, I’m Carl. I just thought I’d say hi.” My whole body went stiff and my smile froze. I managed to utter “Hi there”, and after a short moment of uncomfortable silence, we part ways. Even though he went away, I was still standing with a joyless smile stuck on my face. My attempt to protect myself by hiding my true feelings certainly did not come across as genuine and authentic.
I have been through many similar incidents where I was trying to hide my true feelings and these situations have all been more or less painful. My inner being has been in turmoil, and I’m pretending that nothing is bothering me. Probably without success, but rather coming across as awkward. Not being authentic certainly has its price.
What is authenticity?
One definition of authenticity is whether something is genuine or true. For example, it can be an item that is claimed to be of valuable ancient origin. Or as in a definition on the internet, that you doubt the authenticity of “your eccentric uncle’s photo of a UFO”. This blog post is about the need for authenticity, and in that case, the definition could be, to be honest with what is alive in us. In other words, if what we claim we feel and need is congruent with our experience.
One expression of authenticity is when I make my own choices and don’t adapt to what others believe or think about me. I’m authentic and act in line with my values regardless of the context I’m in. From this angle, authenticity is about my own free choice. Especially in modern individualistic cultures, we tend to value freedom of choice very highly. Many of us who are formed in an individualistic culture look at more collectivist cultures with critical glasses. In those cultures, the group is usually more important than the individual. The individual’s freedom of choice is suppressed in favour of the group. We may question how authentic people in a group-centred culture are.
Does free will exist?
A follow-up question we can ask is how much free will we, in the “free western world”, express? Philosophers and scientists often claim that our free will is largely an illusion. In various experiments, it has been found that when subjects consciously make a decision, their brains have already made the decision. The researchers who are scanning the brain, know which decision the subject is going to make before the subject is aware of it. The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky goes so far as to claim that free will does not exist. If we don’t have free will, if our brains already have made the decision for us before we ourselves are aware of our choice, do we then have a need for authenticity?
We are also shaped by our upbringing, culture and the time we exist in. If I were born with the same body and the same genes in another time or culture, I would make completely different choices. If I, in any given moment, am guided by my predetermined response patterns, the culture I grew up in and other behaviour schemes, can I really choose to be authentic or not?
Another parameter is that my way of acting and communicating – and thus whether I choose to be authentic or not – differs between different contexts. I act one way at work, another way with my children and yet another way with my friends. Someone who observes me in these different contexts can most certainly see differences in my behaviour. I don’t act the same way with different people. However, this does not mean that I am not authentic – but my authenticity is not a static set of behaviours.
A dog is authentic
Some time ago I read the book “The Art of the Good Life” by Rolf Dobelli. In one chapter he claims that authenticity is reserved for romantic relationships and close friendships. In a society, we expect people to behave in a way that facilitates societal life, interaction and cooperation. People without impulse control don’t do very well. He ends the chapter with “A dog is authentic. You’re a human being.”
A paradoxical choice
Even if free will – and thus our authenticity – does not exist, I choose to believe that I have free will. I choose to believe that my choices are independent. Although I know that I am strongly culturally influenced and that I would make different choices if I was raised in different circumstances. I therefore also choose to believe that I can be authentic or not. And as a consequence, it means that I enjoy a greater quality of life if I fulfil my needs and act in accordance with my authenticity.
How often are you authentic?
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Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)
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On 21 December at 10:00-10:45 am CET, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Carolyn Davies. We will talk about the need for Authenticity.
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