Just what the hell does it mean to be authentic?
Not only that, why should we bother trying to be authentic? I should warn you: if you’re dedicated to spending the rest of your life in your comfort zone, please stop reading immediately. I’m not kidding.
I’m always going on about authenticity, so I thought it would make sense to answer these questions.
Authenticity is a state of being that we should all seek to achieve. It is the full and true alignment between how we should behave with how we actually behave. It is, without sounding too cheesy, the ultimate definition of just be yourself.
To be authentic means to act in a way that demonstrates your values. We all have slightly different values. What we have in common is the self-awareness to know when we act according to our values, and when we don’t.
If you search for dictionary definitions, you will be hit with dozens of synonyms for truthfulness, honesty, realness and validity.
Authenticity is, in a sense, behavioural honesty.
However, in my search for authenticity over the last 5 years or so, I’ve found it can also be described as something else:
A decision between two different types of pain.
I’ll expand more on this in a minute.
To be authentic requires courage. Make no mistake, most people I work with and see in my everyday life lack authenticity. I can see clearly when someone is not acting according to their values. This distance from integrity usually manifests in the form of taking the easy way out. People miss out on authenticity because they are afraid of taking the actions required to be genuine.
It is not their fault (or yours). Most people have been given no guidance on how to be authentic. In fact, many have been guided away from authenticity.
I remember as a child being told “just be yourself”, and then immediately finding myself getting told off for doing just that. It made no sense to me. The adults in our lives guided us away from authenticity because us acting out was inconvenient for them. Instead they steered us towards their idea of a good life, which was often out of alignment with our true authenticity.
Yet, despite all of this misguided bullying in the guise of “helping” and “teaching”, some part of us knows the truth. Deep inside you know what your values are. Go ahead, try writing them out in single words, e.g. caring, honest, respect etc.
There are 3 very simple indicators which identify when you are lacking authenticity:
1) You wish your life was better,
2) You get a sense of immediate relief when you make a decision, but feel guilty or remorseful about that decision later on,
3) You always try to feel comfortable, and quickly move away from any feelings that are not comfortable. This does not mean you always move away from “negative” feelings, just that you always choose situations you are familiar with, e.g. this could include abusive relationships.
Firstly, you don’t have to beat yourself up or feel bad about these. Why? Because every single human being in Earth’s history is guilty of these at some point in their lives. It’s the guaranteed consequence of being an organism with such a complex, language-based brain.
Let’s break these down a bit more.
1) YOU WISH YOUR LIFE WAS BETTER
Some of you might read this and say “Who doesn’t?”
And that’s what I’m getting at when I say that so many people are lacking authenticity.
When you try your best to courageously live according to your values, you know intrinsically that life could not possibly be any better. When you are authentic, there’s a sense of certainty that there is nothing more you can do right – that’s as good as life gets. Sure, you can always improve, but you know that you have improved as much as possible. So there is no sense of missing out.
If you feel like there are things missing in your life, what is usually missing is authentic behaviour.
It isn’t an improvement in life you seek; it is an improvement in yourself. Life is nothing more than a reality you create inside your own mind. Therefore it is in the creation of this reality that we find meaning and fulfillment.
Ask anyone who appears to be totally honest, genuinely curious about the world, confident and satisfied (if you can find one). They will tell you that “happiness” and “self-esteem” are completely controlled internally. These people require nothing from Life. They in fact create their Life.
Life owes you nothing. You owe it to yourself to create life.
How? By living according to that which you value most.
Get on the phone with me to explain why you’re not getting what you want out of life, and I will quickly help you see that it is the other way around:
Life is not getting the best out of YOU.
2) THE PATTERN OF RELIEF AND GUILT
Now we can start to discuss the two different types of pain I mentioned earlier.
Your brain has a very simple and reliable system for letting you know whether or not you are being authentic. If you can slow down and “listen” to yourself for a minute, the answer will come through loud and clear.
Fear is more than just a mechanism to keep you safe. It is also a test.
The emotions and physical sensations fear creates are unpleasant. They are uncomfortable. Read that word again. Ask yourself, “What is the simplest word to describe the feeling of leaving my comfort zone?”
Fear, particularly anxiety, is there to tell you that you are thinking about something outside of your comfort zone. Fear is not the same as anger, sadness, or grief. Those are emotions that we can actually be quite comfortable feeling.
The fear-based sensations I’m referring to are the ones like anxiety, sickness in the gut, shame, embarrassment, doubt, hesitation, confusion etc. The helpful kind of fear I’m referring to is the one that stirs up emotions that you always feel the urge to avoid.
People are often quite content to be angry, sad, or even depressed. We’ve all had times where we wallowed in these emotions for lengthy periods of time, secretly enjoying the self-pitying state of mind. Hey, I’ve been there myself. But very few of us are willing to experience anxiety, doubt and social shame for very long. We run from that shit like it’s going to kill us!
And it’s this pattern of “running away” and/or fighting these sensations that actually takes us away from authenticity, and propels us towards a fake life.
These sensations are most often a sign that we are about to be tested for authenticity. It’s a kind of trick or test our mind plays on us.
If we fall for the trap by avoiding the uncomfortable call to action, we get rewarded with an instant sensation of relief, one of the most enjoyable emotions available. It’s like a flood of happiness and relaxation all at once. Highly addictive, you might say. A feeling that could condition a person into an unhelpful pattern of behaviour, you might say.
I like to call this false reward unhelpful relief.
But relief isn’t always unhelpful of course. Sometimes fear keeps us from dying, and relief is our reward for surviving.
So what’s the difference?
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3) LIVING IN THE COMFORT ZONE
Regret, remorse and a fearful depressive doubt about the decision you made, the lack of action. That’s the difference. It may come seconds, hours, days, weeks, months or even years later. It’s when you look back at what you did and say “I should have…” or “If only I had…”
This is the second type of pain.
The first is those uncomfortable feelings of fear that we shy away from, like a horse that’s caught the scent of a mountain lion. That first type of pain is NOW, in the moment “punishment” for simply considering the possibility of doing something uncomfortable. Or just for even being in an uncomfortable situation.
You can avoid this pain if you want. Often, it simply means choosing to not do what you thought you could do. Not asking your boss for a raise. Not approaching the stranger you found attractive. Not taking the opportunity to give a public presentation. Not speaking your mind.
As soon as you choose NOT to, you get “rewarded” with relief.
But that reward is only the start; it is always balanced by punishment. This is where the second kind of pain comes: the guilt and regret of not living your values, the remorse of not taking the action you knew to be right.
And dude, you know that pain is here to stay.
Sure, you can justify and minimise and rationalise, and eventually you can talk yourself back into the relief feeling. But it won’t be quite as good as that first hit; no drug ever lives up to the first time. And pretty soon the guilt comes back, and each time it does the relief is a little bit less rewarding.
Before long, you’re faced with the daily chore of convincing yourself that it’s ok to avoid the actions you fear. For some people, they have to deal with this mind-reprogramming ordeal every hour of every day.
Whew… what a hassle!
Let’s compare that with the person who lives authentically. The person who chooses to face discomfort in order to do what they know to be right. The person who faces possible confrontation to ask for a raise. The person who faces possible embarrassment to give a presentation. The person who faces possible rejection to meet their dream partner.
How long does their pain last? Seconds, minutes… and not much longer, actually. Because within seconds of completing the task, that punishment is balanced by reward. This is where it gets interesting:
The sense of fulfillment that comes from knowing that you’ve made the most of your situation. The confidence of having successfully faced a fear and knowing you could do it again. The wondrous sense of hope that comes from knowing you have no limits.
And that’s just for the situations that don’t work out in your favour!
Let’s not forget the significant inner joy that comes from the reward of taking a risk and having it pay off. And the more you face fear to live your values, the more often this happens.
Pretty soon, this is mostly what happens. Just ask anyone who regularly uses courage to face their fears. Go on, ask them!
The choice is yours. You will face pain in your life, that is a guarantee. It really comes down to simple choice as to how long you want to be in pain for…
Authentic = anxiety pain now, followed by internal reward forever.
Not authentic = relief now, followed by internal pain forever.
What kind of pain will YOU choose?
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