Harding Meyer – Untitled Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“We think sometimes we’re only drawn to the good, but we’re actually drawn to the authentic. We like people who are real more than those who hide their true selves under layers of artificial niceties.”
How Authentic Are You? What Does This Even Mean?
Real, authentic people, those who are true to themselves, tend to be warm, fair-minded, genuine, generous, open and honest. They can be themselves, with confidence. They know who and what they are. They are interested in you, and they listen when you speak.
They do not put on an act, or pretend to be other than they are.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
So many of us wear masks, and not only the ones we wear to protect ourselves and others from Coronavirus. These other masks that we wear are an invisible protection against the fear of being discovered for who we really are, with all our faults, foibles, pain and neediness.
Heinrich Hoerl – Masks Gandalf’sGallery. Flickr.
“You can’t find intimacy—you can’t find home—when you’re always hiding behind masks. Intimacy requires a certain level of vulnerability. It requires a certain level of you exposing your fragmented, contradictory self to someone else. You are running the risk of having your core self rejected and hurt and misunderstood.”
Authentic people do not hide their neediness or their pain; that is part of what makes them likeable, for they do not have to be seen as perfect.
What happens when we are truly authentic, when we drop the masks, is that we feel happier, more relaxed, and more attractive to others, who will recognise, consciously or unconsciously, that we are being real and true to ourselves.
Where Do These Fears Of Being Our Real Selves Come From?
Often, we have been putting on such masks from childhood. Maybe we had to pretend to be other than we really were as children. Possibly all of us did this to a greater or lesser extent.
Perhaps we were not allowed to show our feelings, to show anger, unhappiness, discontent, disagreement. Maybe we had to constantly fit in with others, to adapt to their ways, to deny our own beliefs, thoughts and feelings. Thus we had to develop other selves, other personae.
Zhao Kailin – Girl with Bouquet  Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
Social media has a strong effect, especially on teenagers, in terms of making them feel they have to be like, look like, think like, others. It may exacerbate an existing internal pressure to please, to fit in, to be the same as others.
Such behaviour patterns are hard to rid ourselves of. Therapy may be needed to help with this, so that we might uncover the real person we are beneath the layers of pleasing others.
As a psychotherapist, I worked with Mia*,who found it very hard to stop being, in her words, ‘a chameleon around other people.’ When she was a child, she was strictly not allowed her own views if they differed from those of her parents.
She had to fit in, under threat of ridicule, punishment, outright rejection, or censure. It required much courage on her part to risk voicing her own views, even in the safety of the therapy room.
Janet*, another patient, in therapy with me, had always felt unsafe and afraid in her childhood home. She had consistently been told by her mother, whenever she felt sad or vulnerable “You’re strong, you don’t need to be miserable or cry.”
“But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself—to let go of the limiting stories you’ve told yourself about who you are so that you aren’t trapped by them, so you can live your life and not the story you’ve been telling yourself about your life.”
The strength that she was ‘supposed’ to feel, was not her genuine strength, but a part of her mother’s view of her, her mother’s projection.
From being very young, Janet learned that she had to appear strong, when she actually felt just the opposite.
She did indeed seem to be strong, independent, successful, but deep inside, she felt ‘shaky, afraid and weak.’ She told me that she had not wanted to have to be strong as a child; what she most wanted was to feel safe.
Steven Assael – Andrea . Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
Janet’s struggle in therapy was to enable herself to really experience her own vulnerability, her fears and her neediness, and to be able to express these emotions.
This meant that she had to search beneath the ‘strong’ exterior, beneath the long held defensive front, to discover deeply buried childhood fears that still remained.
Once she risked doing this, she was able to be more authentic, more true to the self behind the mask. The energy expended during most of her life to maintain the false self could now be used to help her feel freer and more genuinely herself.
What Janet also discovered, to her relief and delight, was that she did have genuine strength, and once she was able to shed the defensive front, she could recognise this and differentiate it from the false, defensive ‘strength.’
The False Self.
The psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott described the ‘false self’ as a kind of cover, developing through external pressure during childhood. It defended the ‘true self’, hidden beneath.
“Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being.”
Perhaps we could reframe the ‘false self’ as being more of an ‘incomplete self.’ Being labelled as ‘false’ seems a little harsh, when what we are doing is struggling to feel safe and protected from the harshness of the world as we perceive it.
If we could begin to see that we need to complete ourselves by getting in touch with the parts that we hide, then we may feel less stigmatised by the idea of the false self.
Carl Rogers, the originator of Person-Centred Therapy, emphasized the importance of congruence as one of the core conditions in order to be an effective therapist:
“I have used the term “congruence’ to refer to this accurate matching of experience and awareness. It is when the therapist is fully and accurately aware of what he is experiencing at this moment in this relationship….”
Rogers underlined how a congruent person is easier to be with, to feel safe with:
“We say of such a person that we know “exactly where he stands.” We tend to feel comfortable and secure in such a relationship.With another person we recognise that what he is saying is almost certainly a front or a façade. We wonder what he really feels, what he is really experiencing, behind this façade.”
As Rogers implies, we can often sense when a person is not being their authentic, congruent selves. They do not have the inner peace and relaxed spontaneity of a person who is being genuinely themselves.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
What are your real beliefs, your own values and feelings? How can these be discovered? If you do not tend to express these, do you know what are you afraid of?
Todd Hido – A Burnt Child Seeks The Flame. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
Are you stuck in old feelings, old beliefs, old ways of thinking? So often, these can prevent us from being who we really are and giving a voice to our true selves.
Who Am I Really?
Sándor Hartung – Sári. Saatchi Art. Oil On Canvas. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
In order to be authentic, we need to know who we are. We also need to learn to trust and look after ourselves so that we can feel comfortable in our own skin.
Discovering our real self can be a long and sometimes tortuous journey, but it has immense rewards. How can we achieve self knowledge, which Aristotle called ‘the beginning of all wisdom?’
Some ways to achieve self-knowledge:
- Self Reflection. Take some time out, in a peaceful setting, to really think about who you are, what you want in life, what are your real beliefs, your own truths, your values, what is the meaning of life for you, what are your real passions, whom do you really love…..
Munch. Evening. 1888. Wikimedia Commons.
- Getting feedback and clarity from trusted others. Discussing such issues with well-chosen friends or family members can be very helpful.
- Having counselling or psychotherapy, either individually or in a group. Allowing yourself to get in touch with your true feelings and your real needs.
- Understanding how your past experience may have impacted on the present, and on who you are today. Are you being yourself, or do you tend to voice other people’s principles rather than your own?
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’
- Reading widely, learning from others, gaining from the wisdom in the words of informed and aware people.
Jessica Gordon – A Dark Kind of Angel . Oil on Panel. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
by Erin Hanson
“You are not your age, nor the size of clothes you wear,
You are not a weight, or the color of your hair.
You are not your name, or the dimples in your cheeks.
You are all the books you read, and all the words you speak.
You are your croaky morning voice, and the smiles you try to hide.
You’re the sweetness in your laughter, and every tear you’ve cried.
You’re the songs you sing so loudly when you know you’re all alone.
You’re the places that you’ve been to, and the one that you call home.
You’re the things that you believe in, and the people whom you love.
You’re the photos in your bedroom, and the future you dream of.
You’re made of so much beauty, but it seems that you forgot
When you decided that you were defined by all the things you’re not.”
René Magritte – Reproduction Prohibited . Gandalf’s gallery. Flickr.
“The faking of feelings is a sin against the imagination.”
Lisa Ruyter – International House Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.”
Rachel Moseley – Ahna. Gandalf’s Gallery. Flickr.
“What other people think of me is none of my business.”
© Linda Berman
*therapy patients’ names are not real. All permissions granted to use their stories. Stories are in any case adjusted for anonymity.
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