From The Gifts of Imperfection
Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want. (Margaret Young)
Before I started doing my research, I always thought of people as being either authentic or inauthentic. Authenticity was simply a quality that you had or that you were lacking. I think that’s the way most of us use the term: “She’s a very authentic person.” But as I started immersing myself in the research and doing my own personal work, I realized that, like many desirable ways of being, authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice – a conscious choice of how we want to live.
Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.
There are people who consciously practice being authentic, there are people who don’t, and there are the rest of us who are authentic on some days and not so authentic on other days. Trust me, even though I know plenty about authenticity and it’s something I work toward, if I am full of self-doubt or shame, I can sell myself out and be anybody you need me to be.
The idea that we can choose authenticity makes most of us feel both hopeful and exhausted. We feel hopeful because being real is something we value. Most of us are drawn to warm, down-to-earth, honest people, and we aspire to be like that in our own lives. We feel exhausted because without even giving it too much thought, most of us know that choosing authenticity in a culture that dictates everything from how much we’re supposed to weigh to what our houses are supposed to look like is a huge undertaking.
Given the magnitude of the task at hand – be authentic in a culture that wants you to “fit in” and “people-please” – I decided to use my research to develop a definition of authenticity that I could use as a touchstone. What is the anatomy of authenticity? What are the parts that come together to create an authentic self? Here’s what I developed:
Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.
Choosing authenticity means:
- cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable;
- exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and
- nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.
Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.
Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.
You’ll notice that many of the topics from the ten guideposts are woven throughout the definition. That theme will repeat itself throughout this book. All of the guideposts are interconnected and related to each other. My goal is to talk about them individually and collectively. I want us to explore how each of them works on its own and how they fit together. We’ll spend the rest of the book unpacking terms like perfection so that we can understand why they’re so important and what often gets in our way of living a Wholehearted life.
Choosing authenticity is not an easy choice. E. E. Cummings wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.” “Staying real” is one of the most courageous battles that we’ll ever fight.
When we choose to be true to ourselves, the people around us will struggle to make sense of how and why we are changing. Partners and children might feel fearful and unsure about the changes they’re seeing. Friends and family may worry about how our authenticity practice will affect them and our relationship with them. Some will find inspiration in our new commitment; others may perceive that we’re changing too much – maybe even abandoning them or holding up an uncomfortable mirror.
It’s not so much the act of authenticity that challenges the status quo – I think of it as the audacity of authenticity. Most of us have shame triggers around being perceived as self-indulgent or self-focused. We don’t want our authenticity to be perceived as selfish or narcissistic. When I first started mindfully practicing authenticity and worthiness, I felt like every day was a walk through a gauntlet of gremlins. Their voices can be loud and unrelenting:
- “What if I think I’m enough, but others don’t?”
- “What if I let my imperfect self be seen and known, and nobody likes what they see?”
- “What if my friends/family/co-workers like the perfect me better; you know, the one who takes care of everything and everyone?”
Sometimes, when we push the system, it pushes back. The pushback can be everything from eye rolls and whispers to relationship struggles and feelings of isolation. There can also be cruel and shaming responses to our authentic voices. In my research on authenticity and shame, I found that speaking out is a major shame trigger for women. Here’s how the research participants described the struggle to be authentic:
- Don’t make people feel uncomfortable but be honest.
- Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings but say what’s on your mind.
- Sound informed and educated but not like a know-it-all.
- Don’t say anything unpopular or controversial but have the courage to disagree with the crowd.
I also found that men and women struggle when their opinions, feelings, and beliefs conflict with our culture’s gender expectations. For example, research on the attributes that we associate with “being feminine” tells us that some of the most important qualities for women are thin, nice, and modest. That means if women want to play it totally safe, we have to be willing to stay as small, quiet, and attractive as possible.
When looking at the attributes associated with masculinity, the researchers identified these as important attributes for men: emotional control, primacy of work, control over women, and pursuit of status. That means if men want to play it safe, they need to stop feeling, start earning, and give up on meaningful connection.
The thing is authenticity isn’t always the safe option. Sometimes choosing being real over being liked is all about playing it unsafe. It means stepping out of our comfort zone. And trust me, as someone who has stepped out on many occasions, it’s easy to get knocked around when you’re wandering through new territory.
It’s easy to attack and criticize someone while he or she is risk-taking – voicing an unpopular opinion or sharing a new creation with the world or trying something new that he or she hasn’t quite mastered. Cruelty is cheap, easy, and rampant. It’s also chicken-shit. Especially when you attack and criticize anonymously – like technology allows so many people to do these days.
As we struggle to be authentic and brave, it’s important to remember that cruelty always hurts, even if the criticisms are untrue. When we go against the grain and put ourselves and our work out in the world, some people will feel threatened and they will go after what hurts the most – our appearance, our lovability, and even our parenting.
The problem is that when we don’t care at all what people think and we’re immune to hurt, we’re also ineffective at connecting. Courage is telling our story, not being immune to criticism. Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.
If you’re like me, practicing authenticity can feel like a daunting choice – there’s risk involved in putting your true self out in the world. But I believe there’s even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don’t just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. I think we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.
Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think just isn’t worth it. Yes, there can be authenticity growing pains for the people around us, but in the end, being true to ourselves is the best gift we can give the people we love. When I let go of trying to be everything to everyone, I had much more time, attention, love, and connection for the important people in my life. My authenticity practice can be hard on Steve and the kids – mostly because it requires time, energy, and attention. But the truth is that Steve, Ellen, and Charlie are engaged in the same struggle. We all are.