(About a 30 minute read)
Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Zusya, what’s the matter?”
And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”
The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”
Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”
Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”
— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim
If a wily pirate could hide his gold anywhere — even somewhere fanciful — he’d be wise to hide it beneath a cliché, because almost no one digs very deep beneath a cliché. They are the nearly perfect mask for whatever truths they might express. I believe it was Hegel who somewhere said, “Precisely because something is obvious, it is not at all well known”.
It is also easy to ridicule clichés. I think that might be because, over time, they accumulate so many different interpretations of them that you’re sure to find a few that are ridiculous. “Be true to yourself” is no exception. “Hi! I’m Ronnie, the successful author and self-help guru who is here to help revolutionize your life! If you’re like me, you have wondered at times: Is the feeling I have of something moving deep down inside me calling me to a new life, or is it just intestinal gas, and is there a difference? Well, you’re in luck! Now you, too, can be true to yourself, discover your inner purpose in life, and improve your bowl movements, all for the low low price of $29.95! Simply call…”. Yet, the notion that one should be true to him- or herself is unlikely to go away.
For one thing, it seems even those who make the most fun of the notion feel just as much disappointment as nearly everyone else when they fail to be true to themselves. Simply apply for a job you don’t want, but need: it’s only human to feel “this isn’t right for me”. Marry the wrong person, same feeling multiplied. Just sucking up to someone is likely to induce such feelings to some extent. For many of us, something as slight as wearing the “wrong” clothing can trip our sense of self — and regardless of what we think of the cliché itself.
It runs deeper than that, though. Infants are born incapable of self awareness, but then, generally between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they develop a sense of self. For the rest of their childhood, they are defining and re-defining that sense of self. “Mommie, I’m not like that!”
During adolescence and young adulthood, the search for self intensifies. The “13 to 30 group” is in some ways even more experimental than children in defining and re-defining their sense of self. At times they seem to test everything — fashions, music, literature, hobbies, jobs, even friends and lovers — against the standard of “is it me or not me”.
Midlife seems to be a time when most of us deepen our commitments to things that match our self-images — or feel trapped in lives that seem not our own. It is often during midlife that many people, perhaps for the first time, see with some clarity just how powerfully their upbringing influenced or determined their sense of self, and how much their sense of self has had to do with their choices in life.
During our elder years [Author’s note to loyal reader Teresums: I’m not there yet, Teresums. So shuddup!], we tend to become increasingly reflective, and our reflections so often turn to whether we lived true to ourselves. These reflections can become especially poignant as we lay dying. Bronnie Ware is an Australian author who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying. Typically, she was with a patient for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
“Be true to yourself” is a cliché, but it seems to be one cliché that’s well worth digging into.
Why be true to oneself?
But why should one try to be true to oneself — apart from merely trying to avoid being disappointed in old age? As it turns out, being true to oneself, or authenticity, correlates well with life satisfaction and a sense of well-being. That’s not only psychological well-being, but physical well-being, too.
In addition, it fulfills the human desire to stand out a bit from others. And it also correlates with greater realism, mindfulness, vitality, self-esteem, goal pursuits, and coping skills. In contrast, those who score relatively low on psychological tests of authenticity “…are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.”
Beyond those points, authenticity seems to be an absolute requirement for a genuinely intimate relationship. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be loved for who you are when you are, in fact, hiding who you are.
Last, there is a subtle, but still observable beauty to authentic people. I don’t know whether this is evident to everyone — aesthetic things tend not to be — but I myself at least have noticed that people who are mostly true to themselves tend not only to radiate a sort of beauty (and charisma), but they also tend to be inspiring, even at times liberating, to be around. And these qualities do not seem to depend on their physical appearance per se. I’ve noticed these things in conventionally plain or ordinary, and in conventionally pretty or handsome, people both.
Living as authentically as ethically possible can have it’s downsides — for instance, it might alienate us from folks who fail to approve of our real selves — but it certainly has its upsides too.
What are the obstacles to being true to oneself?
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. –Oscar Wilde
As it happens, there are more obstacles to being true to oneself than there are reasons to be so. One of the biggest of those obstacles is the fact that so many of us have quite rigid and inflexible notions of ourselves. Notions that at the very least hamper our understanding of who really are. I have written extensively on that issue here. A second, and I think, equally important obstacle can be broadly summed up as “society and/or culture”.
“Society and culture” cover quite a number of things. Obviously, social pressure to conform is among those things. Also among those things are the various ideas and expectations of who we should or should not be.
It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others. Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small. A friend of mine — someone I very much admire — is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own. And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family’s fundamentalist religion.
For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.
Today she is discovering — one step at a time — her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are. It is easy to tell such a person, “Be true to yourself”. But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.
Yet, we do not need to be first abused — as she was — before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that — the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves — but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves. We are social animals. Profoundly social animals. Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list dozens of ways in which our noble species of poo-flinging apes manifests its social nature.
It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship. When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.
Yet, our social nature can be turned on us to alienate us from ourselves. If nearly anyone of us could list dozens ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list hundreds of ways in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone’s expectations.
The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder. ― Jim Morrison
Closely related to the sometimes alienating influence other people’s expectations can have on us is the fact that authenticity can bring on the judgement and condemnation of others. I have found that the people most likely to object to someone behaving authentically are those nearest the person who, under certain circumstances, might perceive such behavior as a threat to their relationship with the person. Suppose, for instance, that you had gone years without really being very true to yourself. Then you start changing. That can cause quite a bit of consternation among the people who have up until then relied on your false front. In my experience, though, if you’ve always been down to earth with someone, they are more likely to be attracted to your authenticity than concerned by it.
Authenticity crucially depends on accurate self-knowledge. Yet, self-knowledge is something many of us would prefer not to have too much of. We like the “good parts”, the fact we can be kind, intelligent, industrious, creative, witty, honest, and so forth. But we wish to ignore or deny the rest of it, the fact that we can also be cruel, petty, malicious, cunning, lying, cheating, and so forth. If we are very good at denial, then we’ve never done any of those latter things at all!
Yet, authenticity not only requires us to be honest with ourselves, it also tends to eventually require of us to do something far more difficult than be honest. There can come a day when it requires us to accept ourselves as we are, without condemnation or praise. For any kind of judgement, in the end, distorts what we see. Ultimately, the surest knowledge of ourselves comes from seeing ourselves as dispassionately and non-judgmentally as we might look at the tree in our neighbor’s yard, with the eyes not of a moralist, but of a sage. This, however, is extraordinarily difficult.
The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. ― Jiddu Krishnamurti
There are other obstacles to being true to oneself, but those seem to me the most mentionable. (Consequently, I have mentioned them. You can trust me to do things like that.) I think becoming aware of the obstacles is a step towards surmounting them.
What is the self?
It is one thing to say, “Be true to yourself”, but what is the self that one should be true to? “Who am I?”, is perhaps the second oldest question on earth, next only to, “Why the hell did we elect that guy?”
Perhaps the most popular Western notion of the self — the notion most of us in the West would subscribe to today were we asked about it — is that we have some essential core, some single, stable core self, that makes us, us, and that is more or less constant through-out our lives. In some profound sense, we are born, live, and die the same person. In Western philosophy, for instance, that notion dates at least all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago. The Christian and Muslim concepts of the soul reflect it. It is not, however, an ubiquitous notion.
In Japan, for instance, there are many people who believe the self is like an onion. You can delve deeper and deeper into it, layer after layer, until you reach — not a core, for an onion has no proper core — but nothingness. The peoples of at least several Native American nations were accustomed to change their names more or less periodically through-out their lives to reflect the changes they had undergone in themselves (as were some Japanese). And not even every ancient Greek believed in a permanent core self. As Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Near as I can see, Walt Whitman was getting at the truth when, in Song of Myself, he proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes”. And I think Anaïs Nin must have been seeing much the same thing as Whitman when she said, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”
The self, simply observed, and without analyzing it further than to observe it, seems to resemble nothing so much as a mess: Layer upon layer of often conflicting memories, sensations, impressions, ideas, desires, fears, emotions, sentiments, and behaviors
unified only by a constant current of horniness running though-out all of it.
But a messy self fails to satisfy most of us, who seem to think of ourselves in the old way when it comes to being true to ourselves. Ask a person who he or she is, authentically is, and they do not usually respond, “a contradictory, incoherent multitude”, unless of course, they’re either drunk or are for the first time in their lives asking someone out on a date.
I think so. What is necessary is to look for factors — such as behaviors, emotions, etc. — that can be considered “traits” in the sense of being sustained across situations and at least somewhat over time.
A good example of a trait might be a talent or aptitude for something, such as music, athletics, mathematics, and so forth. Generally, talents seem to endure through-out life. The skills built on them can fade with disuse, but the talent itself — the predisposition or aptitude for something — seems to last.
Another example might be how consciousness basically works. Here, I do not mean one’s fleeting awarenesses, which come, shift, and go moment to moment, but rather the fundamental workings of consciousness. For instance, consciousness quite often ranks things according to some measure of superiority or inferiority. It can be barely noticeable that it does this, but it does it rather frequently. On my way to the store today, a homeless man introduced himself to me with the words, “You look like Arlo Guthrie!”
The first thing my consciousness did was pat itself on the back for being compared to such a distinguished gentleman, but some part of it also noted that the homeless man didn’t mention an even more distinguished gentleman than Mr. Guthrie. What? I don’t rank a Brad Pitt? There are fundamental, predictable ways in which consciousness works. Just as I consider consciousness itself a trait of my core self, I also consider its basic workings traits of my core self.
A third example of our core traits might be any reasonably enduring desires and fears we have, such as a desire for fame, health, money, or to be favorably compared to Brad Pitt. Such desires need not last a lifetime for us to consider them part of our true selves during at least some phase of our lives. They are, however, more likely to change over time than, say, our talents.
To say that our core or true selves are comprised of traits is to imply that more fleeting or limited behaviors, emotions, sensations, ideas, etc. are not actually our core or true selves. That only seems to make sense to me. We all have moments, days, and even longer periods when we are “not ourselves”, meaning we are feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that are uncharacteristic of us. That are not traits of us.
What does it mean to be true to ourselves?
Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. — Meister Eckhart
When I recall the appearance of various people in my life, I seem to remember some for their smiles, some for their laughter, others for their bodies, still others for the voices, and so on. But Paul Mundschenk I remember for his shrug.
It was a shrug that I once described as “hinting of nature’s perfect indifference, but without any coldness”, and I still think that’s a pretty good description of it. As I recall, Mundschenk, who was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, was especially apt to shrug when anyone said something to him about himself. “Thank you, Dr. Mundschenk, that was very kind of you!” Shrug. His words would say, “You’re welcome”, but his shrug would say, “I’m more or less indifferent to myself”.
Most of us, when we’re in our teens, can detect a fake from across a room. We might not know how we ourselves can be authentic (largely, I think, because we don’t yet know ourselves well enough) but we can sure tell when someone is faking it. As teens, we tend to have little sympathy for fakes. Especially adult fakes.
We still think that, the older you get, the truer to yourself you are able to become, as if being true to yourself were as easy as growing into new privileges, such as staying up late, or getting to borrow Dad’s car. It hasn’t occurred to us yet that most adults are under tremendous, sustained pressure to be false to themselves. Nor has it usually occurred to us that we will soon enough feel those pressures too.
If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Paul Mundschenk never grew up. That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.
Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man. He was anything but confrontational. Anything but contrary.
There are people who are naturally contrary, or naturally defiant, and they are often mistaken for being authentic, even exceptionally authentic. But their “authenticity” is more of a reaction to others, an opposition to them. True authenticity comes not in reaction to others, but comes from oneself, and comes irregardless of others.
Rather than being some sort of defiance, Mundschenk’s notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any masks or airs. He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform, if that wasn’t what he already wanted to do.
What then, was at the heart of Mundschenk’s authenticity? For our purposes here, we may define being true to oneself, or authenticity, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true- or core-self in one’s daily enterprise”.
The definition is not my own, but comes from the work of Micheal Kernis and Brian Goldman, two of the most notable pioneers in the psychology of authenticity. Kernis and Goldman believe that authenticity is comprised of four components:
- Awareness: Accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge along with a willingness to learn more.
- Unbiased processing: Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information, be the source internal or external.
- Behavior: Acting on the basis of one’s internal values, needs, and preferences, and not as a consequence of any external goals.
- Relational Orientation: Revealing one’s true self in close relationships.
There can be no such thing as a step-by-step guide to how to become more authentic. The process is too variable, too much dependent on the individual involved. Yet, I believe Kernis’ and Goldman’s “four components” offer a generalized point of departure for us.
First, authenticity is virtually impossible without we know ourselves. Unless we have accurate, up to date knowledge of who we are, very little else can be accomplished.
That’s not to say we will ever completely know ourselves. I don’t think that’s even possible. But we can we can usually get a fair understanding of ourselves, an understanding sufficient to guide us in being true to ourselves. A key thing is to keep it up to date, stay open to changing our self-image as we ourselves change.
Some people prefer to introspect in order to discover themselves, but I have found introspection to be unreliable. For every genuine fact about myself that I’ve discovered through introspection, I’ve discovered a dozen things that merely had the misleading appearance of fact. Better than introspection for me has been to as dispassionately as possible watch how my consciousness responds in relationship to the things in my environment, very much including the people.
If that is difficult for you to do, it can be made easier by keeping a daily journal for a month or so in which you write down your thoughts, feelings, and behavior towards the things in your environment whenever you have an opportunity to do so. Be as comprehensive and as honest as you can be. Then review the journal each evening. You will soon enough see patterns emerge, insights you’ve never had before, and your understanding of yourself will most likely be multiplied (unless your attention is divided. Division, as everyone knows, is the opposite of multiplication).
Second, as much as decency and your circumstances will permit, act according to your own needs, wants, desires, preferences, and values. Avoid, if possible, acting according to the expectations, preferences, etc of others. Again, this can require a great deal of self-knowledge to accomplish.
Last, if you do not already have friends with whom you can be yourself, find and cultivate such friendships. This is more important than it might sound at first. For one thing, it can be difficult getting to know yourself if you do not have in your life anyone you can be open and revealing with. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I discuss some aspects of this matter more fully here.
If you are unfortunate enough to be in a “close” relationship with someone who you do not feel comfortable being yourself with, seriously consider distancing yourself, or even ending the relationship. Do not be afraid of being lonely for awhile. In my experience, there is no greater loneliness than that felt when in a relationship with someone who fundamentally rejects you. You are most likely already feeling as lonely as you’ll ever feel being by yourself.
Self-knowledge, self-directed behavior, and appropriate relationships are all key to being true to ourselves.
The Limits of Being True to Yourself and the Nature of Abuse
The ideal adult human in my view is an authentic, functional individual who is socially and environmentally responsible. Social and environmental responsibility potentially place restraints or limits on his or her authenticity. I see those limits as necessary, even though they might amount to alienations of oneself. Otherwise, a serial killer, say, might justify their crimes as “being true to themselves”. But I have written more about that here.
Also in my alarming opinion, the very heart and core nature of all manner of abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — is to unnecessarily alienate us, or tend to unnecessarily alienate us, from our true selves. I haven’t written much on that elsewhere, so I can’t link you to anything. At least not yet. You are so lucky!
Authenticity or being true to oneself is not for the faint hearted. It can be a taxing and difficult road to travel requiring sacrifices, the least of which might be estrangement from folks who disapprove of you, the real you. However, I have found that such things are far easier to take and cope with when you are being true to yourself than when you are being false and they reject you anyway.
That seems to me to tie into something else I’ve noticed: When we do our best — which varies from time to time — we regret failures so much less than when we fail while “slacking off”. This seems true to me not only in accomplishing tasks, but in such things as far afield as romantic love. And I suspect something of the same principle is at work with authenticity. When we are being authentic, we are inevitably doing our best.
In this single blog post I have tried to offer up my ideas about the reasons why we try to be authentic, the major obstacles to our being authentic, the nature of our core self, the meaning of authenticity, and a hint of the limits to being authentic.
Naturally, there is so much more to it — all of it — than can be covered in a mere blog post, even a long one. Anyone interested in more of my own writings on the subject can find some of them linked to here. I would suggest Danielle Goes to an Erotic Dance Club as a good place to start because it provides a relatively unique, out-of-the-box perspective on authenticity.
Thank you for reading! Please feel warmly invited to comment on this post! I would love to hear your own thoughts and feelings about authenticity!