I can’t imagine many people aspire to be or be seen as fakes or phonies. Most of us clamor for some degree of authenticity in the way we live, the way we are perceived and from the people with whom we surround ourselves. To be authentic has a positive connotation, related to truthfulness, self-awareness, and sincerity. We think of authentic people as embracing their true selves and presenting themselves as they are; no games, no pretense. What you see is what you get. By contrast, we typically criticize those who seem to take on a phony persona, do things for show, or present contrived lives on social media platforms. We generally don’t like frauds and don’t want to be them. But is it always good and necessary to be authentic and, more importantly, do we even have a clear sense of what that actually means?

Authenticity is one of the current buzzwords. We want to purchase authentic goods, eat authentic foods and live authentic lives. It’s also a core value. Studies suggest that individuals who embrace their true selves report higher levels of happiness, reduced stress, and a more profound sense of life satisfaction. Living authentically enhances our connections with self and others and to benefit our mental health. It has even been linked to resilience and brain health. It seems to be a good thing.

Authenticity is Not…

So what does it actually mean to be authentic? It means being self-aware and behaving in a manner that is true to yourself, specifically, to your beliefs. On a simple level, it means aligning external behavior with internal values. But it’s more complex and nuanced than that. It may be easier to consider what authenticity is not than what it is. Being authentic does not mean being so true to yourself that you say everything on your mind in the name of honesty. Authenticity requires balancing truth-telling with what’s appropriate in any given context. It isn’t an excuse to be cruel.

And authenticity does not mean bearing your soul indiscriminately. Many of want to be “real”, but none of us really show our whole selves to anyone. When my dog died in February, it struck me that I lost the one being on this earth who saw me wholly and entirely as I am. We live in varying shades of secrecy, if you will. Each of us cultivates the self we present to each person in our path. We don’t show all of our sides or share all of our secrets with anyone. Authenticity does not require total transparency. Over-sharing is a choice, not a requirement.

Authenticity is not an all or nothing proposition. There seem to be elements of choice, balance, and self-reflection in the mix. You cannot be authentic without being self-aware and it is only in knowing yourself that you can choose how to outwardly express who you are in a balanced, measured way. When you shout, “I’ve just got to be me!” it’s about more than saying it like you mean it, it’s about saying it like you understand it fully. Like everything else in life, mindfulness helps. Our core values are ingrained but our true selves may well change over time. Mindful self reflection keeps us up to date so we can know and understand ourselves as we grow.

I can’t help but wonder why, despite how much we authentically wish to be authentic, we often feel like we’re imposters on the brink of exposure?

Authentic Imposters

Imposter syndrome is typically, though certainly not exclusively, linked to the workforce. It presents as a nagging and sinking feeling that you’re not equipped for the job you’ve taken on and a fear that your inadequacy or, worse, your incompetency, will be discovered. A startling 75% of women executives experience it. Though, for a long time, it was thought to affect primarily women, it turns out imposter syndrome is gender-neutral. I suspect women just admit it more freely and talk about it more openly.

Many of the smartest and most exceptional women I know have experienced imposter syndrome. Curiously, they’re also among the most authentic people I know. As coach and author Alison Shamir puts it, “The irony of Imposter Syndrome is that it only impacts capable, talented, skilled, motivated and ambitious people. Not the real “frauds” in the world.” Authenticity and Imposter Syndrome are far from mutually exclusive. It takes a measure of authenticity to experience feeling like an imposter in the first place and it takes even more authenticity to combat those negative feelings.

At the root of Imposter Syndrome is an unrealistic standard of competence. I believe Authenticity Aspiration is challenging for a lot of people because of the way it, too, often presupposes an unrealistic standard of competence. By unrealistic standard of competence, I really mean perfectionism. It’s hard to connect with your authentic self when you think it should be something more, less, or other than you are. So the real trick in all of this is remembering that perfect is not a thing while you are the real deal as you are. And real deals are worth knowing.

Thinking and Trying

Something to think about: “You cannot represent cool. You’ve got to be cool. You’ve got to be authentic. I think, after all these years, that is how I define cool. It is being authentic. That is powerful.” – Henry Winkler

Something to try: Sometimes it’s helpful to check ourselves and take an inventory. Are you living in close alignment with your values? Try this authenticity exercise and find out:

  • Write down all the values you hold.
  • Circle the 3-5 that are most important to you.
  • For each of these, write down three or more actions that define what it would mean for you to live these values. 
  • Now, write down one thing you have done that does not reflect each of your top 3-5 values.
  • Next, write down what you could do differently next time.

Coaching Can Help

Some people know their core values cold. For others, it can be overwhelming to distill what matters most. A coach can help guide you through the process of visioning your future healthy self and identifying the values aligned with your vision. Sign up for a free 15 minute discovery call and let’s talk about what we can do together.

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