We long for intimate connections, which are essential for our emotional and physical health. But oftentimes we don’t know how to create the connections we desire. Summoning the courage to reveal what we’re experiencing inside allows people to see us and know us. Showing our authentic heart rather than blaming, attacking, or shaming people allows them to feel safer coming toward us.
Yet, we often have blocks to moving toward the authenticity that would create a fertile climate for warm connections with people. Here are some obstacles I’ve observed in my work as a marriage and family therapist for over 30 years:
Protecting Our Self-Image
Being authentic means being and showing who we really are. Sounds simple, right? But we’re often up against a daunting history of not feeling safe to show our most tender and vulnerable self. Oftentimes we were shamed and rejected whenever we expressed our hurts or fears. Or we got the message that if we’re not sufficiently smart, attractive, athletic, or whatever, then we’re defective and unworthy and need a heap of fixing.
In order to feel valued and welcomed into the human community, we may spend a lifetime trying to change ourselves into a person who others want us to be. We fashion and peddle an image of ourselves that we think others will accept, respect, and love.
Languishing beneath these frantic efforts to be somebody is our authentic self, which is more vulnerable, childlike, and undefended. It takes a gentle mindfulness to affirm ourselves just as we are. And it takes courage to reach out to others from this more authentic place.
Fear of Rejection
Disclosing our authentic heart can be scary. If we offer someone the gift of our tender and authentic self, they might drop it on the ground, leaving us to gather its splattered remains. Painful rejections may have trained us to keep our real feelings and wants inside. This strategy may have kept us safe, but sadly, it also isolates us.
The good news is that we have the capacity to heal from old hurts and betrayals. Self-soothing, which is an important aspect of Self Psychology and DBT, as well as mindfulness practices, enables us to find a self-regulating refuge within ourselves. Self-soothing means being gentle and nurturing toward ourselves — cultivating inner resources that strengthen us in a way that enables us to heal, move forward, and face future challenges with greater equanimity.
The Shame of Being Seen
As much as we long to be recognized and loved, we may be afraid that if people really see, they may be disgusted. If we believe that there is something ugly or distasteful about us, we try to hide ourselves. We may constantly and tirelessly withhold our true feelings, thoughts, and wants — often without being aware that we’re doing this — because we’re convinced that we’re unlovable and undesirable.
Sadly, this shame of being seen holds us back from being and revealing our authentic self. But staying hidden is a setup for isolation and depression. Toxic shame shuts us down and prevents us from moving toward the intimacy that we need and deserve.
Growing up, I remember rarely raising my hand in class to answer a teacher’s question. Fearful that I might be wrong and be laughed at, I took the safer path of staying hidden. But this “safe” path kept me isolated. I felt bad when others were praised for answers that I knew, but kept inside. I began to take more risks to raise my hand as the pain and isolation of remaining hidden became greater than the potential shame of being wrong.
Self-protection, fear, and shame operate in each of us. A path toward authenticity doesn’t mean we eliminate these obstacles, but simply become more aware of when they’re operating. It’s OK to feel anxious or shy to reach out or expose something about ourselves. An interpersonal awkwardness is a part of being human.
Bringing a gentle mindfulness to the anxiety, insecurity, or shame that arise in any moment allows these feelings to settle. We’re then better able to affirm ourselves as we really are and reveal our authentic heart to others.