Do you know people who pride themselves on being authentic, yet when you walk away from them, you feel badly about yourself and the interaction? Perhaps they’re angry, accusatory, blaming, and shaming, yet they have no clue how they’ve hurt you.
“I tell it like it is,” they proudly declare. “I say exactly what I think. You want me to be honest, right?”
It may be difficult to respond to such declarations of authenticity, even though you sense that something’s amiss. You might think, “Well…sure. I want you to be honest, but your words and tone of voice are wounding me.”
There’s a big difference between being authentic and being obnoxious. True authenticity isn’t about telling people what we think is wrong with them. It’s not about judging, blaming, and shaming others under the banner of being an honest person. Such declarations are actually an escape from authenticity — a defense against vulnerability.
Authenticity is about what we’re experiencing inside. It’s not about our perceptions of another person (“You’re selfish, unavailable, and afraid of conflict”), but rather how we feel internally. Uncovering and expressing how we deeply feel usually involves vulnerability. We’re exposing something tender about ourselves. Perhaps we notice a sense of hurt, sadness, or fear. Or we’re experiencing a longing for gentleness and understanding.
Revealing our feelings and longings takes strength. Attacking people is a common default mode of communication when we feel threatened or hurt. We succumb to the “fight” part of the fight, flight, or freeze response of our autonomic nervous system. Protecting ourselves from a deeper vulnerability, we raise our shields and don’t allow people to get close.
People who are quick to offend others usually are not malicious. They’re just not mindful of what they’re experiencing in the deeper recesses of their being, perhaps because it’s painful or threatening. They’re aware of the tip of the iceberg and act out their surface-level feelings, such as their anger and accusations.
If they could take a moment to pause and bring a courageous awareness to what lies deeper, they might find an unfolding of something more authentic just beneath the surface. Perhaps there’s an insecurity, fear, or powerlessness that’s not easy to allow into consciousness. Perhaps there’s a fear that they might not have all the answers or maybe they’re hurting deep down.
Authenticity involves a process of unlayering. Although not always the case, anger is often the first layer of our authentic experience — our first reaction. If we stop there, we’re not being truly authentic with ourselves. As we contact our underlying feelings, we can respond from there rather than react in knee-jerk fashion.
Our deeper, tender feelings are a large part of what make us human. In our isolated society, we could use more of that — authentic sharing with those whom we want to create trusting relationships. Rather than impulsively acting out what we first notice, we can invite something more to unfold. If we can welcome and befriend the deeper layers of our experience, we may have something more interesting to share — something that touches us, and others, in a more engaging way.
The authenticity that flows from a tender part of the heart is often kinder and more easily heard. Authenticity without gentleness and caring may be disguised brutality. Practicing pausing, going inside, taking a breath, and noticing how we’re feeling in our body before we speak, so we’re more likely to find words that reflect an authenticity that connects us in a more fulfilling way with ourselves and others.