As much as we might value being an authentic person, we may find that we’re not always true to ourselves and authentic with others. Instead of being and showing our authentic self, we may have developed a way of being that attempts to look good, please others, and avoid the pain of embarrassment.
We may fashion a self that’s not really us. This has often been called our false self. As discussed in my book, The Authentic Heart, I prefer to call our “fabricated self.”
Famed psychologist Carl Rogers often urged us to live in manner that he calls “congruent.” This means that what we express is in harmony with what we are feeling inside. If we’re feeling angry or hurting, we acknowledge and honor that; we don’t flash a smile or pretend we’re fine. Being congruent means having the awareness and courage to be emotionally honest and genuine with ourselves, which creates a foundation for being authentic with others.
Authenticity with ourselves and other forms the basis for genuine intimacy with others. We can’t enjoy deep and satisfying connections if we’re not being emotionally honest and authentic.
Why is it so difficult to be authentic and congruent in our lives and relationships? What often shapes and distracts us is the difficult and unacknowledged feeling of shame.
In my psychotherapy practice over the past 40 years, I’ve educated my clients about shame — exploring how shame and fear are often unconscious drivers of behaviors that disserve them. Bringing gentle attention to the sneaky ways that shame shows up is often the first step toward living a more authentic and satisfying life.
Shame — that gnawing sense of being flawed, defective, and unworthy of love — drives us to construct a self that we think (or hope) will be acceptable to others. Being rejected, banished, and humiliated are among the most painful human experiences. We may perpetuate our anxiety and exhaust ourselves trying to use our intelligence to figure out who we need to be in order to win the acceptance and love that we crave. Rather than relax into our natural, authentic self, we twist ourselves into knots in order to belong and feel safe.
When our experience has taught us that it’s not safe to be authentic, we labor long and hard to design and polish a self that we think we be acceptable. For some people, this might be trying to showcase our cleverness, beauty, or sense of humor. For others, it might be amassing wealth or power to show the world how “successful” we’ve become. We may strive to be better than others or special in order to be loved.
Trying to be someone we’re not is exhausting. Many of us have been so driven by shame to create a false self that we’ve lost touch with the goodness and beauty of who we really are.
Shame and Authenticity
Shame and authenticity go hand in hand. If we hold the core belief that we’re flawed, then this mental/emotional construct colors who we are and what we present to the world. Shame conditions us to lose touch with the spontaneous, joyful child within us. Life becomes serious business. Internalizing the message that there’s no room to be our authentic self, with its strengths and limitations, we move away from ourselves. Our sense of self-worth can only grow in a climate of affirming who we are, which includes validating the full range of our feelings and honoring our needs, wants, and human foibles.
As we come to recognize when shame is operating and how it holds us back, it begins to loosen its destructive grip over us. Gradually, we can honor and stand behind ourselves, regardless of how others might judge us. We realize more and more that we have no control over what others think about us. Holding ourselves with respect and dignity becomes increasingly ascendant — displacing our real or imagined thoughts about how we’re being perceived by others. We discover how freeing and empowering it is to be our authentic self.
The limitations of language make it difficult to talk about authenticity. The “authentic self” is really a misnomer. It implies that there is some ideal way of being and that we need to find our authentic self, as if it existed apart from our moment to moment experiencing. If we cling to a construct in our mind about what it means to be our authentic self, we’re missing the point.
Being authentic is a verb, not a noun. It’s a process of mindfully noticing the ever-changing flow of experiencing inside us, apart from the contaminating influences of shame and our inner critic. We give ourselves full permission to notice what we’re feeling, sensing, and thinking in this moment of time — and we’re willing to congruently show that when it feels right to do so.
Shame recedes by flashing the healing light of mindfulness upon it and working with it skillfully. As we recognize that we may have shame, but that we are not the shame — we can more freely spread our wings and enjoy our precious life.