By Karen Wright, published on May 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
It starts innocently enough, perhaps the first time you recognize your own reflection.
You're not yet 2 years old, brushing your teeth, standing on your steppy stool by the bathroom sink, when suddenly it dawns on you: That foam-flecked face beaming back from the mirror is you.
You. Yourself. Your very own self.
It's a revelation—and an affliction. Human infants have no capacity for self-awareness. Then, between 18 and 24 months of age, they become conscious of their own thoughts, feelings, and sensations—thereby embarking on a quest that will consume much of their lives. For many modern selves, the first shock of self-recognition marks the beginning of a lifelong search for the one "true" self and for a feeling of behaving in accordance with that self that can be called authenticity.
A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play, and prayer. Teens and twentysomethings try out friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements to see what fits and what's "just not me." Midlifers deepen commitments to career, community, faith, and family that match their self-images, or feel trapped in existences that seem not their own. Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were "true" to themselves.
Questions of authenticity determine our regard for others, as well. They dominated the presidential primaries: Was Hillary authentic when she shed a tear in New Hampshire? Was Obama earnest when his speechwriters cribbed lines from a friend's oration?
"Americans remain deeply invested in the notion of the authentic self," says ethicist John Portmann of the University of Virginia. "It's part of the national consciousness."
It's also a cornerstone of mental health. Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one's core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs, along with competence and a sense of relatedness.
Yet, increasingly, contemporary culture seems to mock the very idea that there is anything solid and true about the self. Cosmetic surgery, psychopharmaceuticals, and perpetual makeovers favor a mutable ideal over the genuine article. MySpace profiles and tell-all blogs carry the whiff of wishful identity. Steroids, stimulants, and doping transform athletic and academic performance. Fabricated memoirs become best-sellers. Speed-dating discounts sincerity. Amid a clutter of counterfeits, the core self is struggling to assert itself.
"It's some kind of epidemic right now," says Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. "People feel profoundly like they're not living from who they really are, their authentic self, their deepest possibility in the world. The result is a sense of near-desperation."
Psychologists long assumed authenticity was something too intangible to measure objectively. Certainly Michael Kernis did when, around 2000, graduate student Brian Goldman approached him about making a study of individual differences in authenticity.
"I said, 'Well, you can't do that,'" recalls Kernis, a social psychologist at the University of Georgia in Athens, "because nobody thought you could." But the two plunged ahead, reviewing several centuries' worth of philosophical and psychological literature. They came up with a technical description of authenticity as "the unimpeded operation of one's true or core self in one's daily enterprise."
Kernis and Goldman (now at Clayton State University) identified four separate and somewhat concrete components of authenticity that they could measure in a written test. The first, and most fundamental, is self-awareness: knowledge of and trust in one's own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities. Self-awareness encompasses an inventory of issues from the sublime to the profane, from knowing what food you like to how likely you are to quit smoking to whether you're feeling anxious or sad.
Self-awareness is an element of the other three components as well. It's necessary for clarity in evaluating your strengths and (more to the point) your weaknesses: acknowledging when you've flubbed a presentation or when your golf game is off, without resorting to denial or blame. Authenticity also turns up in behavior: It requires acting in ways congruent with your own values and needs, even at the risk of criticism or rejection. And it's necessary for close relationships, because intimacy cannot develop without openness and honesty.
Kernis and Goldman have found that a sense of authenticity is accompanied by a multitude of benefits. People who score high on the authenticity profile are also more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies, rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits. They often report having satisfying relationships. They enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, confidence in mastering challenges, and the ability to follow through in pursuing goals.
Whether authenticity causes such psychological boons or results from them isn't yet clear. But they suggest why people crave authenticity, as those low in authenticity are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.
Considering the psychological payoffs, Kernis and Goldman ask, "Why, then, is not everybody authentic?"
For one thing, pinning down the true self is increasingly difficult. Western philosophers have sought some pure and enduring touchstone of I-ness ever since Socrates began interrogating the citizens of Athens. He famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living—but left vague exactly what insights and actions such inquiry might yield. Aristotle later connected the fruits of self-reflection with a theory of authentic behavior that was not so much about letting your freak flag fly as about acting in accord with the "higher good," which he regarded as the ultimate expression of selfhood.
Spiritual and religious traditions similarly equated authenticity and morality. In the wisdom traditions of Judaism, Portmann points out, "people do the right thing because they see it as an expression of their authentic selfhood." In Christianity, the eternal soul is who you really, truly are; sinners are simply out of touch with their core selves. "The authentic human self is called to be much nobler than what you see on the streets," Portmann says.
Enlightenment philosophers secularized ideas of selfhood, but it took the 20th century's existentialists to question the idea that some original, actual, ultimate self resides within. To them, the self was not so much born as made. One's choice of action creates the self—in Sartre's words, "existence precedes essence." For Heidegger and confreres, authenticity was an attitude: the project of embracing life, constructing meaning, and building character without fooling yourself that your so-called essence matters in any absolute, a priori sense.
"The philosophical question is, do we invent this authentic self?" says Portmann. "Or do we discover it?" Socrates believed we discover it; the existentialists say we invent it.
"There isn't a self to know," decrees social psychologist Roy Baumeister of the University of Florida. Today's psychologists no longer regard the self as a singular entity with a solid core. What they see instead is an array of often conflicting impressions, sensations, and behaviors. Our headspace is messier than we pretend, they say, and the search for authenticity is doomed if it's aimed at tidying up the sense of self, restricting our identities to what we want to be or who we think we should be.
Increasingly, psychologists believe that our notion of selfhood needs to expand, to acknowledge that, as Whitman wrote, we "contain multitudes." An expansive vision of selfhood includes not just the parts of ourselves that we like and understand but also those that we don't. There's room to be a loving mother who sometimes yells at her kids, a diffident cleric who laughs too loud, or a punctilious boss with a flask of gin in his desk. The authentic self isn't always pretty. It's just real.
We all have multiple layers of self and ever-shifting perspectives, contends psychiatrist Peter Kramer. Most of us would describe ourselves as either an introvert or an extrovert. Research shows that although we think of ourselves as one or the other (with a few exceptions), we are actually both, in different contexts. Which face we show depends on the situation. As Kramer puts it, "To which facet of experience must we be 'true'?"
"Whether there is a core self or not, we certainly believe that there is," says social psychologist Mark Leary of Duke University. And the longing to live from that self is real, as is the suffering of those who feel they aren't being true to themselves. Feelings of inauthenticity can be so uncomfortable that people resort to extreme measures to bring their outer lives in alignment with their inner bearings. Portmann notes that people who undergo sex-change operations or gastric-bypass surgeries will say of their new gender or clothing size, "This is who I really am. I'm myself at last." People who experience religious conversion often voice the same conviction, he says.
Likewise, "patients who recover from depression will say, 'I'm back to myself again,'" reports Kramer, author of Listening to Prozac. "You can make the case that people are sometimes able to be more authentic on medication than not."
But most of us experience inauthenticity less dramatically, as vague dissatisfaction, a sense of emptiness, or the sting of self-betrayal. If you've ever complimented the chef on an inedible meal, interviewed for a job you hoped you wouldn't get, or agreed with your spouse just to smooth things over, you know the feeling.
Inauthenticity might also be experienced on a deeper level as a loss of engagement in some—or many—aspects of your life. At the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he often teaches, Stephen Cope opens his programs by asking attendees to reveal their deepest reason for being there. "Eighty percent of the time, people say some variation of: 'I'm here to find my true self, to come home to my true self,' " he reports. That response is as likely to come from young adults struggling to build careers and relationships as from people in midlife reevaluating their choices. "They say, 'Who am I? Now that I've had a decent career and bought a house and had a marriage, I'm still feeling profoundly unfulfilled.'"
Another reason we're not always true to ourselves is that authenticity is not for the faint of heart. There is, Kernis and Goldman acknowledge, a "potential downside of authenticity." Accurate self-knowledge can be painful. When taking a test, it isn't always fun to find out where you score on the grading curve. "Our self-images can be highly biased," Leary notes. "But in the long run, accuracy is almost always better than bias."
Behaving in accord with your true self may also bring on the disfavor of others: Must you admit to being a Democrat when meeting with your conservative clients? Does your wife really want to know whether you like her new dress? "Opening oneself up to an intimate makes one vulnerable to rejection or betrayal," Kernis and Goldman observe. It can feel better to be embraced as an impostor than dumped for the person you really are.
Authenticity also requires making conscious, informed choices based on accurate self-knowledge. Like the existentialists, today's psychologists emphasize the role of active choice in creating an authentic life: a willingness to evaluate nearly everything that you do. That's no mean feat in a culture where even simple acts—you can dye your hair any color you want, your television carries more than 500 channels, and Starbucks advertises more than 87,000 ways to enjoy a cup of coffee—require conscious consideration among alternatives.
Such freedom can be exhausting. Baumeister has found that deliberation, no matter how trivial, exacts a cost in psychic energy, of which we have only a finite amount. His studies show that authentic action demands a certain amount of psychological exertion that depletes the self's executive function. "It's harder to be authentic," he says. "It takes more work."
Leary sees it as an outright burden, part of the perennial longing and doubt that he calls "the curse of the self." So here we are, stuck with our self-awareness, which also compels us to continually define and refine our sense of ourselves as unique individuals against a background of conformity, superficiality, exhibitionism, and lots of other unique individuals.
But wait, there's more. In order to realize an authentic life, says Kernis, one often has to set aside hedonic well-being—the kind of shallow, short-lived pleasure we get from, say, acquiring things—for eudaimonic well-being, a deeper, more meaningful state in which gratification is not usually immediate. Sissies need not apply.
The fact is that we tend to flourish under the most challenging circumstances, and enduring the pain and confusion that often accompany them can bring out the best—and most authentic—in us, fostering such deeply satisfying qualities as wisdom, insight, and creativity. But our cultural climate is filled with an alluring array of distractions, from online gambling to video games, that often turn out to be junk food for the mind.
But the really hard work, according to Cope and others, is the amount of ego-wrangling required to contact the core self. One of the biggest barriers to authentic behavior, he says, is the arbitrary and rigid self-image that so many of us nurture but which in fact distorts experience and limits self-knowledge. "Oftentimes, the very first line of defense you get with the folks who say, 'I'm leading an inauthentic life,' is that they're living life according to a fixed set of views and beliefs about how they should be."
A man at a dinner party admits that he married his first wife "because, well, you have to get married sometime, right?" (Actually, you don't.) A composer who sets music to blockbuster films complains that they are too commercial, but is unwilling to forego such movies' wide audiences and big paychecks for work on more meaningful projects. In each case, the individual may be guided by unexamined assumptions about what constitutes responsibility, satisfaction, even success.
Kernis contends that we each acquire a mixed set of shoulds, oughts, and have-to's while still too young to process them. They are neither fully conscious nor deeply considered but are acquired through convention and the expectations of others. Getting beyond these arbitrary strictures often demands the kind of soul-searching that most of us put off or avoid entirely. In fact, much of the work that people do in cognitive and behavioral therapy is to hold such beliefs up to the light and examine where they came from, a necessary step to resolving the anxiety or depression they typically create and that drive people to seek help.
"Jung says the first thing you should do is take a look at those things that are dark in you, the things that are problematical, that you don't like," says psychotherapist and former monk Thomas Moore, author of A Life at Work. "You have to be willing to look at things that don't fit snugly into the image you have of what you would like to be."
Becoming authentic, then, means accepting not only contradiction and discomfort but personal faults and failures as well. Problematic aspects of our lives, emotions, and behaviors—the times we've yelled at the kids, lusted after the babysitter, or fallen back on our promises to friends—are not breaches of your true self, Moore insists. They're clues to the broader and more comprehensive mystery of selfhood. "In fact," he notes, "we are all very subtle and very complex, and there are forces and resources within us that we have no control over. We will never find the limits of who we are.
"People carry around a heavy burden of not feeling authentic," he says, "because they have failed marriages and their work life hasn't gone the way it should, and they've disappointed everybody, including themselves. When people think of these as just failures, as opposed to learning experiences, they don't have to feel the weight of their lives or the choices they've made. That disowning creates a division that becomes the sense of inauthenticity."
Kernis' studies show that people with a sense of authenticity are highly realistic about their performance in everything from a game of touch football to managing the family business. They're not defensive or blaming of others when they meet with less success than they wanted.
Eastern spiritual traditions have long furnished ways to glimpse the messiness of the self, and to view with detachment the vicissitudes of mind and emotion that roil human consciousness. Buddhism takes the self in all its variability as the principal subject of contemplation; the yogic tradition accords self-study great importance.
The Hindu Bhagavad Gita suggests we also have a duty to act: to realize our full potential in the world, to construct or discover a unique individuality, and thereby to live authentically. You have to "discern your own highly idiosyncratic gifts, and your own highly idiosyncratic calling," Cope elaborates. "Real fulfillment comes from authentically grappling with the possibility inside you, in a disciplined, concentrated, focused way."
That lesson isn't confined to Eastern spirituality. In The Way of Man, philosopher Martin Buber relates a Hasidic parable about one Rabbi Zusya, a self-effacing scholar who has a deathbed revelation that he shares with the friends keeping vigil at his side. "In the next life, I shall not be asked: 'Why were you not more like Moses?'" he says. "I shall be asked: 'Why were you not more like Zusya?'"