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How Do I Know When I’m Being Authentic?

We can become so set in our identities that we don't know if we're being us.

Key points

  • Many have lived so long and so hard in their identity that they don’t know anything else.
  • Authenticity can be discovered by beginning to look inside and find out what’s been going on it there.
  • When we are being authentic, we feel congruent, like our head, our hearts, our spirits, and our bodies are all going in the same direction.

Many people fear that if they truly inspect their authentic selves, they won't like what they find. “What if I really am bad at the core?” they ask. And so they fear any process that will take them to their authenticity.

Others think that being authentic means that they get to wear the clothes they want to wear, attend the events they want to attend, and speak to adults the way they want to speak. Still others think that being authentic means rebelling against the social status quo in any way that gets the attention of the status quo. And finally, there are those who think that being authentic means that they get to live in a dysregulated state, with emotions flying everywhere, landing on all the people around them.

There are those who just can’t tell whether they are being their authentic selves or not. Many have lived so long and so hard in their identity that they don’t know anything else and can’t tell what’s going on inside of them. We do not use the word "identity" here as an authentic way of being, but as a role play. We do not speak of the authenticity of gender identity or the identity of a person who comes out as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Those are not roles; they are real authenticity. With the word "identity," we speak of a mask and costume that a person unconsciously wears because they put it on so long ago that they can’t even remember if it's their own or not.

Andrea Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Andrea Mathews

We put these masks and costumes on as a way of introjecting our parents’ and family’s projections. For example, I may grow up with a caretaker identity because my parents are too ill, too inebriated, too mentally ill, too lost in their own troubles to care for themselves or my siblings. They may call out with their projections for me to take care of them, whether they have literally asked for this or not. I unconsciously introject their projections because I need to belong to them to survive. All of this happens when I am way too young to say “no” to their projections.

It is very difficult to take off the mask and costume and to discover something deeper inside. But it can be discovered. It is often discovered first through difficult feelings that finally rise to the surface so that we can feel them. Perhaps the circumstances around us have become so toxic that we finally must begin to see our own part in the dynamic and seek help. The help that we can get here is not meant to make these hard feelings go away or to run from the circumstances. (Though some circumstances in which we are being victimized might require that we seek the safety of a whole new living experience).

Rather, the help is to assist us in beginning to look inside and find out what’s been going on it there. For example, the caretaker, our example above, might begin over time to see resentment begin to rise to the surface. They might come to therapy asking that the therapist help them “get rid of these bad feelings” because these feelings make them feel like a bad person. They shouldn’t have resentment; rather they should be loving, understanding, and compassionate with all the people that they are caring for (even when some of these people don’t need to be cared for).

The assistance, instead, will be helping them to sit with these feelings to allow them to see what these feelings are trying to tell them. For the caretaker, resentment is often trying to tell them that they are doing a lot that is not genuine. They might be engaging in these behaviors because guilt and responsibility pressure them to do so. They may do them because they think that they are bad people if they don’t do them. None of this is genuine passion or compassion.

The caretaker may really care about another person sometimes and truly wish to offer them some assistance. That would be authentic. But when they are doing it because of guilt, obligation, duty, or otherwise ingenuine concerns, they are not being authentic. The telltale sign will be in how it feels.

When we are being authentic, we feel congruent, like our head, our hearts, our spirits, and our bodies are all going in the same direction. We feel grounded. We feel a sense of peace. That will be how we will know we are being authentic. It’s a process of discovery that uncovers these recognitions.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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