Individuals considered authentic are those who strive to align their actions with their core values and beliefs with the hope of discovering, and then acting in sync with, their true selves. When people act in ways that violate their self-concept, they may experience negative feelings, ranging from mild discomfort to heavy guilt.
There is debate over whether people actually possess an innate self and need to uncover it, or whether the true self is flexible and determined by the choices people make throughout their lives. Defining and measuring the characteristic has proven challenging, but ongoing research aims to pin down the components of authenticity and discover its connections to self-esteem, goal-achievement, coping skills, and an array of other psychological benefits.
The concept is still debated today, but psychologists Michael Kernis and Brian Goldman developed an Authenticity Inventory in 2000 comprised of four key factors:
1. Self-awareness: Knowledge of and trust in one's own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities.
2. Unbiased processing: Clarity in evaluating your strengths and your weaknesses without denial or blame.
3. Behavior: Acting in ways congruent with your own values and needs, even at the risk of criticism or rejection.
4. Relational orientation: Close relationships, which inherently require openness and honesty.
The journey toward authenticity is a lifelong process, but certain time periods may elicit more exploration than others. Adolescents and young adults experiment with friends, partners, hobbies, and jobs to identify what feels right for their present and their future. People in middle age may reflect on their identity, evaluating whether the choices they’ve made thus far, such as in their career and relationships, have provided fulfillment.
The internet has dramatically expanded the capacity for self-expression. But people’s identity on social media sometimes departs from what they view as their true self, or the self they are offline. It can be valuable for those individuals to reflect on whether their social media presence expresses the full range of their identity so that their community or audience can understand them in a way that aligns with their genuine self.
Authenticity is a bedrock of well-being. The trait is correlated with self-esteem, purpose, vitality, and the ability to set and accomplish goals. It’s also linked to coping skills that allow people to navigate life’s challenges in healthy ways, rather than resorting to self-destructive habits such as drugs or alcohol, and it may act as a buffer against the negative effects of loneliness.
Mindfulness refers to being aware of one’s experiences without judgment. Research suggests that people who score higher on surveys of authenticity are also more mindful and emotionally intelligent. This relationship could be bidirectional: Practising mindfulness and learning about emotional intelligence could provide the tools to become more authentic, leading people to think differently and become more observant, accepting, and capable of change.
Being authentic involves the ability to be introspective and understand what motivates oneself. Such accurate self-knowledge can be a double-edged sword, though, if it reveals uncomfortable truths or weaknesses that one would rather not admit. However, advocates of authenticity argue that in the long run, it’s better to be accurate than biased.
Being authentic can also put a person at odds with their larger peer group if their emerging perspective is an unpopular one. However, authentic people wouldn’t look to others for approval or surrender to the social pressures of what they should or shouldn't do. The validation they derive from following an internal compass is sufficient for their mental well-being.
Developing authenticity is an ongoing process. To begin, reflect on your values. What changes can you make to live in accordance with those values? You can observe yourself objectively (pretend that you’re a fly on the wall or assessing someone else) and observe which actions and choices feel authentic and which do not. Examine belief systems that you developed in childhood or ingrained patterns that no longer serve you—understanding the roots of current beliefs can help you move forward.
Genuine people share a few key traits. They tend to take time to develop an opinion and speak their mind, respond to internal expectations rather than external ones, and forge a unique path to fulfill their passion and purpose. They aren’t threatened by failure and can admit their faults. They are often less judgmental of others and have strong self-esteem.
If a person tends to be defensive and self-deceptive, they are likely not being true to themselves. Qualities of inauthentic people include having unrealistic perceptions of reality, looking to others for approval and validation, being judgmental, not thinking things through, not learning from mistakes, and being unable to express emotions clearly or understand their own motivations.
Being authentic requires courage. Revealing your true self could garner disfavor from others, such as by expressing opposing political beliefs or sharing honest feedback with a loved one. It makes you vulnerable to rejection or betrayal. Additionally, authenticity demands tremendous mental energy—the willingness to continually evaluate your values, your options, and your actions.
We are drawn to genuine people—rather than people who simply agree with whatever we say or do—because those who are true to themselves are also likely to be true and honest with us. Authenticity is also associated with many appealing traits, including confidence, strength, individuality, and emotional resilience.