Being your authentic self can feel risky now in our screen-obsessed world. We’re just trying to fit in, be liked, and be accepted by other human beings. And as a result, the images we present (on our social media profiles and IRL) have become mere presentations of who we think we should be and not reflections of who we really are. So how do we take off the mask we've been wearing and start to live a life of authenticity?
How to Develop Authenticity
Being authentic means that you act in ways that show your true self and how you feel. Rather than showing people only a particular side of yourself, you express your whole self genuinely. That means to succeed in being authentic, you first have to know who your true self actually is. And this requires self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-acceptance.
Why Authenticity Matters
After spending the last year researching and writing my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, and Connection IRL, I'm now convinced that it's harder for us to be our true selves now, in the technology age. We are constantly bombarded with media that tells us who to be, what to want, and how we "should" express ourselves. All of these influences slow chip away at our ability to be our authentic selves.
But by being someone you are not, you are telling yourself that who you really are isn’t okay. So hiding or suppressing who you really are can end up leaving you feeling lonely, disconnected from others, or even worthless.
How We Lost Our Authenticity
We are constantly balancing inner and outer aspects of ourselves in order to better fit in, to become more successful, or to find love. We are driven to find “our place” in society, and we want to be respected for who we truly are and what we have to contribute. Many of us are propelled even further, desiring to know and live our purpose, to find deeper meaning in our lives, and to feel the fulfillment that comes with becoming a more authentic person.
But at the same time, we live in a society that values superficiality, strives for perfection, and defines success as by the dollars in our bank account and not by how well we live our values every day. So how are we to be authentic in spite of the messages that try to convince us to be someone else?
Why Overcoming Inauthenticity Is So Hard
We were molded as children by our parents, teachers, religions, peers, and society to "fit in." As a result, we developed beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that keep us acting in the ways we were taught to act—not in the ways that make us feel like our authentic selves.
This version of ourselves can be thought of as the "Adaptive Self"—the self that prioritizes fitting in, getting along, and generally doing what we're told. This self is not without value and purpose—it helps us be functioning members of society. But if you're feeling inauthentic, the Adaptive Self is running your life.
To reclaim your authenticity, you need to discover your “Authentic Self”—the self that prioritizes living according to your values, pursuing your purpose, and fighting for the causes you care about. For most of us, our Authentic Self is buried deep in our unconscious, where it remains hard to identify and let out.
How to Develop Authenticity
Here are some tips to help you find and express your authentic self.
1. Observe yourself objectively to develop authenticity. Learn to observe yourself like a fly on the wall. Watch yourself as you live in the present moment, observing how your “Adaptive Self” behaves, what it believes, how it reacts under pressure, and how it responds to challenges. Practice noticing which of these responses feel authentic, and which ones feel inauthentic. By identifying which responses are adaptive vs authentic, you can begin to notice the falseness and begin to see the glimmers of truth underneath.
2. Examine family belief systems to develop authenticity. Most people were raised in some sort of "family-style" environment during their earliest, most vulnerable years. Think back to episodes in your childhood, episodes that led you to stop being your authentic self and instead adopt some other way of existing in this world. By examining where our behaviors come from, we can learn a lot about our authentic selves.
3. Open a dialogue between the Adaptive Self and the Authentic Self. Invite the two aspects of yourself—the Adaptive Self and the Authentic Self—to have a discussion as part of a meditation or thought exercise. Respectfully introduce both: Thank the Adaptive Self for helping you function through some difficult and confusing times, and thank the Authentic Self for helping you feel whole, real, and self-confident.
Now invite each part of yourself to share. Ask a question, mentally, while urging each side to express itself fully, and then listen patiently to the responses. Encourage dialogue so that you may comprehend both points of view.
Try to be open to what both sides have to say, as they may reveal things you're not expecting. For example, the Authentic Self may be afraid of rejection and therefore afraid to come forward. Or your Adaptive Self may be caretaking, trying to protect you from feeling hurt in the ways you've been hurt in the past. These parts of ourselves are running our lives this way for a reason. In this exercise, try to figure out what those reasons are. This may help you understand why you act the way you do, so you can decide if you truly want to act differently.
4. Identify discrepancies to develop authenticity. Try to become aware of discrepancies between your actions and your beliefs. If you catch yourself making a racist, sexist, or otherwise hurtful remark, ask yourself whether you really believe the words you speak. Are you just saying these things because someone else taught you to?
Remember, the Adaptive Self just wants to fit in. So it can often act in ways that are inconsistent with our authentic selves. This is normal. But if we want to be more authentic, we have to notice the address the discrepancies between our beliefs and our actions.
If you acknowledge what is true for you now, then you can better live your life according to the needs of your Authentic Self. But that kind of authenticity requires self-awareness and self-honesty.
5. Examine your doubts to develop authenticity. When exploring your Authentic Self, you may feel unsure of how to go about it. You may question whether it's even possible to change what feels so deeply ingrained within you or is invisible to you. So keep an eye out for feelings of doubt.
Doubts can be like breadcrumbs that lead you to your Authentic Self. If you doubt something—a thought, behavior, emotion, experience—reflect for a moment to find whatever is underneath. Is your Authentic Self trying to tell it to "stop it?"
6. Develop the courage to face your fears. Humans tend to be most comfortable with what is familiar. The unfamiliar is often challenging, at least at first. Examining your inner core beliefs can be like exploring a foreign landscape you are unfamiliar with. So when you touch upon a disconnect between your Adaptive and Authentic Selves, your heart may race or your hands could get clammy. You may naturally feel afraid to look too deeply into yourself for fear of what you might find.
Our Authentic Self often has a lot of fear, sadness, and anger—our true selves were hurt and that's why the Adaptive Self took over. However, the difficult secrets we hide from ourselves are what make us who we really are. So as much as possible, and as slowly as you need to, courageously explore the truth of what makes you who you are. Identifying, experiencing, accepting, and letting go of these buried emotions is exactly what fuels your Authentic Self.
7. Explore your values. Integrity, ethics, and living our personal values is an effective way to live more authentically. The trouble comes when we are so far from our Authentic Selves that we do not even know what our values are. So explore your values and figure out some ways to start living them.
8. Love yourself and have compassion for others to develop authenticity. Because it takes self-love for our Authentic Selves to emerge, embedding more love and compassion within yourself and your life is helpful. One way to increase your self-love is to set aside some time to take numerous deep breaths each day. You can add this into an existing meditation practice if you like.
Slowly deepen your breathing and when you are feeling fully relaxed and receptive, call love to yourself from your environment. Imagine each breath infused with loving energy. Whether as balls of energy, or bursts, or rays of light and love, invite love to enter your body via your breath. Draw love into your lungs and disperse it throughout your body, or send it directly to your Authentic Self. Keep breathing consciously until you feel the lightening and lifting energy of these "love breaths."
Once filled with love, share some of it with friends or loved ones. Sending love to others tends to expand the love within!
9. Recognize that developing authenticity takes time. Examining our true self is a process—perhaps a life-long process—because we are ever-evolving human beings. It takes quite a while to winnow out beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve you and replace them with more authentic actions. But with some effort, you'll soon find more genuine alignment with your true self.
10. Release patterns and beliefs that no longer serve you. When you do come across a thought, emotion, or action that doesn't represent your Authentic Self, work on letting it go. Visualization is a good tool for this. You can place the thought, emotion, or action within a bubble or a balloon and let it rise until it disappears. Or if you are more hands-on, you can write it on a piece of paper, cross it out, and crumple up the paper—a physical action that helps your subconscious understand your intentions.
11. Ask yourself what you truly believe. Another pro-active approach is to simply start with pad and paper (or it can be a mental exercise) and begin listing your beliefs about yourself, beliefs like "I am not good enough" or "Nobody loves me" or "I'm stupid, fat, ugly, etc." Then examine each one, expand upon it, and think back to how and when you acquired that belief, who gave it to you, why you continue to hold on to it, and whether it represents "the authentic you" that you want to be today.
Now create positive alternatives to those negative beliefs, such as "I am good enough," or "I am drawing to myself a partner who loves and respects me," or "I am perfect just as I am," etc. And repeat the beliefs as positive affirmations to get them to stick.
12. Take it slow to develop your authenticity. Sometimes we are shocked by what we discover within our subconscious that has been hidden. Such sudden new raw awareness can disrupt our lives in unexpected ways. So use moderation and proceed cautiously. When you discover a belief or memory that has been thwarting your authenticity, allow a few days for you to adjust to your new realizations and view them with self-compassion.
How to Maintain Authenticity
Now that you've got a better sense of how to be authentic, here's how to stay authentic.
13. Make telling the truth a habit. This is such a simple suggestion and yet it makes a huge difference! It's so easy to fall into a pattern of lying for convenience's sake—to further some agenda, to cover up some embarrassment, or to save face. These seem like "little white lies" that do not hurt anything. However, the more little lies we tell, the less we are accepting our Authentic Self, a self that is flawed. By being honest, we tell our subconscious that our imperfections are acceptable, therefore we are acceptable.
14. Make statements and decisions consciously. In this hectic world, we are making decisions all the time. Unfortunately, a lot of these decisions are made hastily in the moment with no forethought. So slow down and make sure each of your decisions supports your Authentic Self. And don't let anyone push you into making a consequential decision before you are ready.
15. Speak your truth. When you speak your truth, authentically, you show others that you are responsible, that you can be trusted, and that you trust others enough to show your genuine, vulnerable self. The response from others is often positive, which helps make it easier for you to continue being authentic.
16. Develop yourself in authentic ways. I can't tell you how many times I've been given advice for how to advance in my career—advice that is not suited to my Authentic Self. And whenever I follow this advice, ignoring my Authentic Self, I get lost.
Your goals may also fail to fit the typical "upward trajectory" or "career ladder" often promoted by society. So as you pursue your goals, pause to ask yourself are you pursuing the right goal, in the right way, for you? If not, you'll likely have a hard time enjoying either the process or the outcome.
17. Continue to monitor yourself. If we can keep a behind-the-scenes monitor that remains self-aware at all times, we will be in a position to catch those "off moments" when we veer away from our Authentic Selves. Even if we have no time to examine what's going on in the moment, we can note it down for review later, when we have time.
Take Authenticity to the Next Level
Ok, so you're working on creating a more authentic life. Here's how to keep digging to bring out a more completely authentic self.
18. Strive to improve yourself. If you want to progress, you will need to develop a growth mindset and learn from each lesson presented to you before you can move on to higher insight. If you do not do your daily homework of paying attention to what life has to teach you, you will continue to get the same lessons over and over until you learn them. By being open to new knowledge, you can grow more quickly and find the best routes for you to achieve sustained authenticity.
19. Listen to your inner guidance or intuition. People call inner guidance many things—the soul, god, intuition, Tao, and so forth. Following this inner guidance is key to discovering the Authentic Self. It is only when our Adaptive Self silences our inner guidance that we lose track of who we really are. So try to keep an open mind and ear for the guidance that you hold within you.
20. Find your life purpose. Authenticity and purpose are closely linked: A deep sense of purpose can help you to express your authenticity while developing authenticity will often help you discover your purpose! You may discover the courage of your convictions, and want to burst forward with passion to accomplish some worthy goal that moves you deeply enough to champion some particular sort of positive change. You may have an invention you want to promote, a company you want to develop, or a vision you want to manifest. So open yourself up to living authentically, and your purpose is likely to become more clear.
This article was co-written with Starr Sites.
Panger, G. T. 2017. “Emotion in Social Media.” University of California, Berkeley.
The Inner Bonding Workbook: Six Steps to Healing Yourself and Connecting with Your Divine Guidance by Margaret Paul.