Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke Ph.D.

Everybody Marries the Wrong Person

The Problem With Authenticity

Emotional authenticity and strategic authenticity

Posted Feb 22, 2012

The problem with authenticity is that anyone can claim it and benefit from the positive assumptions that most of us make about the word. Transparent. Genuine. Trustworthy.  All good, right?

Well, it depends.

Like the duckling that appears to glide across the water, there can be turbulence beneath the surface.

If you pay attention, you'll notice quite a few people who want to stir up trouble while invoking the halo-effect associated with the word, authentic.  As with the duckling, what's on the surface can be deceiving.  For example, think about all those manipulative, self-serving politicians who claim to "tell it like it is."  Or beware those emotionally immature, self-indulgent romantic partners, family members or friends who are "just being honest" in their expressions of anger, jealousy, or pettiness.

Two types of authenticity

Key concept:  There are two types of authenticity - emotional authenticity and strategic authenticity.

For most of us, emotional authenticity comes to mind first. We think that someone who is being "authentic" (usually applied to showing negative emotions) is letting their true feelings be known. We believe this to be a good thing - rare and indicative of trustworthiness.

Strategic authenticity is not always recognized. This type of authenticity is about being true to a goal.  For example, there is nothing inauthentic about putting on a brave face and soldiering on, if your goal is to get to a finish line.  

Two qualities of authenticity

Key concept:  There are two qualities of both types of authenticity - constructive and destructive.

If both emotions and goals are constructive, the authenticity halo is deserved. Constructive emotions feel good to the person experiencing them and raise others' spirits when expressed. Taking action on constructive goals improves almost any situation.

We can also have constructive goals for destructive emotions.  If one's goal is to practice respect rather than condemnation, placid on the surface while turbulent beneath is part of the process.  It takes consistent repetition to transform destructive emotions via constructive goals.

When both emotions and goals are destructive, it gets more complicated. No self-serving politician, greedy banker, or religious extremist is going to say, "I'm authentic.  Authentically evil, that is." Those guided by destructive emotions and goals typically claim higher motives and justification.  No matter how we try to dress it up, if emotions and goals are destructive, claiming the halo of authenticity is simply a lie we tell ourselves and others.

Taking command of authentically destructive emotions

Okay, take a look at this sample of toddler-style emotional authenticity!  Unfortunately, many adults take no greater command of their destructive emotions. Of course, we humans come by this sort of behavior naturally.

Remember, our brains are first and foremost about self-preservation.  Current research reveals our brain's profound predisposition to negative first reactions.  Fortunately, as our brains mature (by around age 25 or 26), we become more fully equipped to take command of negative emotions - but only if we choose to do so.  For more on taking command of negative emotions and relevant citations, see previous posts:  How to Train Your Dragon and Does Taking Command of Emotions Make You Heartless and Soulless?

So, which is authentic?  Surface or underneath?  To answer that question, think beyond emotional authenticity to strategic authenticity. Might there be an underlying goal?  And, if so, is that underlying goal constructive or destructive?

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About the Author

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.

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