How to Know That You're Living Authentically
Living the life that is best for you, not the life others pressure you to live.
Posted July 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
How do we become our best selves, our truest and most authentic selves? If we can figure that out, we are on our way to a much more fulfilling life than we would have if we were still floundering.
The more I study people who are single at heart, the more I think that at the core of their lives is authenticity. By living single, they are living the life that is best for them, and that is most true to who they really are.
I don’t think that the single-at-heart life can be lived mindlessly. Loving your single life, not just for the moment but for good, is a hard concept for many to fathom. Other people don’t believe you when you say you want to be single—they insist that it is just a phase, or you just haven’t met the right person. That’s annoying, maybe even insulting, but it may motivate you to pay more attention to how you are really feeling than, say, people who get married and have children and are never told that it’s just a phase.
But how do you know if you are living authentically? According to the "self-concordance theory," the most important thing we can do to become our true self is to pursue the goals that are right for us. If we choose wrong—if we pursue goals that do not reflect who we really are, what we care about, and what we are good at—then even if we achieve those goals, we are not going to feel happy or fulfilled. I think that for people who are single at heart, trying to find a romantic partner to put at the center of their lives is the wrong goal. Many who are single at heart are perfectly capable of finding a romantic partner and prioritizing that person above all others. They may even be congratulated for doing so. But it wouldn’t make them happy or fulfilled.
One of the best overviews of the psychology of becoming your true self was published by Kennon Sheldon in Personality and Social Psychology Review. Here's what I see as some of the implications of the research.
When you set a goal or make a plan, how do you feel about it?
- Do you feel ambivalent about it?
- Do you find that you just can't get yourself to follow through?
- Do you disparage your own goals or plans when you are talking to other people?
- Do you feel pressured by other people to pursue the goals you chose or the plans you made?
- Do you feel constrained to pursue particular goals (for example, getting a law degree instead of a degree in English literature because you think you will need the better salary that a law degree might bring)?
- Do you worry that if you do not pursue a particular goal or plan, you will feel guilty?
Or do you feel entirely differently?
- Do you really enjoy pursuing your goals or plans?
- Do you identify with what you are doing? Does it seem like what you are doing reflects who you really are?
- Do you find what you are doing interesting? Meaningful?
- Is it challenging in a way you appreciate?
- If you are doing something in some sense because you have to (for example, you are doing your job because it pays), do you sometimes find that it is so engaging that even if you didn't need the money, you might want to do it anyway?
- Are you more attuned to your own feelings of growth and self-improvement than to other people's evaluations of how you are doing?
If the second set of feelings describes you more accurately than the first set, then you are probably doing a good job of becoming your true self.
Do You Pay Attention to Your Feelings?
Are you the kind of person who springs into action immediately or do you take time to pay attention to how you are feeling? Sheldon believes that this "trait mindfulness" is important. It is defined as "the general disposition to be attentive to one's feelings, desires, sensations, and emotions—to simply observe one's reactions and emotions rather than being pulled immediately into action or reaction." Research suggests that people who are more mindful in this way are more likely to pursue goals that are consistent with who they really are.
Similarly, people who "follow their gut" rather than trying to be overly rational may also do better at choosing the goals and plans that are right for them.
Are You Surrounded By People Who Make It Easy to Be Your True Self?
Self-concordance theory is mostly about you and not about other people. But the people around you can be important in making it easier for you to become your best self rather than standing in your way.
In the workplace, you are doing well if you have a boss who tries to see your perspective, who tries to give you choices, and who provides meaningful rationales for any advice that is offered.
That's true in sports, too. In studies of athletes at all different levels, researchers have found that leadership style matters more at the highest levels: "Having a supportive coach may be especially important for elite-level athletes, so that they can remain in touch with their original motivation to compete."
In our everyday lives, some of us are fortunate enough to have friends or relatives who know us better than we know ourselves, and have our best interests in mind. They might know before we do when we are pursuing a goal that is never going to make us happy. If we are super lucky, they will know how to tell us that in a way we can hear.
Imagine having friends and relatives who would say: “Why do you keep trying to find ‘the one’? You seem so much happier and so much more fulfilled when you are single.” Telling people who are single at heart that they should stay single is not an insult. It is the highest compliment. It is a recognition of who they really are and how they will live their most meaningful and authentic life.
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