Rethinking Authenticity

We are encouraged to be ourselves, but what does this mean?

Posted Dec 08, 2017

“This above all – to thine own self be true…” Such is the advice given by Polonius in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet to his son Laertes, as the latter prepares for a journey to France. The father continues his thought: “and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

We moderns have seized upon these comments. For us, they mean that we should be true to our better, deeper understandings of who we are. The products of a psychologically preoccupied age, we believe that consistency with core beliefs and values leads to personal stability and peace of mind. No deceit, or so we hold, is worse than self-deceit. No dishonor greater than the failure to respect the persons we have labored so hard to become. 

In that light, it is worth remembering that Polonius mixes this advice with other admonitions. His son should “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” He should retain old friends that have proven themselves trustworthy. Indeed, the young man should “grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” By contrast, Laertes should be wary of new acquaintances. Listen respectfully to them but give “few thy voice.” In much the same way, he should acknowledge the judgments of others but be careful in offering his own evaluations. He should be “familiar but by no means vulgar.” He should dress as his budget affords, ideally in a rich but not gaudy way. All this in the interest of establishing the right kinds of relationships with the right kinds of people.

In his play, Shakespeare marks Polonius (also the father of Hamlet’s love, Ophelia) as a bombast, and not entirely to be trusted. But with his son, Polonius seems both honest and reasonable. Amidst the individualistic and socially mobile conditions of the Renaissance, upper-class travelers needed to make sound judgments about the strangers and semi-strangers they would encounter. It was an age of social pretense, malicious scheming, and unprecedented advances by new groups the Elizabethans called “mushroom men.” Much like parents today, Polonius instructs his offspring to be careful with the company you keep, guard your resources, and rely on your own judgments.Those same concerns preoccupy Shakespeare’s great protagonist, Hamlet, throughout the drama.

Seeing matters in the above light, it seems odd that contemporary people have singled out the theme that everyone should be true to their own understandings of who they feel themselves to be. If once-upon-a-time, “remembering who you are” meant honoring connections to family and class, now it seems to mean consulting psychological resources. We must be true to the visions we hold of ourselves, even if this means opposing the judgments of those who have cared for us and shaped our lives. To do otherwise is to be inauthentic.

This essay reconsiders the idea of authenticity, now popular in academic psychology and, more profoundly, in the corridors of daily living.

Most who’ve written on this subject identify authenticity with standing up for one’s beliefs, with speaking truthfully to others. That truth-telling should not be casual or ill-considered; instead, it should reflect a deep consultation with character. Our contemporary epoch is one in which many kinds of people ask us to do many kinds of things in many kinds of situations. We must resist the bulk of those requests.  More than ever perhaps, we need a sturdy internal compass that clarifies life’s directions. Being authentic means following those directions.

Not surprisingly, other writers have criticized this call for authenticity. Truth-telling sounds good in theory, but who wants to be around someone who is overly forthright? For the same reason, few of us enjoy the company of someone who exalts their own standards over ours – perhaps informing us that we dress badly or have poor taste in music and art. We do not like people who are willing captives of their own proclivities, who claim that such attitudes constitute “who they are” and, because of that, block their receptivity to change. Most significant of all perhaps is the accusation that the quest for authenticity has much to do with selfishness, honoring one’s own status and concerns above those of others.

Much of this criticism is unfair. Few proponents of authenticity equate that concept with tactless bluster, willful solipsism, or the disregard of other people’s viewpoints. Rather, being authentic means being honest in one’s dealings with self and others, acknowledging the dimensions of one’s life history, recognizing personal deficiencies, and being open to changes that respond to those understandings.  Authentic people question their own motivations, especially those that result in defensive or harmful behaviors. They feel comfortable expressing a wide range of emotions; they honor their own voice.

I think most of us would probably support this much-broadened way of looking at this matter. It is incumbent on all of us to distinguish the true from the false, the forthright from the deceitful, the worthy from the meretricious. At base, we must respect ourselves. Ideally, that self-affirmation makes us more open, even generous, to other people.

No one should presume, however, that being authentic is accomplished easily, that it is a matter of just confronting one’s “real” feelings and acting accordingly. Quite the opposite, the project of achieving a self-of-integrity is extremely difficult. That difficulty can be illustrated by considering the following three questions:

Are there different kinds of standards to which we (appropriately) hold ourselves?
Are there different sources of self? How important is self-consistency?

Different standards for self

Most writings on authenticity claim that there is some core or basic self, which serves as a guide for our actions in the world. That is to say, we have some sense of who we “really” are. It behooves us to pay deference to that understanding, as complicated as this may be. All of us have aspects of ourselves that give us pride; others cause our chagrin. Nevertheless, we should confront the reality of our lives – and the vision of this we hold in our minds. Pretending to be something we’re not – perhaps employing a “fake it ‘til you make it” attitude – usually causes trouble.

But most of us would recognize that we hold ourselves to several different kinds of standards and that these standards may be instigators of growth and change. There is the self we would like to be – and the self that we may reasonably expect to be. There is the self that we have been, but perhaps no longer are. There is the self that other people (including those that love us dearly) feel we are, or differently, would like us to become.   

In other words, there are several different, appropriate visions for our lives. All of us live in the (imagined) future and past as well in the present. Much of experience centers on the perceived distance between the persons we imagine ourselves to be and the actual ways in which we behave and are treated by others. Our commitment to who we really are should not block us from becoming the “better selves” that lie within us as unfulfilled possibilities.

Different sources of self

Our society, or so I believe, glorifies the psychological self. We celebrate the privacy of consciousness and the decisions that result from this. Our waking hours – and perhaps more, our times of sleep – are consultations with solitary thoughts and feelings. We dream and scheme, and reminisce and brood. Mindfulness, to use a currently popular term, is fundamental to our existence as persons.

I do not disagree. But there are other anchors of the self. One of these is our connection to other people. Such persons, for good or ill, claim us. We may resist their intrusions, but we also have some sense that it is only by dealing with their demands that we realize ourselves as persons. Our understanding of who we are means very little without clear groups to identify with and judge ourselves against.  Groups give us our values. They resist us when we are moving in directions that they disapprove. Some of these groups we identify with; others we oppose.  Whatever, they are the contexts within we which we estimate our own capabilities and character.

Because of that, it would be foolish to romanticize ourselves as independent and self-proclaiming. We depend on each other. Being authentic does not mean standing alone; it means making worthy judgments about the people one chooses to stand with.

If there is a “social” self, there is also a “cultural” self. In every time and place, people locate themselves within vast, publicly accessible realms of idea, image, and artifact. Who of us does not acknowledge some affiliation with the customs and language of our home country? We hold specific religious and political beliefs.  We possess certain publicly recognized skills (perhaps abilities to play a certain card game, sport, or musical instrument) – and lack others entirely. We understand ourselves to be the people who have these particular commitments.

More than that, we hold quite specific identities in the public landscape. We manifest these personas in driver’s licenses, passports, social security cards, and related forms. We publish much more elaborate versions ourselves at social media sites. We treasure symbols of personal accomplishment – certificates, trophies, ribbons, and the like. Less happily, we may have criminal records or other signs of misdemeanor. Photos of us circulate. Organizations of every type store information about us.

One can declare this sort of public existence false, or inauthentic. But why? The challenge is not to deny these cultural realms of involvement but to recognize them as legitimate avenues of self-presentation – and, more importantly, to make them express the kinds of persons we understand ourselves to be.

Be clear that these conditions of self – psyche, society, and culture – are extremely important. But the self is much more than a gathering of ideas and images, whether contained in our heads or elsewhere. It is a profoundly physical thing.

One field of physical relationships is the environment, the material surroundings we live in and draw sustenance from. Most of us claim some elements of these surroundings as distinctively our own. We feel comfortable when we are settled there. These elements may include our current home or apartment, or a different place where we grew up. Physical placement can mean a favored chair or room in our dwelling. It may involve cherished objects from past or present. Whatever the choice may be, we feel truly “at home” when we are in the presence of these elements.

That theme was developed in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Hand.”  An older workman, Silas, had been away from his usual workplace from some months, indeed, had left his employing family at harvest time. Unexpectedly, he returns. Clearly ill, he rests by the kitchen stove while the farm’s husband and wife debate what to do with him. By the time they decide, he is dead. Like Silas, some of us have places that are fundamental to us, that call us to return. They function not simply as mental fictions but as sites of authentic being.

A final field of involvement is the body. We inhabit this form; it both nurtures and directs us. It signals to us when our behaviors are ill-considered or dangerous. To be sure, most of us have conceptions of our bodies – notions about our appearance, weight, health, capability, and so forth  But the very real influences of the body transcend these ideas.

Arguably, being authentic means both accepting and responding to these bodily directives. It is the proclivity of contemporary people to cut, dye, diet, dose, gorge, tattoo, implant and otherwise mark their bodies. But at some point, the body declares that injury has occurred and health is imperiled. Physicality exhibits a wisdom of its own sort.    

Why place society, culture, environment, and body alongside psyche as settings for the quest for authenticity? Because acceptance of the “real” involves much more than honoring the understandings we hold in our heads.

The issue of self-consistency

Trying to achieve authenticity means trying to match our behaviors to the more fundamental aspects of our being. It is important, or so proponents argue, to be who we really are. Discordant behaviors, thoughts, and feelings should be swept away.

The author is old enough to remember this commitment when it was presented as the quest for an integrated – and non-alienated – style of being. That 1960s vision opposed the compartmentalization, specialization, and play-acting required to be “successful” in the prevailing business culture. In the view of the counter-culture, one should be the same person at all times, not dressing up for specific occasions or adjusting one’s manners to the requirements of different situations. Behaviors in the realms of business, religion, politics, education, community, and family should be of one piece. Modifying oneself for particular occasions was considered pseudo, bogus, or “plastic.”

The current commitment to authenticity is similar if less far-reaching. It tends to emphasize the psychological comfort that results from being in-sync with one’s true being rather than the social justice commitments that produce a society where everyone can engage with others on relatively even and honest terms. It envisions authenticity in personal rather than societal terms.

Whatever these differences between the older and newer approaches to self-consistency may be, it is pertinent to ask whether this commitment to (extreme) integration is valuable to personal and social well-being. Are institutions like education, politics, religion, economy, and healthcare somewhat different realms of society? Because of that, can their organizations properly ask their members to conform to distinctive guiding principles? When we head off to work, is it inappropriate to dress in a certain way, follow certain norms and conduct certain activities – even when these performances do not conform to our more fundamental visions of ourselves? Can our conversations with our workmates be of a different character than those we conduct with our more cherished life-mates?  Must our religious and family affiliations be of the same sort?

One can pose such questions in a stronger way? Does confronting the expectations of quite different situations cause us to change, grow, and otherwise thicken our capabilities? Do we learn alternative ways of being when we encounter the demands of other people – and does that expand the terms of who we “really are”?  Can the authentic self be a plurality of sometimes opposing commitments as well as an entirely consistent whole?

Readers will remember the Godfather movies, where loving family members went off to work and committed atrocious deeds. That kind of fragmentation is not supported here. Similarly problematic is the Wall Street ethic – in film or real life – where characters say and do anything to move their fortunes ahead. Nor do I endorse the pragmatic scheming that reverses moral reasoning, where people just do what they want and then adjust their self-understandings to accommodate those attainments. A self so divided – against other people or even against the person herself – cannot be held up as a model of authentic being.

Still, it is pertinent to ask whether authenticity can embrace particularity as well as wholeness, change as well as stability, and acceptance as well as resistance. Just as the self should not be a thinly rationalized collection of ambitions-of-the-moment, so it should not be based on some narrow set of principles to be defended at all costs. People live in many settings – psychic, bodily, social, cultural, and environmental. Each of these presents challenges requiring a thoughtful response.  Authentic people do not integrate their lives in rapid or formulaic ways. They ponder the many meanings of the “right” and “wrong,” make choices, and move ahead with full knowledge that they may need to change the path they’ve taken. 

Such decisions may lead to behaviors that seem at odds with who they “really are,” or at least have been to this point. Still, they reflect a much deeper inquiry into the conditions for authentic being than does simple genuflection to psychic consistency. All of us feel the weight of many legitimate claims on our life-energies. The challenge is to integrate these complicated and far-reaching claims into patterns of living that we can display with pride to other people – and to ourselves.