Authentic Personal Growth

There needn't be confusion about personal growth and behaving inauthentically.

Posted Dec 16, 2012

Many of my recent posts have focused on being mindful and exercising the freedom to choose whom you want to be. This theme has been met with questions about the genuineness of someone behaving differently than what comes naturally. It has been suggested this is phony, and that a better approach may be simply behaving as you feel, and accepting yourself.

Photo credit Alexi Berry

As I wrote in “That’s Just How I Am” one can strive for self-improvement and still have self-acceptance. Striving for self-improvement does not indicate a lack of self-esteem or self-acceptance, nor does it indicate self-loathing. In fact, some have purported personal growth is the meaning of their life. It could be argued that it takes someone with fairly good self-esteem to see past his or her defenses, admit shortcomings, and work toward self-betterment.

Freud believed our id, which can be likened to a selfish child simply wanting its every desire met, was overcome by socialization and acceptance of the morals caregivers impart. These mores are internalized, and become the super ego. The ego then balances the needs of the id with the perfectionistic standards of the super ego.

Skinner and other behaviorists believe we are conditioned throughout our lives by reinforcement and punishment to behave the way we do. They would argue that even wanting to change is simply a function of moving away from punishment or toward reinforcement. Both of these theories suggest our personalities are formed through causality, and we have little freedom to choose who we want to be.

Existentialists, on the other hand, believe personality is formed as a product not only of causality, but also of what we wish to be, who we wish to become. Who one chooses to be in the present and future becomes more important than how one has been shaped. Existentialists do not underestimate the power of the past; they simply attribute as much power to the present and the freedom to choose.

This freedom should not be confused with a desire to conform to morals one was conditioned to accept. One would not be exercising the full extent of their freedom if they simply chose to be what society, their parents, or others wanted them to be. This would be a result of conditioning rather than choice. To be fully free to create oneself, one is best served understanding the contributors in the choice to change, and making an educated decision about who one wants to be.

It is extremely difficult, in a philosophical sense, to know who you really are and why you are that way. It would take great insight and understanding of all the factors that contributed to your personality. That is a daunting task. However, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

To return to the issue of being genuine and authentic, there is a substantial difference between pretending you are better than you are, also called being disingenuous or phony, and curbing a desire to act in a particular way for self improvement. Disingenuousness is harmful. It contributes to others feeling worse about who they are, and even to shame about who one truly is. Many people entering therapy feel inferior, which is sometimes a product of others giving the impression they have it all together. Part of every therapist’s work is normalizing. Many who benefit from normalizing interventions didn’t realize what she or he is experiencing is not so abnormal. However, others’ facades may have led to the feeling she or he was abnormal.

Pretending to be something you aren’t, feigning you don’t have a certain issue can be helpful in some cases. The phrase “fake it until you make it”, prominent in addiction recovery programs, can lead to some positive change. Neuroscience has discovered that smiling, perhaps rather than frowning or scowling, can bring about chemical changes in the brain. Focusing on the positive also retrains the brain to find the positives more “naturally”.

The difference between faking it for self-improvement or self-aggrandizing is the motivation. The former is to overcome an obstacle, to bring about genuine change. The latter is to impress others or cover insecurities. Although those self-aggrandizing might wish they were the way they are portraying, there is a lack of genuine effort or a strong enough desire to change.

Regardless of what theory is chosen to explain how one’s personality developed, the power to choose who he or she will be remains viable. It takes a desire to change for the better and humility to recognize shortcomings to bring about the change one aspires to. Recently the discussion of personality came up in my Theories of Personality class. When discussing creating who we want to be, authenticity and genuineness, I stated that I have spent most of my life trying to overcome who I am naturally. For many, perhaps needing to change is not such a pressing issue. But for many people their natural tendency does not serve them well. Hopefully they can authentically grow.

Copyright William Berry, 2012

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