I’m in a bit of a pickle. A contradiction of sorts. It’s about this word Authenticity.
If you spend any sort of time on social media, you will have seen it scattered all over the joint. I’s the new Avocado on toast. If it were hand made it would have the word Artisan before it. It’s the hipster beard of character traits. The trouble is that 90% of the time I see people talking about their authentic selves, it’s in a context which displays the exact opposite. This makes me want to cry a little because being authentic is also a really fucking important piece in the jigsaw of a happy life.
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What is Authenticity?
Let’s just take a moment to strip back the insta filters and work out what I mean by being authentic.
Things authentic is not
- The perfect life
- Doin if for the ‘gram
- Anything to do with money
- Sticking it to the man
- Living the dream
- Following the crowd
Things authentic is
- Behaving in a way which aligns with your internal beliefs
- Living comfortably in your skin
- Being honest with yourself and others
- Understanding your motivations
- Knowing yourself
One of my favourite books is called the Happiness Hypothesis (aff) which talks (and I’m paraphrasing here) about happiness being a place where your beliefs, values and behaviour all point in the same direction. To me this is authentic living.
I always thought I was pretty good at being authentic, but this week something seemingly trivial raised some pretty important questions. How do I know if I am being authentic?
What is real authentic me and what am I assimilating from the influence of others I admire?
Let me explain.
Regular readers will know that recently I stopped buying new clothes or shoes for a year. At the end of this year there was only a couple of things that I really wanted to go and buy. Top of list was a pair of Lucy and Yak dungarees. I’d been perving on them on insta all year, so jealous of how cute all those lovely creatives looked in them. Plus, I love the fair fashion ethos of the company – you get guilt free clothing without paying the earth (It IS possible!) and support small, independent business. What’s not to love? The Kids T.V. presenter in me was screaming for them.
So I bought some.
They hit the door mat and I tried them on. They were so well made. The fit was right. They were gorgeous.
But here’s the thing. I felt like farmer Giles crossed with an Umpa Lumpa.
I so wanted to like them but I just felt that little bit of “hmmmm I’m not sure”. I hated to admit it to myself but I knew it was the truth, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year it’s to listen to that gut feeling and hear what it has to say.
Reluctantly I sent them back, still wondering why I didn’t feel I could pull them off when I loved how they looked on other people.
A few days later I was laughing with a friend about how frustrated I was about the situation and it turned out that she had had a very similar experience when she first became a mum. She had assimilated herself into the ‘mum wardrobe’ because it was mums at the school gates who had become her influencers, just as all those fab creatives on line had become mine. Eventually though, she realised that this wasn’t actually ‘her’ and gravitated back to the sort of clothes she actually felt herself in. Just like when on a second shopping attempt, I found a jumpsuit which just felt right the moment I put it on (actually the second moment because the first moment I put it on back-to-front but lets not dwell on that!)
I’m aware this whole episode is trivial, but it got me thinking about what it is to be authentic. How do you know what is authentic you and what is the influence of others?
If you’re anything like me, you have a picture in your mind of who you want to be. But what if you get there and it doesn’t feel right? What if you realise you’re following a trend rather than your own style?
I’m talking both literally and metaphorically here. There are obviously trends in fashion but also in opinions, politics, tech, hobbies, lifestyle and we are all open to influence in these areas. What society deems acceptable changes over time, so how do you know whether you are being true to yourself and your values or just doing what you think everyone else does?
It’s harder than you’d think to distinguish between the two.
The History Lesson
When I was at school I remember being taught about the rise of communism. Before I understood it, all I ‘knew’ was that it was the route of evil (child of the 80s). Then I started learning about how it developed and I remember thinking, firstly that ‘Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ would make an excellent band name, and secondly that it actually seemed like a pretty good idea for forming a society. And I sort of still do. Only human nature dictates, and some studies have shown, that in groups larger than about 200 it’ doesn’t really work.
But what does this have to do with finding your authentic self?
This example made me realise that learning to be authentic is an iterative thing. You know what your values are, though these can shift over time, and finding behaviours which are congruent with these values and your belief system may take a bit of trial and error. Perhaps you don’t always know what is authentically you, but you do usually realise when something isn’t. That feeling where you do something that you know deep down is against your better judgement. That is how inauthenticity feels. It’s uncomfortable and leaves a nasty taste in your mouth.
Back to my History lessons for a moment…
One of my core values is a sense of fair play and justice. It’s important to me that everyone is given an equal shot (I know this because I read the Chimp Paradox (aff) which makes you think about such things – it’s well worth a read!). This is why communism appealed to me – because of the idea that everyone is on an equal footing. Only I also understand that people are not the same – some are hard working, some are not, some desire power, some prefer to follow. I need to assimilate these nuggets of understanding to work out what position sits right with me. Then reassess it as my experience and knowledge grows.
So perhaps to stay authentic means this; To accept that there is no final answer. To keep asking questions. To stay honest. To find a happy place amid the grey.
For anyone struggling with this slight existential feeling of not quite understanding where you sit in relation to your career, relationship, Brexit, Trump, X-factor v Strictly Come Dancing… in short, with the “Who am I?” question in whatever form it takes… here is the conclusion I have arrived at
Suck it and see! Explore all the options, give anything a go once if it interests you. Understand that it may take a while to work out if it’s right and sometimes you have to style it out for a while. But you also have to be honest with yourself if it’s not working. Like I made myself be about the dungaree situation. I’m all for faking it till you make it, but if you continue to force it then you will crash. Maybe dramatically but more likely slowly without realising, like the frog in the pan that slowly boils
Be whatever you like, but don’t be that frog!