“Four score and seven years ago …” I remember it like it was yesterday. I memorized the Gettysburg Address in the fourth grade. Lincoln’s life message became my first public speaking assignment. Mrs. Hathaway, my teacher, had registered me in a contest. My parents took the afternoon off and surprised me by showing up to hear me. Apparently, they believed that at 9 years old, I could take on middle schoolers in a competitive, dramatic recitation of that historic speech, and win. I will never forget what my teacher said to me after I confessed being nervous before I was trotted out on a stage for the first time: “Just be yourself,” she said. I tried to do what I thought she meant. And somehow I won.
“Just be yourself,” she said. It’s a common adage I bet we’ve all uttered. The word “just” makes it sound so easy. But it isn’t. Being yourself — understanding, knowing, preserving, and following through on your core principles and values — is an arduous, often exhausting life-long project. I call it authenticity. And there is no “just” to it. It’s hard. It’s demanding. It’s rigorous work. And it’s worth it.
Many people believe themselves to be authentic, when what they are really referring to is the harsh, evaluative judgment of others that is unconsciously cloaked in a cruelly honest and sometimes rage-filled sharing of opinions about, most often, others’ perceived shortcomings. This is, however, not authenticity, which demands real, respectful, and honest truth-telling. It is blaming; it is judgment; it is a kind of socially acceptable warfare hidden behind such colloquial barricades as “I’m just keepin’ it real,” or “Just sayin’,” or “This is just me being honest,” or “Bless her heart.” Everyone knows that all you have to do is invoke one of these aphorisms, and it is as if you are permitted by God’s own self to say anything you want about someone after that without being labeled a bully as a consequence.
That is not authenticity. Authenticity involves taking the stairs down inside ourselves and noticing whatever we happen to be experiencing at any given moment and being willing and vulnerable to communicate that. True authenticity is not simply expressing our honest opinions. No, authenticity is beyond honesty; it is on the other side of honesty. Authenticity requires that we push pause and check in with ourselves without haphazardly venting emotions in a reactive way. This requires tremendous self-awareness, vulnerability, and courage. Authenticity not only liberates us, but it touches, inspires, and heals others around us.
If you don’t spend some time every week with children or with senior adults, then you’re likely to miss the most compelling portrayal of raw, full-scale authenticity available to the naked eye at the bookends of life. Young children and older adults are great at being themselves. Children have yet to learn the art of social customs, and older adults have often quit caring about them. For those of us in between, we are still tempted to play the game: to socialize, accommodate others, adapt our principles, and sacrifice self. We suffer from approval addiction, always searching for more and more acceptance from others, always wanting to be liked, always needing somebody else to tell us we’re OK.
This is a debilitating way of leading an imitation life. It isn’t real. And it isn’t good.
But I imagine that we all can think of a time when we weren’t being authentic. We may have squirmed but remained silent when a friend was speaking ill of somebody, when a co-worker was doing something illegal, or when a boss was talking about something about which we disagree because it violates our personal moral code.
Similarly, we commit ourselves to things we don’t enjoy, spend time with people who are bent on dragging us down, and participate in activities or endeavors that don’t align with our principles or beliefs. We bite our tongues. We won’t (or can’t) leave jobs we hate. We become stuck, get frustrated, and maybe even lose sight of these sacrifices of self, leaving ourselves in a state of confusion and disappointment.
When we fail to acknowledge who we are, we deny the truth, the holiness, the beautiful uniqueness in and of ourselves, which is a subtle form of self-harm. We know that nobody can meet our needs except ourselves, yet we refuse to do it, so those needs go unmet, which invites shame, fosters guilt, and creates angst. It’s an awfully heavy load to bear and a peaceless place to be.
And why? Why do we subject ourselves to such self-loathing? To protect what we believe other people think of us, which causes anxiety and discontent? We so often care more about what we fear others will think, believe, or say about us, that we set about trying to live a life that will please them rather than living a life that will honor what is true about ourselves.
Life is too short for that. So consider a new possibility: choose authenticity. It’s so much healthier than imitation, which is a kind of self-betrayal, which is a catastrophic choice. It has many faces. Being a people-pleaser, avoiding confrontation at all costs, and refusing to have your own opinions, beliefs, and preferences, on the one hand, betray your own authenticity, as you submerge yourself in deference to others over and over again, trading bits and pieces of your “self” every time, until there isn’t much of you left anymore.
On the other hand, allowing your controlling or angry impulses to play out publicly distances you from the goal of authenticity. In these circumstances, you may be more comfortable wearing the mask of anger than showing your vulnerability. Fear, pain, and insecurity are often what secretly give birth to anger. Try being honest about that with someone you trust. Vulnerability is a huge part of the authentic life.
It’s the extraordinary individual who risks living that life. Authenticity is intimidating yet empowering, difficult yet possible. It will be the greatest gift you give to yourself and to the world: becoming aware of who you are; acting on principle; risking vulnerability; practicing humble honesty; and, following through on the promises your life has made. Being real. It’s “just” that simple, but it isn’t easy, and it can feel impossible. Remember: It isn’t.
Nearing the end of his days, a reporter asked Mahatma Gandhi, “What is your message to the world?” Gandhi patiently but definitively answered: “My life. My life is my message.”
Whether you know it or not, this is true for you, too. Your one life is all yours to do with what only you can do. So decide who you want to be and go be it.
Dr. Jonathan Eric Carroll, KLPC, NCPC, NCCE, is a state-licensed mental health professional, is an ACPE psychotherapist, and is the Founder of The Clinic @ The Montgomery, a center for therapy, parenting coordination, custody evaluation, and business consulting in downtown Owensboro. Dr. Carroll serves also as the Grief Therapist for seven funeral homes in the region. Visit www.themontgomeryclinic.com.