Is Being Authentic Terrible Advice?

by Lane Wallace on June 28, 2016

A few days ago, I was in the grocery store. It was mid-day, so there were a lot of moms and kids around. And one of those kids, whom I estimated to be a bit shy of two years old, threw a loud, dramatic and protracted fit when his mom denied him a candy bar he wanted. His wails and screams could be heard throughout the store. And yet, as annoying as the child’s temper-tantrum was, I also recognized that he was, in a sense, just being 2. He was also, arguably, being “authentic.” No fronts, no editing, no impulse control, no “shoulds” involved. Throwing temper tantrums is what 2-year olds do, when they don’t get what they want. It’s highly annoying, but it’s also (big sigh from all parents of toddlers) age-appropriate behavior. At that stage.

I tell this story because one of the big surprises I’ve discovered in researching a book on the power and importance of an authentic voice is that there is a lot of confusion about what, exactly, “being authentic” means.

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times Week in Review section, for example, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania argued, in a piece called “‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice” that “nobody wants to see your true self.”

The professor, Adam Grant, went on to cite the story of a writer who’d done an experiment, a decade or so ago, by trying to be “totally authentic” for several weeks. Important to note, here, is that being “authentic, in that writer’s mind, evidently consisted of behaving very much like the character Jim Carrey played in the film Liar Liar. (In that film, Carrey is put under a spell where he has to be completely, brutally-and audibly–honest for 24 hours, saying everything he thinks out loud, no matter how inappropriate or hurtful or damaging those thoughts or words are.) You can imagine the results of the writer’s experiment.

To be sure, Grant is not the only writer who’s ever questioned the value of being yourself, or “being authentic,” especially in contrast to being something society finds admirable. The debate goes back at least to the days of Rousseau (the mid-1700s) and, in some senses, as far back as Aristotle and Socrates. And it would take far more than a single blog post to sort through all the variations and thorny, tangled philosophical arguments that all sides have put forth.

But in the end, I think where you stand on the question of authenticity (good or bad) comes down to two things: 1) how positive or negative your views are about our innate human natures, and 2) what kind of authenticity you’re envisioning.

If you believe that left to our own devices, without the influence of social or moral rules, roles, or expectations, we would all revert to base instincts of cruelty, selfishness and animalistic impulses, the idea of being “authentic” might seem like a really bad idea. Lionel Trilling, a 20th century intellectual (quoted by Grant and other critics of authenticity), seems to fall into this camp. Trilling suggested that instead of striving for authenticity, we should strive instead to make our inner reality match socially admirable traits - a concept he (but no other dictionary) defines as “sincerity.” Useful to note, however, is that Trilling wrote all that not only at the end of his life, but in 1972, against the chaotic 1960’s “let it all hang out” counter-culture revolution. That may have influenced his view of the hazards of “authentic” inner-self expression.

But what if you believe, in the vein of theĀ  more recent positive psychology movement, in the power of human potential? That we should focus less on how far humans can fall, and more on how high they can rise? In that case, the concept of finding and expressing an authentic self becomes a far more aspirational ideal. Indeed, the current Oxford Dictionary seems to incorporate that view in its definition of authenticity, in terms of the word’s use in philosophy, as “relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.”

Beyond that, there’s the question of what kind of authenticity we’re talking about.

When people envision what “authentic” voice or expression consists of, it seems as if many of them picture the authenticity of that 2-year-old in the grocery store, raging without editing, rationality, or any thought of others. But a 2-year old’s version of authentic expression or behavior, I would argue, is not what most people (including me) are advocating when they talk about the power of an authentic adult voice and life. Emphasis on adult.

Discovering and listening to your authentic voice and trying to build a life that’s resonant with it is a complex personal, social, and developmental puzzle. For starters, an authentic self and voice are not fixed entities we’re born with that remain immutable. Our “selves” grow, evolve, and develop throughout our lives. Just ask the child development psychologists Erik Erikson and Charles Piaget.

And as we grow, we’re supposed to evolve from that self-absorbed, unregulated, immediate-gratification-oriented 2-year-old into a being far more complex and nuanced. We’re supposed to learn restraint. Patience. Compassion. How to take ownership and responsibility for our actions, so we don’t remain locked in a dysfunctional pathology of victimhood and blaming others. We’re supposed to learn mature coping mechanisms. Unbiased self-reflection, and self-honesty. We’re supposed to learn how to think about the needs and feelings of others beyond ourselves. Intellectually, we’re supposed to learn flexibility; how to look at things from more than one point of view at a time. So an adult authentic self and voice should incorporate far more nuanced emotional needs and expression and a much more mature, objective and clear-eyed view of our own strengths and flaws, as well as a broader range of views, responsibilities, roles, and desires.

Do we all achieve that “fully functional” level of emotional, social, psychological and intellectual adulthood? Unfortunately, no. Hence the concept and problem of people suffering from a “Peter Pan” syndrome or “arrested development.” As the head of an inner-city Baltimore girls’ charter school recently said to me, “Any time you see someone flipping you off in traffic after cutting you off, or charging ahead of you in line and then making it seem like you’re the one at fault, they’re not being authentic in any mature sense of the word. They’re stuck in the victimhood and blame stage, still unable to take ownership or responsibility for their own actions.”

Or, as a single mother whose daughters attend that school told me, “You can tell if someone has found their authentic voice or not.” I asked her how. “You can tell by their body language, what they talk about, and how they talk about it,” she answered. “If they’re being all aggressive, and complaining, and talking all about them, or being on their phone at a luncheon instead of being respectful, they haven’t found their voice. If someone’s found their authentic voice, there’s a sense of respect and calm about them. They don’t need to talk about themselves all the time. And they don’t complain all the time or always make things someone else’s fault. You can tell.”

Clearly, in both of these women’s eyes, the idea of finding an “authentic” voice, and bringing that into the world, assumes a certain level of psychological and emotional development and a mature, healthy and balanced view of oneself and the world. Their vision of being your “authentic self” is being your authentic adult self. Or, as some psychologists and educators would put it, being your best self. Not best according to other people’s standards, but best in the sense of achieving (or striving toward) your unique, best and highest human potential. Your most self-actualized, most evolved, and most mature self.

So is being that kind of authentic self bad advice? Hardly. It’s what leads to the calm presence and ability to show respect that the Baltimore mother was talking about.

The power that comes from someone speaking or acting with an authentic voice doesn’t stem from them simply being “themselves.” It stems from a sense that this person has looked deep into themselves, come to some kind of peace with what’s there, and is both working to improve and expand that while also bringing the light of that core into the world. It’s the light we respond to, and the peace, strength and resolution that we sense behind it.

Of course, it’s also possible for someone to be at least fairly well developed, in terms of psychological maturity (or very well developed in some areas), and have a strong sense of their authentic self, and still choose to focus exclusively on their own needs or desires, regardless of the impact on others. From mountain climbers to artists, the tales are long and many of people who have inflicted everything from benign neglect to great pain on others in pursuit of their own wants needs, desires and dreams. Most of these artists and adventurers would no doubt have argued that they were being true to their most authentic self and needs. Quite possibly. But many of them, it could be argued, were also being breathtakingly selfish, if not downright narcissistic. Just as being authentic and being self-absorbed or narcissistic are not necessarily linked, they are also not mutually exclusive. You can be both.

Having said that, I would also argue that choosing self-absorption has its costs, even beyond the personal life upheaval that such focus and behavior tends to create. As Charles Taylor argued in his 1992 book The Ethics of Authenticity, to choose not to apply the strength of your authentic voice toward any effort, cause, or social or moral horizon bigger and more significant than yourself is to relegate your life to one of triviality. What’s more, lots of research points to the positive impact-both emotionally and physically-of feeling as if your life has had some meaning or purpose beyond your own pleasure. Especially as you get older. And focusing only on yourself denies you those rewards.

But regardless of how we choose to use self-knowledge, or bring our authentic voices into the world, it’s still the second part of the puzzle. The first is gaining that authentic self-knowledge to begin with.

Clear knowledge of our inner selves and voices can enable great things. It can give us strength, endurance, the ability to have impact and make better life choices, and it can help us find passion, fulfillment, meaning, purpose and happiness. But all of that depends not only on what we choose to do with our authentic selves and voices, but also …first… on working to find and become not just our authentic 2-year-old selves, but our authentic grown-up and best selves.

And pursuing or being that is most assuredly very good advice, indeed.

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