Authentic Living: How to Be Real According to Psychology
Authentic living requires us to embrace the reality of our freedom and be responsible for how we choose to live.
For the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, authenticity was fundamental to the notion of freedom and living a meaningful life (Ang, 2019).
Authentic living requires us to embrace the reality of our freedom and be responsible for how we choose to live.
In psychology, authenticity is more than merely trying to be ourselves; it requires us to know and own who we are.
Yet, how we balance authenticity and wellbeing throughout our lives and among the multiple roles we play brings challenges.
This article explores what we mean by an authentic life, why it is so important, and how it is possible.
What Is Living an Authentic Life?
How we perceive our authenticity is a crucial aspect of who we are. Not only does it significantly influence the pleasure we derive from our experiences, but it also affects our judgment and behaviour across all aspects of our life.
Even young children are aware of the importance of authenticity, learning to treasure originals more than copies from an early age. In later life, authenticity greatly affects our sense of the value of expensive and everyday objects such designer watches, specialty coffees, and chipped mugs.
Learning to live authentically is about understanding what it means to be real. In Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why It Matters, Stephen Joseph (2019) suggests that despite authenticity being natural, realising our needs while considering others is not easy.
How and why do we stop being ourselves and being authentic?
Carl Rogers (1963), one of the most renowned humanistic psychologists, believed that being motivated toward fulfilment and self-actualisation is a normal and natural human urge, yet it can be blocked when our needs go unsatisfied.
People will do all they must to survive. This affects behaviour and how we perceive the world and the people around us. Those who have their needs met through positive, nurturing environments flourish.
Humans’ natural tendency is to strive to become more authentic, developing in the direction necessary to reach their full potential, like plants growing toward the light.
We do not teach babies to be authentic; they simply are. They have no facade and are entirely in touch with who they are inside. When hungry, they cry; when their needs are met, they stop. Yet, as self-awareness develops (beginning at 18 months), so too does their sense of who they are, and their narrative starts to develop.
The authentic parent ensures that their child’s needs are met. The developing child is free to choose their path, experience a sense of belonging, and develop and realise their potential.
In reality, love is often conditional. As children, we are shown more love and affection when we perform well, win the race, and ace a test. We learn that there are things we must do to feel an increased sense of belonging and love.
This can push us toward lifelong inauthentic living.
Isn’t it true that for much of our adult lives, we put on a show? During the day, we may experience only fleeting moments where we are truly ourselves, saying and thinking exactly how we feel.
The person living authentically exists moment by moment, striving to understand themselves, their motivation, defences, and conditions of worth, while being aware of their responsibilities and choices. An authentic life involves following one’s passion and being intimately connected to our natural abilities, strengths, and talents.
3 Real-Life Examples of Authenticity
While the psychology literature recognises and describes the value of authentic existence, it’s useful to review some real-life examples of people living or moving toward authenticity:
Vic was a macho poker player, aggressive and competitive in his dealing with others, drinking and playing late into the night. Yet for years, Vic had been living inauthentically, hiding behind extreme masculinity.
It took a further 10 years before, having moved to Australia, Vic became Victoria and started living according to her true self (Joseph, 2019).
Jon, then in his forties, was angry with everyone, his parents, marriage, and job. He blamed them all for everything that had gone wrong and for not having the life he wanted.
Everything changed during one crucial therapy session when he realised, “it’s me, isn’t it? I need to step up and take some responsibility.” After that shift in thinking, everything was different. Rather than exist as a powerless victim, he started to take steps to fix what was broken in his life.
After Andrew’s boss, Jason, had told the department that their jobs were safe, executive management called them into a meeting. On the journey, Jason admitted to having misled the team. They were planning to reduce staffing by 30%.
Rather than risk low morale, Jason wanted Andrew to keep the truth from the team for as long as possible. Not comfortable being that sort of person, Andrew left the company, saying it was the best decision he ever made.
Authenticity may come at a cost, yet it typically leads to a richer, more complete life.
Authenticity & Authentic Self in Psychology Research
Over the last couple of decades, there has been some fascinating research behind the factors impacting authenticity and its effect on how we live.
Life’s impermanence and uncertainty may actually increase authentic living. For some, the realisations that death is ultimately unavoidable, values are subjective, and the universe holds no clear objectives can be wake-up calls that lead to more authenticity.
Modern technology, so intrusive and intimately connected to all aspects of contemporary existence, can also impact authentic living. As wearable technology continues to revolutionise the health, wellness, and sports sectors, providing previously unknowable biometric information to the general population, they offer (sometimes doubtful) promises to enhance users’ lives.
Wearable technology’s development may also alter more fundamentally how we exist in and interact with the world.
Self-presentation theory suggests that all people knowingly package information about themselves to varying degrees in order to impress their audience. Researchers have explored the nature of authenticity on self-presentation using the surprising fact that authentic people see colours more intensely.
They found that self-proclaimed authentic people, when pressed, will manipulate their behaviour to appear authentic. It seems that while authenticity may have personal value and add meaning to our lives, we may also wish to be seen as authentic to gain social benefit.
Indeed, self-esteem occurs when our true self – motives, values, feelings, and self-perception – operates unobstructed in our everyday lives.
Authenticity or even being perceived as authentic may provide positive benefits to our view of our worth and abilities, and increase self-respect.
Why Is Authenticity Important? 7+ Benefits
According to positive psychology, a ‘good life’ is not defined solely by the absence of psychological problems but by experiences that go above and beyond the absence of problems.
It is most likely when we are free and ready to flourish.
Authenticity and living a complete and fulfilling life are processes rather than outcomes. Living authentically involves moving in a direction that is most authentic to us as individuals.
Adopting an eudaimonic orientation, fully developing our potentials, and experiencing meaning in life and a deep enjoyment or happiness include seeking authenticity, excellence, and personal growth.
Such a person is more likely to engage in the following positive, intrinsically motivated, and socially aware activities:
Donating time and money to charitable causes
Engaging in positive community enterprises
Engaging in challenging activities
Expressing our essential selves to provide meaning and purpose in our lives
Such a lifestyle has several benefits to wellbeing, even at a cellular level, including improved antiviral responses.
Authenticity is central to eudaimonia and gives rise to a flourishing life where we pursue goals that are more intrinsically motivating to us and make the most of our talents and abilities.
How to Be Your Authentic Self
We can engage in several practices and activities to be more authentic while encouraging a balance between what is going on inwardly and what we express outwardly.
In the long term, putting on an inauthentic front is tiring and ultimately damaging to our mental and physical wellbeing.
Joseph (2019) summarises what is needed with the following formula and goals:
Know yourself + Own yourself + Be yourself = the Authentic Life
Learn to do the following in your daily life:
Become more aware of what is happening in your body. Having a tense neck or shoulders may be linked to what is going on in your mind, feelings, thoughts, and difficult decisions.
Listen to your inner voice rather than losing it in the noise of others’. Make it an ongoing process to listen to your hopes, dreams, and fears.
Know yourself, what you are good at, what you are prepared to do, and what you are not. Face up to the truths of who you are. Honesty is not always pleasant, but it has the potential to free you.
Own yourself and your truths. Don’t let others push you into their way of thinking, but also don’t stick to views when you are proved wrong or they no longer work for you. Take responsibility for your choices.
Be yourself; be honest and transparent in your dealings. People like and are drawn to those they perceive as sincere and genuine and distrust those who are not.
Ask yourself the following questions:
Do you feel free to make your own choices?
Do you feel free to express your own views and opinions?
Do you feel you can be yourself on a day-to-day basis?
If you answer “no” to any of the questions, reflect on one further question:
Could it be that you are not being true to who you are?
Our role as parents
Conditional love creates what Carl Rogers (1963) calls ‘conditions of worth’: rules we learn in childhood that tell us love depends on what we do and how we perform.
Ultimately, such conditions lead to the voices in our head that criticise us and pull us down later on in adulthood.
As parents, we must show our children unconditional love, not dependent on doing well at school, passing exams, being well-behaved, or excelling at sports.
Showing love only when our child performs or withholding it when they don’t are equally harmful. We should not want our children to develop to please us; rather we should wish for them to be authentic to themselves.
Authenticity and Vulnerability: Are They Linked?
There’s a strong connection between authenticity and vulnerability.
Authenticity in nursing was only made possible by entering a state of mutual vulnerability with other staff and patients.
Such findings have been replicated many times since, in various domains.
In Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown (2015) confirms the strength of the link between authenticity and vulnerability.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity” (Brown, 2015).
She goes on to say that vulnerability and authenticity form part of our hard-wired need for connection and that together they stop us from dehumanising people and help us develop valuable relationships.
When business leaders show humility and vulnerability, their followers experience a greater degree of authenticity as related to themselves and their experience of the leader.
Authentic living can lead to a more profound, longer lasting happiness.
A Take-Home Message
For Sartre, authentic living was about finding meaning in the projects we undertake and our encounters with others.
Psychology has a similar message. An authentic life is one where our needs are met, we feel fulfilled, we experience self-actualisation, and we flourish.
Authentic living involves a balance between what is occurring within us and how we express and represent ourselves outside. It requires us to remove many of the defence mechanisms that have formed in childhood to protect us.
We must also see and accept existence and who we are with honesty; life is complicated and rarely black and white. We cannot expect people and opportunities to be as we would hope, but we do have control over our reactions.
By stopping yourself from alienating others and being distant and removed from your likes, fears, and desires, you can become more in touch with the real you.
Be open to new opportunities and experiences, seek new challenges, and transform the anxiety that forces you to hide into enthusiasm. Engagement can be one of the most positive paths to authenticity.
To be real, you must follow your passions while remaining tied intimately to who you are, reflecting your strengths and virtues.
By Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D on 10th March 2021 at www.psychology.com