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Let’s not try to be “Authentic”

March 30, 2024
Borderless Leadership

One of the big recent cultural shifts in America has been people claiming that they want to strive toward greater authenticity in their lives. Perhaps this was brought on by a feeling that people are increasingly “fake” in their online personas, especially on social media and dating app profiles, or in routine interactions with acquaintances or colleagues that might seem forced and mundane. Whatever the reason, people seem to be strongly craving a connection with their true selves and to bring more authenticity into their lives.

There’s just one problem. There is no true self, at least not in any sense of the self that we can understand through science. We should seriously question the idea of authenticity as a meaningful construct in our lives.

A Psychological Quirk
We might naively assume that everyone has a true and authentic core “self,” almost like believing in a secular version of a soul. But this assumption is based on a psychological quirk. Humans are essentialist thinkers, which means we wrongly assume that all beings have a stable underlying essence, or a je ne sais quoi. But when it comes to living, growing life forms, this is an illusion. Lots of people say that in order to have a happy, meaningful life, we just need to get in touch with that core, essentialist part of ourselves and behave in ways that are consistent with this. I suggest this is a false and unhealthy way of thinking. This concept of authenticity isn’t useful because it’s based on a flawed assumption of how human psychology works.

Previously, I suggested that people actually change a lot throughout their lives. But the pace of change diminishes throughout adulthood, so it may not feel subjectively like we’re changing very much from year to year when, in fact, we do. This also helps explain why it may not be possible to have one true authentic self, because the self is almost always changing. Striving for authenticity may be like trying to hit a moving target. If you’re always in motion, or if your north star keeps shifting, then getting to an authentic state would be a fool’s errand. Developmental psychology is, in a sense, the study of change. The more we change, the more it should be apparent to us that there isn’t a fixed, static thing that we should use to define ourselves.

One might think that this would be a liberating idea. With so much in flux, life has seemingly endless possibilities! Being truly authentic might be like going on a never-ending scavenger hunt. You might spend your life looking for elements of yourself (which can be really fun!) even if you never find all of them. The idea of one “true” self could be too restricting.

We can also imagine the opposite, that the idea of moving through life without a well-defined, core sense of self could feel destabilizing or even anxiety-provoking. This is why people often crave certainty and stability. This is sometimes referred to as a “need for cognitive closure.” People want to know how things in the world really do work, now just how they may or may not work. Just like everything else, we want the same level of insight and understanding into ourselves.

Narrating Your Own Story
Another way to reconcile these ideas is through a theory of personality development championed by researcher Dan McAdams. His research suggests that our personalities change based on adaptations. You might begin your life as a more introverted person, but then meet friends in young adulthood who pull you out of your shell. Thus, you become a more extroverted person through those social relationships. So, which was the “authentic” version of yourself: the initial introvert or the eventual extrovert?

McAdams suggests that both are real, true parts of yourself, and the way we make sense of this is to tell a story about our lives that weaves all of these threads together. By narrating the story of our own journeys, we behave as what McAdams calls the “autobiographical author.” We tell the story of our lives, including how we evolve and adapt to different life circumstances (sometimes permanently). This is, in my view, a better way that people can attempt to be “authentic.” I suggest that developing one’s own narrative-based identity is a much healthier way for people to get in tune with their own selves.

by Dylan Seltermann

Source: psychologytoday.com

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