Authenticity is a complicated word. We are told to be authentic. However, we also face a lifetime of expectations, of being conditioned by the cultural norms to try to meet the expectations of others.
When we begin to first stretch our wings, to be authentic to what we really want, there’s sometimes a clash between trying to continue satisfying everyone else’s expectations of my actions and doing what I have previously committed to….This sometimes conflicts with our desire to live an authentic life, to follow the dreams we may have only just admitted we have for our lives.
And those dreams may be very different from what everyone around us “wants” for us or expects of us. Trying to become more authentic is where many of us first learn to say, “No, that’s not what I want for my life.”
Authenticity, needs, and shadow do a particular dance. A great deal of shadow is more accurately described as, cultural shadow. They are things that are genuine human needs, things it’s realistic to want. Like, sex, affection, comfort, or even people’s attention or respect. But, culturally, we’re taught that it’s “bad” to want these things. And then they work their way into shadow, where we try to resist wanting them–because, our ego knows that it’s “bad” so “we don’t want that, right?”
Except, then we do work to be more authentic, and we start to recognize, “No, I really do want that.”
We slowly start to learn that it’s reasonable (not inherently dirty) to want sex. To want physical affection. To want people’s attention and respect. To want to be seen for being unique and special. To be told we did a good job. It’s not bad to want these things, we’re just told that some of these things are bad. “Only Show-Offs want that,” “If you want that you’re a whore.” Etc, etc.
However–there is a balance with authenticity, needs, and shadow. I hear a lot of people using the “authenticity” smackdown to articulate why they can be a total jerk. “I really want this, I’m being authentic and true to myself.” Well–yeah, your need for _____ might be overwhelming in this particular moment.
But, how does that need impact or even harm others if you indulge in it? And is it something that is going to serve you for just this moment, or is it going to serve your larger life’s purpose?
For me, authenticity is more of a long-game type of word. I can be authentic and say that, yes, right now, I’d like to go eat some terrible-for-me fast food. I admit it. I’d like a sub sandwich and some ice cream, and seriously–screw all the people who would judge me for being just another fatass.
However–this does not serve my long-term health goals. In my case, it’s not about weight so much as depression and other health concerns. When I eat healthy, I feel better. So there’s authenticity/honesty about our shorter term needs, but there’s also looking at the larger picture for ourselves. Food’s a really great, clear example because in some cases (like mine) there might be the short-term instant gratification, but in the longer term, I’m going to suffer through exhaustion and depression symptoms.
Here’s a more emotional example. Since in my last post I was talking about sexual ethics in groups, let’s look at that. Let’s say that I’m a group leader, and there’s someone who came into the leadership team via attending one of my classes. Let’s say he hits on me, and I’m attracted to this guy, and I decide, yeah, this is authentically what I want right now, and sex is not bad so let’s go for it.
Maybe we go out a few times before I realize that we’re really not compatible. Maybe he’s really immature. Or maybe he falls in love with me and wants to settle down, and I don’t want that. Or maybe he has a very different communication style. For whatever dozens of reasons, I realize that this was a big mistake. One of us breaks off the relationship during a fight. And then we’re both left with the aftermath–now we’re both in a group together, and one or both of us is pissed off at the other. Ultimately this usually means one party leaves the group, and usually if that happens, it’s bitter and frequently involves gossip and backstabbing.
So in that one moment, maybe we both authentically wanted sex…but, the longer term impact to the group certainly isn’t what I wanted, but in the above scenario, I didn’t take the time to get a better sense of the other person and where they were at and what our compatibility was…nor did I ensure that that person and I were on a peer dynamic.
It goes on and on. I think sex is a good example for the authenticity/needs discussion because
- There’s so much cultural shame around wanting sex, so when we discover that sex isn’t bad and want to explore it, we can kind of pendulum swing to the other side, and
- It’s one of those things that tends to happen rather impulsively when things heat up, but can have various consequences when the morning light hits the pillows.
Let’s go to another emotional example. Anger. Rage. There are people in my life who have hurt me badly; I’m sure anyone reading this has had moments where they were in the same place. There are moments where I wanted to hurt them the way that they hurt me. Was that emotion authentic? Yup.
However, part of authenticity is not just what I feel in that moment, but who I want to be and what values I want to live. I’m authentically pissed. Hurt beyond words. Maxxed out to my limit by what was said to me or done to me. But yet, I have worked in my life to be authentic to my larger self, to my values, not just to that brief feeling.
Now–since the above scenario can get pretty complicated if we’re talking about issues of emotional or physical abuse, I’m going to clarify that I’m not in any way judging anyone who has totally blown up at someone who’s been emotionally or otherwise abusing them. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I have the t-shirt.
What I’m talking about are when we have the opportunity to look at the emotion we are feeling, and the different ways we could react, and instead choosing to respond in a way that is in alignment with our values. A specific example might be if another group leader starts yelling at me because he heard that I had done XYZ. If I just start yelling back because I’m pissed, I don’t really get the opportunity to dig into what’s going on.
But if I listen, and figure out, oh, he has the wrong information, then I can clarify that indeed, I didn’t do XYZ, I did ABC. I can de-escalate the conflict if I can keep my cool. I’m authentically angry that I’m being shouted at, but I can choose to not escalate things by shouting and try to figure out what’s actually happening and work through the conflict.
Of course, if the other person never stops shouting at me, I can’t really do much about that–but I can control my own response.
Authenticity, Anger, Needs, and Societal Consequences
The benefit of having a dominant culture and social consequences to our actions is that it does keep certain bad things from happening–or at least, happening as frequently. Like murder and theft. The way we treat each other are part of the laws that we have. Such as, theft is illegal, murder is illegal, rape is illegal. Those are all laws theoretically to protect people. However, there’s a certain overlap between our laws and expectations, and the dominant culture and the social pressures it represents.
We generally want the social pressure that people shouldn’t be murdering and raping each other. But that same social pressure is wrapped into the dominant culture’s expectations and judgments of each person. Each person should be heterosexual and get married and have babies and go to church and dress like everyone else and not be promiscuous and not be a show-off and should keep a steady job and…etc.
Those societal judgments are part of what cause our individual struggles with our own needs. And that’s where shadow comes in, and why we struggle with personal boundaries–even with our identity, who we are.
Boundaries, Identity, and Pleasing Others
These are things that are both fascinating to me, as well as frustrating. If I’m doing things in my life to please/satisfy others instead of to please myself, what’s the impact there? See–one of our problems is that humans don’t tend to do gray areas very well. We tend to do black/white thinking. Something is either Awesome or Terrible. Good/Bad. We polarize really quickly.
Authenticity is not turning into a self-centered jerk who only does what pleases them. But nor is authenticity bending over backwards to please everyone else in your life at the expense of yourself.
Authenticity is looking at what you want in a particular moment, and looking at what you want for your life, your goals and dreams, for your larger/deeper self, and determining if that momentary desire is in alignment with your life’s desire.
In our society, we don’t develop very good boundaries. That is to say, we often have a vague idea of self. Typical parenting extends identity from the parent onto the child–meaning, a parent has expectations for their child. That child either is “good” and lives up to those expectations, or is “bad” because they rebel against them.
Good boundaries means you have to know who you are. And that might sound simple–and it’s really, really not. Most of us have utterly terrible boundaries. We’re a mess of the expectations placed on us by our parents, expectations from the school system, expectations from the dominant culture, and expectations from our friends, partners, and others in our lives.
Boundaries: Changing Your Life
I have a number of people I know–usually women hitting middle-age–who suddenly change their lives. They have been care-taking their family their whole adult life, and suddenly they realize, they hate their marriage, they hate their job, they hate how people treat them, they hate their life. Sometimes they get divorced, or switch jobs, or start going to spiritual retreats.
Basically, they never fully got to individuate. At age two, we learn to say “no.” But if we’re taught that it’s bad to say “no,” then we’re stuck with poor boundaries. And then it’s really hard to say “no” because what we’ve learned is, “If I say no, they will hate me. They will judge me, and excommunicate me, and I’ll be alone forever.”
But for these folks, they get to a point where the rock met the hard place and they exploded. They couldn’t keep saying “yes.” Often this blow up results in an attempt to re-negotiate an unhealthy dynamic with an overbearing parent. And–as you might expect–that renegotiation rarely goes well.
Once Person A says, “I know I’ve always bent to the pressure from you, but I want to do my own thing,” whether Person B is their parent, spouse, teacher, or some other relationship, Person B usually gets pissed off. Sometimes, they are able to renegotiate the relationship. In most cases, it ends up with family estrangement because the person who has worked to negotiate their boundaries can no longer put up with the behavior from Person B, and Person B won’t respect the new boundaries.
I think a lot of our societal problems would be different if we could say “no” without huge social consequences. Angeles Arrien writes about tribal cultures where “no” just means, “No, can’t help with that, good luck,” and there’s no cultural judgment around it. That’s not the case in the culture I grew up in.
A lot of authenticity work ultimately boils down to figuring out who you are. Healing the wounds of your past. And, once you know who you are, establishing healthy boundaries with the people around you and learning what you truly want to agree to do, and what you don’t.
Again, healthy boundaries and authenticity doesn’t mean being totally selfish. Yes–it’s still a good idea to bow to the social pressure to help a friend move into a new house even if you don’t want to. Why? Because you value that friend, and even if in the moment you really would rather do something else, you’re working to support your larger values of friendship and community support.
Authenticity and boundaries might be starting a new job, even though your family or spouse doesn’t agree with the choice. “That work is beneath you,” someone might say. “You’ll never make a living doing that.” “You won’t get any time with you family.” Or a host of other complaints. Authenticity is figuring out what it is you want to do–part of who you are. Boundaries is that line between you, and someone else. You don’t have to do what someone else wants for you.
This also comes into play romantically. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been dating someone and had people tell me, “Oh, he’s perfect for you. Don’t let that one go.” Or, “You should marry that guy, I like him.” And if I broke up with the guy, there was the pressure that I had somehow screwed up because that other person liked the guy. This is, again, more of that subtle social pressuring and why we have problems with boundaries.
If I’m living my life authentically, and others are pleased by it, that’s cool. I’m probably not living my life for them to be pleased by it, but if that’s an impact, ok. If it’s the other way around, and I’m running around people pleasing, that’s probably not on the authenticity side of the fence.
Going back to the issue of shadows, authenticity, and sex in groups, we’ve got a lot of paradox there. Is sex inherently bad? No. But, sex does lead to relationship complications. And specifically, the shadow side of sex is when someone is so desperate for affection that they are acting compulsively. It’s usually referred to in our culture as sex addiction, though sex therapists that I know have told me there’s no such thing, and that the behaviors of sex addiction are usually symptoms of one of the major personality disorders or another untreated illness. People with Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, often display the symptoms of compulsive sex, compulsive spending, theft, property destruction, and other compulsive behaviors.
Sex isn’t bad. If you’re using someone for sex because you are desperately trying to get that love/affection need met, and you are manipulating someone into sex or lying to them to get sex or are having unsafe sex with multiple partners and lying to them, or cheating on your partner…that’s where we are looking at shadow.
Shadow is when our genuine human need (love/sex/affection) is so unmet–and we are so desperate to have it met–that we act out in a way that’s unhealthy for us and those around us.
Authenticity is a complicated thing, but if we can get there…imagine the positive impacts, the healthy relationships, the healthy groups. If we:
- Work to know ourselves,
- Work to know our deep selves and our dreams for the future,
- Look at our current relationships and how we are living someone else’s identity/desire for us,
- Work to understand the difference between our short-term needs and desires, and our longer-term needs and desires and values, and
- Work to negotiate our boundaries with those around us so that we can live our own life, establish our own identity…
Ultimately, this is why beneath every leadership tool and technique is intensive personal growth. It’s knowing yourself, and identifying what really needs to transform in order for you to be a healthy, whole person and to bring that healthy, whole person into service of your deeper life’s purpose, your dream, your community, the world. This is why we all need to work on our baggage. That’s the world I want to live in.
**Some of my understanding of the concept of boundaries comes from the work of Dr. L. Carol Scott, who has a great blog and newsletter with fantastic articles. Very much worth checking out.