Each day when I get out of bed, my underlying goal for the day is to live authentically. To me that means taking steps in the journey of knowing, trusting, and sharing the truest version of myself. This requires being willing to be vulnerable, while also setting personal boundaries. I try to live this way because my experiences, along with the advice of various experts I trust, have convinced me this is the only way to live a meaningful and generous life that is also sustainable and honest.
This goal is neither simple nor easy, but I persist because the rewards are sweet.
The Benefits of Living Authentically
For starters, living more authentically improves our relationship with ourselves. It pushes us to acknowledge and accept qualities we both like and don’t like. Being honest saves us the trouble of having to try to hide from ourselves – a useless task in the long-run and a huge waste of energy. It also gives us the opportunity to improve ourselves; after all, you can’t improve a trait you don’t acknowledge as a shortcoming in the first place.
For example, I know that I am impatient person – it’s legendary around my house. I am fidgety and easily bored. I can’t watch a movie for fifteen minutes straight without getting up to do something. (My husband, by the way, loves this quality. Not. It’s like trying to relax with a pogo stick.) But being a good teacher requires patience; I had to take ownership of this shortcoming before I could take the necessary steps to become more patient to better serve my students.
Living authentically also improves our relationships with others. All relationships require give and take – in fact, regular exchanges of compassion, care, time and energy are what makes a relationship meaningful and beautiful. But it’s important that these exchanges are healthy for all individuals in the relationship. If we commit to showing up as the truest version of ourselves, we pave the way for healthier relationships that benefit everyone involved. This is one area where the importance of setting personal boundaries is particularly useful.
The Challenges of Living Authentically
But living authentically isn’t easy. First, there is often tremendous social pressure to behave a certain way that benefits others in the relationship, even if filling this role is harmful to us. Setting personal boundaries that improve our lives can be difficult. Consider your co-worker who is stuck in the role of “dependable” co-worker. They are regularly expected to take on more than their fair share of work or responsibility while others escape this expectation. Or the person who is stuck in the role of “empathetic listener” with another person, where their emotional resources are constantly in demand, but they receive no emotional support in return.
When we’re stuck like this, it’s hard to pivot to a healthier way of interacting. Attempting to show a more authentic you often prompts what author and life coach Martha Beck calls “change back” pressures. This is when others pressure you to ignore your personal boundaries and return to the role you previously played. She notes, “Because we are a species that fears the unknown, most people reject the continuous transformation that is human reality and try to lock others into predictable behavior… In short, anyone who thinks new thoughts or does new deeds is likely to garner disapproval and criticism from someone.”
This can be especially tricky in families, where the dynamics of who plays what role are often long-standing and deeply ingrained. Engaging in personal growth often means you’ll stop playing a long-standing role to bring a more authentic version of yourself to the relationship. It’s entirely possible that when you set personal boundaries in a way that’s better for you, it won’t sit well with the other family members. There is the possibility of hurt feelings, anger, and divisiveness that should be acknowledged and negotiated for the relationship to remain healthy and meaningful. This is especially true of you’re a people pleaser who tends to put other’s needs and wants before your own.
Being Authentic, Means Being Honest with Ourselves
Second, it’s difficult to own up to aspects of our authentic selves that we don’t like. I mean, who wants to admit to themselves (let alone others) that they have a problem with alcohol, or tend to hold grudges, or are insanely jealous of their friend? This level of honesty is hard, but owning our faults allows us to improve on them. Being honest with ourselves is also key to getting to know our priorities in life and living with intention.
Third, when you share your true self with others you will be more vulnerable; there is the real possibility of rejection. It is entirely possible that someone won’t like the real you. The truth is, others get to make their own decisions about who they want to spend time with, just like we do. But here’s the flip side: if you present a “fake” version of yourself you still risk rejection. If you risk rejection either way, why not go ahead and be real? This opens you up to the potential rewards of an honest and meaningful relationship. It also helps you avoid getting stuck in a role that causes you problems down the road.
Fourth, it can be tricky to figure out the fine line between being honest and being inappropriate. This one is tricky for me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve decided to share a “more authentic” version of myself in conversation with a new acquaintance and ended up oversharing by mistake. Their deer-in-the-headlights stare, tight smile, and sudden need to refresh their drink, were clues I had overstepped just a tad. (Friendly tip: when someone says “Well, I don’t want to keep you…” what they really mean is: “Get me the hell out of this conversation.”)
I’m not saying that you should show up to a social gathering wearing a t-shirt that reads: “Truth seeker who needs lots of hugs. Great listener. A bit anal retentive”. But I am saying it’s important to to share only things about ourselves that are true and sincere.
Setting Personal Boundaries is Key
Living authentically also means setting aside a tendency to people please, setting personal boundaries, and learning to say no. In this way, you will forge authentic relationships. Otherwise, you’re wasting time forging relationships that don’t serve you well, and are preventing others from getting to know the real you. In my experience, nothing feels lonelier than being surrounded by people and feeling disconnected from them. Life is hard enough; adding to a sense of loneliness and isolation simply makes it harder.
Finally, there’s this. Sharing our authentic self is one of the most generous things we can do for others. By showing up as your true self – willing to be vulnerable and risk rejection in favor of engaging in an honest and meaningful way – you model what being an “authenticity warrior” looks like. By paving the way to being authentic, you give others permission (and perhaps courage) to do the same.
It seems to me that what we really want from our relationships with one another are permission and grace. Permission to be ourselves, and grace when we fumble and mess up. You won’t get permission and grace from everyone. But the ones who do allow you to be who you are and still love you even when they feel the need from time to time to go “refresh their drink” – well, that’s your tribe.
And really, at the end of the day, aren’t those the people you really want to hang out with, anyway?