As a young man, I found myself frustrated with what I perceived to be the inauthenticity of most small-talk social interactions. In particular, when someone asked “how are you?” I felt that my response “good, you?” was a socially-conditioned lie. I wanted to answer more honestly and authentically, so I began experimenting with answering this question as honestly and authentically as I could to whomever asked, based on my feelings in the moment. For instance, I might say “well, it’s been kind of a rough day—I’m worried about X, Y, and Z” etc. to a cashier at the supermarket.
At first this new, more authentic way of communicating was awkward as I found myself searching inside for an answer I felt was really authentic. But after a few days or weeks, it became more comfortable for me.
From this experiment I found that this more authentic way of communicating sometimes appeared to be refreshing to the other person, but at other times annoying or uncomfortable, and often led to the other person giving me unwanted advice! This experiment in authenticity lead me to understand experientially why inauthenticity is useful if not required in some contexts.
After some time, I went back to answering “how are you doing?” inauthentically by again saying “good, you?” like most people do. At first, I did so with some incongruence, for it took effort to repress the desire to spew my guts. But after some time, I was able again to be congruently polite and reserved. In other words, at first I was incongruently inauthentic, but with practice became congruently inauthentic again. In addition, I later found that experimenting like this, I could be more open and honest with people close to me by communicating more about my feelings, while remaining comfortably distant from strangers and acquaintances.
Authentic According to Whom?
If you agree that authenticity is always “according to whom?” then the story is a little bit different. In this case, I am authentic—according to me—to the extent that I feel congruent about my behaviors. Therefore, I was authentic up until I felt that small-talk is inauthentic, when I then felt incongruent and became inauthentic (despite my behavior being the same). Then when I was first learning to be more expressive emotionally, I was also inauthentic, because it didn’t yet feel congruent. Then I was congruent and authentic when being more open felt comfortable, and then I was inauthentic again until I had greater practice in being emotionally reserved, in which case I became authentic again. And finally, I became authentic by holding back with strangers and opening up to friends.
This is an unusual way to think about authenticity—that by repeating a new and uncomfortable behavior enough it can become authentic, that being emotionally reserved can be authentic or inauthentic depending on how it feels (which itself can change), etc., but how else are we to make sense of claims to authenticity? If instead we posit a typical definition of authenticity, which is to express whatever deepest feelings are being experienced in the moment, then we are stuck with the curious problem that sometimes it is best to be inauthentic. Or even worse, one could conclude that aspects of my self (e.g. my shy side) are inauthentic or not-me, thus leading to repression or projection (“other people are shy and reserved, but I’m not like that”).
Or let’s take the position of the other—when was I being authentic according to others? In this case, many would probably report that I appeared most authentic when I was congruently emotionally expressive, despite the fact that I both felt authentic being expressive and being reserved, depending on when you would have asked me.
Being recognized and celebrated for one’s “authenticity” usually occurs when authenticity conforms to certain notions but not others. Many people are acknowledged as being “the real deal” if they are very emotionally expressive to the point of being obnoxious or overbearing, but few are celebrated for their authentic tactfulness, authentic intellect, or authentically reserved emotional expression—at least in the U.S., for it’s different in collectivist cultures like Japan or China (“the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”). For example, shock jock Howard Stern is popular in large part because of his crass “authenticity,” but a subtle and wise spiritual teacher like Jack Kornfield is celebrated more for kindness or balance than authentic expression. We then tend to conform our feelings and behaviors to those that are rewarded by others, turning our quest for authenticity into a quest to be celebrated by others for displaying what is seen as authentic.
Reality Hacking Exercize
This week, try answering the question “how are you?” more openly and “authentically” than usual with both strangers and friends. Notice how you feel and how the other person responds. Continue doing so until it feels comfortable to be so open and expressive. Then try answering in a more reserved manner until it becomes comfortable. During both experiments, try to answer from the depths of your being, but the first time in a more brutally honest way, and the second time in a more reserved way. Post your results in the comments below.
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