Be Yourself, But Not Because I Told You To: The Paradoxes of Authenticity

By Duff McDuffee on June 2nd, 2010 1

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The message in personal development, self-help, and the wider Western culture is clear—“be yourself.” We are told that being a conformist is bad. The marketplace demands creativity and innovation from passionate employees, consumers are bored of last year’s model, and many workers are tired of working meaningless jobs. But here’s the thing: if you obey this cultural demand, you are being a conformist—but if you don’t obey the demand to be yourself, you are also being a conformist!

The cultural demand for authenticity sets up a double bind. On the one hand, if you conform to social norms you are not being yourself and thus not acting authentically. “If you don’t have a plan for your life, someone else will” we are told. But yet advertisers selling “authentic” pre-ripped jeans (to help you be your laid-back self) and personal-development-marketing-lifestyle-gurus selling $197/month courses (to help you find your authentically wealthy self) both have a plan for our lives—to have us as their customers.

On the other hand, if you simply “be yourself” then you are obeying the cultural dictate, and thus not being yourself! Authenticity is said to be throwing off cultural conditioning and doing what is right for you. But this itself has become a social norm—hence the paradox.

Reactive rebellion doesn’t work either. The serial non-conformist and self-proclaimed rebel is completely controlled by social norms—he must do the opposite of whatever he believes the norm to be. In NLP this kind of person is called a “polarity responder” and is perhaps the easiest person to manipulate. Simply tell the polarity responder what you don’t want them to do or what they “can’t” do. For example tell a rebellious teenager “I don’t think you are capable of cleaning your room right now” with a sly smile and watch how fast that room gets picked up!

What is the way out of this double-bind? I propose that it is the same for every double-bind, or “be spontaneous paradox”one must act absurdly, violating both poles. Family therapist Paul Watzlawick gives a classic example of the be spontaneous paradox from “two unhappiness experts” in his book The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious:

“Do you love me?”
“If you really loved me, you’d say so without my asking you.”

Insomniacs tend to tell themselves something over and over in an anxious inner voice like “I’ve got to get some sleep!” Sleep is not something consciously controlled so this attempt to consciously sleep fails. One effective therapeutic intervention is for the therapist to require the insomniac to try to stay awake (while lying in bed, eyes closed) for as long as possible. When it works, this absurd intervention cuts through the double-bind by allowing the client to consciously “fail” at his task and thus succeed at unconsciously falling asleep.

One absurd option in the case of the authenticity paradox would be for the individual to decide after some reflection that obeying some social norm is authentic for them. For instance, a man might wear a suit and tie to express his authentic self in a business context, feeling no incongruence. He may choose to do this even on “Casual Friday’s” despite the peer pressure to conform to casual attire (thus conforming to one social norm while simultaneously disobeying another).

Another possibility would be to choose to be part of a rebellious counterculture, but rebel from some of the norms of the counterculture itself that do not fit the considered beliefs of the individual. Another would be to disavow the cultural ideal of authenticity entirely, choosing one’s own values which may or may not include authenticity, and perhaps are even context dependent. Another still is to examine the social nature of the self, coming to realize that no individual is separate from the culture, nor is culture separate from the individual, but there is a complex interaction between the two—thus the demand to be free from cultural conditioning is seen as absurd.

Of course if you just take my advice here, are you really being yourself or just following my suggestions? 🙂

Got other solutions to the paradox? Add them in the comments below. You can also subscribe for free to receive new articles in your email in the upper right of this page if you are not already subscribed.



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70 responses to “Be Yourself, But Not Because I Told You To: The Paradoxes of Authenticity”

  1. Evan says:

    Paradoxes are apparent contradictions not double-binds. Different definitions of the same concept (self-help ones vs marketers self-interested ones) are not double-binds.

    And differentiation is not a double-bind. Seeing black against [something else] is not a double bind. Hearing noise against the background of a song is not a double-bind.

    Authentic individuality is only possible because of our collective similarities. If we were completely different to each other (different to authenticity) we just wouldn't relate to each other hardly at all. We'd have as much feeling for another as we would for an alien that landed (and maybe we wouldn't recognise the alien as related to us at all – there is much science fiction and theology about this).

    In my experience it is possible to draw closer to another by appreciatively exploring our authenticity and difference to each other. This is a deeply nourishing paradox not a frustrating and diminishing double-bind in my experience.
    My recent post The Pilgrim

    • Double-binds are apparent contradictions. Double-binds are communication paradoxes.

      "A paradox is a statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition."

      "A double bind is a dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, with one message negating the other."

      I'm not understanding your point here.

      This is a deeply nourishing paradox not a frustrating and diminishing double-bind in my experience.

      I can appreciate that everyone has a different experience of wrestling with such things as "authenticity." I can also appreciate that the frustration of wrestling with a problem can be nourishing!

  2. Carl Nelson says:

    This hearkens back to many established teachings actually by examples as world known as Buddha, Krishnamurti, etc.

    The teacher telling the student not to listen to the teacher but to find their own path (even though they are in effect telling them what to do), but it is not the teacher telling the student not to listen to teachers that is important it is the students decision to choose to listen to the teacher of their own accord.

    Very interesting.

  3. Josh Buckner says:

    Love the post. Be yourself without going too far outside of the cultural expectations. My initial thought was to approach this as a puzzle to be solved, but maybe it helps to frame this as friction rather than paradox. Friction can produce all sorts of beautiful things, like polish and artistic expression. The cultural context invites you to create new ways of being authentic.
    My recent post joshbuckner: RT @ericschiller: Be Yourself, But Not Because I Told You To: The Paradoxes of Authenticity

  • Mumon says:

    A similar question was posed by William Barrett in The Illusion of Technique, and is encapsulated in the phrase, "How do I know I'm sincere?"

    You cannot answer the question affirmatively because to sincerely ask the question is to put into question one's own sincerity, and at that moment, once simply honestly cannot know if one is sincere.

    On the other hand, if one is indeed sincerely asking the question, it is self-evident that one is sincere.

    (Western) social norms want people to say they're authentic, but it's not clear that social norms represent sincerely held individual norms. 🙂
    My recent post Lankavatara Sutra Chapter 3, Section LXXI

  • Cathy Sander says:

    I reckon that we should ignore their advice, and do the things that we have to do. If we continue to believe that there's only one way to live a life, then we will be disappointed [and boy, I learnt from my past experience about this!]. We live, not by our words, but by what we do in the world.

  • Chris Edgar says:

    Hi Duff — it sounds like, for you, whether you are "being yourself" depends on the motives behind what you are doing in any given moment. Thus, if I say "I'm going to be myself now" in response to a suggestion from an advertiser, I am not really "being myself" because I am acting out of a desire to obey someone else. But presumably, if I acted based on a more "pure" motive, I would meet your criterion for "being myself." Or are you saying that there are no "pure" motives, because everything we do is a product of our conditioning, and thus every action we take is done out of a desire, conscious or otherwise, to obey?
    My recent post Thoughts On “Thinking For Yourself”

  • Edward says:

    If you make your choices based on what gives you greater joy or greater aliveness, it doesn't really matter if you are being "authentic", or following the "cultural norm". I find, as I get older, that I enjoy life much more, because I am not so concerned with either rebelling or fitting in.
    My recent post Making Friends With The Universe

    • This to me sounds like an excellent (personal) solution to the paradox.

    • absolutely, edward. the question of authenticity is interesting to some degree, but it's also a bit academic. the only person who ever has a chance to know whether i'm authentic is myself, and i know it when i know it. whether someone else thinks i am (or should be more/less) authentic is not something i want to influence my thinking and behaviour.

      • Well, it's not academic to me, both because I find the question very personally relevant and because there is so much talk of authenticity in our culture (most recently as the hip, new marketing tactic).

        But if you aren't personally right now wrestling with a specific question, it will certainly appear "academic."

  • Eric Normand says:

    I think when most people say “be yourself”, they are referring to a resolution to the paradox, not one side of it. The problem is that if you don’t have your own solution in a given context, the statement is meaningless.

    It reminds me of the common command “calm down!”. It rarely has the intended effect. If you’re in atense situation, you are better off heightening your alertness rather than relaxing.

    I think most cultural values are paradoxes. You have to volunteer willingly and without compulsion, yet it is understood to be mandatory. You should do the right thing, but it only counts if it’s out of the goodness of your heart, etc.

    That’s why when someone analyzes persuasive behavior then mimics it to get a result, he’s considered manipulative. But if he’s “naturally” charming, it’s ok.

    I think this shows a very juvenile view of morality and cultural norms. We should realize that these rules are just what you tell kids so they don’t upset people. The fact that they remain double binds shows how child-like they are.

  • I have to admit that while all the commenters are especially mature and interesting, I was hoping that more readers would actually be interested in the question. It seems that many aren't aware of the conflict or don't care about it! I'm curious why that is–perhaps I should have given more specific examples?

  • Carlon says:

    Very interesting. As someone who has lived in both an individualistic culture (the U.S.) and a more collectivist culture (South Korea), the whole "be yourself" command takes on a whole new dimension. Much of our cultural values might be paradoxes, but I think it has to do with the fact that different values simultaneously exist in a culture. And these double binds might come up as we attempt to navigate them.

    It's interesting that in many big companies, they encourage individualistic behavior in the workplace and then complain that teamwork is lacking. In South Korea, I've seen the opposite problem, where team work is high but then complain that no one is taking the initiative.
    My recent post 10 Ways You Could be Compared to Hitler!

  • NellaLou says:

    Authenticity seems to have some appeal to truth. Same as sincerity. We can often detect when it's false in others but not so often within ourselves. We can utter something with a desperate sincerity "I really mean it!" but how deep does it really go?

    Authenticity is somewhat like an archeological project I think. Uncovering layers. We only know we've reached the wellspring/source when we get there and it gushes forth. But a lot of other stuff gushes forth too along the way.

    To wrestle with this conflict is the digging part of the endeavor.

    And I think many people are not aware of the conflict. Disturbing the sands too deeply seems "unnecessary". It is more pleasing in the way of "life-aesthetic" to simply rake them around in fancy patterns-or pay someone else to do it.

  • For me, I think that part of the contradiction has it's root in that people can seem to place more stock in their mental images and narratives of the world, than they do in the sensory evidence in front of (or not in front of) them. Much like the captives in Plato's Cave. I would personally suspect that one manifestation of this phenomena is down to our media environment, in that the now rapid availability of information and the demands of multi-tasking create a certain amount of fragmentation in the perception of the self, which of course is reflected in how we see the world.

  • @dustmapper says:

    As I define it, everything I do is already authentic. I don't question my authenticity at this stage. I partly came to this conclusion after the myriad examples you posted in the last several months, making clear there really isn't any quality we can turn to if we want to be real.

    Communication problems that arise I see as a reflection of my level of ignorance rather than my level of authenticity. I don't mean ignorance in the typical sense. Internet marketers, lawyers, or salesman for example ARE NOT ignorant of manipulative techniques. I mean ignorance in the sense that we're blind to much of the karmic consequences of our actions, both good and bad.


    On another note, perhaps we could redefine the word authenticity. Authenticity could mean how in tune we are with the "authentic principles of the universe" (so to speak) vs. what underlying intentions we have.

    (BTW, there are some really fascinating perspectives from a lot of folks here…I'll stick with the primary question at hand, but wanted to still acknowledge this.)

    My recent post dustmapper: RT @twitertwotter: Children of trauma r often inaccurately given the diagnosis of ODD and/or ADHD. #traumainformedcare

  • elaine says:

    I guess I'm still stuck on what is meant by "authentic". It seems to be, like what the Supreme Court Justice said about obscenity…..

    For me, when I act when heart, head, gut are all in alignment there is a deep inner peace. I know I'm living in integrity with myself. I don't compare it to any social conventions. For me that point is mute. Do society's conventions influence my decisions and that feeling? Of course.

    It seems to me, that some on the "authenticity" bandwagon, are encouraging folks to forget about the past few million years of brain evolution and want us to act out of our baser instincts. Our brains have evolved to acknowledge the importance of societal conventions.

  • DesireEngine says:

    It may sound strange, but personally, I feel the paradox exists only at the ego level. What I mean is, only to the ego, is this a paradox. When I “back-up” to where I can see my ego and make deliberate choices concerning it, but not *of* it, I can see that everything is authentic, though there are different levels of “real.” At this level, my ego may execute my choices, but the choices include a larger part of me—one that sees through the paradox.

    For example, from a conscious perspective larger than ego, I might deliberately create a social mask to accomplish something I want. This is OK for me, as long as I consciously do it, and if in the context of Self, it feels appropriate to do so (i.e., my inner guidance approves).

    On the other hand, when I am operating ONLY at the ego-level, authenticity means something different.

    Let’s say I have regressed because an emotional trigger gets the best of me, or I am (temporarily) otherwise knocked from my connection to inner Self. In the grips of ego-fixation then, I am still authentically my *ego-program*, but from the perspective of my normal baseline—connected with Self and with a healthy ego-transparency—I have lost some *depth* of authenticity.

    In such a scenario, if I had never been connected with deeper aspects of my Self, I might not understand (or even know) that I am only my authentic ego program, and that there’s yet more of me. By contrast, if I have benefited from some transformational experience that has deepened my perspective, then perhaps I can get back to *that* view, and have a good laugh at myself. 🙂

    Duff, I agree that the question is not academic for those folks who are walking around asking the question “Am I authentic?” (and there are a lot of them). I feel that we ought not to look at such a condition as “inferior” or inauthentic (and I know that you are not suggesting this), but instead believe that it benefits us to consider such a state (lovingly) as a necessary step in our ongoing expansion.

    In summary: when the ego is no longer an opaque “I” and is instead connected to a larger Self and more of that Self’s resources, then the paradox is resolved by perception, and a newly available level of choice. When I am connected to *who* I am, and am empowered to choose that which I want, and that which is aligned with me, and that which feels appropriate to me, I am now *consciously* authentic.

    On the other hand, when I am on autopilot and fishing around for different personae and constantly questioning what it is to be authentic…well, I am still at the level of paradox, aren’t I?

    Another lively post and topic from you!

    Thank you for your work…


    • While usually you and I disagree somewhat on such topics, this time your words fit my experience very well.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Mark!

      • DesireEngine says:

        Hi Duff,

        I think that probably our "somewhat disagreement" (in the past) was due more to our failure to first ask each other about our mental models for authenticity, and which of several mental models of the concept of authenticity we would want to discuss, than any significant difference in perspective.

        For example, when I say that I enjoy something that is authentic and has "heart" in music, I am talking about music that *I* sense is "originating spontaneously from a level of self where unique expression is realized."

        What do I mean by a level of self where unique expression is realized? Well, I mean that given a certain relationship, or opportunity to create, then authenticity is realized when it comes from whatever depth of self we have to dive to in order to connect with that which differentiates us from all others, and is uniquely affecting (perhaps because of that).

        That's a lot of words trying to describe what is a very subjective but very real experience that we've all had. We're talking with someone, or listening to a song, or looking at a painting, or hugging someone, and we come a way thinking or saying, "that was the real deal." What do we mean? We might mean we have experiences something powerful and honest, that has come from a part of someone that is uniquely them, and uniquely affecting. Whenever I say appreciate something authentic, THAT is what I mean.

        In the end, I am really only describing my relationship with something, and nothing more. The thing that I am experiencing is no more authentic or real than anything else, but in my relationship with the person or art or food or whatever, something happens that connects with me in some way that feels *more real* somehow.

        So though I can't remember telling anyone to "be authentic," I will often tell folks to value and explore and pay attention to who they are, meaning that unique part of them… the unique feeling tones that are their "who" (a verb, not a noun)… ever changing but ever unique to the point-of-perception that is a person in the physical and beyond. In my relationship with them, this is the part that will feel most authentically "them" to me.

    • Through my casual studies of physical deception in single combat, I have reached the following conclusion: Every lie simultaneously expresses a deeper truth.

      There are no untruths, only different levels of engagement. If an answer feels like a lie, it is only because you didn't ask the right question(s).

      "Am I authentic?" seems to me, at the present moment, like an implied solution in search of a problem. Which is good enough if you're selling widgets, I guess. 😀
      My recent post Joint Locks Considered Dangerous

  • Allen Stairs says:

    Hm. This is a paradox I'd never come across. Maybe it has something to do with being closer to 60 than to 50, but I'll have to admit I can't summon up much of an urge to have the first-order worry.

    The world is full of people (I know lots of them and bet you do to) who don't give this whole business a moment's thought. The interesting thing is that many of them are doing just fine.

    • Obviously there are many people who are ignorant of philosophical problems–even as they live apparently blissfully within them.

      Every day I encounter people totally unaware of this particular paradox who make comments about authenticity (e.g. "authentic Mexican food," "he's the real deal," etc.) as if they have some notion of what they are talking about.

  • ellen says:

    Being authentic is not something that bothers me now although I did go through a period of quite a few years where I examined the concept with a great deal of worry and angst in case I was inauthentic. Now everything I do is authentic, including being an authentic fool and authentically nasty at times. I think I eventually got bored and gave myself permission to stop trying to second guess myself. One of the problems for me was that the word has connotations of being 'good', wholesome etc and I got sick of trying to live up to and perform to some notional standard.
    If you like Watzlawick then try his colleague Jay Haley: 'The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays' is a delight, hilariously authentic.

    • I just saw that title of Haley's book the other day and thought about picking it up. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Yes, one of the major problems to me about the notion of authenticity is that it carries rhetorical force of being better than and in opposition to the "inauthentic." Authentic Mexican food is somehow better than Taco Bell (which no doubt now markets itself as authentic, just as Wendy's does now). Yet every aspect of myself exists, and therefore is "the real deal" i.e. authentic once I accept the existence of the emotion, thought, or behavior pattern.

  • Frank Schoenburg says:

    My partial solution to the paradox is to drink on Sunday afternoon's and only on Sunday afternoon's. I'm being conformist in the sense that I'm drinking. I'm being non-conformist in that I won't drink on Friday or Saturday night or for other social occasions (unless the occasion falls on a Sunday).

    In the interest of full disclosure I was doing this for about 5-6 weeks before slipping up. Now I'm back to this discipline.

    I like this schedule for practical reasons more than being authentic reasons. Abstaining Mon-Sat makes Sunday drinking more enjoyable. Sunday is also my day off of working out. The afternoon works best because I can come down in the evening and not get a hangover.

    In a sense I'm rebelling against excessive drinking and puritanical finger wagging do gooders. To the extent that I'm rebelling, am I being authentic? I don't know.

  • Elise says:

    I have been studying the self-dev movement for a long time and I find your blog interesting. The problem I see is that authentic leadership cannot be taught or learned by reading, listening, studying; yet, it is exactly what the gurus practice. "Enlightened" ones of the ages attempt to share their wisdom, yet the meaning of their work changes in its transference. We are the interpreters. We assign value to the words.

    Living authentically is the most difficult endeavor towards which anyone can aim in their lifetime. Tell me: to what extent are you the author of your thoughts? Authenticity requires rigorous dedication to understanding the self… anyone still carrying beliefs isn't there yet. I think that intrinsic motivation stimulates authenticity. The process of doing your work is its own reward. I see a need for leaders who are guided intrinsically; not entirely by belief system nor entirely by reason.

    Perhaps we should not fault any self-dev leader for earning livelihood for their practices considering that it's not their responsibility for you to change your behaviors. What are they really doing but leading you toward a fresh perspective? Anyone who can't see through the marketing is still thinking like an amateur. And yet, one cannot begin to think as a professional until he/she has moved through amateur thinking.

    Overall, I think that the leaders encouraging people to discover/realize their authentic self is beneficial for our world. Yes, many shameless marketers/me-too personal branders are churned out, but can that really be labelled as the fault of the self-dev leaders? Perhaps the imitators were naturally inclined towards following a formula instead of attempting the truly DIFFICULT task of tackling problems at the source instead of the symptom. Who attempts to do work that is not only challenging but potentially may never offer livelihood? I'm convinced it's those with intrinsic motivation.

    • Perhaps the imitators were naturally inclined towards following a formula instead of attempting the truly DIFFICULT task of tackling problems at the source instead of the symptom.

      This may be true. What I find especially concerning/absurd is the imitation of authenticity itself. The quotation at the beginning of this article was from a website that positions itself as information on how to live life on your own terms by not following a template. Yet ironically what is actually provided is a template! This directly hypocritical position is the basis for many expensive programs on personal development, especially sold as "information products," which makes such pretension of uniqueness even more outrageous. Hence the hilarious typo.

      I would not fault a self-dev leader for being forthright, for explaining the challenges of self-development directly, but when there is such obvious hypocrisy I feel it is very appropriate to critique or even satirically mock the particular message.

  • Andrew Crane says:

    The only way to 'be yourself', is to stop thinking ….and be the awareness behind the thoughts.

    • Emptiness is form, form is emptiness.
      You are not your thoughts. Yet thoughts are not other than you.

      • DesireEngine says:

        My take on thoughts (though it ruins a lovely phrase above, LOL) is that thoughts are absolutely not you. My sense of things (and it could just be me) is that my "center of perception" (for lack of a better term) forms thoughts from available energy that is always available to me, and has connections to me, but is not me.

        WHO I am is separate from my thoughts, and in fact, my thoughts, not unlike what we could consider (metaphorically) their physical analog, children, are assisted by me in initial creation, but have lives of their own from there on.

        After "birth," every thought becomes its own reality, and rudimentary perception point, now seeking exploration and fulfillment of its own potential. 🙂

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