It is interesting that authenticity is often highly valued but difficult to quantify or describe in meaningful ways. Naturally, this is not true of material things. Experts can usually confirm their authenticity. However, on an interpersonal level, it becomes more difficult to define what it means to be authentic. Often it is intuitive, something we feel when we unconsciously gather clues and register signals as we observe an individual who has drawn our attention.
Some neuroscientists will argue that there is no such thing as the authentic self. After all, we cannot point to a specific place in the brain where the authentic self resides. Besides the fact that those same neuroscientists also cannot explain the source of consciousness, the self or our sense of identity is also not localised to a particular set of neurons in the brain. Trying to determine authenticity in people as we do with a painting or a rare coin is a non-starter. My definition of authenticity in people points to the self that lies beneath external influences and conditioning. When our behaviours are driven more by our inner signals than external circumstances, we live more authentically.
Psychologist Carl Rogers, whose work contributed to the humanist approach to his field and influenced what is now call CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy, had a compelling theory about the true self. A point of emphasis for him was congruence, which is when the inner experience matches the outward expression. I also look at congruence in terms of core values and whether they conflict with the external environment’s expectations and cultural norms. When we are not living in sync with our inner signals and core values, we will sense this incongruence and may experience a wide range of emotional states from disappointment or frustration to apathy or depression.
To learn to live authentically requires unlearning many things we were taught or have observed growing up. It comes with the process of personal growth. As children, we learn quickly that the acceptance and approval we seek is contingent upon satisfying the wants and meeting the expectations of the people around us. Only as we get older can some of us build our confidence, become independent, and gain a sense of our own identity. Those who do not often find themselves compromising their own values and sense of self. Doing so leads to a growing discontent or a desire to rebel against the roles we feel compelled to play, both perceived and implicit in our cultural groups.
Know thyself is an ancient Greek aphorism inscribed at the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Knowing yourself is the first step to living more authentically. It is a matter of understanding your core values and knowing what is left when you have stripped away all the labels you have been given, or you have given yourself. You can then begin to live a life congruent with your values and your true sense of self. It is the way to greater happiness. This is what authenticity means to me.