“No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne
Sitting with a group of friends recently, the conversation turned to a topic that could have been treated lightly and allowed us to move to another light topic, but I jumped in and shared a deeper, more personal experience.
I didn't know if people would be uncomfortable, but I hoped it would give them an opening to share their own stories. As I said to someone later, I have tired of surface conversation and want to know people, know their thoughts and what makes them tick. I wish that for everyone, truly. I want to be authentic to who I am.
As Hawthorne points out, wearing different faces in different places can leave the question of which face is the true one.
For many years, I tried to be the person I thought "you" (anyone) needed me to be. Have you ever felt that way - not wanting to offend anyone? It's hard to be comfortable in your own skin when you're busy trying to make everyone else happy and not letting people down because you don't measure up to their standards of you being you.
When I had some hiccups in my life, I knew I didn't want to live that way anymore. It might mean alienating some folks, and it might mean disappointing friends and family, but I knew if I could be authentic, true to myself, I would most likely be a happier person. Research backs this up, and that's always an exciting find for me!
There is research supporting the value of being authentic in leadership roles, in love relationships, and in life in general. One of the places I found myself most intrigued, however, was with Bronnie Ware. She was a palliative care nurse, which meant she spent the last weeks of a person's life caring for them. She wrote a book after conducting several interviews. What were the regrets of the dying?
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Courage to live a life true to ourselves and courage to express our feelings are two places being authentic comes into play. If these are the regrets of the dying, what could we do differently in living lessen our own possible regrets? What does being authentic look like to you? What about being inauthentic?
We want people to like us, we want people to give us a chance at a job, and we want people to want to be around us. And yet, we also want to like ourselves, but a lot of us don't even really know ourselves.
Case in point: I was recently asked some "rapid fire" questions by someone at the end of an interview, and I had a really hard time coming up with my responses. They were questions about my likes, and it went like this:
"So, who's your favorite visual artist?
"I don't. I don't know. This is so hard."
"Well, it's rapid fire. So rapid answers."
"Okay, so, hmm."
Would you be able to answer questions quickly? Let's give it a go.
Favorite author? I've read a lot of books, but I don't necessarily have a favorite. “So Big” by Edna Ferber was the first book I loved and connected with, so maybe that will fill that blank. How about you?
Favorite musician? I've listened to a lot of music, and there is so much good music out there, but I still feel very attached to Harry Chapin and his stories written as songs, so I'll go with him. How about you?
Favorite season? Finally, a question I can answer relatively easily. Spring is my favorite season because everywhere you look, you see new life popping its head up to greet you in the buds on trees and flowers, the baby birds. Yes, spring. Except, fall is also really wonderful because the colors of the leaves are so vibrant and even though I know they are dying off, I find beauty in that passage of time. So, maybe it's fall. No, it's spring. Spring is followed by warm weather, while fall is followed by cold. But look how long it took me to come to an answer. How about you?
Researchers have settled on this: "Authentic people have considerable self-knowledge and are motivated to learn more about themselves. They are equally interested in understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and they are willing to honestly reflect on feedback regardless of whether it is flattering or unflattering."
In other words, we need to be able to answer questions about ourselves and want to learn more about ourselves. We need to be as interested in learning about our weaknesses as we are our strengths.
In five studies by Gan, Heller, & Chen (2018), they determined that subjects (people) felt more powerful when they pictured themselves behaving authentically. Think of it, just picturing yourself being authentic gives you power. In addition, they learned that people typically view others as powerful when they come across as authentic. If you are wanting to be viewed as possessing power, you should pay attention.
"Our findings point to being authentic as a means by which to gain momentary power, one which is available even to those people who are structurally or dispositionally low in power."
Whether I am writing an article, writing in my journal, talking to close friends, or having coffee with acquaintances, I am who I am. I might share more of myself in one place than another, but my core beliefs and values are the same no matter where I am or who I'm spending time with. I think that's a big part of what it means to be authentic.
As you sit with that, I hope you'll take a minute to consider whether or not you are being authentic, too. When our lives end, I hope we'll each be left with fewer regrets.
Rapid Fire Questions for you:
• Who's your favorite visual artist?
• Who's your favorite author?
• Who's your favorite musician?
• What's your favorite season?
• What's one thing you would change about yourself?
Would love to hear your answers!
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at email@example.com.