A 2016 New York Times article cautions readers that the timeworn mantra "be yourself" (commonly described as 'being authentic') is terrible advice; and that taken literally, such advice can do more harm than good. However this article fundamentally confuses 'being yourself' with being blunt or uninhibited. Telling someone “those pants make you look fat” or “I’ve always hated you” or “you’ve written a terrible article on authenticity” does not mean you are 'being yourself' nor does it make you ‘authentic.’ In fact, more often than not, it makes you what many would consider tactless and insensitive.
So then, what does it truly mean to 'be yourself' or to 'be authentic'? The nature of the ‘authenticity’ mental health professionals strive to cultivate in their patients is the same kind those independently seeking such authenticity by yoga, zen or self-help practices strive for in their own lives and this brand of authenticity is much harder to quantify and study.
It’s the kind where your identity, your overarching sense of who you are, comes not from someone else’s perception of you or indeed from your own perceptions and ideas about yourself (which are in turn, often based upon the notions of others), but rather from the ongoing moment to moment recognition that you are not any particular role you are playing; nor are you any particular perception or idea you or anyone else may have about you.
Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players...” Yes, but moment to moment, do you understand the role you’re playing? Do you understand you are acting?
This means you are not a father, a mother, a teacher, a doctor or a businessman any more than you are a person who enjoys hiking, swimming, dogs, cats or long walks on the beach. You are not a ‘TV watcher’ or a ‘good writer’ or a ‘boat enthusiast.’ You are not ‘pretty’ or ‘fashionable’ or ‘successful’ or ‘dumb’ and so forth.
As you grew up, you may have been told you were some or many of these things; the ‘pretty one’ or the ‘smart one’ or the ‘dumb one’ or talented or untalented or artistic or clumsy. Even now people tell us we are these things all the time. We consider some of these things ‘good’ things to be and some of these ‘bad’ things to be. We may keep the ones we like and discard the ones we don’t.
All of these descriptors, whether we consider them ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ are only labels though, unless you make them more; unless you make them self. Then, like Shakespeare says, you are a player on the stage, but you don’t deeply understand you are only acting.
Sometimes we may choose to energize, consciously or unconsciously, one of these ideas about ourselves depending upon our mood, insecurities, potential for secondary gain, feelings about the people we are currently associating with etc.; play a role, put on a costume. This is okay as long as we understand in that moment none of these roles is ‘authentically’ us. Then we don’t hold on to them as ‘authentic’; as self.
So who are you behind all of these perceptions? Who are you after you cut through the web of everyone else’s perceptions of you and indeed, your own ideas about yourself; which you to some degree fashioned out of everyone else’s perceptions of you along the way?
That’s your authentic self and coming to rest in it, by any means you may see fit, is really the only work any of us here has to do.
Dr. David Abramson is a Manhattan based Psychiatrist with a private practice. The views on this blog are his own and do reflect those of the management.