What does it mean to have authenticity?

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My intention with each of these posts is that you’re challenged to interrupt the noise and routine in your life, just for a moment, to think more deeply about what really matters in life… your relationship with yourself and with others in your professional and personal life.

Authenticity is a bit of a buzz term at the moment, and it’s being tagged alongside leadership, corporate culture, brands, products and services, and most certainly discussed in terms of individual behaviour as being authentic or inauthentic.

But what does it really mean to have authenticity?

Let me ask that question in some different ways:

  1. Is authenticity something you have?
  2. Is authenticity something you do?
  3. Who can realistically and fairly determine if a person is being authentic – the person themselves, or can/ought others make that judgement?
  4. What criteria is the correct criteria upon which to base an assessment of your own authenticity or that of others?

Having researched what it means to be ‘authentic’ for most of my adult life, both academically and experientially, here’s what I know:

Authenticity is subjective and despite a common belief that we can readily and easily spot it when people are being authentic or inauthentic, the reality is, this concept of authenticity is a lot more complex than you might at first think.

That ‘feeling’ we get

While most of us do get a sense or feeling when another person is being authentic or inauthentic, what we know from the evidence-based research is, most people are completely unaware of what they are basing their assessment on … they just get this ‘feeling’.

This raises an important point in regard to authenticity.

Authenticity is something we each experience about ourselves, and authenticity is also something we tend to judge or assess about someone else.

Authenticity as a personal experience

Let’s consider authenticity as a personal experience and ask this question:

How do you know if you are personally being authentic – regardless of the feelings or decisions of other people about your authenticity?

Let me return to the original question of this article – what does it mean to have authenticity?

A typical answer is to have authenticity is to act in accordance with one’s values or one’s ‘true self’.

This however is problematic unless we can first determine what one’s true self means.

Now, you might think that I’m over-thinking this, and you could be right, but stay with me just a little while longer.

Do you have just one ‘true-self’?

When we use terms like one’s true self, it is typically implying that each of us has only one true self and if we act in accordance with that one true self, we are acting authentically.

However, humans are way too complex to think that any one of us has just one true self.

How we think and feel, and what we say and do, largely depends on what situation we find ourselves in.

Let’s say you are typically a mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky, kind, and positive person.

Would that mean if you were ever in a situation where you might not behave in alignment with that description of your ‘true self’ that you are not being authentic?

What if you were under threat in some way?

What if you were experiencing a traumatic life event like the loss of a loved one, or discovering you or someone you cared for had been diagnosed with a terminal or debilitating illness?

Most of us, given those situations, even if we were typically mild-mannered, happy-go-lucky, kind, and positive, might behave in ways incongruent with our ‘typical’ self .. at least in that moment or for a period of time.

Does that mean we would be inauthentic?

Defining authenticity

This question of what it means to have authenticity is what philosophers and researchers have been attempting to answer for many years now. However, because of the subjective nature of authenticity, arriving at just one definition is elusive.

What we do know from the research is there are a host of benefits to our sense of well-being and life-satisfaction when we believe we are personally being authentic.

The topic is far to large (and important) to cover in just one article, however, what can be said is this:

Inconsistency in behaviour or an inconsistent expression of our emotions, is not necessarily a demonstration of inauthenticity.

For example, a leader who under a stressful situation reacts inconsistently with how they would typically react in most other situations may not be being inauthentic – they are just exhibiting an emotional reaction to a tough situation.

Their behaviour may be judged by others (as well as themselves in hindsight) as inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean the leader lacks authenticity.

What then is the answer to the question of what it means to have authenticity?

Rather than rely on a subjective concept as ‘real self’, a more objective (while still subjective) definition expressed in various ways in the research literature is this:

Authenticity is where a person is mindfully aware and understands that their thoughts and emotions (their internal experience), are aligned with their own choices, actions, and behaviour (their external experience).

In other words, a person may be being inauthentic if they are mindfully aware that their thoughts and feelings are not aligned with their decisions and actions.

Know thyself

This means, authenticity relies on a person’s self-knowledge and self-awareness … as is often repeated from historic philosophers ‘Know Thyself’.

However, as researchers Jongman-Sereno and Leary have found through their research, most of our sense of self-knowledge and self-awareness are ‘partial, selective and biased.’ 1

In other words, we may not know ourselves as well as we think.

And a final thought, returning to how we might be judging other people’s authenticity.

When we do make a judgement call on someone else’s authenticity, we are only ever able to do it based on the observation of what a person is saying or doing, without having the truth about what they are really thinking and feeling.

At best then, when we judge others, we are actually judging the appropriateness of their behaviour, because without knowing what they are thinking or feeling, we do not have all the information required to judge their authenticity.

Let me leave you with the words of Judy Garland who said this:

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.”

  1. Jongman-Sereno, K. P. & Leary, M. R. (2019). The Enigma of Being Yourself: A Critical Examination of the Concept of Authenticity. Review of General Psychology, Vol 23 (1). 133-142.
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