Beyond 101: On Cultivating Authenticity (Guidepost One of a Wholehearted Life)
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brené Brown highlights what she calls guideposts: 10 things that the wholehearted people she studied had in common. Wholehearted, to paraphrase Dr. Brown, means living our lives as though we are worthy of love and belonging. It means being brave, seeking vulnerable, connected relationships, and pursuing healthy striving instead of driving ourselves for the fear that we are never enough.
Healthily striving for a wholehearted life has led me to be happier, more content, less anxious, and better able to explore the really dark places in myself instead of ignoring them. It has not meant that I’m never scared; in fact, I’m often terrified as I walk through the world having dropped much of my armor and shields. (And by dropped, I mean I carry them around constantly and have to remind myself that they don’t work as well as they seem, and I try to be mindful to make different choices than my fear and unworthiness are telling me to.) I believe this work works. When I leave the path, I can feel it in my pores. I am slower, sadder, and less myself. When I get right I’m scared, but I’m whole. Myself.
I drank the Kool-Aid, I guess.
If you want to drink it with me, I thought it would be fun to look over each of the guideposts individually and take some time to go in depth with each one.
Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity (Letting Go of What People Think)
Authenticity is a played-out word, I think. It’s been overused to the point of meaning almost nothing. I see people using it as a shield to act like a jerk or tell the kind of truth that’s more cruel than true; I see people using it to market websites and cars and Mexican food (btw, it isn’t authentic unless you’re eating it in Sonora). (That’s not true; that’s just my Sonoran pride showing.) I don’t think authenticity as a guidepost means any of these things.
Authenticity is small. It isn’t something you do once and then put on a shelf. Authenticity happens every day, every moment. Every time you chose to be vulnerable, you are being authentic. I find it’s easier to explain in anecdotes, so here’s one of mine:
At the Garth Brooks concert, I became very overwhelmed by the crowd. I don’t know why my anxiety hates crowds, but it really does. I get panicky and freaked, and the best thing for me in that situation is to find my seat. Why? I have no idea. Anxiety is the worst. Anyway, so I’m beelining it to my seat, but also my husband and I want a snack. So we stop to get a snack, and he proceeds to spend a really long time putting toppings on his hot dog. It was probably a minute or two, but anxiety feels like an eternity is passing when it isn’t getting its way.
From here, I had two choices:
- Let him do his toppings one dang jalapeno at a time and allow my anxiety to grow and morph me into the reactive, angry person I become when I’m freaking out; or
- Tell him I can’t wait for toppings, I have to go sit now. (I don’t know why he had to come, now, but he did for some logistical reason.)
Past, inauthentic me would have waited. It’s rude to make someone run around for my anxiety, right? And aren’t I just a jerk for wanting things my way anyway? Plus, if I say I really need to go won’t he be mad at me? Won’t he be jalapeno deprived and hate me for it? It sounds silly, but that’s the kind of decision that ran my life for years. I put my needs aside because I thought people wouldn’t like me if I didn’t (and now you see why the opposite of authenticity is holding on to what people think).
New, authentic me had to take choice two. I told him no, I can’t wait for toppings; I need to go now. He was kind enough to understand and escort me to my seat. Once there, I was totally fine (wtf anxiety), and he left to go finish his hot dog. I had to care more about my needs than his in that moment. I had to care about my needs at all.
Authenticity as a guidepost is that simple, and that small, and that terrifying. Honestly, saying no to him in that moment felt like setting myself on fire in fear. It gets more doable, but it has never gotten easy to be open and vulnerable in these moments. I’m always scared that people won’t like me. Truthfully, not everyone does. I’ve lost people.
I spent years figuring out how to make sure I am able to be authentic and making space for others at the same time. It isn’t always one for one. It’s very hard and very important. This kind of authenticity is extremely brave and really lives in the little moments in life. What if you’re the only person in book club who hated the book? (This happens in our book club all the time, and I’m so grateful to our members who are brave and authentic in their dissent.) What if you are the mom who doesn’t fucking want to join the damn PTA? (Think about the risks here: People will think I’m a bad mom, that I don’t care about my kids, that I don’t care about the school, and they will judge me for all of it. Good reasons to say yes even when it isn’t authentic to do so.) What if you catch an error your boss made? (Yikes.)
It’s easy to pay lip service to letting go of what people think, but the truth is that life offers many moments to be yourself and many of them are risky as hell. Dr. Brown says (to paraphrase) that if you’re brave enough, often enough, you will fall flat on your face and get in trouble. It will be hard out here this way. Authenticity doesn’t always win you friends. What I’m here to tell you is that it always builds self-trust. I know I have my own back. I have a deep trust in myself and my own ability to care for myself. I know that working this guidepost has allowed me to feel more worthy because worthiness comes from how I respect myself, not how others respect me. I don’t always win friends, but I have gained my own friendship. That is priceless.
How do you practice authenticity in your day to day? I’d love to hear your small anecdotes!