In recent years, “authenticity” has become a ubiquitous buzzword. You’re encouraged to “just be yourself” to connect with others—but is it really that easy, or even worth it?
Not surprisingly, the answer is complicated. Having gone through my own accidental journey of self-discovery during my mid-twenties, I’d say a hearty yes! to both—with some caveats. You don’t need anything special to start, but like anything that’s meaningful in the end, you can expect it to be uncomfortable at times.
Earlier in my life, I would have totally brushed away the idea of digging deep into what made me “me,” glazing over the need to soul search as something for...anyone other than me. However, I’ve now wholeheartedly embraced the quest to cultivate the pieces of my life that I care the most about, which has changed my life for the better, even if it has been difficult.
Am I an expert in authenticity now? Absolutely not. But I’ve come leaps and bounds in my own self-knowledge, so in the hopes that my personal experiences can help guide the way for others, I want to share the following four steps that helped me get a little further down this path today.
Step 1: Get a notebook and prepare to write your way into self-discovery.
Personally, I gained the most self-knowledge from starting a daily writing habit, inspired by the concept of morning pages by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Three pages longhand every morning, she instructs, first thing after you wake up. Your brain is rested and fresh—or maybe it’s foggy and slow—but either way, you are primed to unearth some things you didn’t know were there. Like a dustbuster being taken to the corners of your psyche, this process gets out some of the muck that’s bothering you and eventually frees up space to examine certain things (namely thoughts, patterns, and ingrained expectations) more carefully.
This practice, along with trying some of the “scarier” weekly creative tasks she proposes, helped me see some of my past experiences in a new light. One prompt in particular asked me to list three enemies of my creative self-worth and to write out how it had impacted me. During this exercise, I realized that my seventh-grade self was still hurting from overhearing a teacher criticize the piece I had entered into a writing contest (and won, mind you!). Prior to that, I had always wanted to be a writer, but afterwards, I essentially convinced myself that it wasn’t for me.
If I’m honest with myself, and with you, I can tell you that I’ve recently caught myself not identifying with being a writer, even though I am getting paid to write articles at this very moment. Now that I’ve recognized this pattern, I can catch it and hold it a little closer to the light with a discerning eye. With some examination, I’ll be able to reflect on not only how far I’ve come, but that there’s much farther to go.
Step 2: Start to get a clearer sense of the things that evoke feelings of curiosity, delight, and meaning. Then test them out.
If you’ve been following Marie Kondo, this is a “What sparks joy?” type of question, but with actions instead of material items. It may seem a little strange at first, but I found it helpful to start pinpointing the activities that I either currently enjoyed or used to really like growing up. If you start with the easy ones, it can prime you to the overall feeling that you’re going for, and you’ll get more skilled at this with practice.
From reading to drawing to biking to dancing, I discovered that there were a number of things that I truly loved which had been unwittingly replaced with their less meaningful counterparts over time. I was spending more time on social media and driving everywhere because they were easy and convenient, but not because they were truly enjoyable for me.
Realizing all of these things, then making the choice to do something about them, has been a struggle. I erroneously thought that this part would be easier. But there’s a reason it’s not, and here’s why:
Your comfortable self holds all of the patterns, actions, and relationships that help you conserve precious energy. These defaults are great because they’re ensuring you don’t have to relearn everything for the first time. At the same time, these patterns are the product of a lot of different influences—from family, friends, society, marketing, and heaven knows where else—so it’s important to do some intentional weeding and cultivating. When you start to consciously let go of the things you once thought were important to you, in order to bring in little traces of things you’ve actually chosen, you’ve started to make those first steps.
Fortunately or unfortunately, if you haven’t practiced something for a while (or ever), even if you love it, you’ll have the passion for it but not the skill nor all the tools yet. I admittedly have a shorter attention span for reading these days, and I’ve had to work hard to try new things again, but now that I know it’s part of the process, I’m more comfortable with trying and failing in the first place.
Step 3: Surround yourself with a group of people who are down with the person you are and want to be.
Maybe I got lucky: I moved three times in my 20s and was inadvertently forced to discover new friend circles in the process. The people that I met didn’t have certain expectations of who I was or where I was going, so if I wanted to do something a little more out-of-step with my previous ways of operating, they didn’t judge my choice to change.
Sometimes, the process of getting to know yourself can be the catalyst to meeting these people. When I started my second teaching job in Thailand, I had decided to stop drinking and start prioritizing early mornings for yoga, meditation, and writing. Interestingly enough, I actually ended up getting to know the man who would later become my husband this way, because we crossed paths when he was coming home from late nights out with our other housemates. Sure, I might have become closer with him eventually, but I think it was my confidence in doing something for myself that was attractive to him in the first place.
Even so, when I tearfully confessed to him during a date one night that I struggled with my own self-worth, he didn’t run the other way. Instead, he responded with kindness and has stuck around ever since. Lesson learned: there are people out there who will cheer you through this process of getting clarity with who you want to be. They are likely the ones who have been through their own personal changes and know the value of someone being an unwavering support.
Though it takes a huge dose of emotional vulnerability to let someone into your process of growth, I’ve found time and again that it can be a surefire means of connection.
Step 4. Have patience with yourself and the people who have difficulty with changes.
None of this work can happen overnight, but as I wrote earlier, there’s nothing that should really stop you from starting. You might recognize that fear and avoidance are natural emotions that are trying to keep you safe, protected, and out of any perceived danger that might come your way once you begin.
When things feel uncomfortable, you can remind yourself that these very emotions are the ones that resonate most universally with others. In my case, as a chronic people-pleaser and gold star seeker, I used to think that having it all perfectly together would make me more lovable and successful, but boy was I wrong. I’ve had to become very patient with my own struggles and the practice of sharing them with others so that I can get rid of any facade I put up.
Plus, let’s face it: the same forces that hold you in your patterns also apply to those around you, so it can be challenging for others who have known you for a long time to be supportive. Whether it’s your parents, siblings, childhood best friends, coworkers, spouses, or acquaintances, we all have people in our lives who just might not understand what’s happening and will have trouble with their own emotions around it.
I think the truest thing you can do for yourself is to commit to seeking meaning while you get more skilled at telling your own story. Your own conviction, actions, and narrative are the tools that you have on your side, along with as much patience and compassion you can muster for them while they sort out what it means for them.
So what’s next?
To be honest, which is quite obviously the theme here, writing this article has been exhausting, and I found myself procrastinating quite a bit because I’ve grappled with worries about whether it’s good enough to share, with a subtext of “who am I to even try?”
But recently I heard the quote, “We’re all just walking each other home,” which comes from spiritual teacher Ram Dass. It struck me that this is one of the main reasons why authenticity is so important, and that this is why we need to try. We have the tools and technology to be able to help even more people find their way; we just need to be brave enough to start our own journeys.
What do you think? Have you started practicing authenticity in your own life, or are you about to try? We’d love to keep the conversation going below.
Photos by Gabrielle Henderson