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The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. — Joseph Campbell
Be yourself; everybody else is already taken. — Oscar Wilde
What does it mean to be authentic?
What does being authentic mean to you?
Authenticity might call to mind concepts like “trustworthiness” or “honesty.” For others, it could be more about being “real” or “genuine” — or bring to mind the opposite: “not fake.”
Many workplaces are now encouraging employees to bring their best, authentic selves to their jobs. In response, some employees are left to puzzle over what “authentic self” even means.
In this article, we explore ways to develop and maintain authenticity, why it’s hard to live an authentic life, and the benefits of being true to yourself.
8 strategies to develop authenticity
1. Define and embrace your strengths
Our strengths are one of the most energizing ways that we can tap into our authenticity.
She always makes people feel welcome.
He is fantastic at anticipating the pitfalls ahead of time and coming up with a plan to reduce their likelihood.
They are an amazing teacher.
The wonderful thing about strengths is that using them is often easy and fun, and they usually deliver your best results. Pay attention to things you’re good at but that you don’t really enjoy. You might be able to reduce the use of these so that you could dial up the strengths that you are best at and love using.
For example, Lena* was the one on her team who made sure that projects were on track for an on-time delivery. However, she didn’t really enjoy the process as much as other parts of her role. Everyone knew she could do the task well, so she took it on by default. As the team was reviewing roles for an upcoming project, Lena asked if anyone else would like to take on the responsibility instead. As it turns out, another member was hoping to develop his project management skills.
By letting go of the responsibility and asking if someone else would be able and willing to take it on, Lena was able to free up more time to do the work she really loved. How clear are you in sharing what you’re great at and spotting ways to maximize those strengths in your life and work?
2. Explore your values
Values are like guiding lights or a set of trail markers toward living a life of meaning. One way to uncover some of your values is by calling to mind a time in your life when you felt truly alive, when everything felt right in the world. What made it so special? The likelihood is that you’ll discover several key values from recalling the experience.
If we’re feeling that we’re lacking authenticity, it might be that we’re not living out our values. This can have a negative effect on our performance, relationships, and mental health.
In the workplace, this inauthenticity can show up as a role mismatch. You may not feel that you’re fully able to express your values or strengths in order to get the work done. If you love designing new concepts or thrive in the creative phase of idea generation, you might struggle to enjoy the day-to-day details.
Knowing your values and spotting how they are present — or absent — in your life and work are great clues to unlocking more authenticity.
3. Acknowledge external vs internal influence
There are some habits and behaviors in life that we do because of our internal motivators and drivers. Others are more driven from external sources, like social groups or societal norms. It’s important to establish your own meaningful goals and focus on steps to achieve them.
As you consider your own goals, dig a little to explore more deeply their significance. If you want a promotion, make sure you’re clear on what you’re hoping for once you achieve it. What are you really after? Is it more money, greater influence, a chance to coach others?
From there, probe a bit more. What’s important about that to you? How does this goal connect to your life purpose?
Pay attention to your internal self-talk, looking out for keywords like “should” and “need/ought to.” Often these words are clues to help us notice our drivers. “I should look for my next promotion” could be reframed as, “I wonder what my next steps in my career might be?” or “I wonder what more job satisfaction would look like for me?”
4. Notice and name your emotion
One of the gifts of being human is to be able to experience an enormous range of emotions and feelings. Being able to name these more clearly is part of the process of authenticity. This self-awareness allows us to know our core values, strengths, and behaviors, and then notice when we’re experiencing emotions such as anger, frustration, or joy.
5. Practice mindfulness
A great way to get to know yourself is to be present through journaling.
A daily habit of writing freehand allows your subconscious mind to report how you’re feeling, what’s going well, what you’re noticing, and anything else. You can let the ideas emerge or you can follow prompts for more focused writing. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is a wonderful guide to explore different aspects of your personality and then express them in creative ways.
Making regular time for self-reflection helps you get to know yourself and boosts your self-esteem.
6. Build your social support system
One of the most joyful aspects of life is having people with whom you can be your true, unfiltered version of you. This support system might include friends, family members, or colleagues. It could also include professionals such as a coach or a therapist. Prioritize getting together with close friends at regular intervals, either in-person or online.
Zarah runs her own consulting firm and makes it a practice to meet with her college friends, even though they live all over the world. Although everyone in the group has changed and grown, on those weekends they turn back the clock and connect to the people they were before the responsibilities of careers and families.
In terms of the workplace, Gallup’s research shows that having a best friend at work is a strong indicator of high engagement. Knowing that there’s someone in the workplace whom you trust is a key driver of job satisfaction.
7. Develop the courage to face your fears
Many people have a list of things they’d love to do, “if only…” (they had more money, were more confident, had more free time…”). Part of living authentically is to not let the stories you can tell yourself get in the way of what you truly want.
If you’ve always longed for a life of more adventure, for instance, what would be a way to break that down into a smaller, more achievable goal?
Perhaps you can’t hand in your notice and go on a year-long cross-country road trip. But could you find a new hobby that would appeal to your sense of adventure? Can you start a small savings pot to build up funds for a future trip, or ask for flexibility with your work schedule to give you more freedom?
8. Take daily actions towards authenticity
Keep in mind that authenticity is a practice — which means it takes patience, time, and dedication to doing it. One way you can build your muscle of authenticity is to take small, daily actions that align with your values.
This download of Brené Brown’s definition of authenticity has useful guideposts on authenticity as a daily practice. What could be your daily habit to live more authentically?
4 tips to maintain authenticity
For many people, the quest to live a more authentic life is a process that develops over time. Once you are more clear on what being more authentic means to you, here are some tips to maintain that sense of authenticity.
1. Be impeccable with your word
Several qualities that accompany authenticity are being trustworthy, down-to-earth, and real. It’s important to follow through with your commitments to generate a sense of trust from others. Take Enzo’s example of making a commitment to share his value of appreciation to others. After each project completion, he writes a thank you note to let team members know that he valued their input.
There is something incredibly powerful about deeds matching words, so make sure that your actions match up with your messages — particularly if you’re in a leadership role. This integrity — walking your talk — creates a positive sense of inspiration to others and engenders trust.
2. Don't take anything personally, and accept that you can't please everyone
People-pleasing is one of the biggest challenges to living authentically. People-pleasing means adapting constantly to other people’s needs and wants in order to gain their approval. Authenticity means accepting who you are and what you do well, and having the courage and self-confidence to share that in the world. That doesn’t mean making everyone happy. When you stand in your strengths, you can liberate yourself from the need for other people’s approval.
The author Tara Mohr explains a beautiful perspective on feedback: that it is information on the giver of the feedback. When you’re open to viewing feedback as information about the person giving it, you can then choose whether you adapt your style — or not. You can decide how to best meet the other person’s needs in the future, but without needing to doubt your own abilities, skills, or self-worth.
3. Learn to say no and define your boundaries
If you have a strong focus on relationships, you might not want to disappoint people, which can be a threat to authenticity. The desire not to rock the boat, or in the workplace to not be seen as a team player, can take you away from your true north. But setting boundaries isn't a matter of being mean or inflexible — it's an act of self-care.
Let’s say a co-worker has invited you to collaborate on a new initiative, but in looking at your schedule, you can see that you’re going to be maxed out on other work and won’t be able to give yourself fully to the project in the needed time frames. By honoring your existing commitments and not taking on an excessive workload, you can honor balance, rest, and integrity, rather than trying to keep other people happy at the expense of your own health and wellbeing.
If you're not accustomed to setting boundaries, it may feel bumpy or uncomfortable at first. Treat these bumps as signposts on the road to self-discovery. Don't beat yourself up if you have a hard time recognizing and enforcing boundaries. Without self-knowledge, it can be difficult to even know which boundaries to set. Just pay attention as you live your life and continue to make note of where challenges arise.
4. Always do your best
As with any aspect of being human, things change. Work gets busier, you or a family member gets sick, your washing machine breaks, or you have an unexpected expense. Living authentically doesn’t mean life is perfect or easy. It does, though, mean that you’re more clear on what your priorities are, you have a greater sense of clarity and energy for what’s important, and you feel less riddled with self-doubt about who you’re trying to be in the world.
Why is it so hard to be authentic?
Being honest and true to ourselves, and following a life path that is meaningful and rewarding, seems like such a winning strategy for wellbeing. So why is it harder to actually put being authentic into practice?
Several reasons make living authentically hard:
- The human brain is wired for staying safe
Many people have early memories of being called out as different, and that may have laid foundational patterns that it’s “easier to go along with the crowd” rather than stand out. It’s important to know that staying safe is the job of the limbic system, the primitive part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. It takes conscious effort to override what might be an easier or known path and to choose authenticity over fitting in.
- Living authentically means slowing down
The world we live in is fast-paced, which means we don’t take the time to slow down to understand our true wants and needs. Many people’s early working lives can be about establishing a career and development path. Once on that path, it can be difficult — and scary — to put the brakes on in order to ask, “Is this what I really want?” Make a habit of regularly checking in with yourself on how you’re feeling about your goals and motivations.
- It might feel selfish to live authentically
You might relate to Rikard’s experience: his role meant being at customer events many weeknights, and he had a persona of being the life and soul of every gathering. Although the lifestyle was tiring, he felt like he was letting people down if he left an event before everyone else.
As he paid more attention to his energy and self-care, Rikard realized that he had the best conversations early in the evening, as opposed to later when he kept socializing even when he was exhausted. Getting better sleep meant he started to exercise and make better choices on what he ate, and the benefits to his overall health spilled over into feeling like he could lead his team in a more proactive, less reactive way. It was such a positive change that he could never go back to being so over-scheduled. Keep in mind that taking care of yourself is an act of service to others. Demonstrating self-compassion and self-love gives other people permission to do the same for themselves.
Authenticity can and will improve your life
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Living authentically is like any learning process: it starts with reflection to pause and become self-aware of who you are. From a place of strengthened self-awareness, you can begin to show up as your authentic self in your relationships, at work, and in life. By living in line with your values, paying attention to your goals and their importance, and then reflecting on your journey, you can become energized and grounded by being the truest version of yourself.
BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC