What is authenticity and why is it important?
People often ask me as a coach “How can you tell if someone is being authentic?” This is how I usually answer: authenticity is something that comes from within, and so it’s not up to me to decide if someone is being authentic or not. However, my role as a coach is to support them to find out what authentic means for them.
What might it mean to be authentic? There are varying definitions of authenticity including words such as genuine, trustworthy and honest. Personally, the one I like the most comes from an article in Psychology Today. “Individuals considered authentic are those who generally strive to align their actions with their core values and beliefs with the hope of discovering, and then acting in sync with, their “true selves."
The concept of true self became popular when introduced to the field of psychotherapy by Donald Winnicott in the 1960s. It describes “a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a feeling of being alive” (Akhtar 2009) and can be differentiated from the false self which is one where an individual hides behind a “defensive façade which in extreme cases could leave its holders lacking spontaneity and feeling dead and empty” (Winnicott, 1960 p140).
For the main part, people don’t set out with the intention of becoming false or inauthentic. Psychotherapists describe a lifelong process which starts from the day we are born and is the result of our personal experience when seeking things that we need. If our needs are met with love and respect, then we will learn that being ourselves is acceptable. However, if our needs have ever been treated as inconsiderate, inappropriate or selfish, then we question the value of ourselves, believing that our needs are not important.
One of the reasons my clients seek coaching is that they want more purpose and meaning in their life. In other words, an opportunity to live a life where they are more aligned with their core values and beliefs. Despite maybe being brought up in a world where we are taught our own needs are less important than those of others, humans have an undeniable desire to be themselves. Where there is great incongruence between our concept of self and the world we live in, individuals feel a deep sense of unease and it is this unease which indicates that authenticity is likely to be an important concept for us to understand and be curious about (Rogers, 1961 as cited in Goldman and Kernis, 2002).
The importance of authenticity can be evidenced by its strong links with well-being. More specifically, being authentic results in more positive emotions, greater life satisfaction, feelings of greater autonomy and control, a greater sense of purpose and greater self-acceptance (Wood, et al., 2008).
If this article resonates with you, and you feel a desire to live a life that feels more true for you, then coaching can be a great first step. The process of coaching can help you to work out which of those voices in your head come from within, and which of the voices come from others. You might not even be aware of those other voices, but a good indicator that they are not voices from within is if they tell you that you should do something differently, that you must work harder or that you are not good enough.
In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr explains how those voices are designed to help keep us safe in the society that we live in. But supposing you want something different and those voices are making you feel bad? Not safe at all, but empty and lonely? Feeling angry, depressed and miserable is not the way it has to be. Finding your authentic voice can improve your life and the lives of those around you.
Akhtar, S. (2009). Good Feelings Psychoanalytic Reflections on Positive Emotions and Attitudes. London:Routledge p. 128
Goldman, B. M., & Kernis, M. H. (2002). The role of authenticity in healthy psychological functioning and subjective well-being. Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, 5(6), pp. 18-20.
Mohr, T. (2014). Playing big: practical wisdom for women who want to speak up, create, and lead. London:Penguin.
Psychology Today (n.d.) Authenticity. Psychology Today. Available online.
Winnicott, D. W. (1960). “Ego distortion in terms of true and false self". The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, Inc pp 140–57.
Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), pp 385.