Being ourselves is much more difficult than it seems. We’re constantly bombarded by external factors and people who want us to say this, act like this, be like that. How many times has someone got in your face about something they perceived as a shortcoming on your part?
“Cheer up, miserable!”
“Why are you always so persnickety?”
“You need to pay more attention to detail!”
We live in the age of authenticity where the driving force is the choice to let your true self be seen by the outside world – no apologies. A lot of the articles you read offer advice on how to live more authentically and be who you really are in life, love and career.
This is not one of those articles.
Nobody cares who you really are
No one cares who you really are. Boom! Yes, it sounds hard and possibly even overkill, but it's the truth. We humans are always the center of our own little world. It honestly does not matter to anyone who you are, what you do or how you feel …. except in relation to how it affects them.
Now, I work as a copywriter. My job is to tell people’s stories. And those stories absolutely matter – it’s how businesses make connections with the people they want to attract as customers. It’s how they build “liking” which in turn builds “trust.”
But those stories only work to the extent that it helps people feel good about themselves. The first rule of copywriting is, you listen to what your customers are saying. Then, when you speak, you speak about their problems, not about yourself. Behave in a way that disturbs your audience’s expectations of you, and you’ll get shot down. You'll quickly find that people don’t want the “authentic” you after all.
What we’re saying here, is that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. Customers are not interested in a business’s warts, or even its good points. All they care about is whether what you are saying stacks up with the story they want to tell about themselves.
The same goes in our social interactions. You can be as heart-on-sleeve as you like. But humans are relational creatures – we see ourselves in the context of others, and we see others through the lens of our own values. A classic fun-hog Artisan can be as spontaneous and “give it a go” as he likes, but a Rational will only ever think this scattergun approach is the result of poor planning, and a Guardian’s first instinct is, why don’t you just follow the rules? They don’t care about your authenticity … they just wish you weren’t so illogical/irresponsible.
Which is another way of saying, someone else will decide if you’re being authentic, not you.
When it comes to getting on in life, high self-monitors win out
People want the highlight reel you, not the authentic stuff. Or, to use the jargon of psychology, “high self-monitors” get on much better than those who let it all hang out.
Self monitoring in this context is the act of projecting a particular image of yourself in order to fit in with others. High self-monitors readily adjust their behavior, chameleon like, to the situation at hand. They’re about as far from authentic as you can get. Yet research shows that they advance faster and have a higher reputation than those who live the authentic life.
And before you call these people self-serving frauds, consider this: high self-monitors earn their status through being extremely generous; through finding out what others need and helping them.
What’s happening with high self-monitors is, they are being an edited version of themselves, or perhaps an amplified version, to grease the wheels according to social cues. They’re not being phony, they’re just exploiting the gray area – the fact that different groups have different expectations of us, and everyone is much happier when we tweak ourselves to fit those expectations.
(That last sloppy bar crawl you had? Tell me you’d behave like that in front of your grandma).
The point is to not compromise your character to the extent that you lose your true self, but to take careful steps to project a persona that causes the least offense. In that sense, authenticity is not the art of being at ease with yourself, but the art of putting others at ease and adding value to their lives.
The people you attract with the “real you” are incompatible with your growth goals
As the motivation expert Carol Dweck has shown, simply believing that there’s an “authentic” self can actually interfere with your potential. Children who believe a trait is fixed (like not being stubborn, or not naturally good at math) will give up at the first failure. Your view of yourself can determine everything and to improve your game, you need a much more fluid understanding of yourself.
My personality type is INTJ. Being judgmental is a feature of my type. And boy, am I ever judgmental! I didn’t choose to be that way, it just happened. It comes from a real place within. Which means that, to be authentic – to represent my true nature – I should allow myself to be a judgmental person, not an imitation of a non-judgmental person. There is no “should” in authentic.
To me, and to Dweck, this analysis is not only completely wrong, it’s a trap. If you’re stuck on being authentic, you’re effectively excusing yourself from seeing opposing points of view. The cards we’re dealt are the starting point for development, not a symbol of the “real” us. Why waste time proving how “authentic” we are, when we could be getting better? Why look for people to attract with the “real us” instead of ones who will challenge us to develop and grow?
Summing it up
Nobody cares if you’re being authentic because authenticity is self-centered. It focuses on how you feel about you, when really it’s a relational thing. It’s about matching other people’s needs and expectations with aspects of yourself – and never forgetting that you’re not one person but multiple. The trick is helping people to tell their stories while still recognizing yourself.