2 Minute Read
Written By Sierra Johnson, MA, MLP
We see all these self-help books and advertisements: “Become Who You Are”, “Be Yourself”, “You Are Enough” – but who are you?
It seems so easy when we first think about it, “well, I’m me”, but let’s think further: What do you know about yourself? Your genuine interests, and morals – your goals and aspirations. Why does that thing piss you off so much? Why do you idealize one person, but feel inclined to despise another? Who or what means the most to you, and why? How often do you even ask yourself these questions? Chances are, you may have never thought about most of this.
As humans, we’re the product of conditioning. Behavioral Psychology tells us that our experiences affect the way we perceive the world and react to various situations. Depending on where we were brought up, our parents, our schooling, and even our friendships, we can have specific expectations and reactions that may not be fully authentic, but have been conditioned, rather than organically developed and chosen by us.
Authenticity relates back to us at our core – who we would be without conditioning or being directed on specific paths. Oftentimes, it’s hard to tell what is authentic to us because there’s so many other considerations. Sometimes we decide to move towards or avoid things due to safety or fear. Implications about something being too feminine for a heterosexual cis-man, meaning the potential of dealing with bullying at school – or if I wear my hair like that, someone may make fun of me. Or even further, concerns about coming out as non-binary, introducing your partner to your family, or announcing that you don’t plan on having children.
How often do we alter how we express ourselves for the comfort of others? What does that do to us in the long term? How often do we actually like ourselves? From a professional lens, the number of people that come to therapy saying, “I don’t like myself; I’ve never liked myself,” is astounding, and can speak to a larger issue. Dismissing our authenticity can lead to depression, loss of identity, resentment, shame, and regret. There are multiple studies and articles exploring the relationship between repressing the authentic self and depression and/or anxiety.
If we live our lives based solely on how others will perceive our decisions, we lead very limited, potentially unsatisfying experiences. You may authentically want neon pink hair, or that super expressive outfit on the mannequin. If someone else doesn’t like it, what does that actually mean? It isn’t something they would choose for themselves at this time. You aren’t that other person, and that other person isn’t you – and there’s nothing wrong with that. As humans, each of us as individuals are unique beings – how boring would it be if we were all exactly the same? Same aesthetic, same thought patterns, same taste in music. Imagine that for a moment . . .
Doesn’t sound that fun, does it?
This doesn’t disregard the fact that people do react negatively and sometimes aggressively to the decisions of others. There have been multiple cases in society where self-expression has been physically punished. This may be part of the reason why some people hesitate now – part of the conditioning that has led to an authenticity deficit.
So, what can we do about this?
For one, it’s incredibly helpful to identify authenticity for yourself. What drives you? What are your passions? What things bother you or make you angry? Who do you feel most safe around? Guided journaling and speaking with a trained professional can help uncover layers of authenticity under obligation. Inner child work and trauma processing can help reveal aspects of yourself that are authentic, but were dismissed or punished due to past circumstances. From there, exploring authentic expression in safe ways, and around safe people, while also minding your emotional regulation needs.
Maybe starting with self-expression alone and in the company of just yourself, and then branching out to close others. This isn’t a race, and this blog isn’t to make you feel pressured; authenticity also involves knowing your pace and what works best for you. Slow down if you notice you’re feeling overwhelmed. There’s no need to push yourself too hard or too fast, just keep track of your limits and personal boundaries.
Reflective time alone can help with knowing yourself because there aren’t the direct influences of others. This can be uncomfortable, especially if you deal with loneliness, but it can also be a healthy learning experience. Even asking yourself, “why does loneliness bother me” might shed some light on traits you picked up from past circumstances. Sometimes we’ll notice that different traits or aspects of personality come out more comfortably when no one else is around. We can start to ponder on why we might be covering these traits up when certain people are within our space. Are there people in your circle that you worry may judge you, or dislike certain authentic traits?
There are so many questions that can be asked to dig a little deeper at ourselves. If you’re in therapy, it may be helpful to mention that you want to understand yourself better, and return to a more authentic place. If you’re not, as mentioned before, journaling (guided or otherwise), meditation, and general self-exploration can be helpful.
We hear the phrase “meet yourself where you’re at” in therapeutic conversations – Well, it’s time to actually meet yourself. Who knows? It might turn into a wonderful friendship.