In years gone by, conformity and tradition ruled social convention. Almost everything that told our ancestors who they were and how they needed to be in this world was handed down through social convention. Their geography was fixed, their beliefs unquestioned, even their work was often inherited. Decisions in life from whom to marry to proper conduct were governed by norms that were seldom scrutinised.
In our privileged modern lives, we have been gifted freedom. Freedom to live where we want, choose our own career paths, and partner across different religions, ethnic backgrounds and vastly different upbringings. We are increasingly free to express our individuality in any way that seems relevant to us.
But at the same time, an understanding of how to be authentically ourselves is not always a given. Modern Western culture praises individuality and authenticity. But in practice, there is little formal structure in place in our culture and our systems to help individuals to cultivate the ability to listen to their innermost voice, teaching them to translate their values, desires and abilities into the thoughts, actions and behaviours that will govern their lives.
Tradition and rigidly defined norms which everyone adheres to come with a lot of certainty and comfort. They provide guidance on what to think and how to act, as well as comfort and the backing of a community who are all following the same path. If we do not exercise our hard-won freedom to be authentically ourselves what did we give this certainty up for?
Renowned physician and speaker Dr Gabor Mate spent his career formulating his deep and moving insights across the diverse but interrelated fields of stress, mind/body health, childhood development and addiction. Using his wide-ranging experience and expertise, rooted in both a scientific and a compassionate take on what it means to be human, Gabor Mate argues for the vital importance of learning to connect with and express our authentic selves not only for our mental well-being but, just as crucially, for our physical health and wellbeing.
He defines authenticity as the capacity to know what we feel, to be in touch with our bodies and our emotions and to manifest who we are in our activities and our relationships. He goes on to explain that we have an innate desire for authenticity; being connected to ourselves, knowing what we feel, and being able to act on this understanding was a crucial survival mechanism for our ancestors.
But importantly, he presents the idea that in modern cultures this need for authenticity is often in direct opposition with another need more crucial to the survival of a young child: the need to be loved and accepted by others (what psychologists refer to as the need for attachment). As we navigate our relationships, initially with our caretakers and subsequently with our peers, partners and colleagues, to greater or lesser degrees we all learn to suppress our authentic selves trading in that deep connection with the self for the love and acceptance of others.
The more we feel this relinquishing of the self is required for love and acceptance, the more we lose touch with our authentic selves. Throughout the course of a lifetime, this can lead to a disconnect with our own true desires to a point where we find it difficult to accurately pinpoint what we want out of life and what it would take to make us satisfied and content. What’s more, without this connection to our authentic selves it becomes impossible to gain approval from ourselves, relying instead on the constant need for approval and recognition from others. Many people end up feeling like it is more important to be liked and accepted by others than doing the work necessary to accept and like ourselves.
Researcher Dr Brené Brown highlights that authenticity is a practice not a state of being. It is a constellation of choices we make every day. It’s not that we are authentic but instead that we choose to be authentic. Although subtle, it makes all the difference: every situation grants us the opportunity to listen to our inner voice and to express what we feel in a way that allows others to see us for who we really are. The practice is in learning to nudge ourselves to take these chances and to use them with increasing frequency.
For people who have lost touch with themselves, it can be difficult to even recognise what it feels like to be in touch with and express their true self. But researchers such as Brené Brown remind us that authenticity can be recognised through feeling a deep sense of fulfilment and meaning, often (though not always) accompanied by joy. Acting in accordance with our inner most feelings eliminates the mental incongruity that makes us feel so uncomfortable and instead makes us feel in alignment with ourselves.
While for many people, the fear is that by expressing their authentic selves they will not get the approval and praise from others they so desperately seek, the truth is that only through being true to ourselves can we attract the kinds of deep and meaningful relationships we all yearn for. Fostering a deeper connection with who we are at our core and learning to act in accordance with this state of being will increasingly draw in others who are also striving to be authentic. Only by being our authentic selves can we attract the people and experiences that will make life fulfilling and meaningful.
We need to allow ourselves the time to cultivate this state. The time to learn to listen to our bodies and our emotional responses. The time to learn to recognise the ideas and goals pushed onto us by others that are not aligned with what we desire at our core. The time to cultivate the practice of saying what we mean in a way that allows us to build bridges between our innermost selves and the external world. These skills take time and effort to develop and the more we engage in this practice, the easier it becomes. But the important thing is that the opportunity to start connecting with and expressing our authentic selves is always there for the taking. All we have to do is decide it is worth the practice.
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