When I was 21 and my older brother died suddenly from an accidental overdose, people I thought were my friends crossed the road to avoid me. I had no idea how to express my grief and no one to talk to.
That was when a very difficult truth hit me. The reason that I didn’t have the depth of relationships I longed for was because I hadn’t been showing up in an authentic way. I had been sent to boarding school at the age of eight and, as a result, had become self-sufficient, outwardly confident, driven and socially adept – but also completely unable to express any genuine negative emotions or to experience true intimacy.
My story isn’t unique. We live in a culture that values perfection, success and appearance and many people find it difficult to show up as themselves. As part of my research for my work on authenticity, I surveyed 1,000 people. A third of respondents said they didn’t let people see ‘the real me’. And 50 per cent said they didn’t find it easy to tell others if they were hurt or upset. When asked what it means to be authentic this is what a few people said: ‘Authenticity requires vulnerability – and always the type of vulnerability that at times may feel deeply uncomfortable.’
And we don’t like the idea of being vulnerable and exposed. We fear that others may not approve of what they see and that they may laugh at us, reject us or attack us. But there’s also a part of me that wants to be known and loved for who I am. And I don’t want other people to feel they have to pretend or to cover up with me, either. Probably the reality for many of us is that we want it both ways – we want the deep connection, but we also want to stay protected. So, I have two questions for myself:
- How would I act differently if I did value connection over protection?
- How could I act differently so the other person might feel safe enough to value connection over protection?
A beginner's guide to authenticity
1. Start with yourself. Being authentic begins with being honest with yourself about what you really think and feel. Try keeping a journal about your day and ask yourself some questions to draw out your true reactions. Why not start with these:
- What emotions did feel today and why?
- What was the best thing I did today and what was the worst?
- The one thing I don’t want anyone to know about my day is… (fill in the blank).
2. Choose wisely. Identify some safe people in your life. You will want them to be people who are trustworthy, kind and non-judgemental.
3. Take one step at a time. The next time you speak to one of those safe people, try going one step deeper than you usually would. For example, if your normal level of sharing with them is a 4 out of 10 – ask yourself what you could share that would make it a 5. Then next time try a 6, and see how that feels.
4. Express your feelings. When you’re sharing, make sure you mention your emotions. ‘When X happened, I felt Y and Z.’
5. Be courageous. Being vulnerable can feel uncomfortable, especially when you are starting out, but be bold and persevere. It is like using any muscle you haven’t used for a while – it gets easier the more you exercise it.
6. Encourage others. Help those around you to be authentic with you. Be curious about who they are and what they feel, and be supportive when they share emotions or information with you.
7. Be kind. As you endeavour to be more authentic, always try to be gentle with yourself and with others.
Watch Sarah Abell’s talk at TEDx Bristol at youtube.com
Read Express your authentic self on LifeLabs