Being yourself seems self-explanatory: just wake up and do what you want to do, without following the crowds, without fear of judgment. But that's not how the world works. We tend to stifle our authentic selves to fit in without even realising it. And doing so suppresses our creativity, ingenuity and self-awareness.
We all have variations of ourselves we present in different situations. You might act one way in front of your parents, another way in front of your clients, and yet another way in front your significant other. Those "invented selves" are normal, and it's something we all do to some extent.
This makes defining your authentic self difficult, especially these days, where the term gets thrown around by social media gurus and other fad mongers as a means to present yourself positively online. Worse, "being yourself" is often represented in the media as being a loudmouth, a goofy stereotype of an alternative kid, or an outsider with a quirky wardrobe and a penchant for manic hysteria. But that's not what authenticity is about. It's not about expressing your opinions all the time without filters — it's about confidently knowing what those opinions are.
Fad term or not, philosophers like Rousseau, Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Maslow, May, Bugental and countless others have struggled with what being authentic means for decades. Philosophy Now sums up the general idea:
Becoming authentic is an individual mission, since each person has their own way of being human, and consequently what is authentic will be different for each individual. Furthermore, personal authenticity is highly contextual, and depends on various social, political, religious and cultural characteristics. But the unique nature of each individual is best seen not in who he is, but in who he becomes, and becoming authentic is a continuous process, not an event. It involves not just knowing oneself, but also recognising others and the mutual influence between individuals. If the quest for personal authenticity is just for self-fulfillment, then it is individualistic and ego-based; but if it is accompanied with the awareness of others and the wider world, then it can be a worthwhile goal.
In short, to root out your authentic self isn't just about being honest, it's also about being self-aware, becoming more humble, and taking feedback from others. It's a hard, never-ending process because your identity is constantly evolving. But the payoff is a happier, more creative self. According to some psychologists, authenticity can also lead to better coping strategies, a stronger sense of self-worth, more confidence and a higher likelihood to follow through on goals.
Explore Your Own Biography
You probably know your own history pretty well, but when was the last time you looked at your backstory closely? Chances are, it's been a while since you've thought about the events, values and experiences you've had that shaped who you are today.
The Harvard Business Review suggests taking a closer look at your biography to help define who you are. Think back on your life and consider your upbringing, how you handled new situations, experiences that tested your comfort zone, and any time you were forced to reflect on your values.
You can do this as a mental exercise or in a journal, but the idea is to take a close look back on your own history as objectively as possible. Take the time to criticise decisions you've made and analyse why you made them. Think about the feedback you've received from friends and co-workers. Most importantly, be tough on yourself and dig into your failures. When you're going through that biography, think about how you've been selfish, horrible or rude. Think about why you were that way. The end goal is to have a better sense of yourself, so root out as much as you can from your own past. Once you have that biography in hand, you might be surprised at just how much you didn't know about yourself before you started.
Train Yourself to Think Critically
In a variety of essays, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes authenticity as an aim for a person to face reality, make decisions, commit to them, and take responsibility for those decisions. For Kierkegaard, authenticity comes from facing reality and forming your own opinion.
Learning to think critically is a defining factor in finding your authentic self. Essentially, it's about paying attention to details and asking the right questions, so you can form your own opinion instead of accepting the truths you're told. When you're forming your own opinions of the world, you decipher reality for yourself instead of letting others do it for you. This in turn boosts your self-awareness because looking at the biases that define your worldview.
Critical thinking is a gruelling process. When you start examining both your reality and your preconceived notions of the world, you'll notice a lot of inconsistencies that you'll need to work out. Perhaps you've been living your life with the notion that you need to have a house and a family by 30, but when you take a closer look you'll notice that's not how you feel personally, but rather something that was ingrained in your from childhood.
You need to reassess not just how you look at the world now, but your core principles as well. We're all raised with a core set of beliefs, and many of those might conflict with what you believe today. Perhaps your parents taught you to wear a skirt to work and while you've always done it, you've never thought about the fact you hate it. That's a lighthearted example, but others may deal with important issues like race, religion, sexuality and more. Think about these longstanding habits and worldviews to see if they have changed. Longstanding beliefs are the ones we rarely look at closely anymore and the more you challenge yourself about those beliefs the better you'll know yourself.
Redefine Your Goals
Who you are is certainly important, but who you want to be defines you just as much. To fearlessly be yourself every day, you need to be aware of where you want to end up. It's often argued that who we want to be is the best indication of who we are. Writing for the New York Times, associate professor Joshua Knobe explains:
If we look to the philosophical tradition, we find a relatively straightforward answer to this question. This answer, endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways, says that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values. Take the person fighting an addiction to heroin. She might have a continual craving for another fix, but if she just gives in to this craving, it would be absurd to say that she is thereby "being true to herself" or "expressing the person she really is." On the contrary, she is betraying herself and giving up what she values most.
It's not easy knowing what you want, but the better grasp you have on what you want to have in the future, the better idea you'll get about your authentic self. In this case, it's about your goals and your values. Do you want to retire someday? Get married? Live on an island by yourself? Be rich? When was the last time you actually thought long and hard about your goals? Are these goals the same as they were five years ago? Probably not. Your values and goals change over the years, and your behaviour should follow suit.
If you're not sure how you feel about your goals or what you want, we've covered ways to figure out what you want in life. For this particular case, I'm a fan of the personal manifesto. To write a personal manifesto, just sit down, pick a few topics where you want to define your values. Don't let anyone or anything else define those values, and dig deep. Think about how you feel about ethics, personality and everything else you find important. Then, write out your beliefs, motivations and intentions. It might sound obvious, and it might seem silly to sit and write this down, but your beliefs may take shape in a way you hadn't expected when you actually put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
Take Action in the Real World
As you get a better grasp on who you are, you'll still need to navigate the world. For many, that means reconciling yourself with a corporate job or other institution that tells you to be a certain way. On the surface, this seems difficult to do. In at least one study, hiding your social identity at work tends to lead to dissatisfaction at the job.
Being yourself doesn't mean you speak your mind without filters. We all live in a society where honesty is valued, but we're not consistently attacking each other. That's a good thing. The same goes for the workplace. Speak up and say what you mean at work, but always remember who your audience is. For example, if you're in a board room at a bank with strangers, it's probably best to keep the self-disclosure about last night's strip club outing to yourself, at least for the first meeting. That doesn't mean you need to hide you social identity, but share selectively and take care in how you dole out information at the start.
The same goes for any other relationships you have, whether they're friendly or romantic. Be honest, be truthful, and be yourself. Share your thoughts and ideas, no matter how weird they might seem. You might be surprised at how opening up makes others do the same and how much more you end up learning about yourself in the process.