“Authenticity” has become a frequently cited goal in discussions between therapists and other healers. I am often confused by what other practitioners mean when they talk about wanting to “be authentic.” This is just not obvious to me. So, I want to take a crack at explaining what it means to me for “me” to “be authentic.”
A couple of years ago, I was working at a clinic in Lakeville. One of the office staff told me she’d been looking at the clinic’s “return rates” for the therapists there. I asked, “what’s a return rate?” She explained that it’s the percentage of clients that come back to a therapist for at least one additional session after their first session. She then told me that I was one of the therapists that had a high return rate and she wanted to know if I could tell her why. I thought about it, and said, “maybe it’s because I am ‘wysiwyg’ (what you see is what you get). I try to be real. Maybe clients can tell that I being real with them and they like that and trust it.” She smiled, said she appreciated my thoughts and the conversation ended.
Maybe, then, “Authenticity” is the same as “being real.” But what does that really mean. What is “being real?” How can we know when we are “being real?” Speaking for myself, I can say I know I am being real when I can feel a sense of myself as different than the role I am filling in a relationship. When I am in therapy with one of my clients, I am constantly asking myself, where is the “me” in the role I am playing as a therapist with this particular client. Am I aware of “me” as I am also aware of my client? Am I aware of “me” as distinguished from my awareness of how I might appear to my client?
The “me” that is not the same as the “therapist” I am being with my client is not always easy to separate, but it can be done. How? By looking for the “me” that feels the same when I am playing the role of therapist with a client, or playing the role of father to my son, or the son to my mother, or the friend of a friend. “I” am in all of those roles in all of those relationships and “I” is different than the roles because the “I” doesn’t change, but the role does, depending on the context and the nature of the relationship.
The most prominent role to be played for finding your “I,” your “me,” your “self,” or your “essence.” is the one you play when you are completely alone. When there is no other person to whom you must project an image. However, being alone by itself does nothing. Even when we are alone, we sometimes become so immersed in what we are doing with our bodies or minds that we feel little or nothing of ourselves. I lose myself while gardening (which is one of its greatest benefits–it is so engrossing). I also lose myself when composing music or editing photos. That’s okay. Creativity often requires the experience of immersion in a thing or an activity. Sometimes, though, we aren’t as much interested in “immersing” ourselves in creativity. Instead, we are simply avoiding ourselves or avoiding the fact that we are at that moment alone and don’t know what to do with ourselves. If we can learn to “be with ourselves” when we are alone, we can begin to be “with ourselves” when we are also with others. And this is the crucial piece to finding authenticity.
Finding “me” in these roles is only part of being authentic. I can be internally aware of all of this, but I am only authentic when I allow “me” to change the role according to how “I” help define it. Michael Kinzer as therapist is and should be very different than anyone else being a therapist. Michael Kinzer as father should be very different than the father next door, because Michael Kinzer is a very different person within his role as a father.
Summing it up, then, authenticity can be described as being “with yourself” when you are either alone or with others in a way that makes you aware of your “self” and sharing that awareness so others can also experience the “you” that is not defined by your role. I suggest to clients that they ask themselves “where am I in it” (the IT is the context and the role) and then let others see this.
I want to thank a client who offered to allow me to use a diagram he created after we discussed authenticity (you know who you are, and thanks again).
As you can see from the diagram, authenticity encourages or allows you to expand your own sense of being inside yourself. When we are not authentic or “real” with others, we must hide within ourselves to create the space necessary to appear to be what we think others want us to be. We also create “perceived holes” within ourselves, hoping that things outside ourselves will fill these holes (another person’s view of us, work, sex, alcohol, etc.). The more we hide within ourselves, the more likely we are to be disappointed, hurt, lonely, and fearful about the part of ourselves that feels empty–the “holes” or spaces within us left empty by the failure of others to meet needs we can in reality only meet ourselves. If we hide within ourselves, but create an image of ourselves in the likeness of what others want, we also have less reason to expect that others will know what we need. We will in essence be asking them to guess what we need. And when they guess wrong, or even worse, don’t guess at all, we might end up hurt, angry, or resentful.
If you can “expand” your “self” or encourage the authentic part of you to grow closer to the exterior boundaries between yourself and others, allowing them to see you as you really are within yourself, you will be more able to clearly ask for what you want for yourself. And they will be able to see what you really want from them. Put it this way, most of the time we think about what we want other people to think and feel about us, to do for us. That by itself is not a problem. There is nothing wrong with wanting others to like us, to like to be around us, to have a positive image about us. So far, so good. The problem comes in when we pretend that we are what they want us to be so we can get what we want from them. This is what leads us to the situation shown in the diagram above. We continually hide from others and ourselves because we become convinced that what we are isn’t good enough, or is somehow not what we “should” be. This can lead to poor self-worth, self-loathing, denial of ourselves, loneliness, depression and anxiety.
Being authentic helps us get what we really want and avoids the pitfalls of hiding within ourselves and pretending to be other than what we are. So, why aren’t we always authentic–it like a no-brainer. For one thing, to be authentic with others we must allow ourselves to lose control over getting what we want from others. We must allow them to decide whether to give us what we want, or not. Being authentic in our relationships always carries the risk that who and what we really are is not what others want from us and they may then reject us. If I ask someone “will you do this thing for me?” They can say “no.” I then have to deal with the hurt that “no” might cause. In addition to telling me “no,” they might say or imply that I shouldn’t have asked in the first place–that not only are they not going to meet my want or need, but it was inappropriate for me to even ask them because I am not being who they want me to be for them (of course, they aren’t going to say that to you, but that will be the reason they say no). Talk about rejection! If, on the other hand, I am not authentic, and I don’t directly ask for what I want, but I invite them to engage with me in a way that makes it likely that they will want to give me what I want, they will not be able to directly say “no.” And I will not have take any responsibility for asking. There are other risks involved with being authentic; such as offending others, making ourselves more raw and exposed to others and therefore feeling vulnerable, creating expectations that others should also be authentic with you, and coming across as “overbearing,” “arrogant,” “pushy” or “too blunt.”
Don’t let the risks of authentically engaging with others discourage your willingness and desire to be authentic. There is one more reason authenticity, while sometimes tough, is so important: you cannot achieve meaningful personal growth or fulfillment in your life if you are not trying to be authentic. You will remain stuck if you expect others to fill needs within yourself. This is simply not possible, so you will keep trying to fill those places, with no success. Being authentic allows you to know you, be you, understand you, and gain further understanding of yourself and others when they too can see the real you.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.