“What does it mean to be ‘authentic'”? Anne asked. She was sitting on the couch in my studio; we’d been talking about the muse swap I wanted to run.
“Authenticity means being yourself–who you are, warts and all,” I said.
Anne looked at me carefully. “People don’t like warts, not mine. They might like Lady Gaga’s. If she has any. But not my warts.”
“Tell me more. What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” Anne said thoughtfully, “Last week I went to dinner at a friend’s house. She served something disgusting, and I told her I wouldn’t eat anything that looked like a body part. She got angry. But I was being authentic. Should I have eaten that disgusting thing? That wouldn’t be authentic.”
Authentic Isn’t Blurting Out Every Thought
“Authentic and saying what you are thinking without any ‘polite filter’ on are two different things. That’s why, in court, they make a distinction between ‘the truth’ and ‘the whole truth.'”
“OK,” Anne said, “So what IS authentic and how do I do it?”
“Authentic is acting on your values. You have a value for not hurting others feelings, and a value for not eating food that looks like body parts. Authentic behavior would be a way of covering both values.”
” So I could have taken a small piece and eaten around it, or simply said ‘No, thanks’ when she offered me the disgusting meat” Anne said. I was careful not to ask what the meat was. I wanted to stay on track.
“Yep.” I said.
“Do you have trouble with being authentic?” Anne asked.
Authentic Won’t Buy You a Place at the Cool Kids’ Table
“Sure. Often. In school, people always asked me to get involved with what the ‘cool kids’ were doing. I wasn’t cool, but I badly wanted to be. Often I took dares, or did what others did, even if I didn’t honor my values, just so I could be cool. And often I was the one who got caught. And just as often, the people who had encouraged me and promised the label of ‘cool kid’ turned their backs on me and laughed. It made me feel foolish and angry.” I said.
“Later, I choose to do things–protest injustice–and I knew that I might get caught, even punished. But I choose that consequence when I made the choice, and could explain my reasons to myself and others. They might not agree, but I felt OK with myself,” I added.
Anne grinned. “You’ve told me about those days. You are still that same person. Oh, I get it! Your values are the same now!” she said.
Values Don’t Change, How You Handle Them Does
“They are. In many ways, I’m the same person.” I agreed. “In fact, something happened recently that made me see that my values haven’t changed, but my way of handling them has,” I said.
“Like my disgusting meat story?” Anne asked.
Sort Out Your Own Authenticity, Then Act
“Sort of. Someone challenged me to do something I would have felt uncomfortable doing. It wasn’t anything bad. To many people, it would be fun. But not to me—it was dressing up in a wild costume and dancing. In public.” I explained.
“Do you think dancing in a costume in public is wrong?” Anne asked.
“Not at all. If it were a costume party, with lots of others dressed up, I might do it. But this person asked me to be the ONLY one to put on a costume and dance—to get attention. And that’s just not me. It’s not how I like to get attention. I like to get attention in different ways—telling stories and finding solutions for problems, and being humorous. I’m more bookish than dance-ish,” I said.
“Oh, I heard about that challenge. It would be funny. Why not do it?” Anne asked.
Knowing Who You Are, Accepting It, Acting on It
“Other people might be able to carry it off. Other people might feel comfortable and funny wearing a costume and dancing in public, all alone. But it’s not authentic me. If I went against my own authentic self, other people would sense it, and they would feel uncomfortable, too. So even though the other person is kind of challenging me, I’m not doing it. It’s not authentic me, ” I said.
“Just like saying the dish my friend was sharing with me was disgusting. That wasn’t really me, either,” Anne said.
“Yep, just like that. Being authentic means being the ‘you’ that shows your values, your beliefs, your ideas. People might like you or they
might not like you, but as long as you are authentic, both sides will be clear about why. Now, I’m going to have some lentil salad. Would you like some?”
“Ummm, maybe a small helping. Or, on second thought, I”m good,” Anne answered.
“How about a PBJ?”
“Now you’re talking,” she smiled as we left the studio and went to the kitchen.
–Quinn McDonald is a life and creativity coach who is teaching two classes at Art Unraveled, an art retreat in Phoenix, August 3 – 10, 2010.