When Authentic Isn’t Enough

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value.

One image of a Gordian knot. There are many interpretations. I like this one for its art value. Image from http://www.sangsunbae.com Check out the other imaginative images from this artist, too.


Digging through my journals, I came across a story I want to include in the book I’m working on. (For now, the content of the book is not important.) The story is about my mom’s struggle with authenticity. She stewed in the perpetual heat of anger. One day, I asked her, “What is it that makes you so angry all the time?” I asked it in the softest voice possible. I really wanted to know; it was a key to our Gordian-knot relationship.

She looked at me and explained, “This is who I am. You always say it is good to be authentic. This is me, authentic. If you can’t deal with it, it is your fault. I am being true to myself.” The fable of the lady and the asp flashed through my head, but I remained quiet.


To this day, I still feel anxious when I hear anger–even if it is not directed at me.

She had a point. Except her anger was so damaging, so painful. But most of her friends–those whom she liked–didn’t feel the sting of her anger. She did have another side. I rarely saw it.

Fast forward to now, when we encourage people not to change, to be happy as they are. What makes me think this? Listen to the language we use:

  • It is what it is
  • That’s you being you
  • Be yourself, everyone else is taken (attributed to so many people I’m not even trying to be sure, although I like Oscar Wilde.)
  • Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” –Bernard Baruch

We love being ourselves without excuse. “Don’t judge!” we warn. But somewhere there has to be a difference, a line, a distinction between back-stabbing gossip and being authentic.

When we say, “it is what it is,” or “haters gonna hate,” we are not excusing others, we are justifying ourselves and writing everyone else off as envious–lesser. There is then no cause or reason for criticism. We win. And so does everyone else, in their mind.

I beg to differ.  Language shifts our culture, so let’s be clear about the definition of “authentic.”  It is your deepest best self, not the shallow way we behave without thinking. Being authentic takes some reflection, asking, “Who would I like to be seen as? My character is my reputation, how do I want to present it?”

That’s the person we want to be. The person who builds a reputation; the person who is loved by dogs.

–Quinn McDonald spends a lot of time watching how language and culture influence each other.


29 thoughts on “When Authentic Isn’t Enough

  1. I’m a bit late to the table, but this article resonates with me. I’m still crawling out from under my mother’s anger, but feel that forgiving her has brought me some freedom.
    “It is what it is ” seems to have little meaning; everything “is what it is”,but shouldn’t necessarily stay that way.

  2. anger is the emotion that is telling us “something is wrong”.A person taking responsibility for their anger is rightful action.Our biggest problems come from using that anger wrongly.It isn’t just language,it’s the intention behind it.Someone may be saying the “right words”,but our bodies feel their authenticity on some level.

  3. Hi Quinn, I didn’t see this post earlier when I replied to your later one.It is similar to what I am dealing with the loss of my own mother ….People who have not experienced this type of deep wounding from their parents find it hard to fathom.It is a difficult journey to progress from hurting,healing to helping.There are many different ways to be a veteran and thankfully,the collective we are becoming more aware of the epidemic of developmental trauma,not to even mention the skyrocketing proportion of war vets…

    Just another reason why you inspire me! :))

  4. For those of our parents’ generation, the proper saying was to treat everyone as we would like to be treated (in fact, it was the unwritten saying under the JC Penney’s stores–the Golden Rule Stores). People who are so angry have their own problems but inflicting their problems on anyone else is not a proper form of activity. If someone is rude to me, I’ve figured out that it is healthier for me to just shrug it off than to take it personally (and to spare myself from further contact with them).
    I find the culture to excusing ourselves of our faults and pointing fingers at other people we disagree with to be very rude, and one I dislike being attached to.

  5. Quinn,
    With your focus on the angry energy early inthe post, the thing that comes to mind is that anger is a negative emotion that can throw us off our center, until we can figure out what triggered that anger and how we can grow into a stronger place as a result of that discovery. Our authenticity is at our core, our center. So I would assume that being angry and being in our center are dichotomies. They do not resonate with each other. (I in no way am criticizing your Mom, just sharing my thoughts.)

    Thanks for your honesty and your forthrightness and always diving deeper.
    I appreciate your authenticity.

    Be refreshed,

    • Well, some anger–at injustice, at unfairness, at abuse of power–is quite justified. But still, I agree that it is how we can grow into a stronger place. My mom was angry for complex reasons of her own. (You weren’t criticizing her, and she is long dead, so you won’t insult her.) It was her go-to emotion. And it was sad for her. And me.

  6. This is a great piece, Quinn. For me the question is, “Which me is the authentic one?” Because when I ask this, the answer for me can only be the one that acts from a place of divinity and love, not the one that is fearful and small. Which is not to say I don’t get angry – grace can be fierce as well as gentle.

  7. Way, way back I read a book about how language shapes culture, us, how it tells what lies underneath, and while it was about women and language specifically, that book made me listen more closely to how people language their lives. I try to listen most closely to myself.

  8. It aint what we are…it is what we choose to be…It is never “it is what it is”…”it is you being you”…hahaha….thanks for the funny…
    Who I am is a miraculous being….it is when I define myself through being controlled and labeled…that I give in and be a pile of hate….and this world needs less of the suffering souls who seriously just love spilling their hate onto the world…and we choose who to be nice to and who to be mean to…

    • You are really right when you say that we could do without more hate in the world. For sure. We all fell strong emotions, which are out of our control. But how we act on them IS in our control, and it defines us.

  9. So grateful for this post. I do not harbour anger, feel very uncomfortable with anger or to be around anger. I certainly appreciate your perspective, and the value of how we want to be seen by others. I have learned over the years that my life runs much smoother when I begin with a smile. Again, thanks for this post.

    • I do get angry, but I try hard not to act out of anger. Sometimes I’m better than others. And yes, righteous anger is sometimes needed. I’d like to think life runs smoother if we lead with our best selves.

  10. It is what it is — is only a beginning. Change is constant and anything can be changed and constantly is being changed. I like “It is what it is, until it isn’t”. We are fixers – we like to make life better.

  11. Many years ago a teacher of time management Klaus Hilgers, said “Reality is a function of language.” and explained what he meant. I was amazed and have never forgotten. Recently there was a book or article about reclaiming liberal words that have been hijacked by conservatives. Again, eye-opening. I have watched with interest the evolution of same-sex marriage to same-gender marriage to marriage equality and the change in public opinion as the issue is presented differently. Yesterday there was a person on VPR saying that the War on Terror gives justification to people who can feel that they are singlehandedly or courageously fighting a war against the US empire. She said that we should simply label them the criminals they are rather than dignifying their opposition as a war effort ( i.e. the Boston Marathon bombing.)

    • There is a lot of good information here, Marilyn. “Reality is a function of language” is a real thought-provoker. I saw a poll in which people were asked what they thought of the Affordable Care Act v. Obamacare, and an overwhelming number of people said they support the first, but certainly not the second. When they were told they were the same thing, they didn’t believe it. Language is really important.

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