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.


More on “Authentic” Behavior

The other day I felt that being authentic wasn’t enough for being a friend. And that’s true. But there is more truth to discover.

Your authenticity doestn’t guarantee love and admiration from your friends, just because you are being authentic. The word “authentic” has taken on a sort of mythic proportion of human endeavor. We strive to be “authentic” and somehow, in our own competitive minds, “authentic” begins to sound like “perfect.” It’s not.

Your authenticity means that you are true to yourself, that when you screw up, you know it to be a screw up, but one made because of your mistake, not out of meanness, or subterfuge. (Unless, of course, that is your authenticity–meanness and subterfuge.) You apologize, you are sorry, but you do not go about “fixing” yourself to be better. Authentic is living in the room with yourself and accepting it all–good, indifferent, not so good.

Your authenticity is simply that–bare bones you. No making stuff up to polish your image, no trying desperately to be someone you can’t be. Authenticity has its downside–you won’t make everyone happy, you won’t solve everyone’s problems. Because authentic you is just that–the real you with flaws, failures, and hopes.

You won’t make everyone happy, but you can learn to be happy with who you are. It is enough.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer.