When we try to be “real” with others – “authentic,” we might say more formally – we mean many things. We often mean simply to share how we feel or what we want rather than to hide it. We say that our feelings are hurt, that we are angry, that we want more attention, or whatever, rather than just going along. This may be important to assure we are visible and engaged with others. Yet, being “real,” in this sense, is not always a good thing. Our feelings or desires may be much more about us than about the others on whom we place them. When I am triggered to anger by a minor slight, my “real” expression of anger avoids my responsibility and, in that sense, is not “real” at all. I am really angry at my mother, not at you. Being “real” can sometimes amount to obstruction or even cruelty.
So authenticity is more complicated than just expressing our feelings and desires. The idea of authenticity is deeper and richer and calls for a more existential understanding. I see authenticity as beginning in the acceptance and affirmation of our humanity. But what does that mean? Here’s my take (with acknowledgment to Sartre). Human beings are situated freedom. What that means is that we are free to shape our lives, but only within the context of the situation in which we find ourselves – our historical period, our gender, the language we speak, the childhood we had, the people we find ourselves among. Acceptance and ownership of these inextricably linked dimensions means that we must live our lives with both the anxiety of freedom and the frustration of being situated. These are the existential and emotional givens of what it means to be human: anxiety and frustration.
Because anxiety and frustration are not comfortable, we often flee these feelings into an inauthentic relation to our existence. There are two ways we do this, corresponding to the two dimensions of our humanity. First, we can affirm our situation and deny our freedom. This might be called “victimhood.” We say, mostly to ourselves, that some aspects of our situation make it impossible to change. There’s nothing I can do; I was born this way, or I was taught this by my parents, or I was abused or neglected. My situation defines me and I have no freedom to change it. Second, we might deny our situation and affirm our freedom. This might be called “magical thinking.” If I just “wish” hard enough, my parents will love me, or my sister will come back to life, or the past can be changed. I am free and no situation constrains me. These inauthentic stances avoid the anxiety of choice and the frustration of situational limits. Or at least try to.
Authenticity calls us to accept our situation and our freedom within it, as well as the frustration and anxiety that attends this acceptance. When we act from authenticity, we embrace our humanity and individuality. This may mean expressing how we really feel or what we really want, but it may also mean withholding such expressions in acknowledgment of the situation, anxious in a choice we cannot be completely sure about. It is hard to speak affirmatively about what is authentic because it is so situational. It is easier to identify inauthenticity because that is similar in its falling into victimhood or magical thinking.
We drift constantly into inauthenticity, acting as others want or expect us to, fulfilling roles that define and limit us, wearing masks, making excuses, thinking and believing what “everyone” thinks and believes, living as if we will live forever. We are called to authenticity, but it is a constant choosing and a constant acceptance of anxiety and frustration. It may not sound like fun, until we’ve tried the alternative for a while.