The word “authentic” gets thrown around a lot nowadays. It’s used alongside other taglines like “just be yourself,” and “nobody can be you except for you.” What I find deeply troubling about this trend is “authentic” often gets attached to what appears to be going on rather than what actually is going on.
Last week I had the opportunity of seeing Gabor Mate in a workshop called Compassionate Inquiry. Mate is a well-known addictions expert, speaker and author from Vancouver. The majority of attendees were social workers, psychologists and people directly interacting with those struggling with addiction. So why was I there?
The ability to connect with what is true for the people around me is something I am curious about. Each of us is truly in our own universe and what I think I see clearly may not be part of someone else’s perception at all. Learning new skills to support my curiosity is important to me. Watching Mate facilitate a deeper way of listening was helpful to me as a journalist because I’m constantly interacting with a wide variety of humans who are shaped by experiences I know nothing about.
One of the key strategies Mate kept coming back to was encouraging participants to continually check back in with themselves and their physical state. When our nervous systems are in the fight or flight state, we are unable to communicate effectively or listen at all. Many of us have learned how to adapt to survive life rather than be fully switched on to what is real in our experience.
What is real can be deeply painful and we are wonderfully creative in the myriad of ways we try to repress what is honest for us. Many of us have been rewarded for being dishonest or not telling the truth so it becomes easy for us to continue in a lie.
For example, if as a child you got in trouble for saying you didn’t want to hug a certain family member, you may have internalized that message as a belief you don’t have a right to your own physical space in order to belong. Because you were dependant on the people around you for food and shelter, you may not have felt safe asserting your need because that might mean you no longer get the basic essentials for survival as a human.
Beliefs such as this provide a powerful protective state to the child in the moment and morph into a brilliant array of coping mechanisms in adulthood, keeping many of us locked in the idea we cannot tell the truth about how we feel or what we need. There’s nothing wrong in this scenario. It simply speaks to our incredible creative capacity to adapt to whatever life throws at us.
Another one of my favourite humans is Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. In a recent interview with Forbes writer, Dan Schawbel she talks about what it means to belong based on the data she’s gathered:
“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.
“If we are going to change what is happening in a meaningful way we’re going to need to intentionally be with people who are different from us. We’re going to have to sign up and join, and take a seat at the table. We’re going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.”
Being authentic in my life requires me to consistently check back in with myself to see what’s happening in my body. I take the time to breathe deeply. I take a moment to step away momentarily from situations that activate my fight or flight response.
These are all simple things but without them, I’m not able to connect with anyone in any meaningful or authentic way. In this commitment to myself I free up my ability to show up in my community in a way that is honest and am also able to create an environment for others where they are free to show up in truly authentic ways.