In “Alice in Wonderland,” the protagonist falls down a hole while chasing a white rabbit and, in her attempt to reach it, must change size several times. At one point, she asks herself, “Who the hell am I?” Her perplexity with what is happening and alienation from herself can resonate with us as we live in a constantly changing world that forces us to adapt again and again, so that finding our true “self”, the one that guarantees a unique voice, it can be quite a challenge.
Curiously, the more the world pushes us in one direction or another, the more the word authenticity resonates. However, its use has been prostituted, becoming a term as popular as it is misunderstood and often misinterpreted, even being used as an excuse to justify rudeness or lack of empathy, thinking that being authentic means saying the first thing that comes to mind. or do whatever comes to mind. Obviously, authenticity goes much further, so if we want to be authentic in a society whose mechanisms drive us to become clones, we must understand its meaning.
What does authenticity mean? The philosophical gap between the person and the society
Most modern philosophers have conceived authenticity as a kind of individuality. Karl Jaspers wrote that authenticity “Is the deepest as opposed to the superficial […] that which lasts as opposed to the momentary, that which has grown and developed with the person as opposed to that which has been limited to acceptance or mock”.
Søren Kierkegaard followed a similar thinking. He believed that being authentic meant breaking away from cultural and social limitations to live our own way, staying true to ourselves. An idea that Friedrich Nietzsche also defended when he said that “No price is too high for the privilege of owning oneself.”
Martin Heidegger, on the other hand, thought that authenticity is accepting what we are here and now, while being able to live up to our future potential. Therefore, his perspective of authenticity did not imply an immanent and permanent “self” but rather a process of inner growth.
Jean-Paul Sartre went a step further by positing that we have the freedom to interpret ourselves and our experiences. This philosopher believed that living authentically involved recognizing that we have to invent our identity through our decisions and actions. “Whoever is authentic, assumes responsibility for being what he is and recognizes himself as free to be who he is,” he wrote. Therefore, being authentic is a deliberate act of personal construction.
Although with different nuances, all these philosophers agreed that authenticity resides within us and we can only achieve it when we are faithful to those values, often in contrast with what is socially expected of us. Therefore, they established a kind of antagonism between the authentic and the social, a gap that Psychology deepened by differentiating between internal mandates and external norms.
Most psychologists have agreed with the philosophers’ meaning of authenticity. Carl Gustav Jung, for example, stated in a phrase about authenticity that “The privilege of a lifetime is to become what you really are.” In this way, the idea has been transmitted that authenticity is a kind of rough diamond hidden inside us that we must discover.
Following this line of thought, a series of psychological characteristics have been established that define authentic people. The first condition is to have developed a high level of self-knowledge that allows them to know who they are and what they want to do with their life.
The authentic person knows himself well. Through an exercise of introspection, he tries to form the most faithful idea possible of himself, he does not resort to self-deception or try to distort who he is but accepts his lights and shadows.
However, it is not enough to know each other, we must express that authenticity in a consistent way. In fact, a study conducted at Wake Forest University revealed that the most authentic people, both extraverts and introverts, feel comfortable sharing their ideas and emotions. These people are fundamentally guided by their inner voice, so they avoid “pretending” or being “false” just to please others.
From this perspective, to be authentic it is not enough to know ourselves well, we must be coherent enough to express that inner world, staying faithful to our ideas, values and principles, but also to our feelings, passions and dreams. Therefore, we must be permanently in contact with ourselves because if we lose the link with that essence, we will not be able to express it.
However, the concept of authenticity unfolds into a multiplicity of meanings when we understand it as a sensation and a feeling of a deeply personal nature. It then magically disengages itself from its contradictions and sheds its abstract and complex veneer to become something we can touch and practice every day.
What makes us feel authentic?
The idea that we all have a “true self” that hides behind a false one, so we just have to discover it and express it, sounds very romantic, but in reality it is not that simple.
In an increasingly liquid world that demands constant adaptation, the old definitions of authenticity are outdated. Erich Fromm proposed a different concept. He believed that any type of behavior, even those in tune with social mores, can be authentic, as long as it is the result of a process of personal understanding that involves approval and not simple conformity.
Therefore, being authentic does not necessarily mean going against the grain. We can be authentic even when we do the same as others, as long as that behavior is born from a deep personal conviction. By focusing on unity, Fromm rejects the idea of Sartre and other philosophers who equated authenticity with absolute freedom to move it to the field of coherence between thought, emotion and behavior.
Psychologist William Swann’s theory of self-verification moves on that same wavelength, according to which we feel that we are authentic when we perceive that those around us evaluate us as we do ourselves. That is, when the image that others have of us coincides with the image that we have formed of ourselves.
A group of psychologists from the University of California have followed this lead, taking it a step further by describing authenticity as a feeling we experience when what we do aligns with our “self.”
In a series of experiments, they discovered that people felt authentic when they were flowing in what they did, whether it was a job, a leisure activity, or any other task. And the more they flowed, the more authentic they were perceived.
On the other hand, when the task became difficult and they lost concentration, they stopped flowing and felt more false. Therefore, in practice authenticity is linked to the concept of flow. From this new perspective, it is not necessary to know exactly what our “true self” is. If we feel that something is authentic, it will be.
And that feeling does not come from a deep inner knowing but rather from a state of connection, fluidity and coherence. Therefore, authenticity is not so much linked to that single, monolithic “self” to which we must be faithful at all costs but rather to a sense of cohesion between the internal and external. That means that we no longer have to fight against the world to express that authentic “self” but quite the opposite, take note of the circumstances to flow with them following our inner voice.
The difficult mission of being authentic in a changing world
The meaning of authenticity from an etymological point of view gives us a clue to achieve that goal. Derived from the greek word autentikós, from authentéo, it means both having authority and “acting for oneself.” Therefore, authenticity is not an enlightenment, but is expressed through what we do when we allow ourselves to be guided by our inner voice.
When we are going through a sea of change, searching for that “authentic self” can make us feel like Alice in Wonderland. A good starting point is to focus on achieving that state of flow and avoiding internal conflicts.
That feeling of fluidity – which does not mean the absence of obstacles, but the conviction that we are doing our best, giving our best at that moment – can be the compass that guides us towards authenticity.
This means that being authentic is not about becoming kamikazes of the truth or letting ourselves be carried away by impulses, but rather about expressing our thoughts, feelings and desires in the best possible way in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, so that this generates a deep feeling of inner satisfaction.
Being authentic is not clinging to a “self” with immutable characteristics but rather being convinced of what we do, even if that also means changing. In fact, authenticity is not an invariable concept but the expression of a “self” in continuous transformation that seeks and builds itself through what it does, thinks and feels.
As William James said: “Look for that special quality that makes you feel more alive, that comes along with an inner voice that tells you: ‘this is your true self,’ and when you have found it, follow it.”
Baldwin, M. (2022) What the new science of authenticity says about discovering your true self. In: The Conversation.
Hicks, J. A. (2019) Introduction to the Special Issue: Authenticity: Novel Insights Into a Valued, Yet Elusive, Concept. Review of General Psychology; 23(1): 10.1177.
Chen S. (2019) Authenticity in context: Being true to working selves. Review of General Psychology; 23: 60–72.
Fleeson, W. & Wilt, J. (2010) The Relevance of Big Five Trait Content in Behavior to Subjective Authenticity: Do High Levels of Within-Person Behavioral Variability Undermine or Enable Authenticity Achievement? Journal of Personality; 78(4): 1353-1382.