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The Pitfalls of Authenticity

The cult of authenticity tells me, “There is a way that I can act that would be considered real, correct, and truthful. I can and should speak in alignment with who I am. I can and should embody my truth.” As such, the flip side becomes, “I can act in a way that is wrong. If I am not saying what I really think, I’m inauthentic. My job is to make what I say and do match with what I identify as truth in my internal landscape.”

And that, my friends, is a lot of unnecessary pressure and misdirected frustration.

I understand the very real desire to be fully expressed and witnessed, to drop the need to self-edit and perform for the approval of others, to stop hiding, and to act in integrity. Authenticity as a framework for personal liberation, though, is simply ineffective.

First of all, I am not one thing, one self, one truth. I am a million truths. My truth is infinite and cannot be contained in any act, in any combination of words. My million truths are a flock of birds that fly through time and melt into envelopes that hold the poems uttered by my most ancient ancestors and most far-flung descendants. I am everywhere. I will not be contained.

Second, when my job is to make my external expression match my internal experience, I have created a slippery slope into even more self-monitoring and potentially more self-judgment. I become increasingly oriented toward my expression (content) rather than the one who is doing the expressing (structure). The trouble with content-orientation is that even though we aren’t our content, we begin to think we are. We externalize our identity, which brings with it the need for even more approval and validation. Not to mention that when I over-identify with my content, being misunderstood becomes a painful crisis of identity.

Third, if there is a way I can choose to act that is correct, I inadvertently narrow the possibilities of who I allow myself to be. I concretize who I am, which contributes to stuckness, reduces flexibility in my system, and closes me off to change.

What is needed is a reorientation toward structure as identity, a process that allows me to release my tight grip on content, letting go of the need for what I say and do to accurately represent me in the world and validate my existence. My content can never truly represent or encompass who I am, and it shouldn’t have to.

Now, even if it were possible to take complete self-inventory, keep that inventory dynamic and flexible, and completely align my content with it, I would still carry sorrow with regard to my expression. That’s because I am not the full story. I am autopoietic, a system that creates itself as it moves and interacts with other systems. I am meant for more than discovering myself: I am meant for creating myself. Furthermore, I am a responding instrument. I am built to express more than what is inside me because I am also built to respond to the extraordinary experience of being human. If I don’t allow myself to be the echo of both the human and the more-than-human that surrounds me, to express that which moves me, whether it be through poetry, dance, art, song, praise, laughter, elation, or tears, I will be forever reaching for meaning. I will feel an acute emptiness.

And I might just end up thinking that if only I were more authentic, I could fill it.

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