One of the most well-meaning but useless pieces of advice that many of us have received and that many of us have given (come on, hands up) is the recommendation to ‘just be yourself’. They’ll love you, we add. Of course you’ll get the job. Of course your date will like you. Of course you’ll get on with the other kids/your prospective in-laws/your new workmates. Just be natural. There’s nothing to worry about, you’re great!
The urge to be our authentic self is a sound one, particularly considering the barrage of examples of fakery and fraudulence which we face every day. Now more than ever, perhaps, we value what is genuine, sincere, authentic, and want to be perceived as such in the way that we present ourselves and in our dealings with other people. However, strange as it may sound, being authentic does not mean that you have to be consistently open and honest, or that you have to behave in the same way to everyone.
In the course of even a single day, you will present many different personae to the world as you adapt to different roles and different contexts.
You’re a mum or dad on the school run, a commuter, an employer or employee, a customer, a professional consultant, one of a social group having a drink or a meal, someone pitching for business, a guest at a fund-raiser or party, a member of a quiz team, a concerned friend, an up-for-a-good time friend.
It is likely that the way you speak, behave and dress varies according to the situation. You make little adjustments without even realising that you are doing so. This does not mean that you are being insincere or inauthentic; it means that you are socially aware and understand the dynamics of communication.
Adapting to the circumstances
Usually, it isn’t much of a stretch to adapt to the demands of circumstances.
We are used to making micro-decisions about when to speak out and when to be quiet, when to tell that joke and when not to, what to share and what to withhold.
People without that filter, and who present their full selves regardless of context, often create awkward situations in the name of a ‘That’s me, take it or leave it, I can’t pretend’ approach.
How often we wish that the person who is proud to claim ‘I speak as I find’ would find it in them, just once, even, not to do that.
Sometimes, however, the tension between being true to yourself and meeting the demands of a situation can be stressful. You might be a kind person, and find yourself needing to behave in a way which you think is unkind.
Maybe you value fairness, but have to implement policies or make decisions which you think are unfair. You believe in openness, but have to hide how you feel about, say, a family matter, or your friend’s lifestyle choices. Freedom might be very important to you, but you are in a situation where you cannot behave freely.
How to be sure of yourself
It may seem that you can’t call yourself sincere and authentic if you don’t always express your inner self through your outer actions.
Actually, the stronger your knowledge and perception of yourself, the less difficult it is to deal with challenging situations. If you know who you are and where you’re coming from, and if others know this as well, you can deal with challenging situations from a more secure base.
These steps might help:
- Identify your core values. These are the things which really matter to you, the qualities which underpin your life and make a statement about who you are. Try to pinpoint your own core beliefs, not ones that you have inherited or ones that you think you should claim.
- Create a pattern of behaviour which is in alignment with these values.
- Know that you are known by these ideas, that people perceive you as you are.
- Accept that sometimes you will fall short.
- Share your discomfort on the occasions when you have to behave in a way that doesn’t seem to belong to your true self.
Try phrases like:
- I feel uncomfortable doing this
- I don’t like saying this
- This doesn’t sit well with me
Remind yourself of your authentic values:
I /am an empathetic person/believe in equality/value privacy…and it is from that basis that I am approaching this situation.
If the clash is too great and the occasions on which you feel compromised are too frequent, you might want to re-evaluate your position and make some changes.