When I was a kid, my mum told me if I did not eat enough carrots, I would never be able to whistle. That would have been unacceptable, as it is a skill all children need, so I had no choice. I ate my carrots, and it might not be a surprise: I can whistle today.
If we hear something enough times, especially from authority figures in our lives, we tend to accept those subjective opinions and urban legends as universal truths, especially if we associate certain results with those pieces of advice. It is an undeniable fact that I can whistle, and I ate a lot of carrots, but we have to realize that correlation is not causation. In this case, my mum’s piece of advice was not a bad one at all; however, some popular suggestions can seriously backfire if they are taken too far. The danger is that they sound wise but they make less sense in the real world.
If you Google “authenticity,” you will find a lot of powerful, motivational quotes:
“Be fearlessly authentic!”
“Authenticity over everything!”
“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not!”
“Don’t trade in authenticity for approval!”
They do sound empowering — until we look at them from a different perspective.
A World Where Nobody Wants To Trade In Authenticity For Approval
Conforming to the norms is not just an annoying corporate policy but a way of ensuring our survival as a human species. We would not exist without the willingness of individuals to sacrifice their differences and self-interest to create a stable culture that supported their survival and safety.
Newborn babies cannot fend for themselves; their survival depends on the approval of the adults around them. So even if they start their life completely egocentric, they quickly learn how to conform to their parents’ norms in order to get fed and feel loved.
As they grow up, how many of them would choose to go to school, sit for an exam, study all night so they can apply for a job where their freedom is limited and they live in constant stress due to dealing with authentic colleagues and customers whose needs and wants cannot be traded in for anyone’s approval?
Culture is a group habit that allows smoother interaction, better productivity and more safety even if it costs us a certain level of authenticity. Demanding the freedom of being myself while being outraged by other people’s authenticity is clearly not a sustainable way of living.
Have you ever felt that your freedom of speech is a basic human right, but if somebody disagrees with you, you feel offended and you want to silence them or teach them some common sense? Freedom has a price: responsibility. They should be directly proportionate, just like authenticity has a price: inclusion. Are you willing to match your level of authenticity with how much you accept others’?
Every good idea can turn into a disastrous one if it is taken out of context or pushed to the extremes.
A healthy level of authenticity is when you are true to your own personality, values and needs, regardless of the group pressure around you. Your integrity is not compromised as you are honest with yourself and with others, and you take responsibility for your mistakes.
An unhealthy level is when this concept turns into the most glorified form of fixed mindset and we dismiss the need for improvement, empathy or caring for others.
So how can we be ourselves without completely isolating ourselves? Two of our basic human needs are significance and belonging. We need both; the question is in what proportion? Imagine these opposing needs on two sides of a sliding scale. Where is your preference? Do you need to stand out more, or do you need to feel you are part of a wider group?
Both ends of this sliding scale are unhealthy. Completely rejecting other people’s interests for the sake of ours in the spirit of authenticity is going to result in complete isolation, while giving up on all our desires and needs to please others would be equally harmful. Both options are a sign of a fixed mindset. Life becomes rigid and binary.
The solution is somewhere in between. The journey starts with getting to know ourselves. Bruce Lipton argues that 90% to 95% of our actions are driven by values, needs and beliefs we are not even aware of. Most of the time we are running on autopilot so our brain can keep us safe and energy efficient. It is a more complicated project than it initially sounds. It requires the ability to reflect, ask for feedback, learn and get outside of our comfort zone.
Being authentic doesn’t mean that we do whatever we feel like. It is the highest level of self-awareness and expression of a growth mindset. It means that we know exactly who we are and what we stand for and our self-esteem doesn’t depend on how many people like us or agree with us.
Being inauthentic sometimes can be very useful. I am not talking about lying to anyone; I am referring to having outstanding people skills. Intentionally flexing our behavior and communication style is not a sign of betraying our personality or disrespecting our heritage, but the expression of our constantly evolving, even better version of ourselves.
This article written by Csaba Toth was published by Forbes originally here.
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