What does being authentic mean in a world that values material goods, wealth, and beauty. Can a person be happy if they don’t follow the latest trends or social norms? Many people wake up every morning, put on their armor, mask up, and face what they see as a cruel and unforgiving world. Others don’t prescribe to such habits, and walk out their front door just as they are, with open hearts, open minds, offering themselves to the world just as they are, and unapologetically, I would add.
In the TEDx Toronto talk, The Importance of Being Inauthentic, Mark Bowden speaks the importance of connection with others; suggesting that people be inauthentic, and follow a list of facial expressions to create the illusion of friendship with another person, rather than being indifferent (2013). He states that this is the only way to not miss out on brilliant opportunities with one another.
On the other hand, in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown states in her guidepost #1 that one of the ways to living a whole-hearted life is through cultivating authenticity and letting go of what people think (2010). So, which is the correct way to live? Let’s explore what happens to the human experience when you choose one over the other
Authenticity is a choice, it is not innate. Whether we choose to put our real selves out there and be vulnerable to the ridicule of others is our choice. We can go through life pretending to be what each person we come into contact with wants us to be or we can be our true selves. Most people fall on a continuum between being inauthentic or authentic. According to Dr. Brown, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are” (2010, pp. 50).
Furthermore, Brown suggests that when we choose authenticity, we find the courage to be imperfect, be vulnerable, and set boundaries. We also exercise compassion toward ourselves because we know that we are all hardwired for struggle as well as being strong (2010). Lastly, we nurture the sense of belonging and connection that only comes when we believe we are enough. Without these things, we are simply living our lives with armor on, not really experiencing what it is to connect with someone authentically, without changing ourselves to fit the mold.
That is how we make a true connection with another person. If we are always pretending to be what others want, we simply lose ourselves, become stressed out and unhappy. Authenticity invites joy, grace, and gratitude into our lives, even when it is difficult or intense, so we just have to let go, let it consume us and be ourselves.
According to Mark Bowden we need to put on a “face” and pretend to be someone’s “friend” in order for them to listen to you. This includes smiling a full smile, with narrowed eyes, building it and then holding it for at least 3 seconds, making eye contact to induce a return smile, and then showing empty hands as to not create fear in others. These are all great things, and by doing it you make another person feel comfortable around you.
But why does this have to be inauthentic? If you have a public speaking job and you don’t look forward to sharing your experiences and knowledge with others (even though it may be a little nerve wracking), then why do it. Are you truly happy and living whole-heartedly or are you just following the drive to make money? Living like this causes stress, anxiety, and the belief that we are not truly good enough.
Why would one want to live as a fake and a fraud? Putting your authentic-self out there and being vulnerable will sometimes end in heartbreak and struggle, but by doing so you are living whole-heartedly and learning from your mistakes. This way, the next time you will more easily find the courage to stand in the arena, all marred and tattered, and be brave. Having the courage to be ourselves is what counts.
Bowden, M. (Writer). (2013, September). The Importance of Being Inauthentic [Video file].
Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzpf84_Dd40
Brown, B., & Fortgang, L. (2015). The Gifts of Imperfection. Tullamarine, Victoria: Bolinda
The word serendipity was first coined by Walpole, in reference to a fairy tale where the characters were constantly coming upon discoveries and treasures of which they were not searching. If you do your Google’s, Merriam Webster defines it as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for”. As for the definition of wonder, they’d say it’s “a cause of astonishment or admiration”.
When I ponder the meaning of serendipitous wonder, I imagine myself walking my path in life open to whatever comes upon me, finding joy in the unexpected, appreciating everything that surrounds me, and letting go of the notion of control; ultimately, it’s all about trusting that the universe will lead me where I’m meant to go.
Some may read this statement and believe that I wish to go through my life without direction and purpose, with no idea of where I’m headed and without life goals or aspirations. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To me, it is all about having goals and purpose, while enjoying the journey, using my values to guide me; knowing that if I do so, it will lead me to the goal eventually, in good time. It means putting my authentic self first, being open to happenstance experiences and embracing connection with people in unexpected places.
I find that when I allow myself to let go and just be me, serendipity enters my life in abundance. All of us have difficult weeks from time to time, and my life is no different. In fact, it is often filled with more challenges than feel fair and manageable; but I keep going because that’s just what I do. It is oftentimes when I can’t imagine one more thing going sideways, that a person enters my life and I am filled with abounding joy, even if it’s just for a little while.
This was my experience not long ago, and I never imagined that I would make such a connection with another person when my intention was just to check out the merchandise in the little shop next to where I got lunch. I was immediately drawn to the storefront on Southeast Division Street, with its unique array of treasures, because it honored women and reminded me of how powerful we are if we allow ourselves to believe it. I knew I wouldn’t have much time to peruse because I had a therapy appointment soon thereafter a couple blocks up the street, but I figured I’d at least check it out.
The guy working that afternoon was warm, welcoming, and told me a little about the store. I walked around, feeling overwhelmed, in a positive way, by every quote, piece of art, and little trinket, because it was all about women finding their strength and kicking ass in this world. I knew I would miss out on so much if I rushed through, so I told him I was coming back after therapy to take it all in. He was very sweet and excitedly told me he’d be there when I returned.
I returned after my therapy session and was immediately greeted with enthusiasm. I took my time looking around, all the while chatting with him about all the different merchandise and how excited I was to find such an amazing shop. I was laughing out loud reading cards, which started up a conversation of complexity, mutual vulnerability, understanding of one another, and connection. We talked about everything from our values, to experience as queer individuals, to disabilities, to relationships, to writing, and eventually landing on finding the courage to stand alone when we strongly believe in something.
It was one of those moments when you instinctively know that the person in front of you just gets you, without any explanation. They can look at you and see you for exactly who you are because you trusted them enough to let them in. The beauty in the experience is one that seldom replicates and value can’t be attached to. I know he came into my life that day because that is part of my journey; it was supposed to happen, so it did. If I had been closed off, armored up, and not paying attention, I may very well have missed out on meeting someone that I now consider one of my dearest and most trusted friends.
I was there for over 2 hours that afternoon. I purchased a few small things, one being a typewriter pin for my backpack, and a Still I Rise piece of art for my wall; both items I enjoy and love for more than what they physically are. They are a reminder of the kindness and love another person offered me that day. Before I left, I handed him my Braving the Wilderness book by Brene Brown, telling him that my only request was that when he was finished reading it, he passed it along to another person he thought would appreciate and find value in it. He was super excited and asked me to come back on one of the days he worked so we could talk about it. I grinned, knowing I would definitely return.
I left that little shop with a smile and warmth in my soul that wasn’t there upon entering. Every experience I have changes a part of me, even if it’s in the smallest of ways, and that afternoon a piece of my heart grew just a little bigger and the light in my eyes a little brighter; joy will do that to a person, especially when it comes from experiencing someone else’s truth alongside their own.
Artwork by Helene Delmaire
It’s quite easy to lose oneself amid adversity, and focus all our attention on our troubles, losing sight of the beauty that surrounds us. It’s impossible to go through life and not experience negative emotions; when we pathologize those emotions and choose not to sit with them, they tend to manifest in ways that don’t serve us well. Unfortunately, we are socialized into this behavior and often don’t even realize we are doing it, until our psyche or body tell us that something is wrong, and we seek professional support and guidance.
My own personal struggle with negative emotions walks this path and is something I’m keenly aware of; it wasn’t always this way though, and the impact on my mental and physical health has been abundant. As women in this world, we are told not to make waves, to be caretakers and people pleasers. When we feel anger, we are told that doing so is not becoming of us and to let it go. This is the way that I walked through my life until recently, and even though I am aware of my tendency to suppress anger, the frequency that I continue the behavior is high.
There is value in leaving a situation when you feel out of control, however, when you are told to do so and never given any guidance on how to manage those emotions the next go round, accepting negative emotions as normal tends to be lost. As children we build our trust and feel secure with the adults in our lives when we are shown love regardless of the choices we make. When we trust that we can explore our world and make mistakes, and still be accepted and loved by those that matter most in our lives, we feel secure and confident in who we are as individuals.
An immense amount of damage occurs when the people we have grown to trust, betray us and hurt us in unimaginable ways. The disintegration of trust I have in others and myself began at a very young age, at the hands of a neighbor boy I grew up with. From there, repeated episodes of individuals that were supposed to protect me, inflicting abuse, robbed me of my childhood and profoundly affected the choices I made as an adolescent and emerging adult.
As I approached 40, I found the courage to leave an abusive marriage after nearly 20 years, and completely upend the lives of my children and myself. There’s not a single person alive that goes into a marriage seeking abuse or purposefully choosing a partner that is controlling. Abusers are often very charismatic in the beginning, but slowly and methodically strip you of who you are, isolate you from your family and friends, and make you doubt the perception you hold of your own experiences in the world. I had romanticized in my head what life would be like without him in it, but the reality was in no way a reflection of as much.
There was no magic wand and my newfound freedom wasn’t all rainbows and lollipops. I was lost and truly had no idea who I was. It was the first time I had lived on my own; my children were with me half of the time and when they went to their father’s house, I had panic attacks and spent hours crying for no reason that was apparent to me at the time. Now I know that I didn’t know what to do with all the emotions that had been shoved down for years, so they poured out of me in uncontrollable ways. I knew that I needed support because I had no idea how to manage what I was experiencing.
Finding a good match in a therapist can be challenging; someone may be a very talented therapist, but that doesn’t always mean they are a good fit for you. I had been to a handful of therapists but had never found someone that I trusted and could be completely vulnerable with. All that changed in on July 1, 2014, and my life has shifted profoundly because of it.
The first time I talked with my therapist on the phone, he told me that our first session would center around both of us determining if we could work well together, and if he felt like it was a good fit. I had never had a therapist talk so openly about the importance of that process, which was refreshing, and says a lot about who he is as a person, and the value he places in his role as someone’s psychologist. He asked me why I was seeking his support and then we scheduled our first session.
When I walked into his office, I can’t explain the sense of ease I immediately felt. I had no reason to trust the man sitting in front of me, but instinctively I did; as we began talking, it was like a flood gate opened and I found myself sharing my life story with him in a way that I had never done previously. For the first time in my life I sat in front of a man that held no judgement, and fully accepted me for the person I was in that moment.
I can’t say that therapy is easy, in fact it is the most difficult undertaking I have ever experienced, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I often struggle to see the growth I’ve made, especially when one challenging life event after another is thrown at me; but I know it’s there. I value the therapeutic relationship that I have built with him and know that it’s a rarity in this world. I credit him with saving my life 10-fold at this point, but I also know that if I hadn’t been willing to be vulnerable with him and put in the work to make changes in my life, I would still be the same person that sat in front of him nearly 5 years ago.
Living through a lot of abuse and adversity has fostered a lack of trust in myself and others. It took years for me to show anger in front of him and I trust him more than anyone else on the planet. In my past, all anger did for me was intensify the abuse I was experiencing, so I ceased fighting back for self-preservation reasons. I shoved anger deep inside of me and made sure there was no room for it to wiggle its way to the surface. When someone hurt me, I found a way to blame myself, which fueled shame. Anger wasn’t a safe emotion for me and sitting with it was frightening in the most basic sense.
I had a breakthrough about a year and a half ago, when something happened that angered me immensely. I remember sitting in his office feeling unbelievably anxious, repetitively fidgeting with my hands, and struggling to feel comfortable, as I told him what happened. All that I wanted to do in that moment was self-harm because it alleviated the pain I was feeling. As the story unfolded, my voice rose, and all the anxiousness shifted to anger in an instant; it happened as quickly as one turns on and off a light. It just fell out of me, which scared me to pieces.
He got really excited, and then quickly apologized for doing so, but I totally understood why he did; there was no need to apologize. It was a breakthrough for me, and he literally got to watch it happen right before his eyes. That was the day that we both learned that the anger I internally suppress is outwardly expressed as anxiety.
Of course, it has been beneficial to recognize the anger/anxiety connection but labeling something doesn’t always remove the power it holds over you. It takes an immense amount of work to release oneself from behaviors that once made you feel safe. He has been helping me sit with my feelings for many years, learn to accept them as they are, and not push back against them so diligently.
The tendency to want to numb difficult emotions seems natural to many of us, but when we numb the bad, we also numb the good. In order to experience joy, we must be willing to sit with pain. It’s much easier to sit with pain when we don’t attach a negative label to it, and see it as simply being what it is, an emotion. It’s also quite tempting to go on joy seeking adventures, rather than finding it in the every day moments. In doing so, so much of our life passes us by in a blur; one day we wake up and wonder where all the time went and struggle to find genuine meaning beneath it all.
I’ve been in that very place, and now I’m choosing a different path. It’s not always fun, and it’s certainly not easy, but I can honestly say that I know myself better now than I ever have; the connections I make with others are more intimate and genuine than in the past, and when I allow myself to let go and be vulnerable, the joy that envelopes me, brings abundant love to my heart. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling way to live.
It’s often during the most unexpected circumstances that “light bulb” moments happen, and they can dramatically shift one’s perspective on life. I had such an experience on an airplane, headed to Costa Rica recently, and it turned my life upside down. In some ways, it surprised me that I had one of these moments on an airplane, and it also didn’t. Costa Rica is magical for me and has opened my world to new possibilities that I hadn’t imagined prior to my travels there. Also, I was watching a film that was a musical, which tends to elicit an emotional response. This time, the “light bulb” moment kept me awake through the entire 5-hour red-eye flight.
Many people grow through adversity, and yet, even when we feel as though we have overcome the worst of circumstances and learned from those experiences, we fall back on old habits and narratives, which leaves us feeling as though we’ve failed once again. I’ve been in this exact place more times than I can count, and as much as I want to know why, I’ve learned that “why’s” aren’t always helpful for change.
This may appear to be counter-intuitive for creating long-lasting change; however, if we are at the point of having already made a change, then falling back on old habits is more of a relapse than anything else. The word relapse is often associated with alcohol addiction and/or drug use and tends to hold negative connotations. What’s missing from this viewpoint is that it’s a normal part of the change process, just as much as growth. Normalizing behavior removes the power it has over us to induce shame when our expectations don’t match reality.
My “light bulb” moment was realizing how much power written word holds for me, and the reason that I’d been hitting a roadblock on creating this very blog. I want to share my life experiences with people because my feeling is that much is lost when we hide our adversity from others. Hiding it leaves too many people feeling desperately alone, just longing to find someone who understands who they are and what they have overcome in their life to get to the place they are in the present moment. My roadblock felt like a 100-foot brick wall that was impermeable and indestructible, yet it crumbled with three simple words; life isn’t linear.
I was trying to tell my story chronologically, which wasn’t working because the connection from my past to the present resembles a complex spider’s web. The growth I’ve experienced, walking alongside my therapist, has never been linear in nature. Just like a spider’s web, every aspect of my life is interconnected, and every experience I have changes the shape of my existence.
There have been many occasions where I’ve spent a long time rebuilding a part of my life, just to have someone tear it down and rip it to shreds right in front of my face. At that moment, it’s easy to go to the old narrative of “why bother”, because the old way feels safe and it’s frustrating when I must begin once again. Honestly, though, I don’t have to begin again, I could be angry and give up; everything is a choice, even if it’s not one that will deliver what I want, it’s still a choice. I choose to begin again and have agency in my life.
What I’ve recently come to embrace is that those experiences force me to be vulnerable, creating a new web that is stronger and more beautiful than before. It may be in shambles for a time, but in the end, the growth that comes from that adversity has more value than coasting through life in an inauthentic and disconnected manner.
I want to give up, almost every day, and it often feels like the only viable option. However, if I look beyond the hurt that I feel at that moment, most times I can find at least a sliver of hope in the direst of circumstances. It can be elusive and difficult to grasp; there have been many days, especially when I’m in pain, that I’m unable to find that sliver. Thankfully, I have others that hold that hope for me, when I’m not in a place to find it. This provides me the space I need to heal, with support, so hope won’t feel so elusive.
Vulnerability, authenticity, hope, and love are the foundation for living a life filled with joy, especially in the face of adversity. That’s what I wish for others to discover in themselves through my writing. I’m so happy you’ve made the choice to join me, as I walk through this beautiful and often very messy world.