It’s a common claim among participants of Mormon internet groups that people feel they cannot be themselves at church or can’t say what they think for fear of being ostracized.  They feel they are discouraged from being honest or authentic, that they would be rejected if they disagreed with the party line or articulated a non-conforming viewpoint.  Certainly many examples have been given of individuals who were viewed suspiciously for sharing unpopular opinions openly.  These are complaints that they feel they must be inauthentic to be accepted.

The History of Authenticity

We currently equate authenticity with honesty.  Anytime we have to “play a part” we consider it a pressure to hide our true selves, to be a hypocrite.  Authenticity is a virtue very much in vogue right now.  If you aren’t being “true to yourself,” you are living in the shadow, in misery, suborning your needs to others.  And yet, authenticity is a fairly recent virtue.  Generations before the self-actualization movement lived with a more communal, pro-social set of virtues, not one that elevates the individual’s needs above duty or others in the group.  It’s precisely the sustained emphasis on duty that spawned the authenticity movement.

First let’s unbox the concept of duty.  Consider the patriotic attitudes toward WW2 vs. attitudes toward serving in the Vietnam War.  If you were an 18-19 year old man during the 1940s, you felt it was a duty and honor to fight for and die for so great a cause.  If you were an 18-19 year old man in the 1960s, you likely felt more suspicious of the motives in going to a small war in a remote part of the world, fighting a cause even the country you were supposedly fighting for was divided about.  The threat was less clear.  The motives for war were more oblique.  Trust in authority was no longer an obvious greater good because authority was revealed to be untrustworthy.

The authenticity movement came about in the late 1960s and later, and now it is a foregone conclusion that self-expression, self-actualization, and self-awareness are critical to one’s mental well-being.  “I’m OK; You’re OK.”  Since the 1990s, leaders are deemed ineffective if they are not authentic, although historically leaders were expected to toe the party line and represent management rather than themselves.  We look for hypocrisy and people “playing a part” and distrust them instinctively.  This wasn’t always the case.

The Diplomacy Balance

Let’s take a look at what we mean by authenticity.  One of the best compliments I ever received was from my former boss who said she had never met anyone more comfortable in her own skin than I was.  I took her to mean that I was authentic, by which she meant I said what I thought, I didn’t seek approval, and I didn’t hide any unpopular opinions I held.  And yet she also said I was the peacemaker in our team, someone who could help defuse tension with humor, who could help disagreeing parties see each others’ perspectives, someone who was naturally diplomatic.

It’s certainly possible to be authentic while lacking diplomacy.  Some people seem to wear tactlessness like a badge of honor.  Part of being successful at authenticity is finding common ground so that who you are is not seen as a threat to who they are.

Discretion vs. Open Book

In sales, people talk about “opening the kimono” with clients, being transparent enough to reveal vulnerability in the sales process that leads to increased trust.  And yet, “opening the kimono” can backfire disastrously.  There’s a difference between opening your kimono in a doctor’s office (someone who knows what they are seeing and understands the human body) and opening your kimono on Times Square (basically being a flasher).  Authenticity will backfire if you don’t understand the difference.

Concerns that one can’t be authentic are at heart about approval-seeking and the fear of rejection.  The power to conform is ever-present in any group.  For example, you can make comments at Wheat & Tares or By Common Consent that would get you banned at Millenial Star, and vice-versa. You can say something in a Visiting Teaching appointment that you couldn’t say in Sunday School. You can’t ask for a Diet Coke at Pepsi headquarters.  Expressing an opinion far outside the group’s norm is never popular to the majority.  Authenticity is avoiding hypocrisy, but doesn’t have to mean picking fights or casting your pearls before swine.

Who Are We, Really?

Do we really know ourselves?  Our self-awareness changes, and our ability to articulate our perspectives also changes over time with experience.  Studies show that people whose beliefs change, including political affiliations, often change their memories of the past to match their current beliefs.  This can only be determined when comparing one’s current memory with an earlier written account of events, and yet, this process of confabulation is how memory works.  It’s happening all the time.

Whenever we think we were “wrong” in the past, our mind works hard to resolve this cognitive dissonance by making us right.  Whenever you hear yourself thinking “I knew all along . . .” or “Even back then, I suspected . . .” you may be rewriting your past memories to fit your current perspectives.  It’s like those interviews about serial killers in which people recall what the person was like before they committed the crimes.  Suddenly some of them knew all along that person was a bad seed, although nobody noted it at the time, or at least not enough to take action.  We recast the past in light of our current knowledge.

Add to that the fact that as human beings, we constantly change.  We are continually revealing ourselves to ourselves.  As we encounter novel experiences, we can sometimes be surprised at our reactions.  We think we will behave one way in theory, but the reality differs.

Seeking First to be Understood

Often when people express frustration at feeling forced to wear a facade, they approach relationships expecting to be understood and accepted for who they are.  Even in close relationships, this is a naive expectation.  Real understanding is quite rare.  If we struggle to understand ourselves, is it any wonder that people struggle to understand each other?

One difficulty is that we judge others based on observed outcomes (what the outcomes are from our perspective) but we judge ourselves based on intentions.  Even Hitler had, in his own twisted logic, “good” intentions:  racial purity.[1]  Stephen Covey talked about seeking first to understand others, then secondarily to be understood.  Trying to understand others is hard enough that if we really try to do this, we will see how easy it is to be misunderstood and perhaps we will lower our expectations for being understood.

It is also difficult for others to accept who you are if they feel that you are threat to who they are, either through association, affiliation or our perception of ourselves as a parent, child or spouse. This is one reason family relationships are so fraught.  Our identities are so wrapped up in one another in marriages and parent-child relationships that respecting and allowing differences can feel uncomfortable.  Others can’t believe or act in a way that we dislike without some of that rebounding on us, or so we believe.  How do you love what you don’t like?  Unconditional love is at best incredibly hard, at worst unfathomable.  As followers of Christ we say we love others, but as human beings, we wish the others conformed better to what we think is lovable.

Equally important to remember is that people seldom use relationships as a way to expand or challenge their perspectives.  It’s much more common to see other people’s stories as a way to confirm or bolster our existing worldview.  It’s often easier to change relationships than to change our perspective.  We eliminate drama from our lives by eliminating people who challenge us.[2]

Conclusion

How do we seek authenticity while acknowledging human limitations?  A few steps:

  • Seek self-knowledge, but recognize your inability to be objective about yourself.  Realize that you are in some ways a stranger to yourself, constantly evolving and (hopefully) growing and learning.
  • Be curious about others.  Ask more about others, out of a genuine desire to understand without judgment.  The way to empathy and love lies here.
  • Keep expectations for being understood in check, even among family members.
  • Let go of the need for approval.  The cost is too high.  But you don’t need to pick fights about it either.  Live and let live, and most other people will too.
  • Allow others their own worldview without feeling you need to correct theirs or explain your own.  Life’s too short.  You be you; let them be them.

Do you feel you are able to be yourself in most settings?  If not, why not?  What’s your advice?

Discuss.

[1] Good intentions + lack of empathy + a big dose of fear or insecurity = a recipe for genocide.

[2] see also firing personal trainers.