Authenticity seems to be quite the buzzword these days. Every self-help guide hitting the shelves or the internet will tell you to find and live in your authentic self. It’s pretty sad that we need to be instructed to do this, and quite frankly kind of annoying to admit that this message resonates at all. Why aren’t we all automatically being our authentic selves? Who else could we possibly be?
The answer to the latter question is easy: many of us are attempting to be someone we think the people around us will like. We alter our physical appearance, our word selection, and may even attempt to alter our own thoughts to match an individual who is widely admired – perhaps a celebrity or maybe someone else we know who is quite popular. It never works. Authenticity may be something that seems intangible but inauthenticity can be spotted a mile away in the dark.
As a veterinary student, I literally sent myself into a social anxiety downward spiral by trying to make myself more like a good friend of mine who I really admired. She was easily one of the smartest students in our class and has an incredibly effervescent personality (not in a “look at me” sort of way, but in an incredibly magnetic “I could read The Constitution as a filibuster and all of Congress would remain in attendance” sort of way). She could work a room and make every person in it think that she attended the party just to visit with them. I have always been a shy person and find small talk difficult (and boring, usually). I wanted to improve my social skills, so I did the only thing I could think to do at the time: I tried to be more like my friend. IT DID NOT WORK. I became so anxious in social settings that I stopped going to many of them altogether. I literally couldn’t select words to speak because I was weighing in my mind which words my friend might use. I became waaaaaay more awkward than usual. My boyfriend at the time told me that I needed to stop watching Woody Allen movies because I was becoming totally neurotic. ( I really feel the need to tell you that this was long before we found out just how creepy Woody Allen is. This was back in the old days when the weirdest thing he had done was marry his stepdaughter. Somehow, we all seemed to be OK with that. Anyway…) It was easily the most uncomfortable period of my life to date. After a few months, I aborted the mission and today I’m back to being my authentically shy and awkward self.
Of course there are many reasons why we feel compelled to mimic other people, ranging from a diminished sense of self worth to societal pressures to conform to the fear that the people in our lives just won’t like our authentic selves. I’m not a psychologist, but it is my strong suspicion that the last reason is paramount for most of us. Fear is one of the most powerful motivators known to humankind, and I suspect that the fear that our authentic selves will be disliked, unpopular, or rejected drives us to pretend to be someone we are not.
Another friend and former coworker of mine was a used car saleswoman in what must now seem like a past life. The job was probably not the best fit for her, and her boss tried to help her to succeed by telling her that there is a buyer for every car and as salespeople it was their job to match the right buyer with the right car. His actual words were, “There’s an ass for every seat”. This catchy piece of used car salesperson wisdom is a notion we should all carry with us as we live our lives as our authentic selves.
There’s an ass for every seat. Or, as John Lennon put it perhaps a bit more eloquently, “Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.” Your authentic self – your authentic voice – may not be the most popular one, but chances are if you speak it your authentic voice will resonate with people.
As a creator, your only chance at connecting with people is to be authentic and write, draw, paint, sculpt, whatever comes to you and you alone. Attempting to mimic others will just fall flat. Chances are – especially if you are just beginning to create or to share your creations – you will feel incredibly vulnerable doing so. I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s supposed to feel. J.R.R. Tolkien, upon finishing Lord of the Rings, said, “I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.” Still, despite his trepidation, he published the work and found millions of asses for his seat!