St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper-Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald
Have you kept it real today? Or did you whip through a course of white lies and whines between sunrise and sitting down at the office?
Being authentic – or real – seems an obviously positive character trait that some have and, much of the time, most don’t.
I always assumed that “authentic” people were those who didn’t give a damn how others perceived them. I thought that being authentic wasn’t necessarily being nice – wild-eyed girls who swear and unsettle the manicured hens around them aren’t putting up a front, regardless of how that’ll be judged, later on, over coffee.
People who challenge my views, too – to me, that’s authentic. They’re at peace with riling me up, since they’re unafraid to state an opinion that’s at odds with my own.
But apparently, the majority of us probably aren’t succeeding at authenticity, no matter how overtly honest, or outwardly forthright, we seem.
My friend, author and journalist Mandy Collins, recently posted a piece by Olivia Goldhill, in which researchers argue that we need to dig deep and learn how in order to become the authentic people we so desperately want to be.
Part of the problem, explains Goldhill, is that we are “surrounded by messages of authenticity that seem, somehow, inauthentic.” She gives social media examples: Instagram photos of real, no filter photographs (which assumes that anything not stated as such, must be fake), or food companies serving up “real” ingredients.
When did we reach the point of needing to prove that food is real?
“In the face of such mixed signals, how can you tell if you’re being truly genuine, or simply mimicking some of these false, empty messages of authenticity?” Goldhill asks.
We need to be authentic
British psychology professor Stephen Joseph may have the answer. A Nottingham University academic, he posits that humans have a deep-seated and universal need to be authentic and to feel that others are, too. We hate being taken for a ride, fed a story or led up the garden path.
What we didn’t know, though, was how difficult it would be to become real.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow – I studied his work at university and find him terribly smart – crafted the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, which states that we have sets of needs which need to be met before we can move on to the next level of our lives.
These start with the basics, obviously, such as food and sleep, and then social and relationship needs, and so on. Based on Maslow’s description, a person who reaches the last level – self-actualisation – is one who is truly authentic.
“When people are authentic, when they’re themselves, they’re self-actualised,” says Goldhill, quoting Joseph. “When our needs are met, we move towards self-actualisation. So that’s the natural, normal state for human beings.”
Why is any of this relevant? Simply because our preconceived notion of what it is to be real, is probably wrong.
Having self-actualisation means having a sense of morality and being without prejudice, according to Maslow. So, just because you’re someone who doesn’t hold back, or tells it like it is, or who is socially charming and popular, doesn’t mean you’re real or authentic at all.
Observing someone telling nasty jokes about others regularly, for example, says Joseph, shows that this person has not achieved true authenticity – even though that person may think that being inherently nasty is an innate and authentic part of his or her personality.
Conversely, a well-to-do and well-heeled forty-something who feels justified moaning about “them” or “that type” or “this bloody country” – and whose views are backed up by most of his social circle – isn’t authentic as much as he would argue, vehemently, to the contrary.
True authenticity is being open to new experiences, being empathetic, non-hostile and non-judgmental towards or about others. Any opposite behaviour shows a person not genuinely at peace with herself.
This resonated with me, especially since another aspect of the research shows how patterns of group behaviour, institutional restrictions (school, work, religion) and peer pressure often push us further and further away from who we really are or who we want to be – a situation exacerbated by social circles which support your inauthentic behaviour.
I found this spin fascinating. For most of my adult life, I’ve admired bold, bolshy people who get things done and aren’t afraid to be controversial. In fact, I always assumed that being controversial was probably a hallmark of being real.
When, in fact, it’s those observant, less chatty, non-combative, quietly smiling types who are, most likely, the real deal.
The ones who don’t require psychology research reports to teach them how to be.