06 June 2010

Are You Authentic?

Are you authentic? Because if you’re not, you may fall ill with a terminal disease, find yourself bankrupt, out in the street and emotionally stranded with no kindred soul to connect to. Isn’t this the message that many personal development books and courses imply when they drum about the importance of being authentic? There is a pervasive and little questioned teaching that ‘being authentic is the only thing that can make us happy’. I don’t doubt that. I doubt their definition of authenticity by which a person is supposed to ‘dig deep’ and uncover some hidden self which has lied there for centuries but too many societal rules prevented it from popping its head up. These self-help gurus are implying that there is one and only destiny pre-written for each of us. Of course, we are not to ask by whom; if we do, we will be told it was our soul or some other intangible entity. What we are meant to do in order to become authentic is to unveil this something that is allegedly purer than the shape we are currently living from. If not, well, as I said before, we can never hope to be happy. Then enter the examples: a woman was cured of her cancer when she left the man she was not destined to be with, a man earned millions when he took the risk of leaving his old job and started the business he was always meant to do… you get the gist. What I always wondered is how do you know when you’ve dug deep enough and hit the authentic self?

I, as a keen reader of personal development, always had a problem with such concept of authenticity. It’s not that I don’t believe there is authenticity to strive for. My academic self has helped me to uncover and challenge the pre-destined type, but it hasn’t infected me with its virus of relativity which can make everything or nothing appear equally authentic. During my anthropological research, many studies insightfully pointed to the process which produces the aura of authenticity. Certain people or things, in the right circumstances, appear more authentic. The academic claim is that nothing in itself has that quality, but is made this way through various social processes, such as persuasion, performance, supply and demand ratio etc. More interestingly, each ownership of authenticity has a specific purpose and intention and so is quite removed from being universal and pure, qualities that personal development ascribes to it. To cut the long story short, the academia is not out to unveil its authentic self but to expose the way authenticity is being sold to us as a natural state of being. A very large part of me agrees that the uncritical waving around with authenticity needs a dose of relativity. Equally, ‘deep down’ there is a part of me that believes in some sort of authenticity as a prerequisite for happiness.

Just as I was about to jump the self-help ship on this one, I discovered one of the most ingenious approaches to becoming authentic. It was taught by Richard Bandler, the co-creator of NLP and the most amazing brain scientist, to a group of battered women. After spending some time in the shelter with them, he suggested the women changed the tone of their voice when they spoke to their violent husbands: more assertive, self-confident and clear. One of the women complained to Bandler that it wouldn’t be right for her to sound more assertive because ‘it wouldn’t be her any more’. Bandler replied, wittily as usual: ‘if the new tone of voice gets you a desired behaviour from him, believe me, honey, it will feel a lot like yourself’. Why do I believe in this type of authenticity? Because it’s not pre-determined, suggesting there is only one right way to be – one occupation, one person, one country – which if left unveiled will make us miserable. This approach honours certain values in each of us, such as freedom, respect, autonomy, flexibility. Values and attitudes guide our whole life. I can be a passionate anthropologist but if I work at a university that doesn’t respect values important to me, I will indeed be unhappy. On the other hand, whatever values anthropology holds for me can be found in a whole number of different jobs. In writing my blog or having a horse farm. Authenticity which I believe in means being aligned with your core values in whatever you do. Not the ‘you were born to do this’ storyline – this is not authenticity; it’s dogmatism.

There’s really a very simple rule that can make anyone be more authentic and doesn’t include digging and shovelling: the ‘I don’t care what you think of my authentic self’ rule.

This is the first in the series of posts on ‘Self-help and Academia Secret Affair’