If you dive deeper into the concept, you might become less sure about its absolute value. For instance, here are some popular definitions for “authenticity”:
1) “Being true to yourself”. But what kind of self? Your self from the past, the present, or the future? What if you had a traumatic experience? Should you be committed to yourself? I heard one Vietnam veteran admit that “being authentic” for him would mean cutting the throat of anyone who disagrees with him. What if you want to be true to an aspirational self (like in the slogan “fake it until you make it”)?
2)“Being sincere” which I interpret as “being unvarnished”. However, there are times when this is the opposite of what is needed - for example, anytime you need to tailor a message to your audience.
3) “Being true to your values”. This presents a paradox - do what it takes to be effective OR be yourself. The whole situation evokes the version of yourself that is your most conservative and your most cautious. However, that version of you is neither authentic nor does it help us accomplish our goals. There is, to some degree, a wrongly-understood version of authenticity that is tightly connected with rigidity.
4) The notorious “brutal honesty”. This version is nothing more than sadism and aggression masquerading as authenticity. This gives people the license to say whatever they want, regardless of the moral impact on other people.
Paradoxically, people who adhere to brutal honesty are less open to receiving even a hint of brutal honesty in return. In fact, it is often not even safe to speak openly because doing so might threaten to destroy their fragile view of the world. While conversing with them, you find yourself being puzzled and wondering “What about the truth? Is there only your truth?” Isn't that nonsense?
Brutal honesty might save us from being vulnerable in a relationship by forcing us to disguise our insecurity in front of others but it is definitely not who we are.
In Western culture, we might tend to fetishize our uniqueness and personal freedom. However, this should not and cannot be our one and only value. Otherwise, in pursuing authenticity, we have to be prepared to be separated from society. Sartre said that authenticity had its own moral implications.
I have conducted thousands of interviews with highly educated and intelligent people. My entire life experience has shown me that nobody has an absolutely impeccable mind. No-one is always right nor can anyone get through life without asking for help from others. We are wired to need other people, and we have to learn how to communicate with them in order to improve the world around us.
When it comes to authenticity, we have to consider the receptivity of other people.
Is brutal honesty absolutely necessary? The following questions should help:
- what is my genuine intention in speaking this truth, am I trying to help them? Or myself?
- Is it necessary to speak my mind the way I’m hurting another person?
- will brutal honesty help achieve better understanding at this time?
Carl Rogers suggested an interesting idea to understand our authenticity: that it is not a fixed trait of our character that we should be committed to but rather a process of self-discovery. It helps to be playful, flexible, open to experimentation, and open to new ways of being ourselves that are not conditioned by our past.
Moreover, being who we are is only half the job. To connect with others and communicate our messages well, while being ourselves is a kind of art form that helps to create the right conditions for engaging with, learning from, and cooperating with other people.