Authenticity is the buzzword these days. But what does it even mean? Many people believe authenticity is empowering, as in “be true to yourself.” But others argue that authenticity is negative, similar to “letting it all hang out.” These contradicting definitions help explain today’s mental health stigma. I want to explore the debate, as well as offer my own definition of authenticity.
Some Definitions for Your Consideration
You may remember researcher Brené Brown’s viral TED talk in 2011. She has written entire books on authenticity and hesitates to summarize it in one sentence—however, she boils it down to this:
“The core of authenticity is the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries.”
Another role model of mine is Iyanla Vanzant, healer and truth teller extraordinaire. She says authenticity is related to your inner authority:
“Your inner authority is the producer and director of your authentic identity.”
Your inner authority is what you know deep down is right for you. To follow your inner authority sometimes means to go against what others think is best. Iyanla says we must:
“Replace external referencing with inner authority.”
External referencing is when we constantly compare ourselves to others, and act according to how we think others want us to act. If you do this all the time, it leads to feelings of powerlessness and resentment. Trust me, I’ve been there. Over time, I’ve learned to trust my inner authority, and I’m healthier for it.
But where’s the line between acting in our own self-interest and neglecting the interests of others? Adam Grant, psychology researcher, sparked an internet debate when he defined authenticity as “erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.” He uses the examples of an author sexually harassing his editor and his nanny, as well as someone telling their in-laws that their conversation was boring. So to Grant, authenticity means having no boundaries.
Brené Brown didn’t agree with Grant. In her brilliant rebuttal, she states that:
“Authenticity requires almost constant vigilance about the connections between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.”
So by her terms (and mine), sexual harassment is not authenticity. A lack of respect for your in-laws is also not authenticity. How do we reconcile these two very different definitions?
My definition of authenticity: serving core values & human needs
In short, here’s my proposed definition:
Authenticity = Sharing those thoughts and feelings that align with your core values and human needs.
Here are some examples of core values:
And here are some examples of human needs:
When it comes to mental health and authenticity, here’s where the wheel touches the ground. Mental health stigma currently dictates that we remain silent about our illness. This silence feeds into gender stereotypes, workplace discrimination, and a number of unpleasant things besides. When we come forward about our mental illness, we are serving our core values and our human needs. But I have a feeling that people in Grant’s camp would stigmatize us, and say, as he says, that “nobody wants to see your true self.”
This stigma is unacceptable. Self-advocacy is healthy, noble, and necessary. True self-advocacy is:
- Respectful, so it would not involve insulting or abusing others.
- Loving, and involves loving both oneself and others.
- Fair, serving the good of society as a whole.
So when it comes to authenticity and mental health, let’s set the record straight. We won’t stand for stigma. And contrary to popular belief, our authenticity is the best interest of society as a whole.
Source: Vanzant, Iyanla. “Act Like You Know The Truth.” Hay House Audio, 2008. Audio CD.
See links for additional sources.
Image Credit: just-be-being-sand-words by davidrabone0, CC0 Public Domain