It all starts innocently enough
The first time you recognize your own reflection.
Perhaps it is when you are brushing your teeth, standing on your "steppy stool" by the bathroom sink
Suddenly it dawns on you
That face beaming back from the mirror is YOU
Your very own self.
It's a revelation
Human infants have no capacity for self-awareness.
Then sometime between your first and second birthday you become aware of your own thoughts and feelings
Now begins a journey that will consume much of your life.
How well you do and where you go may very well depend on the strength and character of your very heart and soul.
You embark on this quest to define "you"
A lifelong search for the one "true self" and a feeling of behaving in accordance with that self
This can be called the quest for authenticity.
A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life.
It drives our explorations in all areas including but not limited to work, relationships, play and prayer.
It can consume our body, mind and soul.
As we move out of childhood - which is mostly controlled by the adults in our immediate sphere of influence- we gain the capacity to start to investigate who we are and who we want to be.
Teens and "twenty something's" try out EVERYTHING They examine their friends, fashions, hobbies, jobs, lovers, locations, and living arrangements all to see what fits
Eventually - thru personal growth and enlightenment - they eliminate the "just not me's."
"Mid lifers" tend to deepen their commitments to their choices that match their now well-defined self-images or they feel trapped in existences that do not seem their own.
Elders regard life choices with regret or satisfaction based largely on whether they were "true" to themselves.
It is a true circle of life
It seems to have gone on throughout time - in every society known to mankind - modified only perhaps by local custom or language
Questions of authenticity determine our regard for others as well.
We tend to judge or categorize others based on how they live up to and fit into our standards and parameters.
It is a continual process that ebbs and flows according to our stage and self awareness at the time
Self-awareness and authenticity may also be a cornerstone of mental health.
Authenticity - or the new buzz term - "reality based living" - has been correlated with many aspects of psychological well being including - but not limited to - vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills.
Acting in accordance with one's core self - a trait called self-determination - is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs
Sadly though - it is my observation that - increasingly - contemporary culture seems to mock the very idea that there is anything solid and true about the self.
Cosmetic surgery, perpetual makeovers, even the desire for designer cloths - all favor a mutable ideal over the genuine article itself ( self ) .
MySpace profiles and "tell all" blogs are just the latest examples of exaggerations and fantasy filled, wishful identity seeking individuals. .
Steroids, stimulants and other drug-induced transformations all seem perfectly acceptable to enhance athletic and academic performance.
Fabricated memoirs become best sellers.
Amid this clutter of counterfeits - the core self is struggling to assert itself.
Reaching epidemic proportions - people feel more and more overwhelmingly like they're not living who they really are
The result is a sense of near-desperation.
Just what IS this "authenticity" then anyway and how can we incorporate it into our lives and achieve this peace of mind we all seem to be seeking?
Authenticity is like the unimpeded operation of one’s true or cores self in one's daily life
It must contain an element of self-awareness
The knowledge of - and trust in - one's own motives, emotions, preferences and abilities.
Self - awareness encompasses an inventory of issues from the sublime to the profane
It is necessary for clarity in evaluating your strengths - and - more to the point - your weaknesses
It helps you to acknowledge when you have not done so well without resorting to denial or blame.
Authenticity also helps turn up behavior
It requires acting in ways congruent with your own values and needs - even at the risk of criticism or rejection.
It becomes necessary for close relationships because intimacy cannot develop without openness and honesty.
People who score high in authenticity may also be more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits.
They appear to enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, have confidence in mastering challenges and the ability to follow through on pursuing goals.
Whether authenticity causes such psychological boons or is a result from them isn't yet clear to me but the suggestion is this may be why people crave authenticity and those low in authenticity are likely to be more defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.
Pinning down the true self is an increasingly difficult task.
Western philosophers have sought some pure and enduring touchstone of "I-ness" ever since Socrates began interrogating the citizens of Athens.
He famously asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living
Aristotle later connected the fruits of self with a theory of authentic behavior that was not so much about letting your "freak flag" fly as about acting in accordance to a "higher good,"
This - Aristotle regarded - as the ultimate expression of selfhood.
Spiritual and religious traditions also equate authenticity and morality.
In the Judaic tradition people do the right thing because they see it as an expression of their authentic selfhood.
Christianity implies that this well meaning self is the eternal soul who we really are and that sinners are simply out of touch with their core selves.
This would imply that all humans are basically good at heart
But that would be a whole other discussion ...
Enlightenment philosophers secularized ideas of selfhood but it was not until the 20th century's existentialists the question or idea that some original, actual, ultimate self resides within.
To the existentialist the self was not so much born as made.
It was assumed that one's choice of action could create the self
In Sartre's words "existence precedes essence."
For Heidegger and other like thinker’s authenticity was an attitude
It was the project of embracing life, constructing meaning and building character without fooling yourself that your so - called essence matters in any absolute
Do we invent this authentic self or do we discover it?
Socrates believed we discover it
The existentialists say we invent it.
Our headspace appears to be messier than we pretend or will admit
This search for authenticity is doomed if it's aimed at restricting our identities to what we want to be or who we think we should be.
The authentic self isn't always pretty.
It's just real.
To compound matters I believe we all have multiple layers of self and ever-shifting perspectives of it
Whether there is a core self or not - we certainly seem to want to believe that there is
It appears to give us a sense of security and purpose
And this longing to live from that self is real - as is the suffering of those who feel they aren't being true to themselves.
Most of us experience authenticity - or the lack there of - less dramatically - as vague dissatisfaction - a sense of emptiness - or the sting of self-betrayal.
That "I'm still feeling unfulfilled" feeling that nags at our inner most being
Feelings of in authenticity can be so uncomfortable that people resort to extreme measures to bring their outer lives in alignment with their inner bearings.
Another reason we are not always true to ourselves is that authenticity is not for the faint of heart.
The potential downside of authenticity seems to be the fact that accurate self -knowledge can be painful.
Behaving in accord with your true self may also bring on the disfavour of others
Opening oneself up to the intimate makes one vulnerable to rejection or betrayal
It can feel better to be embraced as an impostor than dumped for the person you really are.
Authenticity also requires making conscious, deliberate, informed choices based on accurate self -knowledge.
If you are not being honest with yourself the choices you make will all be tainted.
The act and willingness to evaluate nearly everything that you do is no easy task
It can be - and most often is - time consuming and overwhelming
In today's culture - where even simple acts require conscious consideration among so many choices and alternatives - such freedom can be exhausting.
Deliberation - no matter how trivial - exacts a cost in psychic energy - of which we have only a finite amount.
So here we are - stuck with our self-awareness - or lack there of - which also compels us to continually define and refine our sense of selves as unique individuals against a background of conformity, superficiality, exhibitionism - and lots of other unique individuals.
But wait - there's more.
In order to realize an authentic life one often has to set aside hedonistic well-being - the kind of shallow, short-lived pleasure we get from acquiring things - for that selfless well-being - a deeper, more meaningful state - in which gratification is not usually immediate. Sissies need not apply.
The fact is that we tend to flourish under the most challenging circumstances
Enduring pain and confusion can bring out the best—and most authentic in us - fostering such deeply satisfying qualities as wisdom, insight, and creativity.
But our cultural climate is filled with an alluring array of distractions
The really hard work is the amount of ego wrangling required to contact the core self.
One of the biggest barriers to authentic behaviour is the arbitrary and rigid self-image that so many of us nurture but which in fact distorts experience and limits self-knowledge. .
We each acquire a mixed set of "should, ought’s, and have-to's" whilst still too young to process them.
They are acquired through convention and the expectations of others.
Getting beyond these arbitrary concepts often demands the kind of soul - searching that most of us put off or avoid entirely.
In fact much of the work that people do in cognitive and behavioral therapy is to hold such beliefs up to the light and examine where they came from - a necessary step to resolving the issues that typically cause the behaviour that drive people to seek help.
Jung said if you want to heal yourself the first thing you should do is take a look at those things that are dark in you - the things that are problematical - the things that you don't like about yourself
You have to be willing to look at things that don't fit snugly into the image you have of what you would like to be before you can become that image
Becoming authentic means accepting not only contradiction and discomfort but personal faults and failures as well.
We are all very subtle and very complex creatures,
There are forces and resources within us that we have no control over.
I don't know if we will ever truly find the limits of who we are.
Not in this earthly condition
Eastern spiritual traditions have long furnished ways they believe give glimpse to the messiness of the self and to view with detachment the vicissitudes of mind and emotion that run amiss in the human consciousness.
Buddhism takes the self in all its variability as the principal subject of contemplation
The yoga tradition is an extension of this self-study which is of great importance.
The Hindu fundamentalists suggest we also have a duty to act
They advocate we need to realize our full potential in the world and to construct or discover a unique individuality thereby causing us to live authentically.
One of the closest things I have found to help solve this the mystery of the self is that you may have to discern your own highly idiosyncratic gifts- find your own highly idiosyncratic calling - what makes you unique from others - and then go for it
Real fulfillment seems to come from authentically grappling with the possibilities inside you - in a disciplined, concentrated, focused way
But more on that later …
In the end I think we are all more alike than different but just different enough to be unique
I think we are - in fact - all part of a whole or greater thing and if we can connect to that then we will find our true self - or at least a glimpse of it .