After following a white rabbit into a hole in the ground and changing size several times, Alice asks herself “Who am I?”
This scene, from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” might resonate with you: In an ever-changing world, it can be difficult to find your authentic self.
I’m a social psychologist, and over the past few years my colleagues and I have been conducting research to better understand what it means to be authentic. Our results provide valuable information that not only sheds light on what is meant by authenticity – a somewhat vague term whose definition has been debated – but can also offer guidance on how to tap into your true self.
What is authenticity?
In “Sincerity and Authenticity,” literary critic and teacher Lionel Trilling described how society in centuries past was held together by people’s commitment to fulfilling their role in life, whether they were blacksmiths or barons.
Trilling argued that people in modern societies are much less willing to give up their individuality and value authenticity instead.
But what exactly did he mean by authenticity?
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Like Trilling, many modern philosophers have also understood authenticity as a kind of individuality. For example, Søren Kierkegaard believed that being authentic meant breaking away from cultural and social constraints and living a self-determined life. German philosopher Martin Heidegger equated authenticity with accepting who you are today and realizing all the potential you have in the future. Writing several decades after Heidegger, the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre had a similar idea: people have the freedom to interpret themselves and their experiences as they see fit. So being true to yourself means living like the person you think you are.
The common notion across these different perspectives is that there is something about a person that represents who they really are. If only we could find the true self hidden behind the false self, we could live a perfectly authentic life.
This is how contemporary psychologists also understood authenticity – at least at first.
The authentic personality
In an attempt to define authenticity, psychologists in the early 21st century began to characterize what an authentic person looks like.
They agreed on certain criteria: An authentic person is supposed to be self-aware and willing to learn what makes them who they really are. Once a genuine person gains insight into their true self, they will strive to be unbiased about it – choosing not to delude themselves and distort the reality of who they are. After deciding what defines the true self, the authentic person will then behave in a way that is true to those characteristics and avoid being “false” or “false” simply to please others.
Some researchers have used this framework to create measurement scales that can test a person’s authenticity. From this perspective, authenticity is a psychological trait – part of someone’s personality.
But my colleagues and I felt there was more to the experience of authenticity – something that goes beyond a list of characteristics or certain lifestyles. In our most recent work, we explain why this traditional definition of authenticity might be insufficient.
Thinking is hard
Have you ever found yourself trying to analyze your own thoughts or feelings about something, only to confuse you even more? The poet Theodore Roethke once wrote that “self-contemplation is a curse, which aggravates an old confusion”.
And there is a growing body of psychological research supporting this idea. Thinking, in itself, is surprisingly laborious and even a bit boring, and people will do almost anything to avoid it. One study found that they even go so far as to electrocute themselves to avoid having to sit with their own thoughts.
This is a problem for a definition of authenticity that forces people to think about who they are and then act on that knowledge in an unbiased way. We don’t find thinking very pleasant, and even when we do, our powers of reflection and introspection are rather weak.
Fortunately, our research circumvents this problem by defining authenticity not as something about a person, but as a feeling.
When something seems ‘right’
We propose that authenticity is a feeling that people interpret as a sign that what they are doing at the moment is their true self.
It is important to note that this view does not require people to know what their true selves are, nor that they need to have a true self at all. According to this view, an authentic person can have many different appearances; and as long as something seems authentic, it is. Although we are not the first to take this view, our research aims to describe exactly what this feeling is.
This is where we deviate a bit from tradition. We propose that the feeling of authenticity is in fact an experience of fluidity.
Have you ever played a sport, read a book, or had a conversation and felt like it was perfect?
This is what some psychologists call fluidity, or the subjective experience of ease associated with an experience. Fluidity usually occurs outside of our immediate awareness – in what psychologist William James called marginal awareness.
According to our research, this feeling of fluidity could contribute to feelings of authenticity.
In one study, we asked American adults to recall the last activity they had done and rate how fluent it was. We found that regardless of the activity – whether work, play or otherwise – people felt more authentic, the smoother the activity.
Getting in the way of fluidity
We were also able to show that when an activity becomes less fluid, people feel less authentic.
To do this, we asked participants to list a few attributes that describe who they really are. However, we sometimes asked them to try to remember complicated strings of numbers at the same time, which increased their cognitive load. At the end, participants answered a few questions about their sense of authenticity while completing the task.
As we predicted, participants felt less authentic when asked to think about their attributes under cognitive load because being forced to do the memory task at the same time created a distraction that impeded fluency.
At the same time, it does not necessarily mean that you are not authentic if you take on difficult tasks.
While some people may interpret feelings of unease as a cue that they are not being true to themselves, in some cases difficulty may be interpreted as importance.
Research by a team of psychologists led by Daphna Oyserman has shown that people have different personal theories about how easy and difficult they are when performing tasks. Sometimes when something is too easy, it feels like “it’s not worth our time.” Conversely, when something gets difficult – or when life gives us lemons – we may see it as particularly important and worth doing.
We choose to make lemonade instead of giving up.
It could mean that there are times when we feel particularly true to ourselves when the going gets tough – as long as we interpret that difficulty as important to who we are.
Trust your instincts
As romantic as it may seem to have a real self just hiding behind a fake one, it’s probably not that simple. But that doesn’t mean authenticity shouldn’t be a goal.
Seeking fluidity—and avoiding internal conflict—is probably a pretty good way to stay on the path of being true to yourself, seeking out what’s morally right, and knowing when you’re “in the right place.”
When you set out to find yourself in a sea of change, you might feel like Alice in Wonderland.
But the new science of authenticity suggests that if you let feelings of flow guide you, you might find what you’ve been looking for all along.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.