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How to be your authentic self: The path to self-discovery

The reality of how to be your authentic self, in statistics:

  • The more that employees feel authentic, the greater their engagement at work, job satisfaction, and feelings of competence and good performance. [1]
  • 72% of people say they are authentic at work. [2]
  • It takes an average of 2-3 months for people to show their ‘true selves’ at work. [2]
  • 80% of people think authenticity is important in the workplace. [2]
  • People who score highly on tests of authenticity show generally lower levels of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. [3
  • 48% of British people don’t feel comfortable being their true selves. [4]
  • One third of British people don’t feel comfortable revealing their true selves to their partners, and two thirds feel the same way about colleagues. [4]

Table of contents

How to be your authentic self

Be yourself. Do what you love. Don’t be afraid to show the world your true colors. Be authentic. Be you. In your quest for self-discovery, I’m sure you’ve heard these clichés a thousand times before. 

They all point toward an otherwise obvious revelation that is somehow still out of reach. They all say the same thing, but unsurprisingly, don’t really offer much practical value. Why is that? Well, clichés fail to tell us anything substantial about the nature of the self - the intangible “I” that comfortably hides behind fears, hopes, and expectations. 

To be your authentic self, you first need to discover yourself. And to do that, you need to know what this “self” is actually made of. Finding yourself can be a challenging—yet profoundly rewarding—experience for the mind and soul.

But it’s worth the effort. 

As we see from the stats above, living a more authentic life tends to correlate with better mental health, relationships, and work experiences. While we do offer coaching to help you develop your ability to be authentic, it’s worth digging in to first understand - what does ‘being authentic’ actually mean, and how can you really become your authentic self? Let’s find out.

What does it mean to be your authentic self?

Society is governed by rules. From a very young age, we internalize those rules by observing and mimicking certain behaviors. These behaviors often tell us how we’re supposed to act, think, and even feel in any given social interaction. And thus, a social identity is created. Think of it as a mask that we put on so as to conform and fit in. 

You can think of this mask (or social identity) as the product of an incessant battle between your impulsive desires, realistic outlooks, and societal rules. In psychoanalytic theory, these three aspects of the self are known as the id, ego, and super-ego, respectively. All three are needed to form a complete person, but the self-critical super-ego often speaks the loudest in modern society. Crudely put, we let imposed rules govern our minds and hearts a bit too often. Keeping the judgemental super-ego in check—the same way we keep the impulsive id under control—is key to a balanced, stress-free lifestyle.

More often than not, we wear this mask for so long that we actually forget it’s a construct. Rarely do we take a step back to consider that something else might lie behind that deceptive facade. When our true self does briefly make it to the surface, it’s often quickly pushed back into the unconscious. This can often lead to desperation, excessive stress, and a general sense of unfulfillment in life. 

In light of similar observations, Solomon Asch conducted an interesting social experiment in the 1950s. He found that people tend to conform because of an innate fear of being viewed as wrong, different, and peculiar. It makes sense; no one really wants to be the odd one out.

But if our constructed identities have taken over, how do we give our true selves a chance to shine through? 

Yes, this question is purposefully tricky. It assumes that people want to know who they truly are, which isn’t always the case. The real question here isn’t how we reveal our real self; it’s rather whether we’re prepared to let this authentic self emerge.

Half of the work is acknowledging—and really admitting—that you really do want to know who you are. If there weren’t a serious reason for wearing that mask, we wouldn’t have put it on in the first place. Self-discovery is a long journey that doesn’t really end. It’s beyond the scope of an article, beyond the scope of a course, beyond even the scope of a single human lifetime.

That said, although we can never really know what hides behind the mask, there are ways to make those glimpses into our soul more frequent and deliberate. You can certainly learn techniques that make discovering your authenticity a much more achievable goal. 

Are you prepared to let go of detrimental habits as you figure things out? Are you prepared to distance yourself from toxic environments, even if it means facing your fears? Would you turn your life around if that’s what it took to be you? In the words of the great Benjamin Franklin: Would you give up a little temporary safety for essential liberty?

If yes, you’re already halfway there.

How can I improve my authenticity?

Your path to being more authentic starts with self-knowledge. 

First, you have to understand how to identify the feeling of being authentic - living in accordance with your true values, desires and abilities. Then, it’s a strategic approach to living intentionally that will take you there. Below, we’ll go through seven methods of improving authenticity, then identify some of the self-doubt demons to shine a light on to ensure success. 

When am I my most authentic self?

You are at your most authentic when you’re free of what others think.

Letting go of the constraining self-consciousness that typically holds you back in daily life is a freeing, joyful exercise in being authentic. If you’re not thinking about what others think of you, that’s a chunk of extra brainspace that you can use on doing your best work, or expressing yourself more freely.

This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant of others’ needs, or wrap yourself in a bubble of selfish narcissism. You still have to be conscious of the society and environment you’re in, to an extent. (Essentially, don’t be a jerk.)

But when you achieve ‘flow’, that feeling of thriving in a challenge that matches your skillset, your true self can come out. The latent potential within you for high achievement is so often buried under layers of self-doubt, that when it’s unlocked, it feels like you’re meeting a new person - the real, authentic self you rarely get to see.

This might be in a work environment, or it could be in artistic expression, public speaking, athletic activity, or social environments; whatever lights you up.

How do you become authentic? 

A strategic approach to self-knowledge, self-care, and self-improvement will help you along the way to becoming a more authentic person.

Here’s seven ways to do it.

1) Know thyself

Easier said than done, we know. Thousands of years later, Socrates’ famous aphorism can be found printed on countless t-shirts, notebooks, mugs, curtains, and the like. That being said, his point still stands: Turning inward is the only way to discover your true, authentic self.

How well do you know yourself? Do you trust your intuition? (One good way to start is by considering your internal frame of reference). How often do you stop to really process what you’re feeling? Do you live in the moment? Do you really know what brings joy to your life and what makes you feel down? 

Make a habit of writing down your feelings and reactions to events and situations. There’s real power in written words that our conscious mind often willfully and conveniently ignores.

Remember to relish the quiet moments. Consider meditation, which has been proven to give valuable insight into the parts of you that really matter. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that’s often used to battle depression and anxiety. In 2012, neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes conducted research and used fMRI to show that meditation had permanent positive effects on patients’ brain activity - so it’s certainly worth a shot. 

2) Take care of yourself

Your true self will only make it to the surface when you feel energized, surrounded by positive energy and good vibes. If you want to be you, you need to take care of yourself.

Of course, it’s not just about vacations and massages. Those help too, but the greatest form of self-care is not tied to material and physical pleasures. The best thing you can do is teach yourself how to gain control over your thoughts. Positive thinking can help with stress management and even improve your health. 

Make a habit of starting your day with gratitude. Instead of fixating on the things that are not going according to plan, focus on the things you’re grateful for. You’re still breathing, standing, with an unwavering lust for life. Chances are you have family and loved ones that think and care about you. Never take anything for granted. Every second of your life is worth living, and you need to remind yourself of the fact whenever you can.

When negative thoughts and emotions take over, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important. Spend more time doing things you love, and don’t be afraid to step away from people and situations that make you feel uncomfortable. Here’s how you can easily shut down a passive-aggressive coworker if it gets to that.

If things aren’t working out for you, your body will usually give you signs. That stomach pain that attacks every time you step into your office? Yeah, it’s your body’s way of telling you that your work environment is less than ideal. 

3) Own your unique self

Your personality, experience, talents, and unique traits are all yours. Not everyone’s a great team player or an extroverted leader with a high level of emotional intelligence. Not everyone thrives in business environments where confidence often trumps competence. And that’s fine. 

Your strength might lie in your ability to get things done quickly and efficiently. Maybe you work better when you work alone. Everyone’s different.

If you don’t want to, you really don’t have to conform to any organization’s demands and requirements—and you’ll be better off for it. Remember that your skills will always be put to better use in environments where you’re valued exactly for who you are. 

Being true to yourself is key here. Honesty can momentarily help you lift the veil that’s covering the real you, opening up a whole new world of opportunities. When you own yourself, you own your gifts as much as you own your mistakes and shortcomings. That’s what being authentic and unique is all about. 

Of course, It’s easier to be yourself when surrounded by people who want you to be your best self. According to psychologist Adam Grant, these people are the ‘giver’ types who reach out to you when you need a helping hand. 

If you make a habit of hanging around narcissistic takers, you’ll find it much harder to act and behave in ways true to your real self. You’ll get caught up in an endless loop of negative emotions, doing things that often don’t make sense just to please your toxic parents, friends, spouse, or boss. And, yes. Unfortunately, the biggest takers in our lives are sometimes those that are close to us. People who know they can get away with asking all the time, without ever giving anything in return. Don’t let your self be negatively influenced by these types. 

4) Don’t be afraid of silence

Silence is your ally. Your mind is constantly racing, firing millions of neurons every second, trying to make sense of a very confusing world. Especially today, we’re constantly barraged with an overwhelming amount of information that interferes with our ability to think clearly. 

Don’t accept everything as it comes. Take the time to filter your thoughts and emotions as they arise. Why am I thinking this? Why now? These are questions you should be asking yourself when random thoughts pop into your head. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find that these thoughts are anything but random reflections of a troubled mind. Only once you’ve mastered the art of listening to yourself will you be able to be fully present with other people around you.

Try to talk less and listen more. The urge to talk for talk’s sake is a compulsive response to our own subconscious doubts and fears. As Dominick A. Barbara puts it:

“Listening to one's inner self is difficult because the voice most times is distant, feeble, and indistinct. We tend to move away from our real selves, becoming alienated and retreating into our imaginations where we seek protection against the onslaught of anxiety and psychic disintegration.”

Breaking through all that noise is key to discovering your real self. Being able to really listen to what others have to say is a sign of inner peace. Great listeners have spent plenty of time embracing silence and battling their inner demons. Their own thoughts are much more focused and deliberate, which is often reflected in the constructive advice and guidance they provide.

5) Uphold your values

This links back to our initial discussion about conforming. Everyone has values. Whether we’re talking about honesty, hope, trust, freedom, creativity, loyalty, open-mindedness, we all have values that guide—or at least should guide—our actions and behaviors.

When you uphold your values and use them as a moral compass, you’re much more likely to make authentic decisions that align with your true self. You can’t expect people to take you seriously if you preach about honesty and integrity during meetings but end up firing employees when they share different opinions.

There’s a reason why businesses define their core values so early. Yes, authenticity lies in exploring and embracing the forces that guide your decisions. But authenticity is also about perseverance through consistency in the face of adversity. 

6) Seek feedback 

This doesn’t mean counting how many likes each of your posts gets on Instagram. This means actually talking to people directly about how they see you. Ask your colleagues at lunchtime: “I’m looking to improve my team performance - is there anything about the way I work you think I could do better?” 

Of course, people will often curate their response in situations like these; they won’t want to offend you or lose your friendship. But honesty is a virtue when called for, and if you have genuine flaws or negative tendencies, hearing it from someone you trust will be of great benefit to you both. Sometimes it’s genuinely hard to see what you’re doing wrong at work - maybe you don’t listen well in conversations, or your attempts at humor come across as rude without you realising. Hearing it from a trusted party will give you the impetus to change your behavior for the better without having to compromise on your personal values. 

7) Love yourself

It might sound like the most generic piece of advice ever, but it really does boil down to self-love. Loving yourself with all your quirks and imperfections is probably one of the hardest things you’ll ever be asked to do. 

We left this for last because, although seemingly simple, self-love comes last. You’ll have to know yourself, own yourself, take care of yourself, and embrace silence long before you can begin to love yourself. 

Yes, it takes courage. Truly loving yourself means you’ve completely done away with societal rules and expectations that were set for you a long time ago. It means you’ve faced your fears, battled your inner demons, and served a big f-you to those who’ve talked you down. It means you’ve gone through all nine circles of Dante’s Inferno and have somehow made it out alive. 

It means you might have lost a few friends along the way. Maybe you finally stood up to your neurotic mother or narcissistic father. Perhaps you quit your unfulfilling job. It means that you’ve finally killed the “I” that was built for you, letting go of decades’ worth of emotional baggage.

Think about it. If you love yourself, then you live without fear. A life without fear is a life full of thrills and authentic, genuine emotions. It’s a life we all deserve and a life worth living.

Why is being authentic so hard?

Being true to yourself is kinda scary sometimes. You can be up against societal expectations, peer pressure, and family demands to behave a certain way, but if your authentic self wants to live differently, you’re going to face some internal conflict. 

These feelings aren’t necessarily a true reflection of reality, though. While you might fear expressing your authenticity, or obsess over what might happen if you do things differently, others might not share the same concerns.

Another reason is that being truly authentic is an internal feeling that’s not easy to identify. There’s a lot of different ways to be authentic, and it can in some circumstances take a long time for you to get comfortable with it. So below, we’ll go through some things you can ask yourself to find out if you’re being authentic or not. 

How do I know if I’m being authentic? 

If you’re experiencing generally positive well-being, you’re happy with your goals and achievements, you have good social relationships, you feel in control of your life - you’re probably living close to your authentic self. 

Sometimes it can be easier to figure out when you’re not being authentic, though, because this can manifest in certain negative thought patterns. Here are a few things to ask yourself if you’re not sure if you’re being authentic or not.  

  • Are you feeling an underlying anxiety about the ‘front’ you’re putting on?
  • Do you feel like ‘the mask is going to slip’ and you’ll be ‘found out’ soon? 
  • Do you feel the impostor syndrome making itself known? 
  • Are you engaging in self-sabotage?

If you’re answering ‘yes’ to any of these, you might want to step back and think about why these things are happening. At this point it’s time to revisit the seven steps we went through above.

Can you follow any of the strategies we’ve been through to improve your authenticity? And along the way, can you journal to keep track of your progress? 

You might be surprised at how quickly things can change - you’ll meet the real ‘you’ soon enough. 

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Explore, strengthen and stand by what you believe in at work and in life. Trust in your ‘gut feel’ and point of view is especially helpful for influencing, starting your own business, having your personal needs met and for living an authentic and meaningful life.

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