DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Authenticity Answers, Part 1: How Deep Is Your Want?

A little while ago, I promised Duff a post about a question he asked me on Twitter.  As I understand it, his question was:  if being authentic is about staying true to what you want (which I briefly suggested at my other blog), what happens if what you want is to get other people to do something?

In other words, what if I want to get someone else to buy my products, or be in a relationship with me?  Wouldn't it then be "authentic" for me to create a persona I think will please them?  If so, doesn't that run counter to our intuitions about what authenticity is?

Degrees of Desire

I'll start by noting that I don't claim to be an authority on what authenticity means or ought to mean.  With the disclaimers out of the way, I'll suggest that authenticity, as I'm using the word, is a matter of degree rather than kind.  In my experience, underneath each desire we have, there's often a deeper desire.

For example, if I really want you to buy a product I'm selling, perhaps that's because I want to become wealthy.  And if I want to be wealthy, maybe that's because I want to be respected.  And perhaps I wish to be respected because I didn't feel respected by my father, and I want my father's love.  Deeper still, maybe I want my father's love because I simply want to feel loved.

Notice how, the deeper I delved into my wants in that example, the more heartfelt -- and the more vulnerable -- those wants became.  I don't know about you, but it would be much easier for me to admit to someone that I want to get rich than to tell them I want my father's love!  A lot of people, I imagine, wouldn't even want to admit that to themselves.

So, this is my concept of authenticity:  the deeper the desire we're acknowledging and pursuing, the more authentic we're being.  On the other hand, the closer to our surface-level desires we are, the less authentic we are in that moment.  I think this notion meshes well with our intuitions about what authenticity is -- that is, "coming from the heart" when we speak and act.

So Can Pretending Be Authentic?

Now, back to Duff's question:  can I be "authentic" if what I want is to please or manipulate someone?  My answer is that, if I am acting with the goal of pleasing someone else, there's probably a deeper desire underneath that I'm not acknowledging -- perhaps the desire to be loved or respected.

That is, if I'm coming from a place of "I need to please you" when I talk to you, and I'm not in touch with the (probably painful) wants and needs beneath that, I'm being less authentic than I'd be if I were open with myself, and you, about what's really driving my behavior.  The more I'm willing to reveal, and be guided by, my deeper wants, the more authentic I'm being.

I think authenticity is a continuum, in other words -- it's not simply an either-or matter of being authentic or inauthentic.

In my experience, there's something very powerful and liberating about moving toward authenticity, in the sense I'm using the word.  It can be unsettling to admit to someone what I most deeply want with them, rather than pretending I'm only there to shoot the breeze, or go out on a date, or do a business deal -- in other words, to cover up my real intentions in the way we're accustomed to doing in our culture.  But when I'm courageous enough to do it, it's a freeing and transforming experience.

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  1. Thanks for the article and longer discussion!

    A classic example of this problem is when a parent asks their child to apologize to another kid for doing something harmful, then asking to “say it like you mean it” because the apology wasn’t convincingly sincere (or authentic?).

    The parent can’t request that the child actually mean it, for this creates a be spontaneous parado–”you only said it that way because I told you to”–so s/he asks the child to act-as-if. This is also a great example of how we learn what authenticity looks like in a given culture, for this can differ from culture to culture. For instance, what passes for authenticity in a rural area may be totally different from a big city or a therapeutic weekend workshop! Authenticity involves an aspect of performance, and the right kind of sincere performance is taught by parents, teachers, and workshop facilitators.

    In this case, the parent is attempting to get a behavior change from the child–is this authentic for the parent to do so? Is the parent just motivated by a need to manipulate or control the child? I think in some cases we would like to say yes, and in others no.

    The parent’s request is to get the child to “act as if” they are sorry–is this making a request that the child be inauthentic? Again, I think in most cases we would say no, but in some cases yes.

    Of course some children learn that if they pretend to be sorry, they can manipulate people to get what they want from them! Tricky business this authenticity.

    In my experience, underneath each desire we have, there’s often a deeper desire.

    I do a specific process with myself and clients that elicits deeper desires. If you keep going deeper, usually after 3-7 deeper outcomes you get to a deepest desire, a state of being that this particular technique calls a Core State (this was discovered without prior assumption of such a state existing and is easily amenable to testing). I do resonate with the idea that “the deeper the desire we’re acknowledging and pursuing, the more authentic we’re being” except I would reframe it slightly as “living from one’s core states of being” as what most people mean by authenticity. My direct experience of this and from observing my clients is that this does not necessarily conflict with the creation of personas or persuasive communication, but that usually living from one’s core/being centered, there is less of a manipulative, egoic clinging to such persona projecting. But personas don’t seem to go away no matter what! The persona of the open and authentic workshop leader for instance may or may not be motivated by egoic clinging and neediness for Dad’s love, but it is still a role, a social mask, and a relative way of being in the world.

    Here’s another example. I used to assume that when people reached the deepest layers of their being, they automatically would drop certain goals that I personally consider egoic or inauthentic, like pursuing endless wealth. But I’ve worked directly with clients who have proven that belief false. Ideology and values seem relatively independent from authenticity in the sense of deep centeredness, which is why both conversations need to take place (and the danger of equating one with the other, a common occurrence in personal development generally).

  2. I’d like to complicate things a bit (‘how unusual’ I hear you cry).

    Firstly I agree completely that the degree of authenticity is measured by the closeness to our heart.

    Now the complication – I think part of our existence is that we are related beings. It feels entirely authentic to me to delight in giving pleasure to my partner.

    Likewise children get a kick out of helping their parents.

    Somehow we need the language to have authenticity be about relationship as well as individuality.

    In my view we can arrive at intimacy by exploring (in an open way) how we are different to someone else. We don’t need to have the same core values and concerns, by listening well we can still be authentic with each other.

    I’m probably not expressing this well – I don’t think I have found the language I need to do this yet.

  3. I submit that anything, or anyone, that you describe as ‘authentic,’ by definition, isn’t.

    It would be odd to describe a family-run osteria catering mostly to the locals of Trastevere as ‘an authentic Roman osteria,’ because it’s just being what it is, which is an eatery in Rome.

    OTOH if the family moved to Brussels and recreated that osteria there, down to the last detail, with a considerable amount of effort to get just the right dishes and posters and artichokes, ‘authentic’ is exactly how you’d describe it—although ‘authentic’ is precisely what it’s not.

    Mindfucks rule.

  4. Here’s a good related article I just saw today on What Makes Art “Fine” or “Commercial”?:

    Fine art is usually considered more authentic than commercial entertainment or advertising.

  5. Hi Duff — it sounds to me like the child’s apology example uses a different definition of authenticity than the one I’m using here — that definition being “verisimilitude,” having the quality of sounding heartfelt or truthful. In other words, the parent is telling the child to *sound* like someone who’s speaking from a deep-seated desire when apologizing to the other kid, even if he actually isn’t. But even if the child did a good job of sounding sincere when delivering the apology, that wouldn’t make him more authentic under my definition here.

    When you talk about differences in “what passes for authenticity” in different cultures, I get the sense that you are using the verisimilitude definition here as well. True, a person who lives in a city might see me as more authentic if, for example, I have a more in-your-face attitude, and a person who lives in a rural area might see me as authentic if I’m humble and reserved. This may well be the more conventional way to think about the word “authenticity.” But I don’t think this would bear on whether I am being authentic under the view I present here, because that doesn’t have to do with how others perceive me.

    On whether it’s “authentic” for the parent to try to control the child, for me the question would be the *degree* to which the parent is being authentic, and the answer would depend on the depth of the desire the parent is acting upon.

    I would imagine that, if the parent is telling the child how to apologize in order to make the parent look good (other adults will think they’re keeping their kid under control and well-mannered, and so on), that is probably a fairly surface-level concern. Beneath that might be a fear of being seen as incompetent, and underneath that a fear that their own parents’ love will be withdrawn, and so on. To be sure, this is just one example, and I wouldn’t claim that it reflects everybody’s hierarchy of wants or priorities — and so I agree when you say “in some cases yes, and in others no.”

    I like the way you put it when you say that, when we delve deeper and deeper into what we’re really wanting, what we often arrive at is a state of being. I definitely resonate with that — I know that, in myself and in the work I’ve done with others, if we can get down to a really vulnerable, long-hidden want or need and admit what that is to ourselves, and we’re willing to feel the emotions that come with that admission, we experience a state of being where we don’t really want or need anything.

    And like you say, I think discovering that this state of being exists frees us up (at least, to some extent) from the need to control our environment, manipulate others, etc. And still, like you point out, wants and needs continue to exist on the relative level, even after the experience of the absolute or the Real or Atman or whatever new-agey term we want to use. :)

  6. Hi Evan — I’d agree that the desire to love someone else, and show that love, could fall on the “more authentic” end of the spectrum under the view I’m presenting here. Come to think of it, this is a helpful illustration of how the same outward behavior can be more authentic, as I’m using the term, for one person than for another. For example, if I’m making my partner breakfast because I want to “do what I’m supposed to do in a relationship,” but you’re doing the same for yours out of a real desire to give love to another person, you’re probably coming from a more deep-seated desire even though we’re both taking the same action.

    On a side note, I got a definite sense from your comment of the maturity of your relationship with your partner — I admire that and I know it’s not easy.

  7. Hi Petteri — it sounds like you are saying that, if we are going out of our way to show that we’re authentic, as in your example of the restaurant that advertises itself as such, that’s probably an indication that we have doubts about how true to ourselves we’re being. In my own experience I know that, when I find myself trying to show my sincerity, that means I’m not totally certain I’m sincere.

  8. Thanks. We work hard on it.

  9. My point is that verisimilitude and authenticity are not two different things, but an overlapping muddled field that is impossible to sort out.

  10. I don’t find them impossible to sort out. Verisimilitude presumes a correspondence.

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