[I edited this post from a paper I wrote for a college assignment. Becoming an authentic person is something I strive for and yet struggle to understand. Please comment with your own thoughts on this topic.]
What does it mean to be an authentic person? First of all, we can define a “person” as a being containing a “self.” And a “self” is that person’s individuality—the personality, likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, and dreams that make him unique. These definitions are easy enough to understand. It is the word “authentic” that throws confusion into the idea. Because what does being authentic really mean? Can we find authenticity by constantly obsessing over or searching for it? In this post, I’m looking at the works of Carl Rogers and Søren Kierkegaard and eventually coming up with my own personal theory of what it means to be an authentic person.
In Rogers’ opinion, a person is always in progress. I think it is true that we never stop growing and changing over time, but confusion arises when we consider authenticity in this context. If I am constantly changing, how can I know who I am authentically at any given moment? In his book The Process of Becoming a Person, Rogers writes that “in this process [of becoming a person] the individual becomes more open to his experience . . . it is the opposite of defensiveness” (115). Instead of putting up barriers and drawing comparisons to past experiences, we are able to see a new experience for what it truly is. This is his idea of being open to an experience. Rogers also mentions that sometimes talking about ourselves with another person may help us become more authentic. I have discovered this to be true in my own life. Often, I come to understand something more clearly after I explain it to someone else. And sometimes I’m actually more honest with someone else than I am with myself.
For Charles Guignon in his book On Being Authentic, this view of authenticity is best described as a society that shapes people. We are meant to live within a community, and he offers two parts to a successful existence with others: “(1) Knowing what you believe and feel and (2) honestly expressing those beliefs and feelings in what you do” (150). In Guignon’s opinion, authenticity is lived out with others, but we must be committed to our personal beliefs and not cave to others’ definitions or expectations. Authenticity may not even make us happy in the long run, but it definitely involves other people. For Guignon, authenticity is not something we can achieve on our own.
Many times our definitions of who we think we are have actually been shaped by who others say we are. These definitions are created because of personalities most often. For example, an introvert will be labeled as shy or even rude because he spends time alone and avoids large groups or conversations while an extrovert may be labeled as extremely outgoing or obnoxious because he always wants to be the center of attention or be everyone’s friend. However, our personalities do not define us. They are what other people see most easily, but even personalities can be fake.
This brings up another important question: Can we ever be completely authentic if it involves such an overwhelming amount of honesty? To seek authenticity is to seek truth, and to find truth involves complete honesty within us and also outward to other people. Kierkegaard brings up an important question in one of his essays found in The Essential Kierkegaard: how can we stay or become who we are while we live as a part of a community? Authenticity can be a selfish ideal. We live in a world with other people, and we were not made to live alone. He writes that “one must first learn to know oneself before knowing anything else.” I don’t think anyone can be authentic if they can’t even be honest with themselves. This type of deep inner honesty is overwhelmingly terrifying, but when we look deeper we can see what Kierkegaard refers to as the “inward action of a person, this God-side of a person, that is decisive.” For Kierkegaard, God is the beginning and the anchor. God is the lens through which we uncover everything else. I think the hardest part of this concept is allowing God to be stronger than my own will.
Kierkegaard here falls in line with Guignon’s descriptions of Augustine’s view of authenticity. Guignon writes that according to Augustine, “we are only properly and fully human when we are bound to God as we were always meant to be” (15). It is only when God is at our center that we can begin to understand anything—especially ourselves. We focus on something beyond ourselves. This theocentric and mostly pre-modern version of authenticity is not as popular in today’s culture, but I think it is definitely a valid theory worth considering. It does not seem to consider one aspect though; it seems to view a person without God as less-than-human and incomplete. Many people would disagree with this statement, but it makes more sense to me than continually trying to uncover the “real me” that I may not even be truly willing to unveil.
To summarize: Rogers believes that becoming authentic involves being open to experience and communicating with others. This idea corresponds with Guignon’s personal authenticity theory—that of being a person of conviction living in community. Kierkegaard believed that we as humans only become authentic by surrendering our control to God. This resignation leads to real authenticity, because God sheds light on what we cannot understand on our own. For Guignon, this describes a pre-modern view of authenticity—that view of accepting we are individuals as a small part of a much larger whole and surrendering control to God.
Becoming authentic is not about discovering the “real me” underneath all the crap we try to cover ourselves up with. Becoming authentic is not about peeling back layer after layer trying to get to our core. Becoming authentic is not a search for our “true self.” Becoming authentic means we stop lying to ourselves. We stop piling on layer after layer of lies and pretending to be what we are not. We stop pretending to be happy for someone when we’re actually burning with a jealous rage. Being authentic is accepting who we are—the good and the bad. And it also means we have to understand that there are some things we cannot change. We do not have the power to “become authentic.” When we try, we just smack our heads against a wall over and over again.
We cannot become more real by obsessing over becoming real. Usually it is exactly the things we obsess over that we never achieve. And it took me a long time to “authentically” realize that fact. I cannot change the way I look by obsessing over it. If I want to be skinnier, I need to get my butt out of bed an hour earlier in the morning and exercise no matter how much I hate it. And I need to have the willpower to eat only two cookies instead of four. I’ve also “authentically” come to the conclusion that being jealous of other girls does not make me any more likely to “find” a boyfriend. Why would anyone want to date–or even be friends with– a girl who is constantly having a pity party because “all her friends have boyfriends/husbands”? That is pathetic. I’ve authentically realized I’m pathetic a lot of times.
But in the midst of all these realizations, I’ve also noticed that it’s not all about me. Being authentic is not about me. Most of what I think are huge problems for me come about because I live in a community of other people trying to figure out life together. Sometimes we help each other, and sometimes we just screw each other up even more. And I think that is what it means to live an authentic life. We try our best, and we share our lives. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it just really sucks. We can’t deny the bad or forget the good. All we can do is strive to love well and continue moving forward, discovering more about ourselves in each new situation.
We are always changing; and even if we don’t completely change inwardly, we at least conform to our changing external environments. As we grow and develop, our ideas and attitudes shift. I do not think the same way I did when I was twelve. If I still thought like I did then, a difficult math problem would be my biggest problem in life. Time changes everything—including us. For me, that’s what is most terrifying. I hate change. I fear the unknown. I also fear who I might become if and when I’m thrown into a new and strange situation. At this point in my life, I’m going through many changes. I’m terrified but also a little bit excited. I can authentically and truthfully say that now, but it’s been a long journey to get here.
There is not a simple answer to the question that began this post. Becoming an authentic person has no prescribed method. That is probably why it has become an obsession for generations of people. We always try our hardest to figure out what we cannot understand, and then we become frustrated when we still can’t understand. I’ve decided that being authentic means being honest even when it’s hard or painful. Being authentic means having faith, relying on God and on other people. I cannot go through life alone, trying to “figure myself out.” I learn about myself through my interactions with people, and I know who I really am because God has already told me even if I don’t always believe it. I am a child of God created to worship Him and share His love with the world. And I believe I can do that whether or not I feel that I have authentically come to understand myself.
The Essential Kierkegaard. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 7-12. Class handout.
Guignon, Charles. On Being Authentic. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Rogers, Carl. The Process of Becoming a Person. pp. 107-124. Class handout.