A claim often repeated without any real thought in some psychological circles is that we should all aspire to be our authentic selves. But it is a fact that if everybody were to follow that advice, many people would end up in jail or worse.
This might sound somewhat dystopian after all; arresting people for just being themselves does sound like it has shades of Big Brother and the thought police. But the problem stems from the fact that we have no control over what we actually think, only what we do with it.
You might want to argue about that, but the content of your thoughts results from how the earliest part of your brain – sometimes called the Lizard Brain and the ‘first responder’ to the world – has learned to react to the constant stream of stimuli you encounter. That learning comes from experience, and although this is something else you might wish to challenge, you cannot imagine or visualise anything you have never experienced.
Think of a car. You just did, of course, since the word ‘car’ triggered a response based on what you already know. But you didn’t exactly choose it, any more than you chose the colour or model, even if you knew it – it was just there in your mind, just that one out of the hundreds or thousands of cars you might have seen in your life.
Now think of a capitulum, a diode, and an onychophoran. Unless you have an extensive range of interests (and probably a rather strange mind!), you would have drawn a blank on one of those and perhaps recognised the word of one of the others without forming an image of whatever-it-was.
And that’s the point. You can only think of something that you already know, and you don’t choose the actual thought that arrives. For future reference, they are a part of your elbow, an electronic component, and a small caterpillar-like creature often called a ‘velvet worm’. And you just thought of a caterpillar.
You might wonder what all this has to do with being your authentic self; well, all will become clear shortly, but first, another recognition for playing with just as you cannot choose what you think, only what you think about, so you cannot choose your feelings either, only how you respond to them.
And now you might be beginning to understand what this article is about. We all have feelings that we cannot act upon based on anything more than our own life experiences. Have you ever wondered why a friend has fallen in love with a totally obnoxious individual?
Or why has somebody ditched somebody who was the most wonderful of people anyone would feel privileged to know? The only answer is that they had different life experiences from yours and therefore different feelings and opinions of obnoxious and wonderful.
And now we’re getting to the point. If the first friend had asked you what you thought about their partner, you probably would not reply that you thought them obnoxious, but you most definitely would if you were your authentic self. To be your authentic self means
behaving in the way the deepest part of you wants to without attempting to please others. Tell it like it is and follow it up with authentic action, so you always exhibit personal congruence, speaking, behaving and being as you genuinely feel. You might lose some friends, but you’ll gain the respect of others who will laud you as somebody who can be relied upon to give an honest opinion, a straight speaker.
We all, every one of us, have thoughts and feelings that are really unsuitable for being aired or acted upon in public. Thoughts based on our own life experiences to which that primitive part of the brain, that Lizard Brain, responds in a primitive manner. For instance, we might find someone sexy who is definitely ‘out of bounds for several reasons. Being your authentic self in that situation could land you in difficulty.
And what about if somebody feels uncomfortable for reasons they don’t understand and are embarrassed around an individual whose skin is a different colour from their own? They might experience uneasiness about how that individual looks at them and stands a bit close, but it’s almost a crime to say so these days. But that is the authentic self at work. The deepest part of the ‘self’ accessing something consciously forgotten but feels like some threat to the Lizard Brain.
Nobody, but nobody, constantly has ‘pure’ thoughts and feelings that would be totally happy to be broadcast to the world, so everybody knew them. We all need privacy, but that would not be so if we could truly be that totally transparent self. In fact, one of the greatest sources of anxiety is the conflict between what we really want to do and be and what we feel we can do and be.
Sometimes, that conflict results from pointless inhibitions that have been thrust upon us during our formative years but sometimes, it’s from the darker side of human nature that needs to be kept securely reined in the world we live in. Not everybody does or even attempts to keep it under control, though, so they do exactly as they want. They lie, cheat, steal, seduce and rape. Or even start wars. But few would praise them for being ‘true to themselves.
But there is something useful you can take from all this. Whatever anybody says, feels or thinks about you is absolutely nothing to do with you or how you are. It’s to do with something from a long time ago that didn’t involve you, but if they’re showing you their dislike, that’s their authentic self on display. So, perhaps we should all be just a bit authentic instead of going the whole hog!
Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).