THE BLOG

How Do You Know if You Are Being Authentic?

08/31/2010 04:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

This year's catch phrase for women in business is, "Be your authentic self." Women shouldn't be like men. They shouldn't hide their femininity, sexuality, communality, sensitivity or whatever else is attributed to women more often than men. They should be real.

What does this mean, really? If you adapt to a situation so your ideas will be heard, are you being inauthentic? If you refrain from telling people details of your personal life, are you living a lie? If you are learning new skills but feel awkward when trying them out, are you being a fake? Or are you being an authentic human trying to fit into various social situations?

I think we need to be careful about accusing each other of being less than real and beating ourselves up for not feeling safe enough to totally be ourselves. Fear is an authentic feeling.

And yes, there are those times we all have felt so uncomfortable with our skills and abilities that we tried to be someone else. If you allow yourself to hide behind a mask, then you stand to lose trust, intimacy and your own sense of integrity.

So what is the middle ground? When should you be diplomatic or cautious and when should you be totally honest and revealing?

There are three perspectives you naturally consider when choosing who you are being in any situation. You put weight on any of the three factors depending on the level of situational confidence you feel and what you judge is the right thing to do, with judging being a subjective action. No matter what you think is right, tomorrow you might say, "What was I thinking?"

  1. Look outside. I have made a number of career transitions in my life, reinventing myself from a corporate employee, to a change agent and leader inside a corporation to an executive coach and trainer working on my own. At the start of each new chapter, I looked outside of myself to determine how best to act. I tried to imitate people I admired. This felt awkward, but it gave me a chance to practice skills such as negotiating and persuading. As I become more comfortable with the skills, I integrated them into my own style. This seemed to be a logical step in my growth as long as could quickly shift from trying to BE someone else to DOING things well like someone I admire. As soon as I could get the person out of my head and use my own voice and special talents, the more effective I was in connecting with others and getting results.
  2. Look inside. When a situation is uncomfortable, you can authentically lock yourself into one "self" where you work too hard to prove your point. Yet you can also authentically call on different behavioral patterns that are a part of you, whether people like to see that part of you or not. When what you are doing isn't getting the results you want, sit back, quiet your noisy brain and listen before you respond. In this space, you actually have access to many patterns of behavior and energy that you have developed over time.

  3. For example, I called on Warrior energy early in my career to help me fight my way up the corporate ladder. Now I gain better results when I call on Connector and Inspirer energies. This process of identifying, focusing on some, and decreasing other behavioral patterns is how you grow. You can read more about these patterns--or archetypes--that make up your "authentic self" in a post I wrote in June adapted from my book, "Wander Women."

  4. Don't look anywhere; let it go. When I speak for groups, I consistently receive the feedback, "I love your authenticity." I believe what they mean is that I am unafraid to open up and be totally present with my audience. An acting coach once told me, "It doesn't matter what they think of you. For every moment you worry about their reaction, you are giving less than 100 percent. They came to see 100 percent no matter if they like you."

  5. I have worked very hard to be the best speaker I can be, taking years of improvisational acting classes, attending National Speakers Association conferences, and working privately with coaches. I have learned my content well enough that I don't have to think about what I am going to say. That allows me to let go and give myself freely to my audience, to care about them more than myself, to laugh and play with them, to challenge them without fear and to shift what I have to say in the moment if it feels right. Being authentic means being skilled, knowledgeable and disciplined enough to let go. It also means caring enough about the people you are with to let go. When you feel safe to love and learn, so do they.

Most people I know work very hard to be effective, successful and emotionally satisfied. Appearing authentic to others is when you are comfortable in your skin. If someone doesn't like you or how you are treating them, they will judge you as inauthentic. You are the only one who knows the truth.

How do you define authenticity? What have you done to achieve it in moments when you are unsure of yourself? Sharing your ideas will help us all show up more powerfully in the world.

Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D. is the author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. She is a professional coach, speaker and leadership trainer who works with a variety of people and organizations around the world.