Having been asked to do a little talk as part of a series of workshops and discussions in a group of like-minded explorers, I thought I would start with the story of the little girl who skipped (at play school, I was told to “go back and walk properly”) and use this anecdote from my own childhood to illustrate how our inner spirit can so easily be quashed by the serious adult reality of the world around us. I wanted to talk about how important it is to get back in touch with who we really are and to be “authentic” to that self.
The truth is, though, that we’re often given the advice to just be “ourselves”, to be true to who we are… but what does that really mean? How can we get in touch with our deepest desires and feelings when we’re so used to bottling them up and disregarding them to fit in with other people’s expectations? Do we even know who we are anymore?
I started to list possible ways in which we might peel back the layers and get closer to that “self” that I’m sure is still in there, somewhere; in my case to the little girl who skipped. These are the ten steps that I identified that I think will help you to get closer to being “yourself” – whatever that means…
1. What if no one was watching?
I think the first step to understanding what it means to be authentic is to ask yourself: what if no one was watching? So much of what we do is because of what we’ve learned that society expects of us, what we think we should do, what we believe will make us liked and won’t expose us to criticism. What if we didn’t need to care about what other people thought? What if we could do anything we wanted? What then? It might help to think back to your younger self: what would he or she have done? Young children have not yet been socialised, they do what they want to do, their emotions and actions are completely raw and pure. So get in touch with your inner child, and dance like no one is watching!
2. Get outside your comfort zone
It’s easy to allow yourself to get comfortable, to stick with the things that you’re good at, to stay within the limits of the role that you’ve been assigned. You do the things you’ve always done the way you’ve always done them. As you do so, your comfort zone actually shrinks around you and the scope for movement becomes ever more restrictive. It’s only by pushing the boundaries, by trying new things, meeting different people, testing your abilities, that you find where your true strengths and passions lie. Keep challenging yourself, in big ways and in small, explore the world of possibilities around you, and you’ll find that your comfort zone expands as you discover who you are and what you’re capable of.
3. Question everything
All those years of growing up in a particular family and society have conditioned you to think in certain ways. In fact, you’re not really thinking, you’re acting on autopilot based on certain rules that you’ve created for yourself. In order to get closer to your authentic self, it’s important to start breaking those patterns and actively questioning your behaviour. What are the underlying beliefs on which you’re basing your actions, is there really evidence for those beliefs, and do these beliefs serve who you are and what you want in life? By questioning those automatic reactions you’ll come to understand if they are really consistent with what you want and you’ll then be able to consciously choose to respond in a way that is consistent.
4. No judging
Being authentic is about being honest and real about what you believe without holding back because of some idea of what is “right” and “wrong”. Next time those negative thoughts creep in, stop yourself from thinking of what you “should” do and instead allow yourself to dream. Think of it as a brainstorming session: a judgement-free zone with no criticism allowed, only a free flow of ideas. There is a place for constructive criticism and evaluating what is possible but most of the time we jump to that stage far too quickly. There is plenty of cynicism and comparison and judging going on in the world; try instead to let go of all that negativity, to strip away the layers of expectations and assumptions and conventions and get to the heart of what you really think.
5. Don’t second-guess other people
Just as you shouldn’t judge yourself, you shouldn’t judge others or expect them to judge you. It’s easy to think you know what other people want and change your behaviour accordingly; you might hold back from expressing what you think, or pretend you like something you really don’t, all with the intention of appeasing the other person. The fact is that you’re probably wrong about them and you’re actually likely to end up with both of you being dissatisfied. Instead, why not give other people the benefit of the doubt? Assume that they’re nice people, that they will respect you for being yourself, and that they won’t judge you! By judging them you’re actually doing exactly what you don’t want them to do to you – ironic, don’t you think?
6. Define what’s important to you
An authentic life is a life that’s aligned to your innermost values – so naturally you need to clarify what those values are. What are the guiding principles by which you want to live your life? What’s really important to you? Honesty? Respect? Learning and development? Prestige? Money? Family? Identifying these primary values will help you to sense check multiple options when you’re faced with a difficult decision as to how to act in a given situation, a choice of different paths you can take. Which of the choices resonates with your personal values? Which one fits with your priorities that you’ve identified? You need to get clear on what you want before you can go out and get it!
7. Be present in the moment
Being authentic, I think, requires being in the moment; not in the past, and not in the future. When you’re dwelling on the past, you’re often justifying your current situation, clinging to an old role, blaming other people or particular circumstances, and not being true to who you are right here, right now. On the other hand, if you’re spending all your time planning and hypothesising about the future then you’re making assumptions about what may or may not happen and, again, you’re not being true to who you are today. Of course, that’s not to say that you should forget all about where you’ve come from or what you want to achieve in the future; but focusing on the present moment and, yes, being “mindful” will help you to really listen to what you actually want and need.
8. Follow your intuition
Those of you who’ve grown up in Western society will have been trained in the school of rational thought, of logical and analytical reasoning, and intellectual and academic prowess. This means using your head to make decisions: looking at the pros and cons, thinking of sensible things like financial security and pensions, and being altogether “realistic”. It can feel very uncomfortable to heed such wishy-washy, fanciful advice as to “follow your intuition” or “listen to your heart”. The truth is, though, that your heart – or maybe it’s your gut – knows what you’re secretly wishing for beyond any intellectual considerations and warnings. It takes practice, but over time you’ll find that there is a voice there and if you listen you’ll hear that it’s surprisingly clear about what it really wants.
9. Rewrite your story
I’ve already said how being authentic means not living in the past and justifying your actions or your current situation with whatever happened to you before; now it’s time to take control of your life and to (re-)write your personal life story. Think of your life as a film: what kind of film do you want to be – a drama, a horror story, an action-packed adventure? Are you the comedy sidekick or a leading lady? A tragic divorcee or an indomitable romantic? Once you realise that you have the power to create whatever reality you want, your eyes will be open to the possibilities that exist along with your opportunity to grasp those possibilities. Rewrite your story as you want to live it, and as you want it to be remembered.
10. Embrace the imperfections
The pressure is on to have the perfect job and the perfect partner, the perfect body, the perfect life. But the truth is: no one is perfect. More to the point, who wants to be perfect anyway?! Perfection is boring! It’s the imperfections that make life interesting, it’s the cracks that let the light in. Start embracing your imperfections and you’ll start to live life as it’s meant to be lived. You’ll be more open to taking risks and making mistakes as you recognise that these are not signs that you’re a failure but signs that you’re human and, moreover, learning opportunities to get even better in the future. Being authentic is to recognise that you are imperfect – and that’s okay! More than okay… it’s perfect.