Authenticity: one of three basic psychological needs

It ought to be reassuring to have psychologists make the same conclusions as the philosophers you follow. Indeed, if the ‘inference to the best explanation’ of observations from empirical science does not align with one’s philosophy than it really ought to be thrown out. I am reassured in this case.

Psychologists have confirmed the emphasis that Existentialists have placed on ‘authenticity’. In Dare To Be Yourself they define authenticity as the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.

Some background on the concept:

Enlightenment philosophers secularized ideas of selfhood, but it took the 20th century’s existentialists to question the idea that some original, actual, ultimate self resides within. To them, the self was not so much born as made. One’s choice of action creates the self—in Sartre’s words, “existence precedes essence.” For Heidegger and confreres, authenticity was an attitude: the project of embracing life, constructing meaning, and building character without fooling yourself that your so-called essence matters in any absolute, a priori sense.

“The philosophical question is, do we invent this authentic self?” says Portmann. “Or do we discover it?” Socrates believed we discover it; the existentialists say we invent it.

There are many benefits to being ‘authentic’:

Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one’s core self—a trait called self-determination—is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs, along with competence and a sense of relatedness.

But it is not an endeavour for the weak. There are obstacles that you must overcome (apologies for the long quote; I do so for the sake of emphasis):

Another reason we’re not always true to ourselves is that authenticity is not for the faint of heart. There is, Kernis and Goldman acknowledge, a “potential downside of authenticity.” Accurate self-knowledge can be painful. When taking a test, it isn’t always fun to find out where you score on the grading curve. “Our self-images can be highly biased,” Leary notes. “But in the long run, accuracy is almost always better than bias.”

Behaving in accord with your true self may also bring on the disfavor of others: Must you admit to being a Democrat when meeting with your conservative clients? Does your wife really want to know whether you like her new dress? “Opening oneself up to an intimate makes one vulnerable to rejection or betrayal,” Kernis and Goldman observe. It can feel better to be embraced as an impostor than dumped for the person you really are.

Authenticity also requires making conscious, informed choices based on accurate self-knowledge. Like the existentialists, today’s psychologists emphasize the role of active choice in creating an authentic life: a willingness to evaluate nearly everything that you do. That’s no mean feat in a culture where even simple acts—you can dye your hair any color you want, your television carries more than 500 channels, and Starbucks advertises more than 87,000 ways to enjoy a cup of coffee—require conscious consideration among alternatives.

Such freedom can be exhausting. Baumeister has found that deliberation, no matter how trivial, exacts a cost in psychic energy, of which we have only a finite amount. His studies show that authentic action demands a certain amount of psychological exertion that depletes the self’s executive function. “It’s harder to be authentic,” he says. “It takes more work.”

Leary sees it as an outright burden, part of the perennial longing and doubt that he calls “the curse of the self.” So here we are, stuck with our self-awareness, which also compels us to continually define and refine our sense of ourselves as unique individuals against a background of conformity, superficiality, exhibitionism, and lots of other unique individuals.

But wait, there’s more. In order to realize an authentic life, says Kernis, one often has to set aside hedonic well-being—the kind of shallow, short-lived pleasure we get from, say, acquiring things—for eudaimonic well-being, a deeper, more meaningful state in which gratification is not usually immediate. Sissies need not apply.

The fact is that we tend to flourish under the most challenging circumstances, and enduring the pain and confusion that often accompany them can bring out the best—and most authentic—in us, fostering such deeply satisfying qualities as wisdom, insight, and creativity. But our cultural climate is filled with an alluring array of distractions, from online gambling to video games, that often turn out to be junk food for the mind.

Too Rigid for Our Own Good

But the really hard work, according to Cope and others, is the amount of ego-wrangling required to contact the core self. One of the biggest barriers to authentic behavior, he says, is the arbitrary and rigid self-image that so many of us nurture but which in fact distorts experience and limits self-knowledge. “Oftentimes, the very first line of defense you get with the folks who say, ‘I’m leading an inauthentic life,’ is that they’re living life according to a fixed set of views and beliefs about how they should be.”

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