The Humility of Authenticity

There are times when I feel my stomach tightening, when I become short of breath and feel very uncomfortable…because I am required to be authentic. And then when I do speak and act authentically, I have a great feeling of release and peace of mind, and having been authentic feels so simple. It’s paradoxical, isn’t it?

Authenticity Requires Courage

This blog is inspired by what I have learnt from the wonderful participants, now alumni, of a programme called Generating Transformative Change (GTC) – Africa 2.

In many of our sessions, the conversations centred around the courage required to be authentic, since in speaking our mind and truth, we may create feelings of discomfort, and even disappointment in others. It could even get us in trouble, and maybe this is because deep down we have this human need to keep harmony, look good and not rock the boat. At times, being ‘polite’ is easier, and use ‘sugar-coated’ language.

However, authenticity is vital for our relationships, for our family life and work. Organizational Development specialist Peter Senge connects authenticity as fostering trust and intimacy in organizations. He writes that practicing intimacy takes courage because: ‘…you will be mentally, emotionally and socially ‘exposed’, you will not be as free to sneak things by, to withhold information, to pretend you know something that you don’t, or to propose and implement self-serving policies that undermine team goals. In intimate situations, you must be trustworthy, because you know that you are bound to your team in the long run by your shared purpose. The lack of trust pervasive in most organizations is not a cause of lack of intimacy, but a symptom of it.’

So, for the sake of our relationships, we need to remove the mask of job title, role, function, politeness and grandeur.

Authenticity: What is it?

The term ‘authenticity’ is connected to the words ‘original’ and ‘genuine’. It is connected to truthfulness, honesty and expressing candor in communications and interactions. Authenticity requires being vulnerable and revealing our weaknesses, fears, and all that makes us vulnerable. So it’s about humility, and needing to acknowledge something beyond ourselves. (It’s not about invading privacy. Intimacy should never put anyone under pressure to unveil the details of his or her personal life or desires.)

Other words, qualities and behaviours associated with authenticity were: acting out of choice and feeling the peace that comes out of that, being genuine, making oneself vulnerable, showing the self beyond title and role, practicing it with respect, consciously, mindfully and with responsibility. All these enable us from moving away from inauthentic behavior, that take us into having to appear, hide, and being overly influenced by culture and expectations.

As Brene’ Brown, PhD, writes: ‘Authenticity is a daily practice. Choosing authenticity means: cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude in our lives.’

What is striking about Brown’s description of authenticity is the allowing the self to be vulnerable and having the courage of acting beyond fear.

John Macquarrie describes that when there is no authenticity, one lives an inauthentic existence, describing it this way: ‘Inauthentic existence is molded by external factors, whether they be circumstances, moral codes, political and religious authorities or other influences’. Indeed, in our context perhaps, cultural expectations may sometimes impose us to live an inauthentic life (such norms being obligations around attending a multitude of funerals, wedding and other social events, for the fear of being judged if one doesn’t).

In a way, there is a humility to authenticity because not being truthful requires pretending. It’s as if we divide against the self, avoid saying what we know, thus feeling the inner tension. Truthfulness, on the other hand, comes with wholeheartedness, takes time, and is often simple.

More than Speaking our Truth?

When we see that authenticity goes beyond speaking one’s truth, and being direct, we can take this to another dimension. As a mentor in the GTC leadership programme explained, for them, authenticity meant speaking with the consciousness for what is beneficial for all of us, and yet making it so personal, coming from so many perspectives, and when speaking in that way, nobody is harmed – because we are all interconnected.

Practicing Authenticity and Humility

In this inquiry around authenticity, my GTC friends have taught me how the journey to being authentic is indeed a journey, it requires coming out of one’s comfort zone, and when with others perhaps, having the courage to talk about ‘undiscussables’ (naming ‘the elephant in the room’). Sharing ‘what is so’ perhaps, we can enable our teams, organizations and cultures to continue evolving and growing up, ourselves included.

Images: Robert Hafner, and www.pinterest.com