In one of my recent presentations on self-branding, an attendee raised the question about the true detriment to not living “authentically, besides not being happy”? They continued on to explain their thinking in that happiness isn’t always something people want to strive for and is in many ways fleeting. At first, to be perfectly honest, I was not prepared to answer the question so I turned it to the audience and gave them a little time to reflect on their own thoughts and reactions while I gave myself some time to sort through the depth of the question.
And my brain, while simultaneously tracking all of the awesome reflections of the group, kept coming back to the idea of shame and how not living as our authentic selves is really a contributor to shame. First off, being authentic does not guarantee happiness. In fact, and many of you have heard me talk about this before, I feel like striving for happiness is like striving to blow the perfect bubble. You can see it building, be excited when you do it AND, you know that, eventually, it will burst. Happiness is an emotion and like all emotions, it is transient and experienced more like a wave in the ocean - sometimes bigger or smaller but never permanent. And honestly, I feel like we would be miserable if all we ever felt was happy. The beauty and complexity of living is through the myriad of emotions we endure, survive and thrive within.
But that still leads us back to the initial part of the question - why does being authentic matter? For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of “shame” or how it may be difficult to differentiate from “guilt”, “guilt” means “I did something bad” and “shame” means “I am bad”. Many people, including a mentor of mine, Brene Brown, have researched, discussed and dissected this term, “shame” and excitedly, it is getting more attraction and awareness in the general public as this is a universal feeling and can have detrimental effects on the lives of those it infects. To me, shame’s sole purpose is to create a sense of urgency in us to be or do better in order to “belong”. It plays on our deepest core beliefs about ourselves and our values and finds holes in who we are, pushing us to strive to be someone else. Someone “better”. Someone “more deserving”.
But, how does this connect to the question about authenticity? Shame is incapable of celebrating uniqueness. Shame strives for conformity and pushes you to give your power to it, whereby you become a performer, hoping to one day win the role of “acceptable” in the world you exist in. Shame makes you question what you wear, what you do or say and who you are as a person, turning mistakes into failures and turning an act into a definition of character. So, then, the question for all of us, becomes, “What would happen if people knew the real me?” “What if I wore this pair of Velcro shoes I think are cool?” “What if I told my friends I actually hate the music they listen to and prefer ‘X’?” “What if I hate my job where I make 6 figures and want to give it all up to do ‘X’?” “What if I go for my dreams and fail?” “What if I told my partner I don't like our sex life the way it is?”
I am sure you see and know the theme all too well - a cascade of “what ifs” rolling off the tongue faster than lightning strikes the ground. And every “what if” fuels the momentum of shame. It whispers in your ear “If you do ‘X’ then everyone will see just how much of a piece of shit you really are. They will leave you because they will not see any value in keeping you around.” And as shame grows in its presence and power, it becomes increasingly harder to challenge those thoughts. SO rather than be ourselves and break free from the shackles of shame, we grab a mask off of the shelf and hide. We pretend and conform. We stay in our comfort zones or, as I call them, the realm of predictable shittiness. Why? Because I would rather stay within this bubble that sucks but at least I know what to expect versus take the chance I can break free and have it all go to shit. The idea that things could be better seem so far-fetched and we develop an unrealistic certainty that the world will be worse outside of our bubbles. In fact, the threat we feel when a piece of our authentic self accidentally emerges can feel like such a deep threat that we electively shrink our bubbles even more.
Does it work? Yes. For a while anyway. Many of us can pinpoint a time in middle or high school where we conformed to the norm to fit in or were mortified when we had to wear or do something that made us stand out from the crowd we so longed to be a part of. I wore the stupidest fucking shirts from a pretentious store that everyone shopped at, where the clothes were cheap and the ideal perpetuated would make anyone sick looking back at them. I bought the same shows everyone else had. I pretended not to be hungry so no one knew I was on FREE & reduced lunch because I heard how they made fun of people in “that group”. I dated the people I “should” date. I applied to the colleges everyone else thought I should and pursued medicine because it was “safer” and “more respectable” than art. And for what? There was never a moment in any of that I felt at ease. There was never a moment I felt like my spot was secure with my friends or that I would matter to them long term. I had operated from a lens of external motivation and values to the point shame had stripped me of any capabilities to assert my own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This got me into trouble all of the time. I was afraid of letting teachers down so I invited multiple teachers to be my escort to the National Honor Society induction. I didn’t want to hurt my friend Colin’s feelings so I went with him to prom rather than my boyfriend. I got 4 Aladdin DVD’s the year it was released because everyone bought it for me and I didn't have the heart to tell them I already got it for fear they would be upset or leave me. They seem like small, albeit dumb, things, but they add up. This led me to take jobs I didn't want. I hung out with friends who made me feel like shit. I didn’t even assert an opinion in my relationship for the first few years because I was so scared my, now, husband would leave me if I did. Every day I was surrounded by superficial connection motivated by shame and felt more alone than ever, hating myself, or really, questioning what it even meant to be myself. And all for a continually changing narrative written by shame about what it will take to be “okay”.
But, does it WORK? As you can see, very clearly, no it does not. Choosing shame and conformity over authenticity led me to feeling nothing because I was so far from my true self I could not even identify who I was, what I wanted, or how I felt. I was alone and soon turned face to face with my shame and started to see the lies it had old me for all of those years. I became curious about what it would look like to let go of the pressures I had succumbed to for so long. I wondered what it would feel like to be me. I read the book, The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown* where she talked about the idea of shame and how it keeps us striving for a reality too far from a truth we could ever know and one wherein you have to lose yourself to become a shell. I started to meditate on the idea of authenticity and got increasingly more curious and excited at the idea. I wondered about how to start to lean into this idea of being myself - something seemingly so simple and touted to us from the time we are toddlers, and yet, something so powerfully painful, scary and challenging.
Now don’t get me wrong - it was not a magical flurry of rainbows and unicorns and suddenly my life is amazing. The journey to even accepting the tiny movements towards being authentic took a lot of time. Baby steps…or really, baby shuffles were the theme of my journey. I started to think about the possibility of being truly “Kyira” and focused on the idea that any possibility I could feel more whole than I had was worth trying for. AND, I started small, with internal changes. I told the truth in my head. I got clear on my opinions and values. I started to slowly test them out with people close to me. I learned, very quickly that not everyone would like “Kyira” or, even if they did, would have a hard time adjusting to this version of me as they had come to count on the other one. That hardest part of it was learning to set boundaries and say “NO”. I promise we will take a deeper dive on this in future posts, but for now, just know that everyone, including us, has a tendency to operate from a lens of self, meaning the changes I made in my life were filtered through the lenses of others as something wronging them or letting them down rather than seeing it was never about them. That was hard. Again, shame came calling and would even use my values against me to tell me I was being hurtful and not promoting compassion and connection even though I touted them as values. I learned, that shame is like being an abusive relationship. It would use everything against me it could, including what is sacred to me - values, connection, and dreams. I had to lean into the possibility I would lose all of that and strive to break past the pain point.
Am I there? Hell no. This journey is life long. I am learning new things about myself every day and have to also create space to share and exist within those truths in my own time. Part of living in authenticity is also about honoring where you are at and finding the balance of pushing yourself forward to trusting your pace. I still find that shame creeps in. It leads me to act in ways that sacrifice my power. I am aware that that is normal. That makes me human. It is an ebb and flow kind of process. Am I happy all of the time? No, as I said, it comes in waves - as it should. Do I feel better about myself? Yes. Have I lost friends or disappointed people? Yes, AND I have to remind myself that that is not about me. That just means that who I am and either who they are or who they are looking for does not match with me. And that is okay.
So why should you do it? Because life has to be better than the predictable shittiness we all learn to exist in. Because you deserve to feel vulnerable and to assert yourself without always having to pull back or wonder what effect it has on your worth and value. Because, being authentic means showing up, every day, and getting to know yourself. It is about building a relationship with the one person who will be with you the entirety of your life - YOU. And if you can’t celebrate and feel good in that relationship, it is a lifetime of distress, disconnection, and shackles that await.
NOW, here is your first chance to choose authenticity. Comment below with one commitment you can make to share more of your TRUE self.
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