Do you know what it’s like to express yourself authentically? Many of us had to give up authenticity for connection, but there are ways to reclaim your emotions today.
Authenticity is a state of being who you really are. It means knowing your internal signals for when something is a “yes” or a “no” and being honest with yourself and other people. It means knowing your needs and boundaries and being able to express them without fear.
Authenticity is a state that requires a baseline of safety. There are plenty of reasons authenticity can be a challenge: social pressure, meeting people for the first time, and the natural fear that we won’t be accepted for who we are. But for many of us, the challenge of authenticity started when we were children.
The Roots of Authenticity
Children are born with survival instincts. One of those instincts is to maintain connection with their caregivers. Human babies are weak and defenseless, and as little ones, we would not survive without caregivers. Connection is a survival instinct on par with fight-or-flight, though we don’t often think about it this way. We need connection not just because it’s nice, but because it’s how we survive. Human beings, with our soft, hairless skin and ineffectual nails and teeth, would never have made it this far without each other. When given the choice between authenticity and connection, children will always, 100 percent of the time, choose connection.
In an ideal world, children grow up with some space to be themselves. This can include expressing their dissatisfaction with any number of things and crying loudly when they are having big feelings. Their caregivers would ideally acknowledge and make space for their emotions while at the same time teaching clear and consistent boundaries and rules that the children can understand.
This isn’t always the reality, though the latest generation of parents may be better than any other for raising children this way. Not long ago, children were told to be seen and not heard, alongside plenty of implicit rules about gender expression and emotional expression. In addition to this, trauma and abuse can play a role in how safe a child feels to express their genuine emotions. If an adult would shut us down, yell, put us in isolation, or worse when we openly expressed emotion, our nervous systems would learn that emotions are unsafe.
Learning to Safely Express Ourselves Authentically
Of course, it’s important to learn when and where it’s safe to express emotions. Not all environments are appropriate for emotional expression. Professional environments, for example, are usually places where we might need to edit or filter what we’re really feeling. Wanting to be safe with someone isn’t the same as actually being safe with them. And that can be just fine as long as we do have other people we can be fully authentic with without fearing that we’ll be rejected, hurt, or abandoned (or fired).
That means that as adults, many of us struggle with authenticity. If it was unsafe in our childhood environment to fully express our needs and feelings, our nervous systems will not allow us to express freely. In some cases, we may be so distanced from our authentic needs and feelings that we don’t even know what they are.
The good news is that knowledge is power. When we can see this pattern in our own lives and understand why we are struggling with authenticity, we can learn how to figure out when it might be safe to fully feel and express our feelings.
Do you already have people in your life whom you know love you unconditionally? Who can tolerate you expressing anger or sadness and so on? Even if not, can you practice being safe with yourself, allowing yourself to fully feel what you feel without an internal judge reminding you that it’s not safe? What might it feel like to be fully authentic in your emotions?
Explore the art of being sensitive.