Identity

Living Authentically: Why It Matters & How to Do It

Over the last few years I’ve been really interested in the term “Authenticity.” Partly because it is thrown around so much and sounds pretty pretentious. And partly because I spent so much of my life consciously and unconsciously trying to define myself in a singular, unified way.  I thought living authentically meant figuring out the one label that best described me and then tailoring all my choices and actions to fit that distinct description.

It’s kind of like the stereotypical high school archetypes: the jocks, the nerds, the drama geeks, etc. When we associate with a distinct identity or group, we feel certain and safe. We know what to say and how to act. The problem is that human beings aren’t that simple. We’re complex, ever-changing, and inconsistent. As we develop more mature ways of thinking about ourselves, we feel conflicted: We acknowledge growth, yet still want a unified and consistent identify that we can hang our hat on at any given moment. It does't matter if we label ourselves in a positive or negative light, a single identity creates stagnation.

Whether it’s the Giver, the Achiever, or the Judgmental Bitch, we all have different sides that combine to create a constantly changing identity. And that’s the rub: Living authentically means accepting that you will never have a fixed, unchanging label. It means that you understand the dynamics of the constantly shifting ecosystem inside you.

Time for a diagram:

An abbreviated sample of my parts. Feel free to judge.

An abbreviated sample of my parts. Feel free to judge.

In an ideal world, you’d be the perfectly balanced itsy-bitsy part in the middle. Nothing in life would rattle you or move you from that position (and you’d be the most boring person I know!) In reality, there are triggers that move you closer to a specific combination of your parts. Or, in an extreme situation, mostly one part. Ultimately, your goal is to recognize the parts of you that overlap and actively tap into each of them, inching closer toward the center.

Here’s how:

  1. Accept that at any given moment, you are a combination of each part of you.
  2. Listen to all the voices in your head. As crazy as that may sound, they are there for a reason.  
  3. Dial up and dial down each part as needed. None of your parts are good or bad, it’s what you make of them. There are moments when what serves me best is to nurture others, and moments when that prevents me from prioritizing myself.
  4. Honor each part and avoid judgment. Sometimes a part that we’ve labeled as a weakness is a strength that’s dialed up too high.
  5. Be authentic. Whether that means taking deliberate action or choosing to disengage. This applies to your words, too: Say what you mean and mean what you say.

The Takeaway: Authenticity comes from tapping into all your parts without judgment and acting from a place of acceptance and truth. 

Stop Labeling Yourself. Do This Instead.

Limiting Labels

I love label makers. Give me a “Brother P-Touch” and I’ll gladly organize your home. Labeling things makes me feel in control, allowing me to find order in chaos. It lets me know what to expect when I open a file, a drawer, or the unknown. And while most people don’t share my enthusiasm for home organization, they label things nonetheless for the exact same reason.

Labeling ourselves and others helps us to feel safe, to feel protected, and feel like we know what to expect when we “open that drawer.” And while I’m sure a blog post about judging others would be helpful, I’d rather put the focus on you. How do you label yourself? Maybe you think you’re “the nerd”, “the quitter”, or as I often called myself, “the black sheep.” Whatever you think you are, you’re probably wrong. And that’s a good thing.

Most of us have slapped some names on ourselves based on past experiences or circumstances (usually negative). We then expand on that experience and make generalizations about our identity. Over time, we go from “I made a mistake” to “I always make mistakes” to “I am a mistake.”

Labeling ourselves is natural. It helps us to organize our social interactions. For example, when I think of myself as a “daughter,” I have a distinct set of behaviors that govern my relationship with my parents. When I’m in “friend mode,” I am easy going and swear like a truck driver. And when I think of myself as a “girlfriend,” I am loving, supportive, and adorably neurotic (my labels = my definitions!) These labels aren’t just accessories, they dictate how we speak, what we say, and even the actions we take.

While it doesn’t take much for us to adopt a negative role based on limited evidence, it often takes a great deal of “proof” to embrace a positive label. For example, as a kid, I was compared to my remarkable older brother. He was and is the “ideal son.” Harvard grad, doctor, can reach things on high shelves, etc. After a few comparisons by teachers, I decided I was the stupid one.
Was it true? Absolutely not.
Did it take years of evidence to the contrary before I believed it. Hell yeah!

Even positive labels have a downside. Defining ourselves as only one thing is not only inaccurate, but limiting. And any evidence that challenges this label (such as a perceived failure) will throw us into a tailspin. Ultimately, no matter what role you’re playing in this moment, your values and core self remain constant.

So how do you break free of the labels?

It’s simple.

Question it. When you or someone else labels you, ask yourself:

  • Is what this person is saying true?
  • Do I want to define myself by this circumstance alone?
  • What’s a realistic and empowering lesson that can guide me in the future?

The Takeaway:

Labels limit your actions, self-concept, and potential. Embrace that your true self is a combination of multiple parts that contradict and complement each other in a dynamic, exciting, and unique way.

Of course, you could also continue to believe the false negative labels. But then you’d be the guy who’s still trying to prove that the earth is flat.

The choice is yours.