We’re surrounded by messages of authenticity that seem, somehow, inauthentic. Instagram photos boast #nofilter and food companies promise to serve up “real” ingredients, whatever that might mean. In the face of such mixed signals, how can you tell if you’re being truly genuine, or simply mimicking some of these false, empty messages of authenticity?
Stephen Joseph, psychology professor at Nottingham University and author of a recently published book on authenticity, explains that according humanistic psychologists, authenticity is a universal and deep-seated need. The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that all humans are constantly striving for self-actualization; a person who behaves in a self-actualized manner, according to Maslow’s description, is one who’s truly authentic.
“When people are authentic, when they’re themselves, they’re self-actualized,” explains Joseph. “When our needs are met, we move towards self-actualization. So that’s the natural, normal state for human beings.”
According to Maslow’s theory, we have distinct levels of needs:
- physiological (such as food, sleep)
- safety (employment, health)
- social (friendship, family, sexual intimacy)
- esteem (confidence, respect of others)
- actualization (morality, creativity, lack of prejudice)
Though they’re often presented as a pyramid building towards the peak of self-actualization, these needs are not strictly hierarchical. It’s possible—though difficult—to achieve some “higher” needs before more basic requirements are met.
To be authentic, one has to attain the characteristics of self-actualization, including morality and lack of prejudice—and so Maslow’s theory suggests that nastiness is a sign of inauthenticity. “If you see someone telling cruel jokes about other people day after day,” says Joseph, then even if they believe they’re authentically nasty, they’ve not achieved true authenticity.
A truly authentic person, by Maslow’s theory, will be open to new experiences and be empathetic, non-judgmental, and non-hostile towards others. On the other hand, overt aggression or hostility suggests that a person is not truly at peace with his or herself.
“It’s very difficult for people to tell whether they’re authentic or not,” says Joseph. It takes reflection, and self-criticism. If you’re uncertain whether you’re behaving in an authentic manner, it can be worth comparing yourself to Maslow’s description of a self-actualized person and seeing if you fulfill those characteristics. This takes time and thought and, Joseph says, “people who’re inauthentic generally aren’t interested in doing that.”
The negative behaviors of inauthentic people are protective strategies. Many of us turn to these defenses because being truly authentic is very difficult in a world where schools, religious institutions, and workplaces often try to mold people to meet certain standards.
“Over the years, because there’s a lot of pressure on people to conform in different ways and traditions, that thwarts people from being authentic,” says Joseph. “To undo that, you have to in some ways disregard the demands of other people on you or walk away from certain situations. You have to be quite strong willed and courageous to resist the pressures to conform.”
But though authenticity is far from simple, psychologists believe the effort is worth it. Being authentic allows your talents and passions to flourish, and ultimately allows you to thrive. As anyone who’s been inauthentic will know, it’s no fun living a lie.