We all want to live more authentically. Authenticity has incredible power. It pays off in so many ways. But how do you get there? The path to authenticity usually involves a series of steps that keep repeating themselves until the day you die, like a spiral staircase, weaving back and forth between fear and courage, expansion and contraction. The higher you climb, the bolder you become. So the trick is to keep climbing and don’t look back.
Here are some of the practical steps. You might recognize them.
- A Wake Up Call
Bang! You may come to a sudden realization that your life is not working for you. Some part of your life doesn’t quite fit any more, like an old sweater that’s two sizes too small. You can only suck your gut in for so long before you lose your breath. You can only put on a happy face when you’re feeling awful for so long before your eyes betray you. Just as the wakeup call says “no more sleep for you”, the personal wakeup call says, “enough! I can’t live this way anymore. It’s time to make a change.” James Baldwin said,
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
I knew a man who was in the closet about his sexuality. He decided that he couldn’t come out about being gay until his elderly father died. He was worried that it would be too much for his old-school Dad. (Taking responsibility for his Dad’s reactions rather than trusting his Dad) The problem with his plan was that his Dad lived to be a VERY old man and eventually my friend came to the conclusion that life is too short to wait to be authentic. He stopped protecting his Dad and came out. Amazingly, his Dad’s reaction wasn’t anything like he had expected. He was very accepting of his son.
You often have to let go of the assumptions and fears holding you back (many of which are pure fantasy), so that you can step into your authentic life that is waiting for you like a dog at the front door with walking leash hanging out of its mouth. The wakeup call is an opportunity. No guilt. No regrets about how long it took you to see the light. No pressure to do it quick time. Just an opportunity that arrives when you’re ready, a call to live more authentically.
- Trial and Error
Once you’ve heard the wakeup call, it’s good to act quickly so that you don’t hit the snooze button on change and lay back on the pillow of familiarity. Take one decisive step to create the life of your choosing. It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or highly strategic. It’s often trial and error to find the life that fits best for you. As Anne Lamott says, “You have to make mistakes to find out who you aren’t.” Anne describes how a painter she knew completed his work. He never knew what the completed picture would look like, but he could usually see one part of it. So he would try to recreate what he saw in his mind, and when it turned out not to be even remotely what he’d imagined, he’d paint over it with white. Every time he worked out what the painting wasn’t, he was one step closer to finding out what it was.
This business of being fully authentic takes practice. You have to try on some different masks and be prepared to start over. This was certainly true for me, starting out as a more traditional pastor, wearing both robes and masks that didn’t fit. It was only after years of trial and error that I found my authentic calling as an independent teacher of universal wisdom, pointing people to their inner light, as I had found mine. I can’t begin to describe the liberation of living authentically. What is your authentic calling, and what steps are you taking to manifest this calling right now? Try an experiment in authenticity today.
Sometimes you have to simplify not just your life style and consumption, but also the baggage of conformity that you carry around. Try out this idea to simplify your life. You have likely heard of the bucket list, where you make a list of all the things you want to do before you kick the bucket. There are other bucket lists as well. Another one is to make a list of all the things you HAVE done, so that you don’t live your remaining days in frantic regret. But the bucket list I want to suggest here is a reverse bucket list.
Create a list of things that you no longer want to do. Cross off one thing you no longer want to wear each day; such as seeking approval, living as a victim, or compromising your values. It’s too exhausting to carry this baggage. Every piece of extra baggage you leave behind makes you feel lighter and freer. Your life becomes more positive and enjoyable with each passing day. This is the reverse (upside down) bucket list. It’s as if you’re raising yourself up on the upturned bucket to reveal your authentic beauty and unique style for what it is.
Say to yourself regularly: I am who I am, effortlessly, authentically, uniquely myself.
4. Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway
Let’s face it, when you step into new levels of authenticity, fear inevitably rises up in you because you are challenging the familiarity of the masks. Maybe you don’t see change as quickly as you were hoping. It’s tempting to run back to the old patterns because you feel secure and in control of the old you. Your default response when you’re under pressure is likely the old patterns. This is all part of a fear response. I only wish that fear was spelt FEER. That would create a nifty anagram- when you upend FEER and rearrange the parts it spells FREE. If you push through fear, as hard as it can be, you come out the other side feeling free. I wrote about FEAR recently. You can read it here. If you prefer to move on with the steps to authenticity, this quote from Joy Harjo will give you a summary-
I take myself back, fear.
You are not my shadow any longer.
I won’t hold you in my hands.
You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice my belly, or in my heart
my heart my heart my heart.
But come here, fear.
I am alive and you are so afraid of dying.
- Affirm Yourself
One of the biggest barriers to authenticity is approval seeking. Most of us do it at some point. You look for someone outside of you to make you feel good inside, which is just about as insane as watching someone else eat and expecting to feel satisfied yourself.
Michael Scott, the now ex-boss on the TV show The Office, was an extreme approval junkie. At one point he said,
Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this, compulsive, need, to be liked. Like my need to be praised
If you look outside for approval, it is insatiable. People give and take their approval according to their own mood. It’s not an accurate reflection of anything true inside of you. Rachel Naomi Remen said,
To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value. Approval cannot be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been. It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy. Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it.
The best antidote to approval seeking is to give yourself all the things you wish others would give you. Praise yourself. Approve of yourself. Affirm yourself. When you approve of yourself, surprising things happen. You start to feel like you need approval less, and because you aren’t as needy, you end up getting it from people around you. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle. Some people call it a virtuous cycle. It’s the law of attraction. You get what you seek by BEING what you seek. Affirmation snowballs, but it begins within yourself.
Nourish yourself with the sustenance of self approval. Don’t base it on your achievements. Base it on who you are; that is, someone full of love and potential, a person with clear values and passion for life.
Enjoy the New You
Once you feel comfortable in the new, healthier YOU, life becomes SO much more enjoyable. There is deep joy, and incredible disorientation, in the process of moving from the old you that no longer fits to the new you, the authentic you. It may start in one area of your life, and spread to include all aspects of who you are.
The process never really ends. You can ALWAYS be more authentic. There is always more to learn, unlearn, and relearn. So keep going, and find your motivation in the same place you find your approval- deep within.
Lastly, and maybe best of all, your most authentic life is just what the world needs.