Authenticity generally reflects the extent to which an individual’s core or true self is operative on a day-to-day basis. Psychologists characterize authenticity as multiple interrelated processes that have important implications for psychological functioning and well-being. Specifically, authenticity is expressed in the dynamic operation of four components: awareness (i.e., self-understanding), unbiased processing (i.e., objective self-evaluation), behavior (i.e., actions congruent with core needs, values, preferences), and relational orientation (i.e., sincerity within close relationships). Research findings indicate that each of these components relates to various aspects of healthy psychological and interpersonal adjustment.
The importance of being authentic in one’s everyday life is evident in phrases like “keep it real” and “be true to yourself.” However, what does it mean to be authentic? For example, does it mean, “be myself at all costs?” Historically, examination of the nature of authenticity and its costs and benefits exists in such diverse sources as William Shakespeare’s Polonius, Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, and numerous hip-hop gangstas, each portraying characters whose complex challenges involve their knowing and accepting whom they are, and acting accordingly.
A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity
One definition of authenticity is that it reflects the unobstructed operation of one’s true, or core, self in one’s daily enterprise. From this perspective, the essence of authenticity involves four interrelated but separable components: (1) awareness, (2) unbiased processing, (3) behavior, and (4) relational orientation. The awareness component refers to being aware of one’s motives, feelings, desires, values, strengths and weaknesses, and trait characteristics. Moreover, it involves being motivated to learn about these self-aspects and their roles in one’s behavior. As one learns about these self-aspects, one becomes more aware of both the “figure” and “ground” in one’s personality aspects. In other words, people are not exclusively masculine or feminine, extraverted or introverted, dominant or submissive, and so on. Rather, although one aspect of these dimensions generally predominates over the other, both aspects exist. As individuals function with greater authenticity, they are aware that they possess these multifaceted self-aspects, and they use this awareness in their interchanges with others and with their environments.
A second component of authenticity involves the unbiased processing of self-relevant information. Stated differently, this component involves objective assessment and acceptance of both positive and negative self-aspects and evaluative self-relevant information. Conversely, it involves not selectively denying, distorting, or ignoring positive and negative information about oneself (e.g., one’s positive achievements or poor performances). Some people, for instance, have great difficulty acknowledging having limited skills at a particular activity. Rather than accept their poor performance, they may rationalize its implications, belittle its importance, or completely fabricate a new and better score. Others have difficulty acknowledging positive aspects of themselves or their abilities, and they interpret their success to be due exclusively to luck. All of these people are exhibiting bias in processing evaluative self-information that reflects the relative absence of authentic self-evaluation.
A third component of authenticity involves behavior, specifically whether an individual acts in accord with his or her true self. Behaving authentically means acting in accord with one’s values, preferences, and needs as opposed to acting merely to please others, comply with expectations, or conform to social norms. Likewise, behavioral authenticity is limited when people act falsely to attain external rewards or to avoid punishments. The distinction between acting authentically versus acting falsely can be complex. For instance, situations exist in which the unadulterated expression of one’s true self may result in severe punishments (i.e., insults or exclusion). In such cases, behavioral authenticity exists when a person is aware of the potential adverse consequences of his or her behaviors and chooses to act in ways that express his or her true self. The important point is that authentic behavior does not reflect a compulsion to be one’s true self, but rather the choice to express one’s true feelings, motives, and inclinations.
A fourth component of authenticity involves one’s relational orientation toward close others, that is, the extent to which one values and achieves openness and truthfulness in one’s close relationships. Relational authenticity also entails valuing close others seeing the real you, both good and bad. Stated differently, an authentic relational orientation reflects being able and motivated to express one’s true self to intimates. Thus, an authentic relational orientation involves engaging in self-disclosures that foster the development of mutual intimacy and trust. In contrast, an inauthentic relationship orientation reflects deliberately falsifying impressions made to one’s close others, or failing to actively and openly express one’s true self to them (e.g., avoiding expressing true feelings out of fear of disapproval or rejection). In short, relational authenticity means being genuine and not fake in one’s relationships with close others.
Distinct yet Interrelated Components of Authenticity
While the multiple components of authenticity may often play a collaborative role and be in harmony with one another, instances exist where only some are operative. For example, when people react to environmental contingencies (i.e., rewards or punishments) by behaving in accord with prevailing social norms that are at odds with their true self, authenticity may still be operative at the awareness and processing levels. That is, while people may not be behaving authentically, they may still be thinking and processing self-evaluative information authentically. In other instances, authenticity may not be operative at these levels either, as when people rationalize their behavior by distorting its implications (biased processing), or mindlessly behave without consulting their true desires (nonawareness). These considerations suggest that, instead of focusing exclusively on whether actions are authentic, it is useful to focus on the extent to which processes associated with other authenticity components (i.e., awareness, unbiased processing) inform behavioral choices. Social psychologists have yet to examine these complicated issues in research, but this is likely to change in the near future. For now, it is useful to note that although the awareness, unbiased processing, behavior, and relational orientation components of authenticity are interrelated, they are distinct from one another.
Research on Authenticity
Considerable research supports the assertion that authentic functioning relates to positive psychological health and well-being, as well as to healthy interpersonal relationships. For example, researchers have found that authentic functioning relates to higher and more secure self-esteem, less depression, and healthier interpersonal relationships.
Considerable research demonstrates the benefits of possessing self-knowledge that is clear, internally consistent, and well integrated across one’s social roles. The same is true for being motivated to learn about oneself: The more one takes an open and nondefensive stance toward learning about oneself, the better one’s overall psychological functioning. Moreover, possessing substantial knowledge about one’s emotional states, for example, what makes one happy or sad, also confers considerable benefits toward one’s health and well-being. Importantly, learning about oneself is an ongoing process that continues throughout the life span.
Processing positive and negative evaluative information in an objective manner allows individuals to gain accurate self-information that they can use to make well-informed decisions regarding their skills and abilities. In contrast, distorting information to exaggerate one’s positive qualities or minimize one’s negative qualities may feel good in the short run, but it is detrimental in the end. For example, research indicates that experts rate people as narcissistic and not well adjusted if they view themselves considerably more positively than others view them. Conversely, exaggerating negative self-relevant information or being overly self-critical increases one’s risk for depression and other psychological disorders.
Researchers have found that people who pursue goals that are congruent with their core self are less depressed, feel greater vitality and energy, and generally are more psychologically adjusted than are people who pursue goals that are not congruent with their core self. Thus, it is very important to consider why people adopt their goals. When people adopt goals because they are personally important, interesting, and fun, they are healthier than when they adopt goals because they feel pressured by others or because they want to avoid feeling guilty or anxious (signs that the goal is not fully congruent with the core self). In general, people whose behavior is consistent with who they really are and their central values are happier and healthier than people whose behavior is based primarily on attaining rewards or avoiding punishments.
Healthy close relationships involve trust and intimate self-disclosures. People vary in how willing or able they are to share their foibles and shortcomings with their relationship partners. Those whose close relationships involve reciprocal intimate self-disclosures are generally more satisfied with their relationships than are people whose close relationships involve more shallow or nonreciprocal self-disclosures. Research indicates that a major factor contributing to adolescents acting falsely (suppressing the expression of their true thoughts and feelings within those relationships) is that they perceive a lack of parental and peer approval. Likewise, adults who do not feel validated by their relationship partners tend to exhibit increased false-self behaviors within the relationship, which in turn accounts for their heightened feelings of depression and low self-esteem.
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