The search for authenticity has become a fad in the last generation. It’s applied both internally and externally – we look for ‘authentic’ things or experiences in the world, and we try to be ‘authentic’ ourselves. It may be a reaction to the superficiality of consumerism. But it is subject to a sort of uncertainty principle – the more you look for authenticity, the less authentic anything will seem.
I’m traveling right now and see this search in tourism. Authentic experience outings are everywhere now. It could be seeing the authentic poverty of the Brazilian favelas, or it could be these Chinese tourists taking photographs of themselves mowing British suburban lawns. It could be ‘experiencing the city with a local.’ But by definition, it can’t be authentic even when the people really are local, at least if you are defining local as an experience untainted by tourism. All interactions will be affected by the money-exchange nature, or by act of explaining their day as they go about it, or showing off for the audience, or having to make sure the foreigner enjoys the experience. What they say they do, or how they do it when including you, isn’t what they would do if you weren’t there. And so you will always have to chase that perfect ‘authentic’ experience – which is the experience you would be having if you weren’t having it. Or at least if you were having it spontaneously and through no planning whatsoever. But of course you have to plan it to make sure you have it.
You also see this with sites like Airbnb or especially Couchsurfing. You supposedly get to stay with a real person, not a hotel, and make an authentic relationship. But this isn’t ‘authentic’ either, in the sense of genuinely local, for the simple reason that the kind of people who let strangers and foreigners into their home on a regular basis are by definition never the regular kind of people in whatever place. They are often foreigners themselves, especially in the EU. And of course, it’s really a business transaction, not a friendship.
Trying Too Hard
Many travelers know the above or start to realize it with time. It then starts to look like the tourist that are into these experiences are trying too hard to chase something that isn’t there. Eventually they realize you should just see what you want to see and do what you want to do, and not worry about how ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ it is as long as you aren’t hurting anyone. It’s your experience, and no one else is having it quite the same way, and that’s as authentic as it gets.
We all know this closer to home. The friends and acquaintances who try for constant authenticity often come off as the most appearance-driven, and the most prone to using buzzwords, because they have to show how aware and authentic they are. Think hipsters showing edgy uniqueness by all being the same.
The ‘Real You’
While the ones who do this are very noticeable, most people aren’t trying so hard for Instagram authenticity. But a lot of more normal people still believe that they have a ‘real me’ which is sometimes different from what they do or say. By this logic the real you is the one that coworkers or even friends don’t see. It’s the thoughts, feelings, and urges you don’t act on, or only show in certain situations with like-minded people.
It’s a theory of layers – we believe that we have an outer layer and inner, more authentic, layers.
This Makes No Sense
Whatever you decide to show or hide in any given situation, for whatever reasons, you are the one who made that decision of what to do and say. There are always other people with similar thoughts in similar situations, who did and said something else. One of you is not more authentic than the other.
Or to put it another way, your actions are always authentically you. They can’t be anything else or anyone’s else. Existence is always authentic.
If you don’t like your coworkers, but act nice to them because it’s easier that way, you are authentically a person who hides unproductive feelings in a social situation. When you want to dress a certain way, but don’t because most people would find it ridiculous or offensive, you are authentically a person who weighs their own aesthetic instincts against feedback from society before making a decision. And if you want to speak up about something you don’t agree with, but don’t because you are afraid of the response, you are authentically a person who decided the risks outweigh the benefits. Maybe you were absolutely right to do so or maybe you were a coward. But either way it was authentically you being you.
Actions Are What Matters
The secret to avoiding this anxiety is to concentrate on actions. Actions are what matters. It is not a bad thing if you don’t act on all of your thoughts and feelings. Everyone has all sorts of thoughts and feelings and not all of them are productive or helpful. Maturity is both training your thoughts and feelings to be more appropriate, but also learning to consciously decide whether and how to act on the feelings and thoughts you may be having. This action will be based on your responsibilities and general social harmony. You decide based on experience what the effect will be, and whether it’s worth it. This isn’t wrong. Being influenced by the situation around you isn’t the same as being subsumed by it. You are the combination of your inner life and the world around you. Neither part is more you.
So, if you worry that you are being inauthentic because you have feelings you aren’t acting on, ask yourself if not acting was a conscious decision. If you really don’t think it’s worth it to act on those feelings for whatever reason, then don’t. If you realize there wouldn’t be much downside that you care about, then act. But either way it’s an equally ‘authentic’ decision, because it’s what you did in your life for your reasons.