When I was a kid, I read a book about Texas, which caused me to spend hundreds of hours daydreaming of living in a prairie with cowboys. When I turned 16, I could not believe my luck when my parents told me we would be moving to Houston from the Soviet Union. I did not speak English or know anyone in Texas, but I could not wait to move to the place of my dreams.
When I finally arrived in Houston after months of refugee travel through Austria and Italy, it was nothing like I imagined. It was a real culture shock to come from St. Petersburg, where everyone walks and takes public transportation to a city where one cannot survive without a car. Nonetheless, the first seven years of my life in the United States were filled with wonder and enthusiasm. If you met me then, you would have encountered a girl eager to share her story of giving up home for an opportunity of freedom in the new world.
Now, 27 years later, after having kids and practicing law for almost twenty years, I often miss that genuine girl, who was full of wonder and merriment. What separates her from the woman I see in the mirror today is a finely crafted mask of diplomacy, sensibility and responsibility. In addition, I hide behind different roles I hold in society, such as mother, attorney, business owner, designer, advisor, wife, to name just a few.
Most women I know have many similar identities imposed upon them by family, work, friends, community and society in general. And as we wear our many hats, we care greatly about the opinions of others. We manipulate our behavior to elicit favorable opinions and avoid disapproval. Depending on circumstances, we will even alter our personalities to avoid confrontation or unwelcome judgments. If left unchecked, this practice will eventually start to limit our development.
But how can we arrive at full self-knowledge and authentic expression, when it is defined by what the world demands?
The most frequent and misused advise I hear given to women is “be authentic; be yourself”. It is true that authenticity is a key source of self-esteem. However, authenticity necessitates transparency without sensitivity to what others think of us. It entails a genuine sharing of our inner self, irrespective of the consequences.
Have you ever felt like being authentic with your boss when having a bad day? Did you tell him just how bad it was, in detail?
If you are anything like me and most professional women, authenticity to you means keeping in mind what people want to hear, and then making it a reality. In the example of a bad day, start by changing your attitude about what upset you in the first place and then interact with others from a changed perspective. And if you cannot communicate with others honestly in a positive way, stay authentic by asking them to get back to you at a better time. My frequent go to is “I cannot talk right now, but I know how important it is and I will visit with you at ______ (fill in specific date and time).”
So is authenticity possible, or even desirable?
This is a trick question, which implies that authenticity is an absolute state of being. Our identity is transient, with no fixed reference points. As one of my inspiring friends reminds me, we live through constant changes, but often forget to “allow the change” to take place within.
I sometimes force myself to look at my older writing to take a record of how I’ve changed over time. I used to cringe when I read some of my older posts. But now, I have come to love them. And that is what I call authenticity – accepting the person I used to be as well as the person I’ve become.
I am no longer a young Russian immigrant who does not speak English. I am mother, a wife, and a professional. Understanding the many external factors that influence my identity helps me choose the nature of my interaction with others. If I don’t want to upset others, I limit my external expression of authenticity. However, I work hard on keeping my “internal authenticity” intact.
While internal authenticity is derived from the natural self, external authenticity is a result of external influences. For this reason, being polite does not mean being disingenuous. We cannot attain authenticity without immersing ourselves in the outside world, which is full of uncertainty, preconceptions and biases. Practicing being mindful of others, while resisting outside influences, is a road to self-realization.
So how do you know when you are being authentic?
How long can you maintain this authenticity?