When I was a kid, I read “The Headless Horseman”, a novel by Mayne Reid, which was based on the author’s adventures in Texas combined with an old southern folk tale. This book was especially popular in Russia at the time, resulting in a famous film by the same name. I was not crazy about the film, but I loved the book and spent countless hours daydreaming and imagining in great detail how I would live in Texas, with cowboys. When I turned 16, my parents announced that we’d be moving to Houston from the Soviet Union. How about that for manifesting?! I did not speak English or know anyone in Texas but I couldn’t wait to move to the place of my dreams!
When we finally arrived in Houston, after 4 months of refugee travel through Austria and Italy, it was nothing like I’d imagined. Coming from the Soviet Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, where everyone was white and most people walked and took public transportation (in 1989) to a very diverse American city where one cannot survive without a car was a real culture shock. The first year was tough, and I did take public transportation, but I really did not enjoy it. Once I learned English and got a car, my life in the United States started to overflow with wonder and enthusiasm. If you met me in my freshman year of college, you would have encountered a bright-eyed girl eager to learn and share her story of leaving everything behind for an opportunity of freedom in the new world.
Now, more that 30 years later, after having kids and practicing law for over twenty years, I often miss that genuine girl, who was full of never-ending energy and joy of living. What separates her from the woman I see in the mirror today is a finely crafted mask of diplomacy, sensibility and responsibility. I hide behind different roles I hold in society, such as mother, attorney, advisor, athlete, wife, to name a few.
Most women I know have many similar identities imposed upon them by family, work, friends, community and society in general. And as I watch how we wear our many hats, I notice how greatly we care about the opinions of others. I recognize how we manipulate our behavior to elicit favorable responses and avoid disapproval. Depending on the circumstances, we will even go as far as 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’s defined by what the world demands of us?
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 our 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. And how many professional women do you know who are authentic all the time? Or how often have you been authentic with your boss when having a bad day? If you’re like me and other professional women, authenticity may mean keeping in mind what people want to see and hear and turning that into reality.
So is female authenticity possible, or even desirable?
This is a trick question, which implies that authenticity is an absolute state of being. In the example of a bad day, start by changing your attitude about what upset you in the first place and interact with others only from a changed perspective. 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 when I do not feel like engaging with others is “I cannot talk right now, but I know how important it is to you; I will visit with you /get back to you at ______ (fill in specific date and time).”
It’s also important to remember that our identity is transient, with no fixed reference points. We live and learn, develop and change. 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 earlier writing to take a record of how I’ve changed over time. I used to cringe when I read some of my younger 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 also care less about new people liking me.
I am no longer a young Russian immigrant who does not speak English. I’m also not a bright eyed college student. I am mother, a wife, and a professional. Understanding the many external factors that influence my identity helps me choose the nature of my interactions with others. If someone does not want to be friendly, I don’t sweat it. At the same time, if I don’t feel like being friendly, I limit my external expression of authenticity. But I do work very hard at keeping my internal authenticity intact.
The internal authenticity is derived from our natural self, while external authenticity is a result of our external influences. For this reason, being polite does not mean being disingenuous. Rather, it helps us with being kind and empathetic to others. We cannot attain authenticity without immersing ourselves in the outside world and stepping into the shoes of others, which are frequently full of uncertainty, preconceptions and biases. I find that on my journey to self-realization it is important to stay kind, mindful and understanding while resisting negative outside influences.
And how do you know when you are being authentic?
How long can you maintain this authenticity?