Speaking his mind: Henry Fonda (second from left) stands up to the other jurors in 1957’s 12 Angry Men. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists
Authenticity – where we say and do what we truly think – is one of the keys to our wellbeing
Authenticity is about being true to yourself in each and every moment. Our lives often turn on what seem to be the most trivial of occurrences: a chance meeting, or a single sentence that was or wasn’t said. To navigate life successfully, so you make the best decisions for yourself at any given moment, you need to be authentic – to be able to counter external influences pulling you to go against the grain of your gut feelings.
In a typical day, most of us will have at least some time when we can be truly ourselves, but for many parts of the day we are putting on a performance. For good reason we do not say or show what we truly think or feel. We put on a facade that everything is going well. We feel pressure to present ourselves positively to others – as leading a happy life – whether in a passing greeting on the street, in the office or on social media.
How are you?”
“Very well,” we reply, no matter what is going on in our lives.
Consider the place where we spend most of our time. Many workplaces are rife with seething resentments, bitterness and conflicts that rarely get expressed. We all know it is often better to hold our tongue. We might be frightened of being fired, of being gossiped about or of losing friends. For many of us, much of our waking lives involves walking on eggshells around others, biting our tongue or smiling when we feel irritated or angry.
Those of us who work with others, particularly dealing face to face with customers, know the pressures of keeping up a friendly smile. A company in China recognised this and allowed staff an expressionless “no face” day when they could wear masks to reduce the pressure and help them relax after a year smiling at customers. Simply put, living an inauthentic life can be exhausting.
Authenticity requires us to be able to overcome our desires to fit in and be part of the crowd. The authentic person is not fearless, but is willing to feel their fear. Think of Henry Fonda in the classic movie 12 Angry Men, which tells the story of one juror who stands resistant against the other 11 and, over hours locked in a claustrophobic room with them, forces them to change their minds. Most people like to imagine that, in a similarly challenging situation, they too would stay firm and champion justice, even if others are against them. The fact is, of course, that much of the time people don’t rise to the occasion and do the right thing.
Yet think of the people you most and least admire and the chances are you will find that it is authenticity that differentiates those you respect from those you don’t. Generally speaking, we admire those who possess self-knowledge, the ability to be honest and transparent and who stand their ground for what they believe in. And we don’t admire those we see as fake or phoney.
Given just how much we value those who are willing to be themselves, how come we find it so difficult? Have you ever held back from telling someone how angry you feel with them, or not told someone you cared for that you loved them, not talked openly about your sexual preferences with a partner, or not admitted to a mistake when you ought to? We think we have good reasons, and in some cases we may have, but much of the time we may be fooling ourselves about our reasons in order to avoid the discomfort of an authentic life. In the long run, however, we are the losers if we continue to not be ourselves.
Authentic: How to be Yourself and Why it Matters by Stephen Joseph is published by Piatkus for £14.99. To order a copy for £12.29, go to bookshop.theguardian.com