I truly believe that experiencing authenticity from others, but mostly experiencing authenticity within ourselves, is a major key to our wellbeing. Let me explain this understanding by firstly exploring what wellbeing entails according to research so that we have a better understanding of how authenticity can play a role in this.

Seligman developed the PERMA model to measure wellbeing. PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, (positive) relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. This model argues that people pursue the 5 elements because they are intrinsically motivating and they contribute to wellbeing. These elements are pursued for their own sake and are defined and measured independently of each other.

Research has shown that proactively working on all five components of the PERMA-model not only increases aspects of wellbeing but also decreases psychological distress.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the five elements of the PERMA-model so that we can later argue how authenticity can positively impact all these elements.

P – positive emotions:

  • There are a lot of positive emotions to be experienced in life, and they can be cultivated or learned to improve wellbeing. When we are able to identify, savor, but also create positive emotions, we have a certain influence over physical, intellectual, psychological, and social resources that lead to resilience and overall wellbeing.

E – engagement:

  • Engagement is very simply put, the ability to use one’s strengths and skills in challenges and feeling focused on the task at hand. Engagement is the ability to live in the present moment by engaging in a task, activity, or event that makes you lose a sense of self-consciousness.

R – relationships:

  • The health of our relationships is crucial to our wellbeing as we are social creatures. We need to feel supported, loved, and valued by our partners, friends, family members, colleagues, bosses/mentors/supervisors, and our community at large.

M – meaning:

  • We are all looking for a sense of value and worth. We’d like to find a sense of belonging and/or serving something greater than ourselves. This is often described as our purpose in life and this will look different for any of us. We can find purpose in our careers, in our family or relationships, we can find it in a talent or in religion.

A – accomplishments:

  • Accomplishments, or the sense thereof, is a result of working toward and reaching goals, mastering a skill, and having self-motivation to finish what you set out to do. This contributes to our wellbeing as we can look at our lives with a sense of pride.

The PERMA-model essentially gives us a framework where we can explore if we feel like we have agency and a sense of control in these different elements, which in turn should give us a better understanding of the state of our own wellbeing. And I would like to argue that in order to proactively work on these 5 elements in a way that will actually enhance your wellbeing, you need to understand your authentic self and feel safe to express and pursue your authentic needs and wishes.

So what is authenticity and how do you know if you’re being authentic or not? The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard describes authenticity as embracing our inner truths, actively participating in life, and refusing to compromise our integrity. It’s a call to live genuinely, even when faced with societal pressures or religious norms. The dominant approach to authenticity in psychology is along the lines of reading it in relation to such concepts as integrity and honesty, which are considered as features of “a character trait” of people whose internal lives are coherent with their private and public lives.

But authenticity can also be referred to as emotional genuineness and therefore also psychological depth. It is a tool to fully allow us to feel and experience the emotions we experience without fearing discomfort. It’s almost a virtuous cycle. The more we are able to be authentic, the more we get to know ourselves, the more authentic we can be.

In 2000, an authenticity inventory was created as a tool to measure authenticity in people. They measured it by the hand of these 4 elements:

  1. Self-awareness: knowledge of and trust in one’s own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities.
  2. Unbiased processing: clarity in evaluating your strengths and weaknesses without denial or blame.
  3. Behavior: acting in ways congruent with your own values and needs, even at the risk of criticism or rejection.
  4. Relational orientation: close relationships, which inherently require openness and honesty.

To simplify a complex concept, being authentic is the practice of being you. It’s not a passive trait but a practice. It’s something that can be honed in on and continuously develops.

What can influence our ability to be authentic or what makes us inauthentic? As human beings, we experience both an external self and an inner core, essence, authentic self, not necessarily reflected in the external world. The way we are raised and the society we grow up in either teaches us that this inner self is unconditionally accepted and welcome, or that expressing that inner self is not safe.

Our primal survival instinct is to stay connected and close to our caregivers. As children, our survival depends on this closeness, even if our caregivers are not necessarily safe and caring towards us. A lot of us are raised in the context of ‘I love you if you are who I want you to be’. We then learn in childhood that we need to hide our authentic self to keep safe and to keep connected to our caregivers, making us build a very different external-self compared to our inner-self.

Here are ways that we learn in childhood and life that it’s not safe to express our true self:

  1. We are punished for telling the truth.
  2. Contradictory standards.
  3. Denied feelings.
  4. Bad examples.
  5. Unreasonable expectations.

Having to go through life with the notion that you are only lovable or acceptable when you are who the others want you to be can be extremely exhausting. Lack of authenticity causes us to engage in over-compliance or conformity and unnatural or forced behavior, which leaves us feeling devalued and unfulfilled. We then surrender to the wishes of others while suppressing our own needs and desires.

When we learn to disconnect from ourselves to keep others happy, we lose our ability to be fully self-aware: knowledge of and trust in one’s own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities. When our feelings and reality are often denied we might not be able to process our own experience unbiased: having the clarity to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses without denial or blame. But mostly when we hand over the control of our behavior based on what others want from us we can’t always act in ways congruent with our own values and needs, as we fear the risk of criticism or rejection. And when we have learned that to remain close to someone we should hide parts of ourselves or minimize how we feel we have trouble building close relationships, which inherently require openness and honesty.

So let’s now have a look at how authenticity can play a big part in your wellbeing using the PERMA model.

The model talks about being able to identify and experience positive emotions. To be authentic is to be comfortable with vulnerability. We can only truly experience the positive emotions if we are also able to sit with and process the negative emotions.

If we learned that minimizing or hiding our emotions was safer, we might also miss the opportunity of recognizing what makes us feel good.

We can then look at engagement, the ability to use one’s strengths and skills in challenges and feeling focused on the task at hand. Many of us are racing from one task to the next, reactive to life and work. Being authentic means being able to behave in line with our values, intentions, objectives, and commitments. Authenticity can, therefore, give you the window to consider and define your strengths & skills and focus on the task at hand without fearing criticism from an outside person.

Authenticity plays a huge part in the quality of our relationships. Without it, relationships may lack depth and lead to emotional disconnect. Authenticity fosters honesty, vulnerability, and self-awareness serving as the foundation of fulfilling and resilient relationships. Nothing is better for our wellbeing than being loved for who we truly are. And this can only happen if we show people who we truly are.

We’d like to find a sense of belonging and/or serving something greater than ourselves. Society often forces us into roles and jobs that are not necessarily aligned with our values, strengths, skills, and even our bigger vision. We will all do what we need to survive. If our parents make it clear we are only successful and worthy if we become a doctor or lawyer, we might be chasing a career because of their wishes for us, not our own. When we are tied to gender expectations and don’t follow a passion because we are scared this will not make us manly enough, we miss out on finding our true meaning. Authenticity helps us understand our authentic dreams and gives us the courage to chase those without fearing societal pressures or religious norms.

The same rings true for our sense of accomplishment. Aligning goals with what you truly want and with who you truly want to be will enhance your sense of accomplishment. When we chase things for the sake of others, the accomplishment is external and not internal. Authenticity has connections to self-esteem, goal-achievement, coping skills, and an array of other psychological benefits that ultimately benefit your well-being. It’s linked to coping skills that allow you to navigate life’s challenges in healthy ways. Authenticity helps you create a healthy relationship with yourself, which in turn is a great buffer against the negative effects of loneliness.

So how can counseling support you in being authentic? Authenticity is overwhelmingly perceived as a fundamental aspect of well-being in counseling psychology. If you feel the need to reduce or eliminate the gap between your true and “false” self, to find out what’s really behind your mask that you have meticulously built to survive, counseling offers you a journey into self-discovery. Firstly, because your counselor will show up authentically. They show up consistently and as human as possible. We are there for your best interest and solely for you. You will get to experience an authentic, predictable, compassionate, non-judgmental professional relationship that allows you to safely express yourself. Counseling works to build an emotionally corrective relationship where, in a safe relationship with a counselor, you develop the ability to be self-compassionate, vulnerable, and authentic. The counselor can be the mirror reflecting your authentic self back so that you can meet this “true” version of you. One goal of counseling is to take what you learn about yourself, about your ability to be vulnerable, compassionate, and authentic and about feeling safe and secure—and bring that into the outside world with you, one relationship at a time.

Author: Juliette van Eijk

Resources:

  • Suffering, authenticity, and meaning in life: Toward an integrated conceptualization of wellbeing – PMC (nih.gov)
  • 7 Ways Authenticity Leads To Success (forbes.com)
  • Childhood Trauma: How We Learn to Lie, Hide, and Be Inauthentic (psychcentral.com)
  • 7 Practices to Become More Authentic | Psychology Today
  • What It Means to Be Truly Authentic | Psychology Today
  • The PERMA Model: Your Scientific Theory of Happiness (positivepsychology.com)
  • Cultivating Authenticity For Healthy Romantic Relationships | BetterHelp