Do you pride yourself for being “authentic”? Do you get frustrated when you feel like can’t say what you want and react how you want to others in a given situation?

As someone who has spent most days for the past 25 years studying and listening to real people talk about their leadership and personal development, I can tell you that being “authentic” is something most people I talk to value and strive towards. We see the term in leadership and self-help books, and hold it up as a worthy and noble outcome in our self-development journey. I myself have used the word over the years as something I strive for in my relationships with others.

But the more I have experienced and learned over the years, the more I shy away from that word as a label and development goal.

Take a look at the pertinent definitions of the word “authentic” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

  1. True to one’s personality, spirit, or character
  2. Not false or imitation

While those attributions may seem noble and worthy to pursue, I question them as ultimate development goals.

What I find is that what we deem as our personalities and characters are shaped by a host of factors. Our childhoods, parents, teachers, experiences, socialization, religion, and culture all contribute to our values, the assumptions we make about everything, and ultimately the beliefs we have. We then hold these things to be true and separate from others—resulting in our behavior and the judgments we make. Even as we progress through life and learn more and more, these assumptions can be unconsciously operating in the background and influencing our behaviors.

By the same token, due to our brain wiring/functioning and past experience, we exhibit patterns of emotional reactions that may or many not be helpful to our relationships and development. We can be hijacked by our sheer emotions and feelings, and react in ways that are not in alignment with how we want to be or the relationships we aspire towards.

But all the while, we are being “authentic”, aren’t we?

To be extreme, weren’t some of the biggest atrocities in mankind committed from a place of “authenticity”?

When we realize that the behavior we exhibit is not really our own, but a compilation of what we have learned, I believe we are on the road towards finding real authenticity, which doesn’t have a label or word to describe it. The more we see our sameness to all people, the closer we get.

So in place of striving to be more “authentic”, here are some questions to ask yourself instead:

  • How much are you listening and learning vs. telling and judging?
  • How fixed are you in your opinions and ways of looking at things?
  • Do you tolerate differences or try and understand and embrace them?
  • Are you focused on being “right” and the “best” rather than learning and changing?
  • Do you stop and try and see your own behaviors from the lens of their impact on others, rather than be attached to your intentions behind them?

Our human development is a life-long journey we are all on, whether we realize it or not. The paradox is that the more we can see our sameness, the closer we come to being who we really are, and to our goal of authenticity.