What Do We Risk When We Are Not Authentic?

Couple sit on bench, laughing and talking openly, hands resting off the side of the bench, joined by a fingertipI always find it interesting, from both an ethical and clinical standpoint, that for many people, truth has degrees. There appears to be a spectrum of truth that people see. There is a field of gray between the black and white of “Is this true or not?” This goes for people I know personally as well as those I see in therapy.

What is truth? This is an age-old question. The answer tends to differ, depending on the person you’re asking. As humans, we seem to be able to justify anything. We may make up reasons or excuses to skew the truth or bend the reality of a situation to fulfill what we’re trying to accomplish. We might do this to clear our conscience, ease a sense of shame, or diminish our accountability.  In other words, things are “true” as we perceive them to be true.

What about authenticity? To be authentic means to be genuine, real, true to yourself. There’s that word again: true. To be authentic in a relationship means being real and true to your partner as well as yourself. When we are authentic, we are reliable and trustworthy. But we may each have our own versions of truth, and what we present as authentic, in this scenario.

The Identities We Construct

It never fails to amaze me how many secrets a person can keep from their partner, and for what reasons. My counseling practice for couples contains a “no secrets” policy, and I make couples seeking help aware of this.

Couples that come for counseling often have many layers of identity. They may present an altered version of themselves that they’ve created to get through their lives. The version of themselves they show to their partner may be far from genuine. Over the years they’ve constructed various personas: parent, employee, friend, child, and partner. These roles can come to feel like the true self. In other words, they become what they have made of themselves.

These personas are often a coping mechanism. They are a form of protection for those who are highly sensitive or easily wounded. People learn to construct an identity that helps shield them from further injury or trauma. They rely on this persona, which may change depending on circumstances, to hide their vulnerability.

This works in some situations, but it fails in others. When people show an edited version of themselves to the world, they often fail to develop areas of personality where they feel weak. As a result, they may not be able to fully evolve, or develop into full personhood.

When someone presents only a constructed version of the self to their partner, no matter how secure they are in the belief they are are being themselves, the relationship may lack an authentic emotional connection.

An edited persona can offer a sense of protection, so people may live under this pretense well into adulthood. An inauthentic self, or multiple selves, can make it easy for a person to adapt to any situation or circumstances. But living this way can create stress, self-doubt, and uncertainty about the future. People are also likely to worry a partner may not be able to love the “real” person inside, if they only know the “false” persona.

Living as a chameleon can cause a person to lose sight of their true nature. What’s more, the relationship itself is less authentic and vulnerable. Connection is important in relationships, both to create a sense of security and allow partners to be honest and vulnerable with one another. When an authentic connection is lacking, the relationship may feel unbalanced and off-kilter. Instead of simply being the best version of themselves, each partner is trying to be the best version of themselves for their partner. But when someone presents only a constructed version of the self, no matter how secure they are in the belief they are are being themselves, the relationship may lack an authentic emotional connection.

It can then become harder to remain focused on the relationship as a priority. Interactions can become strained, and conflict may become more frequent and more difficult to resolve. When conflict occurs, there are many layers to peel back, so getting to the real issue or heart of the matter becomes a challenge.

Working Toward Authenticity

When times get rough and the relationship faces challenges but has no resources to draw on, the constructed persona can begin to crumble under the pressure. The relationship begins to come apart because it has no basis in a real and vulnerable connection.

But repair is not impossible! Couples who seek help to address the problems and fix the relationship, trusting their partner to love who they really are, flaws and all, may find themselves learning to become more authentic and honest.

In therapy, this process can involve stripping away layers of persona to find the real truth (or self) underneath. As these constructs fall, the hidden self comes out. What is left is the raw, vulnerable person who has a real yearning for an emotional connection. All they want is to fix the issues in their relationship. They have a real yearning for an emotional connection. They learn to love that rawness in themselves and their partner. This can take their relationship to a completely new level.

When people decide to be that authentic with one another, it can be a total game-changer. When people learn they can love (and be loved!) for who they are, truly and authentically, they change.  The conversations change, and the emotions deepen. All of those varying faces a person has shown can be seen as parts that merge into a whole person, once they become vulnerable and authentic to their core.

So the real truth, as I see it, is that there’s only one truth. There’s only one of us. Who we are and who we will become when we are vulnerable, raw, and authentic—that is a truer version of ourselves than we’ve ever known before. Yes, it can be hard, painful, and frustrating to break through to this truth. But what I hear from the people I work with, more often than not, is that doing so is worth all of this. It’s worth everything to live a genuine and authentic life, to have a true relationship with one’s partner.

But this transformation is only possible with a deepened commitment, not only to one’s partner, but also to one’s own self. We must be willing to see it through and live that authentic life. If we can withstand the process, the results can transform us.

If you are finding it difficult to become more authentic, with yourself or with your partner, a compassionate and qualified counselor can help you begin.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart B. Fensterheim, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Gregory R

    April 27th, 2018 at 11:03 AM

    I think ‘total honesty’ is a big ask for any person, especially all the time. I really don’t think it’s possible. We lie, fib, omit, or play-down all day, every day. Show me someone who claims to always tell the truth, and I’ll show you a liar.

  • Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW

    May 3rd, 2018 at 6:53 AM

    The concept here is not about an expectation of “total honesty”, but more about working toward having a more authentic and real connection between two people. It takes a great deal of work for some to strip away those layers of protection and be vulnerable and raw emotionally with our partner. The majority of us are a work in progress when it comes authenticity. Thank you for your comment Gregory.

  • Gregory R

    May 3rd, 2018 at 11:56 AM

    That you for your response! That’s a very good point – it’s all a continuum and the most we can do is work towards pushing the needle one direction or another.

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