“Americans remain deeply invested in the notion of the authentic self,” says ethicist John Portmann of the University of Virginia. “It's part of the national consciousness.” It's also a cornerstone of mental health. Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. Acting in accordance with one's core self, a trait called self-determination is ranked by some experts as one of three basic psychological needs, along with competence and a sense of relatedness.
Just what is authenticity anyway? The first, and most fundamental, is self-awareness: knowledge of and trust in one's own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities. Self-awareness encompasses an inventory of issues from the sublime to the profane, from knowing what food you like to knowing whether you're feeling anxious or sad. Self-awareness is necessary for clarity in evaluating your strengths and more importantly your weaknesses without resorting to denial or blame. Authenticity also turns up in behavior: It requires acting in ways congruent with your own values and needs, even at the risk of criticism or rejection. And it's necessary for close relationships, because intimacy cannot develop without openness and honesty.
Researchers have found that a sense of authenticity is accompanied by a multitude of benefits. People who score high on authenticity profiles are more likely to respond to difficulties experienced in life with effective coping strategies, rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits. They are more likely to have satisfying relationships. They enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, confidence in mastering challenges, and the ability to follow through in pursuing goals.
Considering all the benefits poses the question, “Why, then, is not everybody authentic?” One reason we're not always true to ourselves is that authenticity is not for the faint of heart. There is a potential downside of authenticity. Accurate self-knowledge can be painful. Behaving in accordance with your true self may bring on the disfavor of others if your behavior is seen to be outside accepted norms. Opening yourself up to the possibility of criticism or rejection can be a scary thing. It can sometimes feel better to be embraced as an impostor than to be rejected for the person you really are.
This is especially true when it comes to things like gender identity. Many people find comfort in the feminine and masculine gender scripts dictated by social norms. Many other people are made uncomfortable by them. Many people accept their gender roles. Many people don't. They may become sexually inhibited by their conflict about gender identities. Each of us is so unique that we may feel conflict between the gender norms of our communities and some of our own sexual desires. For example, facing serious emotional struggles because of the sexual norms of our culture many women may not feel that it is okay to be dominant and sexually aggressive, and many men may not feel that it's okay to be submissive and sexually passive. These conflicts between our culture's gender norms and our desire to behave in accordance with our true self can result in us carrying around a heavy burden of not feeling authentic. Living our lives with a haunting sense of in-authenticity can be problematic. It can be very difficult for us to develop intimate relationships with our sex partners. It can also create such anxiety that they will go without sex or force ourselves to have frustrating and disappointing sexual relationships with others simply for the sake of fitting into societal sexual norms. This can lead not only to failed relationships but to feelings of depression and acute anxiety.
Perhaps it is time for a “coming out.” Coming out is the process of accepting and being open about one's gender identity. It is also the process of challenging and resisting social norms about sexuality when you realize those norms simply don’t square with your own self-awareness. I don’t suggest that it is necessary that you have to come out to your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers, but that you simply accept and embrace your own unique sexuality and embrace the fact that it is okay to be submissive if you are male or dominant if you are female. The coming-out process helps build self-esteem and a capacity for intimacy. Real fulfillment and real contentment comes from authentically grappling with the possibilities inside you, in a disciplined, concentrated, focused way. Dare to be yourself. Live life, express your sexuality and explore intimacy in keeping with the unique person you are.