It’s common to hear that you should be your authentic self but often, you may not be told how to be your authentic self. As a therapist for over a decade, I know how common it is to not know your authentic self.
Yet when a client tells me they feel this way, it’s often with a lot of shame. They think because they don’t know their true self this must mean something’s wrong with them. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with them – it’s incredibly common to not know how to be your authentic self for a reason.
Why it makes sense you may not (yet) know how to be your authentic self
Throughout your life, you have received messages about who you need to be to be loved, valued, accepted, and worthy. These messages are sometimes direct and obvious such as being told that crying is weakness so you should never do it. Other times, these messages are more covert such as seeing only images of women with a very limited range of body shapes in ads for beauty products.
The messages you picked up impact every aspect of your life. You have learned how you “should” look and how you “should” act. Depending on your background, you have even learned what careers and romantic partners you “should” pick. As children, when learning these messages, all people begin to adapt to belong. This leads them to hide, and feel shame for, their authentic self.
Ways you may have hidden your authentic self
The ways a child begins to hide their authentic self may appear small such as pretending not to like something that the other kids think isn’t cool. Or these adjustments may be large such as needing to hide one’s gender or sexual identity to stay safe. As a person grows up, and through adulthood, it’s common to continue to hide one’s authentic self for acceptance.
One look at social media reveals this since we all know we are only seeing each other’s highlights (and even those may be obscured or edited). Yet, most people I know, still feel compelled to hide their true self on social media (and in real life) because it seems that the way they truly feel, and look, is “not enough.”
Related: How to stop judging emotions for better relationships
Losing touch with your authentic self
If you have hidden your true thoughts, feelings, and needs for long enough, it’s natural you may have forgotten who you really are at least in part. If this has happened, please know that feelings of shame, insecurity, and anxiety are understandable.
While you are already enough, and worthy, not knowing your true self often leads to self-esteem and self-love issues. After all, to truly love someone (including ourselves) you must know them. Without this self-connection, it’s common to not know what makes you happy or to stay in relationships, or jobs, which don’t make you happy because it looks good to other people, or you don’t know what else you would do anyway.
Related: 5 ways low self-esteem impacts your dating life
Why it matters to be your authentic self
When a person doesn’t know their true self, it’s natural they will live their life just doing what’s expected of them. Or, if their self-esteem is lacking, they may live their life focused on others approval which is a key sign of codependency. While understandable given the messages they have picked up about who they “should” be, living this way is tremendously costly.
You probably even know someone who is living their life for others and see how depressing this often is. You may see it in a friend who wanted to travel independently but she married young and had children because her family, or religion, expected this. Or you may see this in a family member who is super creative, and talented at music or art, but she chose a “safe” career. Or this person who chose a life path that’s not true to the authentic self maybe you. If so, please have compassion with yourself.
Related: What is self-compassion?
Having self-compassion for losing touch with your authentic self
It’s completely natural you have hidden your authentic self, or pretended to be someone you are not, for others’ approval. There is nothing wrong with you for internalizing the messages about who you “should” be and then adapting to fit in. Your brain is hardwired to prioritize belonging as a primary need. Fundamentally, your brain is designed to focus on survival and for most of human history, human survival was dependent on belonging to a community.
While now, you can simply go to the grocery store to ensure you have food this is a very modern concept. The modern supermarket only emerged in 1916! Before this, we needed to exist in community to literally survive. Human biology has not caught up to the fact that you don’t literally need community to survive.
Not fitting in seems dangerous to your brain
Researchers found that this means that the brain’s “alarm system” is triggered by social disconnection. This system processes threats to our safety and includes the amygdala which triggers the fight or flight response. This response helps us survive danger by compelling us to run or attack the threat. Thereby, if a person is rejected socially this truly feels like a threat to our survival and can trigger a sense of panic or anger.
Given this, again, it’s completely understandable you may have lost touch with your authentic self.
Learning how to be your authentic self is completely possible
No matter how disconnected you feel from your authentic self, reconnection is completely possible. It’s also not as complex as it may sound to learn how to reconnect with your authentic self. After all, authentic simply means real or genuine. This reveals your authentic self is already within you.
Your work is to simply uncover your true self underneath all the messages you picked up about who you need to be. You do this by beginning to identify the messages which have personally impacted your sense of being good enough as you truly are. If you want more information about some of the messages you may have picked up, this article may be helpful.
Once you do this, you can then begin to set boundaries with the messages you have picked up.i
What did you learn about who you should be?
Some messages about who you should be to be accepted by others are going to be immediately clear and obvious to you. These are the messages you want to start with when you are learning how to be your authentic self.
Currently, take time to journal about the following questions:
Growing up, I learned that to be loved, valued, and accepted I should:
Examples: Get good grades, be athletic, go to Church every Sunday, not talk back, never cry, etc.
As an adult, I have learned that to be loved, valued, and accepted I should:
Examples: Workout every day, earn 6 figures, have children, buy a big house, etc.
Whatever comes to mind, is the correct answer for you. Let yourself respond to each prompt for as long as thoughts come to mind. You are simply noticing your real – or authentic – truth here.
Now this is where you may begin to notice your authentic self.
Noticing your authentic truth
Once you identify the messages you picked up about who you should be and how you should look to be accepted by others, you can begin to explore your truth. For each statement you wrote down, you can ask yourself if you truly believe this statement.
Sometimes, the message you picked up will resonate with you as truth. This will feel in your body like a lightness or an openness. Or you may just intuitively hear or see a “yes.” If a message you picked up resonates, wonderful – this is a part of your authentic self.
You may, for example, notice you learned that you should eat healthy, and you genuinely believe this. Or you authentically believe that it’s important to be financially responsible which is something you learned from your parents.
Other times, the message won’t resonate with you. This is where the boundary work begins.
Setting boundaries around the messages you picked up
When a message you picked up does not fit your authentic truth, you may feel your body tighten or feel closed off. Alternatively, you may hear or see intuitively a “no.” When this happens, it is time to begin to set boundaries around this message so you may be your authentic self.
You may set boundaries around a message by exploring what you genuinely believe instead. For example, if you learned that you “should” always pretend to be happy but, you notice this isn’t your truth. Ask yourself then what you believe instead. In this case, you may believe that experiencing sadness, or disappointment, is human and that’s ok. Wonderful.
Related: How to set healthy boundaries in a relationship
Acting as your authentic self
Then, moving forward, when you have the urge to pretend to be happy when a friend calls, or texts, you may just tell them the truth that you’re in a bit of a mood. Or maybe on social media, you post about your self-care ritual and are honest that you felt irritable today. These actions are part of the boundary setting steps. Instead of living your life based on the messages you picked up, you are letting yourself be your authentic self.
Admittedly, this boundaries work takes a lot of courage so please give yourself grace as you work on this. You may sometimes find the courage to be your true self and sometimes, you may fall into old habits. This is ok. You get your entire lifetime to work on being your authentic self fully!
Continuing to be your authentic self
Learning to be your authentic self takes tremendous courage. This work is incredibly important as it allows you to be more confident than ever before. It also makes it possible for you to love yourself unconditionally while pursuing the authentic life of your dreams.
You will have the self-respect which comes from knowing your time here on this planet was spent mindfully and in a personally meaningful way. Of course, this is ongoing work. If you want more support in learning how to be your authentic self, and loving this true self, my upcoming book, Self-Love Made Possible: A 5 Step Guide to Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy and Become Your Own Best Friend will support you.
If interested, I encourage you to join the waitlist to be notified of this book’s release date.
Wherever you are in your journey to be your authentic self, please know, you got this! Remember, you are simply uncovering your true self which already lives within you.
Sending love for your journey!
About The Author, Krystal
Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. She has focused her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She teaches the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.
This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.
Her course, Confidently Authentic: Stop People Pleasing and Start Being True to Yourself, provides the skills necessary to have a healthy relationship. This course features over a year of relationship skills you would learn in therapy. Students share this course has been “life changing.”
Each week, she answers your relationship questions from a place of expertise and compassion. To submit your relationship questions, please DM us @confidentlyauthentic.com or you may send an email at email@example.com to submit your question.