Living like no-one is watching, authenticity, is both profoundly satisfying and painfully naïve at the same time.
Living authentically feels good and is the best way to create the diversity we need to solve problems. But it’s not so easy to do, and, unrestrained authenticity is not such a wise approach all the time anyway. Unbridled authenticity in the wrong places can lead you to be rejected and hurt, and it can lead to hurting others needlessly if you say everything that comes to mind.
This conflict is as deeply human as you can get, and it comes up in therapy all the time. I’ll describe two examples and how they worked on the issue.
Cathy and Cameron Just Being Themselves
Cathy’s cubicle was chaotic and her laugh loud. She’d been known to make a mess in the office kitchen and deadlines didn’t seem to mean much to her. She apparently cared little about how she dressed and it was beginning to become an issue with clients. She was a creative and wouldn’t be constrained by convention. But she was also in danger of losing her job.
Across town in his compulsively organized cubicle, Cameron also looked like he was living as if no-one was watching—but with a very different approach. He was determined to do things the right way despite what people might think, and he came across as indifferent to what others felt. He had no qualms about telling them when they weren’t up to snuff. He wasn’t exactly dancing as if no-one was watching–it was more like marching as if no-one was watching. And it was getting to be a very lonely march.
Authenticity: The Joys and Benefits of Living Like No-One’s Watching
When she left home for college and her parents drove away after depositing her on campus, Cathy had an immense sense of relief and freedom. She’d never felt she could just be herself and do what she wanted before. For the first time in her life she was really happy. She quickly made up for lost time and vowed that she’d never lose this feeling.
Cathy probably would have felt right at home in Cameron’s family: it afforded lots of freedom but no stability. It was every man, woman and child for him or herself. Cameron had coped by keeping his own world very organized. He was naturally good at it. He matured quickly and got himself through school. His self-control paid off. He got a good job in compliance that fit him well. This was definitely authentic Cameron.
Both Cathy and Cameron made important contributions to their companies by being authentic. Cathy brought life, a creative spirit and problem-solving to an office that would otherwise have been not only dreary, but unprofitable. Cameron brought a cautious and meticulous style that saved the company and their clients from destructive and expensive disasters. Both types of people—creative and meticulous–have a place in the world. Developing our authenticity has meaning because what we have to offer the world is our unique personality and skill set.
Persona: The Necessary Mask
But unfettered authenticity can also be destructive, to yourself and others.
Even if we are committed to living authentically, we need to have a persona, a mask that we show to the world that tells who we are and helps us to get along. Ideally this is a limited but true presentation of who we are, not a deceptive presentation. Your persona shouldn’t be fake, but it does need to be realistic.
And whatever persona we present, we need to remember that there is always much more to us than that public mask. It’s one thing to present yourself as perfect or imperfect, powerful or self-deprecating, controlling or easy-going, but if you believe that that’s all there is to you, it can lead to depression, anxiety and problems with relationships.
As I’ve written about before, we’re remarkably skilled at deceiving ourselves about how honest we are, and in this case, about who we really are. When we aren’t honest with ourselves we may feel fraudulent and fall into the imposter syndrome, feeling that we really don’t deserve what we have achieved.
The reality is, whether we consciously choose our persona or not, we all have one. For better or worse. So, ideally we make thoughtful decisions about what we show the world and what we don’t.
Cathy Consciously Crafts A Real and Realistic Persona
To consciously craft her persona, Cathy needed to parse out what was truly important in her authenticity. It’s one thing to claim artistic privilege, and another thing to be non-compliant to the point where clients were leaving. It’s one thing to not worry about dressing up, another thing to dress so shoddily that clients are put off.
What was her authenticity for? Was she really betraying her true self if she made an effort to clean up after herself in the kitchen, or push herself to make a deadline? She was not any less “real” if she did.
What was really most important was that she continue to think and create in her own way. Ironically, she came to realize that some of her behavior was meant to impress others with how little she cared what they thought. Unwittingly, she had made indifference part of her persona, and it had backfired.
Cameron Gets Real About Being Real
Cameron told me “I don’t care if they like me.” He wanted both of us to think he was living like no-one was watching. But as we got further into it the picture got more complicated. “I just don’t want anyone accusing me of doing the wrong thing or being lazy. That would really get to me. I’ve worked hard to make sure that that never happened. I never want to be like my parents.”
Like many people who are compulsive, Cameron didn’t care if he was seen as judgmental, rigid, or controlling. But he did want to be seen as doing the “right” thing. Respect had become more important than love, and this often meant he wasn’t very nice to others. But it’s one thing to stand for the correct way of doing things, and another thing to lambast people when they don’t do things the way you think they should be done.
Cameron had told himself that he needed to be transparent to be authentic. And it was neither realistic nor real to do so. It was actually self-deceptive.
He tried to tell himself he was indifferent to what people thought, while in reality he was very aware of it. He had wanted to believe that he did everything the right way and for the “right” reason, when in fact he was trying to make it appear that he was doing things the right way and for the “right” reason. But as we peeled back some of the layers, his reasons often had to do more with proving himself than he had wanted to think.
He had to untangle doing the right thing from proving that he was doing the right thing. It was when he was trying to prove he was doing the right thing that he became rigid, righteous, and controlling. Eventually he was relieved of the burden to prove himself and his authenticity became more relaxed.
We all have a persona, whether we are aware of it or not. Ideally that persona is consciously crafted and accurately reflects our authenticity, what we uniquely have to offer.
And that’s the best way to live like no-one’s watching.
I’ll be leading a day-long seminar and workshop on this subject at the Jung on the Hudson Seminars in Rhinebeck, NY, July 15-16.
If you ‘d like to get a link in your email whenever I post something new, just hit the subscribe button (either all the way below or to the right) and put in your email address.