It’s supposed to be a good thing. It’s the goal. You’re supposed to find yourself and then be as authentic to that self-discovered conception as you can possibly be. It’s supposed to be the optimum outcome and your best and only chance at succeeding, in life. There’s a high premium placed on having personal integrity and living your life as truthfully and faithfully to yourself as you can. Being yourself is everything.
What happens, then, if you discover who you really are and set about living your life as authentically as you possibly can? Does it all pan out like they promise it will? I don’t think it’s that easy. There are some downsides associated with being yourself, which people rarely tell you about.
Before going on, this is not an argument against being yourself. That turns out to, indeed, be your best and only hope of having the happiest and most fulfilling life possible, but it’s not a bed of roses, by any means and there will be assaults on your happiness that will arise, simply because you are being true to yourself. The reason why is because we live in a society that is not, in the main, comprised of people living authentically, due to the penalties involved and in no small measure because of our cradle-to-grave behavioural conditioning to conform and obey.
So, without further ceremony, here are the potential downsides of being yourself:
- Nobody has to like you – It doesn’t follow that just because you have a sense of living an authentic life, everybody has to suddenly adore you. It has nothing to do with being likeable. In many cases, your authenticity will have an abrasive character to it and you will, quite frankly, annoy a lot of people that are also living authentically. Your sense of what’s right for you might be at odds with what people believe to be right for society as a whole. You may simply be an authentic outlier.
An interesting piece of evidence for this is social media. Some years ago, when social media was new, people started presenting themselves online with a, “This is me, Take me as I am,” air of gay abandon. Many people discovered, to their cost, that presenting themselves as openly and honestly as this had consequences and they very often received very negative reactions to what was their very essence (what if what you really are is an arsehole, for example?). Today, you have many former social media extroverts acting like digital hermits. They observe from the sidelines, but they’re less keen to portray themselves in such fine-grained detail, any more.
The caveat, of course, is that even if people dislike you for being yourself, it’s far less despicable, in the long run, than trying to live your life as if you’re something you are not or not being true to your values. Unfortunately, many people get away with wearing a mask for a very long time, before they’re rumbled. In the mean time, they can be very popular and widely appreciated. That’s a total bitch, isn’t it?
- Nobody has to pay you for it – It doesn’t follow that just because you figure out what kind of human being you are, what’s important to you and what you value and then start living your life in a way that is consistent with that discovery that there automatically has to be a business model or job that supports that conception. Money need not necessarily flow to you in cascades, just because you worked out that, at heart, you’re a guitar player.
That doesn’t mean that what you are is not valuable, or worse, valueless. It just means it isn’t valued. The difference is important. You actually might be a true blue guitar player, to the very core of your soul and being a guitar player may be the route to being paid really well, if you get lucky and happen to also be good at a range of other necessary skills that a successful professional musician must have, but don’t expect the money to come flooding in, the moment you recognise your own inner guitar player. It just doesn’t work that way.
You’re fighting against an edifice that has decided, by default, that guitar playing isn’t economically important. A giant system is of the opinion that it can live without guitar players and that they create no value worth having. Don’t try to combat this with facts to the contrary. The facts are irrelevant. What holds sway is the general perception. Until you can change the perception of an entire population, money won’t come to you just because you are the most authentic guitar player that ever lived.
- You might not be any good at it – Let’s say you discover that, deep within yourself, it is undoubtedly true that what you are, above all else, is a writer. That’s you. It’s what you truthfully are. You’re a writer. Having concluded that, what if everything you write sucks big time? What if you haven’t yet put the energy and effort into meeting the required quality bar for written work? Does it mean you’re not a writer?
Sadly, you are a writer. You’re stuck with it, even though you have a lot of work you still have to do. Being what you are and being good at what you are can be very different things. It is likely that if you work at being a good writer, you’ll make it, because you are a writer, deep down and you love to write. But, it’s a hard, long road ahead. You’re going to have to put the work in, it might be a monumental struggle and you might never reach the required standard.
The worst mistake you can make, of course, is to abandon the life of a writer, when what you really are is a writer. You can’t be anything else. It’s what you are. You’re just going to have to suck it up and keep on improving. This is one of those times when there really is no viable alternative, but success and acknowledgement may still be a long time away, in the far future. Sorry. That part of being authentic really blows.
- You might be even worse at faking it – Your cunning plan B might be to comply and become the thing that everyone expects you to be, pay the bills and not fight so fruitlessly against the tide. In acquiescing and adopting the role that all the forces around you designate for you, you betray yourself. While you might find some satisfaction and fulfilment in living an inauthentic life (it’s not all bad and some of it can be quite good), somewhere at the back of your head will be the painful reminder that your life span is finite and that, while you’re busy realising other people’s dreams, you’re not accomplishing anything that feels important to you, or which provides meaning and purpose to your own existence.
Being somebody else is ultimately very stressful and soul destroying. If something is important to you and you’re not spending any of your time on it, this causes a very distressing internal conflict. Living with that conflict, long term, simply destroys your health, happiness and well being. There are no exceptions, so don’t believe you will be the one spared. It will eat at you, from the inside out.
You’ll also discover that, when push comes to shove and you are required to go the extra mile to produce the best work you are capable of, in your non-authentic occupation, you will find it very difficult to care enough about it to come up with the goods. When it all comes down to it, you are much more interested in something else entirely, which you are not doing, because you have bills to pay. Being asked to make sacrifices and endure the indignities and discomforts of making the supreme effort just won’t turn you on enough to get you engaged fully with the project. You’ll fail at it.
- Inauthentic people will despise you – For every person that finds out what they really are and lives their life consistent with that discovery, there are legions who either have no idea what they really are, or who know and yet to continue to live inauthentically. These people will hate you.
You are an inconvenient, living, breathing, inescapable reminder of their own lack of integrity. These people will not feel comfortable in your company. They’ll avoid conversation with you, for fear of the matter of their vocation coming up in the discussion. Above all, they will see your own comfort, within your own skin, as something they lack and this will make them feel even less comfortable in theirs.
Of course, they will also have bought into the myths that once you discover who you are and set about being that person, everything magically falls into place for you. As we’ve already discussed, it doesn’t. The struggle only begins there. Money may not come your way, for doing so, for a very long time, if ever. There is nothing at all comfortable about this life choice. Inauthentic people see none of this, however, because it’s beyond their experience. They’re still living a lie.
- You will defy categorisation – The thing about being yourself is that there is a distinct possibility that what you are is unlike anything else that has ever existed before. You might defy all attempts at categorising you, pigeon holing you or describing you within an existing framework of understanding, or taxonomy.
Isaac Asimov, a veritable polymath, described himself as a “speed understander”. One can intuitively appreciate how useful such a skill might be to a wide variety of occupations, but try finding a job description for a vacant position that requires a speed understander. You’ll search in vain. There is also no calibrated pay scale for professional speed understanders and no industry body that represents them. It doesn’t matter how much value you can add, by being a speed understander. It just isn’t recognised.
Even if you can describe yourself, succinctly and in an intuitively understandable way, which portrays the value of your peculiar way of being, others will struggle to know what to do with you. They’ll try to force-fit you into job descriptions that don’t quite apply, or which try to reign in some of your more outstanding characteristics (whether they mean to or not). Somehow, other people’s categorisations will limit you and bend you into something you’re really not (or not quite). Being made to feel like a square peg in a round hole, when there is nothing at all wrong with being square, is truly horrible.
- Don’t expect gratitude – Most people’s reaction to you pronouncing that you have found who you really are and have decided to live your life authentically is, “So what?” Nobody cares. You’ve found your particular niche and have the courage to occupy it, but it is of no importance to anybody else.
Everybody is looking to find who they are and everybody would love to arrange their circumstances in such a way that they can live authentically, but most people fail at one or both of these. Why should anybody thank you for doing something they can’t accomplish?
Some people think that, once you have found yourself, the world should breathe a sincere sigh of relief and be grateful that one person fewer is living a lie. It doesn’t.
- There are sacrifices to be made – It’s not cost free. You are going to have to pay and pay dearly to be who you are. In making a definitive choice, you also close the door on some of the perks of living inauthentically. Don’t expect this to be a comfortable ride on rose petals.
Consider musicians that find themselves touring for the best part of every year. They’re sacrificing relationships with people they care about to do that. Important moments, dates and occasions are missed, because they are sitting in a lonely tour bus or cheap hotel room, miles from everyone, pursuing their authentic life. They’re doing it, though, because they have no choice. It’s who they are.
While their peers are buying houses and planning their retirement savings, the touring musician is barely making ends meet, even if their career is doing well. The physical, mental and emotional strains are very real and an inseparable part of being who they are.
- It can be lonely and isolating – Discovering you’re not like everybody else, or even discovering which tribe you belong to, is one of the loneliest, most isolating moments of your authentic life. Suddenly, you also realise who you are not and all of those associations and comforts fall away. It can feel like being marooned on a desert island.
Once you establish your own identity, it’s very much harder to seek out and find like minds, who share your values, outlook and viewpoint. You might not find anybody that feels the same way that you do. Projects or changes that seem vitally important to you may have no meaning at all, to anybody else.
We all like to find purpose and meaning in life, but we’re also social creatures that only truly thrive when we’re liked and accepted. Unfortunately, in precisely defining who you are and what you value, your conception for the future may be utterly alien to everybody else you know. You might not even be able to start a conversation with them about it, so wide is the gulf of understanding between you and them. There’s hardly anybody you can talk to that will grasp what you’re talking about. I have this exact feeling as I write these words.
- There are too many people just like you already – The worldwide demand for people just like you might be small and already fully satisfied. We may have reached saturation point with poets, painters, musicians and writers. There just might be too many for the population to absorb. What if what you really are is one of these things?
Of course, this is a categorisation mistake. Yes, you might be what is conventionally categorised as a painter or a musician, but you might be a unique combination of those things, or a distinct type of painter or musician. Precisely understanding what you are, eschewing the traditional, orthodox categories of description, might actually be the key.
It is my belief that there is always room for the outstanding, no matter what you are. This is why striving is so important and also why there are no job descriptions for speed understanders. In being who you are, be precise about that and understand how you differ from the rest of people that are loosely described as being the “same” as you.
- It’s hard to be more unique than all the other unique people – Let’s face it. The quality bar is very high. There are lots of authentic, outstanding people in the world. In being authentic, you can’t be average. You have to find a way to let your uniqueness shine and this requires work, patience, practice, discipline, dedication, opportunity and support. The outstanding are noticeable, no matter what it is they do, but being ordinary, even if authentic, is unremarkable.
Differentiating can’t be what you’re all about either, however, or you risk smothering that essential characteristic of yourself that is your true being. It’s not a race, even though the spoils always go to the so-called winner. In a winner takes all society, such as we live in, how can you not compare yourself with all the other authentic people and not try to make some difference?
In the end, all you can really do is be more true to yourself that you thought possible. Being uncompromising in your identity is possibly the only way to exist. I’m not sure about this, though. I’d like to think that you can just be who you are, however that is and it ought to be sufficient. It just doesn’t seem to work that way, no matter how much I wish it would.
- You’ll be misunderstood – The more unique you are, the less understood you will be. It can feel as though you’re speaking an alien language to people that can’t hear at those ultra-high frequencies. If your inner life is so distinctly different to the real world you inhabit, as authentic people’s inner lives often are, then even expressing your thoughts is prone to gross misinterpretation.
Other people won’t have your mental model or any grasp on understanding what you have long ago internalised. They just won’t have the vocabulary or conceptual framework. They don’t start from the same assumptions or axiomatic truths as you do. Aspects of what you say and do will be so far outside of their experience that they’ll simply conclude you are baffling or mad (or both).
The only thing you can do is to over-communicate, patiently and with forbearance. You’ll get stupid questions and invalid objections. People will misquote your words and attribute motivations and conclusions to you that you had no intention of having. It will take a very long time and a lot of repetition before anybody begins to get you. At that point, of course, what you are will seem obvious and even passé. Nobody said that being yourself was easy.
- People aren’t used to people that don’t fit in – Because most people spend their lives anxiously trying to fit in with their peer group, their experience of encountering somebody that doesn’t fit in is quite limited. In fact, they’ll see the confrontation as somewhat threatening, because everything they hold to be important (being accepted by their peer group) is of no consequence to you, who only wants to be who you are.
Their default reaction is to try to make you feel weird, awkward and damaged, instead of bolstering and celebrating your uniqueness. It would feel much more comfortable, to them, if you would just conform and comply. Your spinal fortitude bothers them. Why do you have to be so sure of yourself, when they’re such a lost, neurotic mess of contradictions and ill-defined characteristics and values?
This is why there is so much bullying in schools. At a time when young people are still trying to define themselves, those lacking the confidence, courage and insight to do so would rather everybody around them was the same as they think they are. They are quite prepared to use physical and psychological violence to prevail upon their peers, too. Being yourself, under these circumstances, in the face of extreme peer disapproval and ostracism, can be very, very painful.
- Some people will be jealous – There are some people that will immediately recognise your unwillingness to follow the crowd and even acknowledge those iconoclastic aspects of your personality, but who will, instead of praising you for them, resent you because they lack what’s necessary to be as courageous and self-assured as you are. They’ll make it into a competition, because while they can see the desirability of you and them both being who you each happen to be, they feel they can’t. This won’t seem fair to them. Their jealousy won’t be fair on you.
Their actions can be very hurtful and the fallout can stay with you for a lifetime. In rejecting your authenticity, out of pure spite and envy, they can convince you that what you are is no good, or is wholly unacceptable. If this is what you truly are, then how do you reconcile that inner honesty with the information they are delivering – that what you are is just no good at all? What are you supposed to do about it? You can’t be anything else.
It’s their problem, not yours, of course, but it can be very difficult to discover this truth and harder still to ignore their behaviour and opinions, especially if you have strong affection for them, as well you might, if you can see that they secretly value or at least understand your individuality, even though they would never admit to it. You can hope they’ll change their mind, at some point, but often they don’t. It’s tragically sad.
- You can hurt people just by being loving – You would like to think that being an authentic, loving and affectionate human being is no bad thing and in the main, you’d be right. However, loving somebody that has other commitments or arrangements in their life, or in a way that makes them question their relationships with others, is not ok.
You might be a genuinely loving, warm and encouraging person at heart, but in being so, you can inadvertently cause profound changes in other people’s lives that you really don’t want to cause or have on your conscience. You have to be aware of the obligations that being who you are places on you and act responsibly, to cause the least hurt and damage to others. Being authentic is no excuse for being some sort of destructive typhoon.
There are uncountable instances where somebody was being honest and well-intentioned, giving attention and acknowledgement to somebody that genuinely needed some, but causing undesirable and unintended consequences. By all means, be yourself, but be careful. You don’t want your authenticity to be an agent of devastation for others. Even authenticity has its limits.
- Life is not a support system for art – It’s the other way around. The novelist, Stephen King, said that. He’s right. The art you create and the practice of making it may be the very thing that acts as your refuge and what sustains you, in the face of a world that neither appreciates nor values who you really are. Your life doesn’t exist so that you can be an artist; you’re an artist so that you can enjoy an authentic life.
- You’re not better, just different – Just because you’ve figured out who you are and are living a life that is in perfect alignment with that information doesn’t make you any better (or worse) than any other person on the planet. You’re just different. Yes, there are some advantages to figuring this out and living this way, but as we have discussed above, there are also some distinct drawbacks, too.
You have no entitlement to a sense of superiority or to believe that you are one of the chosen few, with special access to privilege. An authentic life is not a passport to the fast lane, riches, recognition and lasting fame. It’s nothing more than a high-integrity way of being.
- Learn to just be – It’s all you can do, in the end. You are what you is. Learn to be OK with that. The rest of it is all just superfluous noise, as inconvenient and confronting as it can be, at times. You are good enough and being who you really are is just fine. Let it be.