What it means to be authentic from a person-centered, two-person-centered and personal point of view.
“We don’t want it looking too polished – we want it to look, you know, authentic.” That was the brief from my client, a marketing manager of a major brand who had commissioned me to create a video for their website. On the video, three young adults talk about their dreams for the future. However, heavily primed by the brand’s public relations team, their rehearsed, spoon-fed responses were anything but ‘authentic’.
As soon as I heard the word ‘authentic’ that day, my ears pricked up. Authenticity has become my mantra since beginning therapy six years ago, and it seems to have gained credence in the world beyond the therapy room too. Increasingly, I see ‘authenticity’ held as the Golden Fleece for the Jasons of the marketing industry, whose mission it is to create brand communications that feel ‘real’. As Steven Poole observed in a recent article. “Authenticity is now yet another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.”
But like Jason, I’ve found that the course to authenticity isn’t plain sailing. For a start, authenticity means different things to different people. When my marketing client asked for authenticity, she meant a video with no visual effects or voiceovers. When a fellow psychotherapy trainee said she found me authentic, I’m certain she meant something else entirely. I thought I had the meaning locked down and tied with a pretty bow – guess what, I haven’t.
In this article, I want to explore what authenticity means from a humanistic perspective, starting with the person-centred approach and moving to later developments of this approach. But it’s not just a walk through semantics – I want to explore how my experience of authenticity has evolved over time and see if it’s possible to live and breathe authenticity in whatever form it takes.
Authenticity for beginners
My first brush with authenticity in a humanistic sense was when I studied Carl Rogers. Hearing terms such as ‘false front’ and ‘mask’ struck immediate chords and pointed to my own journey to find an authentic self. One of the reasons I started therapy was because I sensed a colossal void between what I experienced inside and what I presented outside. In therapy my false self came to light in various ways. Our first session began with my therapist asking, ‘Who is the real Jennifer?’
Already that question felt too huge to answer. For a start I’d given my therapist the formal version of my name, already keeping him at a distance. In a session soon after, I talked about an occasion at a friend’s wedding when I wore a bright yellow dress, pink stilettos and a purple hat. When the compliments flowed in, I felt like a fraud – that what people were seeing was not really me. This was just one of many occasions that illustrated the fall out between my construction of myself and how I experienced myself and I became increasingly aware of the void between the two.
Life through a lens
As a perennial people pleaser, I lived in the shadow of others’ opinions of me, placing their views above my own. I called it ‘living life through CCTV’, my therapist called it ‘being Jenni-esque’. When I did step forward to express myself, there was a hefty process of self-censoring involved to make the truth more palatable and this self-editing became exhausting. I realised just how exhausting during an exercise in which my therapist asked me to stand on one leg with my arm stretched, leaning to one side. There was only so much leaning I could do before toppling over. This was the point when I would lose my centre – my core self. I decided I was done with leaning and wanted to discover my real self.
The inauthenticity police
This uncovering also bore some unexpected fruit. The more authentic I became, the more inauthentic others seemed to become. Through pledging myself to the cause of authenticity, I had become less tolerant of inauthenticity in others – a sniffer dog for phoniness. Barriers might have been coming down in the therapy room, but they were popping up everywhere else for me.
Friendships, which used to feel uplifting, began to feel hollow, lacking substance and sustenance. My workplace especially was rife with role-playing. Water-cooler chats baffled me and the game playing of one super-networker, who asked how a meeting went, when she already knew because she’d asked another colleague ten minutes earlier, stunned me.
I became not unlike Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In this anti-American dream, an adolescent Holden is repulsed by the hypocrisy of his hometown, where “phonies were coming in the goddam window” (Salinger, 1945:12) and tries to escape by moving to New York. But, like Holden, I found phoniness followed me, and my scathingness only isolated me from real relationships with others and myself.
To sanctimony and back
With a few years of therapy under my belt, I would spot my old behaviours in others and diagnose from a distance. It was exactly as Paul Gordon writes: “Too often we encounter, not humility and thoughtfulness in the face of human complexity and suffering, but rather an arrogance… a posturing that it is she who really knows what is going on” (Gordon, 1999: 20). A friend was avoiding intimacy because she was involved in a long-distance relationship. A colleague was dieting because she needed to feel in control. Rather than show humility, I criticised – probably everything an authentic person shouldn’t do. I get how humanist theory “separates and isolates the individual from society”(Haugh, 2008:44). I’d signed up to authenticity forgetting that I was inextricably intertwined with others who might to choose to live differently.
The falseness of false self
As well as judging others, I found that awareness of my false self gave me a new way to fault myself, using the dichotomy of authentic = good, inauthentic = bad. Existentialist Ernesto Spinelli certainly thinks that the concept of the false self does more harm than good, as it damagingly promotes “a disassociated dialogical stance towards one’s self-to-self relations” (Spinelli, 2005:184). To get over this dualism, I had to throw out the concept altogether and replace Rogers’ unitary concept of self with a plurality of self. Perhaps my false self is not the lesser, inauthentic me – it’s just one pixel in a multi-pixelated picture.
In the same way that I wanted to relate more authentically to all aspects of myself, I wanted to relate more authentically to others, which led me to the concept of ‘relational depth’. This is often considered an advancement of the person-centred approach and is defined as “A state of profound contact and engagement between two people, in which each person is fully real with the Other, and able to understand and value the Other’s experiences at a high level.” (Mearns and Cooper, 2005:pxii).
But there are marked differences between their take and that of Rogers. Rather than rely on a set of core conditions to create a healing relationship, instead for Mearns and Cooper healing is facilitated through enduring “moments of encounter” between therapist and client. (ibid, 2008:pxii). ‘Person-centered’ therefore becomes ‘two-person-centered’, defined as ‘intersubjective’ and ‘dialogical’. These moments parallel what existential philosopher Martin Buber calls moments of ‘dialogue’, when each participant “has in mind the other or others in the present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relationship between himself and them.” (Buber, 1947:37).
For me, it’s when I feel truly understood or ‘met’ and it can happen when I’m least expecting it. If “relation is reciprocity” (Buber, 1937:67), a moment of encounter is also a moment of exchange. It’s a two-way street and the client must be open too. As a client, there have been moments when I have closed myself to encounter. When I was made redundant for the second time in my life, it felt fatal. My therapist shared how he experienced me as grieving and noted how even my choice of clothes had changed from colourful clashes to subdued tones. Over a few weeks, I withdrew so much that my therapist questioned whether we could continue working together. I opened up again.
Are you receiving?
Rogers and Buber discussed the similarities between the humanistic and existential approaches (Buber and Rogers, 1957) and although Rogers shared Buber’s emphasis on genuineness, Buber believed the humanistic approach was technique heavy and that ‘being’ is more important than ‘doing’. However, I think that ‘being’ can be about ‘being’ open with the client. It is crucial for the therapist and I believe this is defined in Rogerian terms as the expression of ‘empathic understanding’, when “the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this acceptant understanding to the client.” (Rogers, 1986:136).
When my therapist shows empathy, I see ‘being’, I see ‘authenticity’, in action. In one session, I noticed his eyes fill with tears as I talked about my childhood. My psychodynamic therapist friend commented, “Oh, good technique” but to me it was more than that – his reaction gave me courage to engage with my own pain. This combination of expressivity and receptivity embodies a therapist’s presence (Bugental, 1965) and is the crux of a two-way encounter, the therapist sharing his or herself in relation to the client.
The role without roles
As I’m discovering, becoming a therapist is more than stepping into a role. Mearns and Cooper urge, “If the person we are with our clients is noticeably different from the person we are in other aspects of our lives, it suggests that some degree of unnaturalness is coming into our therapeutic practice” (Mearns and Cooper, 2005:129). Rowan acknowledges the paradox of this role with no role as “a therapist is playing a role which essentially involves and entails being authentic” (Rowan, 1998:167). I also question the degree to which authenticity can be authentic if it takes such deliberate self-awareness to craft. Is it the equivalent to spending hours applying makeup to get the ‘natural look’?
Going with the flow
By being present, I can be “open both to the client’s process and to my own” (Worsley, 2008:190). However, it “takes time to trust your transparent response” (Mearns and Cooper, 2005:131). Responding authentically means putting down the script and embracing the organic flow of the dialogue. It’s learning to listen to each word as it evolves rather than thinking about what to say next before the end of the sentence. This kind of listening focuses on how something is said, rather than what is said – noesis rather than noema, to borrow another phenomenological-existential term.
Two examples of phenomenology come that to life in popular culture are the TV shows The Taste (now withdrawn) and The Voice. On these talent contests, contestants are marked by a row of judges who sit with their backs to them, ignorant of the contestants’ looks and identity. In The Voice, contestants are marked on the quality of their voices, on The Taste, contestants are marked on the taste of a spoon of food. This is a stripped-back sensory response, with as much bias thrown out of the window as possible.
Nice to meet you, you and you…
Cooper adapts Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ position to become ‘I-I’ (Cooper, 2003a; 2004) implying self-relational depth in terms of intrapersonal relating. This encompasses everything that I’ve been striving for – authentic self-acceptance – and it’s been made easier with my therapist listening to all sides of me, even the angry me. Dominic, the “partial drunk” also finds himself accepted by Mearns, whether he’s drunk or sober, when he realizes “It’s like I’m listening to him, to that part of me for the first time…He was an “evil drunk”. But he is part of me, not just when I am drunk, but every minute of every day.”(Mearns and Cooper, 2005:91).
The experience of being listened to, one voice at a time, has led me to moments of real self-knowing. For example following the threat of (yet another) job loss, I started to spend lunchtimes alone. Just at the point when I was about to criticise myself for being anti-social, I remembered how I used to spend hours in the garden alone as a child. That was me then, and it’s still me now. “I am I. This is my starting place” (Bugental, 1965:329). Perhaps all my parts are now able to “get to know each other better, accept each other more, and change in that process.” (Rowan, 1998:4)
I now think of authenticity as a process, not a goal. I’ve also come to realise that I can’t be authentic all the time. In fact, sometimes it’s better not to be, since “A genuine encounter can be quite exhausting, even when it is exhilarating.” (Kaufmann, 1970:17). I like the idea of trusting the natural ebb and flow of each encounter. Most importantly, I’ve become more accepting of others despite their mistakes and sometimes because of them. Some have even surprised me: for example I was inspired by the super-networker I mentioned earlier who let her feelings show when she faced job loss.
Meanwhile I’ve been asked to create another video, this time for another brand. The brief? Authenticity.
Jennifer Cawley is a quailified counsellor practicing in Cenrtal and North London. This article is taken from an essay Jennifer wrote during her early training at The Minster Centre.
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Image: authentic by DraconianRain