By Julia Mossbridge, MA, Ph.D., “Dr. Julia”
Science Director, Focus@Will Labs
Note: This post is part two of a three-part series on authenticity at work. I have looked at the power of authenticity (part one), this post is about how to find and keep your authenticity (part two), and next we will cover the pitfalls of “inauthentic” authenticity (part three). WARNING: This one is long for a blog post, but I think it’ll be worth it. If you are interested in more details, watch a video of a talk given by Dr. Julia at the Consciousness Hacking House on May 11, 2016.
Can you learn to be authentic? Let’s change the wording. No one is entirely inauthentic or authentic, just like no one is entirely happy or sad – different people spend different amounts of time being in an authentic state, and this can change over time. So let’s rephrase the question – if authenticity is being aware of and being connected to what is actually true for you, and if authenticity has positive effects on well-being and even productivity (as discussed in part 1), how can you be in an authentic state most of the time in your everyday life?
Well, at least for me, it hasn’t been easy. I can’t really go ahead here without briefly describing my personal struggle with authenticity, so you know where my thoughts are coming from. This next bit is completely personal and far from scholarly – it’s an anecdotal report. Some scientists dismiss anecdotal reports, but in my opinion, anecdotal reports often teach us to think about things in new ways and develop new hypotheses. So maybe this one will work that way for you.
How I became an authenticity expert.
I was raised in a family that oozed unpredictability. Rage one minute, calm discussion of raw feelings the next. Some mental illness and history of substance problems in my parents, and some abuse for me. All the stuff that credentialed professionals like me are supposed to not have experienced.
In this environment, I wanted nothing more than to control my experience. I tried to represent myself in certain ways so that I could manipulate the experiences I had (it didn’t work, but I tried hard). Being a successful student with no obvious emotional needs – that was how I tried to be seen by others. As a result, during my childhood, I spent a decent amount of time in an inauthentic state.
But here’s the paradox – despite this mess of pain and suffering, and despite my attempts to control the mess through manipulation of others and misrepresentation of myself – my parents (all three of them, a physicist dad and two lesbian therapist moms) somehow supported my authenticity on the occasions that it showed up. I distinctly remember a moment in which my step-mom told me that she really loved having conversations with me when I was just being myself. A lightbulb turned on. I thought, “Wait, other people can tell when I’m myself?” And most of the time, when I told them unpleasant things that were nonetheless true for me, like how pissed I was about the abuse, my parents listened. And they continue to do so. They can tolerate me being aware of and connected to my feelings, and they even seem to be proud of me when I can do that.
The way I see it, despite its paradoxical source, this family support for authenticity facilitated my ability to be mostly authentic in my work as a scientist, in which I pursue controversial topics and stand up at scientific conferences to talk about how scientific results show us that some of our cherished hypotheses are wrong. And as the inventor of an app that uses mathematical regularities in heart rhythms to help people make more joyful decisions, I’ve had to discuss the strange but true idea that our bodies often know a lot more about what’s going on then we give them credit for. In other words, I’ve had to learn how to explain to people that both the truth and our inner experience matter. So looking back, it seems to me that authenticity has been my agenda all along.
Why is authenticity not automatic?
Okay, so that’s my story. But what’s yours? What has taught you about authenticity? Or why might you not know how to be aware of and connected to what is true for you right now?
First, we know that there are cultural and societal forces that can seem to prevent us from being in an authentic state. There are rules about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate to say and do. If we violate these rules, we risk becoming isolated and lonely. If we interpret authenticity as saying and doing only what we feel like saying and doing, then it really does seem that these rules are keeping us from experiencing our authenticity.
However, it turns out that you can be aware of what is true (example: “I feel like kissing my co-worker!”) and connected to it as well, (example: “It’s okay that I feel like kissing my co-worker, and I wonder why I feel that way?”), without saying or doing anything about it. In this situation you are in an authentic state because you are aware of and engaged with what is true for you, regardless of what you choose to say or do about it.
Unfortunately, this division between our internal experiences (which we are free to have) and the external expressions of those experiences (which have some societal input) has not been made so clearly. What happens is that people believe that even their thoughts or feelings are inappropriate, and then they try to remove themselves from them by being either unaware (ignoring them) or disconnected (harshly judging them and/or not engaging with them). Either result (or both) leads to being in an inauthentic state.
The second reason why most of us don’t already know how to be in an authentic state is that there is not rampant encouragement to really be clear about what we are experiencing. How often do you hear parents say to their children things like, “You don’t really want to eat that dirt. Take that out of your mouth!” It happens a lot – the parent telling the kid what the kid is feeling (Levin, 2013). But children’s actions are basically pure expressions of what they value, whereas most adults have put the “locus of valuing” outside of themselves, into others (Barušs, 1996). If the kid is eating dirt, the kid wants to eat the dirt! What’s true in the “eating dirt” situation is that the parent doesn’t want the kid to eat the dirt. In this case, demonstrating and encouraging authenticity would be as simple as the parent saying to the kid, “You know what? I don’t want you to eat that dirt – even though I see you really like it!”
The same thing goes in the workplace. How often do we try to get others to do things by telling them what’s best for them? “You are really going to want to try this new productivity tool!” Blech. What a refreshing experience if we could just say what’s true, something like, “I want you to try this. I like it a lot, but see what you think.”
Thought leader, author, and my workout partner Suzanne Clores says that this is exactly the tack that cutting-edge advertising is now taking – portraying shared human experiences rather than trying to tell us what to feel in the moment. Connecting us with the truth of ourselves rather than disconnecting us by telling us how we should feel right now. It’s a start, but what about being that way – aware and connected with ourselves, all day?
How to spend more time in an authentic state.
Given the preparation given to most us by our parents and society for a life of inauthenticity, how can we rediscover and maintain our authenticity? My sense is that there are 4 basic steps: admit your failure to control everything, practice mindfulness, engage lovingly with your experience, and then go back to the first step.
NOTE: These steps aren’t easy for most people. They take time. You may need a professional therapist to help you with the feelings that arise as a result of these steps. Please be gentle with yourself and what you discover through this process. This is step zero!
STEP 1: Admit your failure to control everything.
Inauthentic states arise when we are not aware of or in connection with ourselves, and this can often occur because we want to “make” other people think or do something. For example, I wanted to make my family not abuse me or rage against me. In the workplace, I want people to think I’m successful, so I might tell them a story that makes me appear successful, leaving out the parts that make me appear like I’m a failure. This could be authentic, if I am aware of and connected to the parts of me that feel successful. But the same action is not authentic if I am trying to push down fears that I might be a failure.
So what can I do to find my authenticity? I can admit that I can’t control everything. No matter how hard I try to make a certain impression to manage, control, or fix other people’s behavior, I most often don’t succeed. It’s scary, but it’s true.
This is the crucial first step, because once you admit your lack of control over others, you have way less motivation to be disconnected from yourself. In other words, when you admit that it’s not going to make anyone else love you if you stab yourself in the heart, you have less motivation to do it.
STEP 2: Practice mindfulness.
Practicing mindfulness is being aware of your inner state. You can do it through any type of meditative practice. Or invent your own. Commit to developing the habit of noticing what’s actually true for you. My favorite practice for mindfulness is what I call the “Yes” practice (Mossbridge, 2002). After noticing every thought and feeling and sensation I have, I say “Yes!” It’s a nice way to learn to accept everything going on inside yourself. Regardless of whether you are having secret thoughts of kissing your co-worker, curing cancer, or remembering the fart you let loose in a meeting, YES to it all! It’s fine to have every experience you have. Your inner space is your inner sanctum. Whatever goes on in there is yours. Just notice it, say yes, and see what else there is.
STEP 3: Engage lovingly with your experience.
So once you’ve admitted you can’t control others and you’re practicing mindfulness, you are now aware of what’s true for you, at least in this moment. That’s great! The final step to being in an authentic state is to be connected to what’s true for you.
This can be easy, if you and the people around you approve of what’s true for you. For instance, if what’s true right now is that you are feeling great and not needing much from other people, it is pretty easy to feel connected to that experience. But what if you are aware that you need a lot right now and you know your environment can’t support all your needs? How do you stay connected to your experience? The answer is to engage lovingly with your experience.
What does that mean? Another way of saying it: Query your experience with love. “I need a lot right now – wow, that sounds right. What do I need? How can I help myself get my needs met?” In other words, lovingly follow the experience deeper instead of dismissing it, blaming yourself, or telling yourself it’s inconvenient. Love the experience and assume it has key information to tell you. Then find out what this important key is.
STEP 4: Go back to step 1.
You have to keep going. It’s a circle. Sorry, but you’re never done! Being done is worthless anyway; it’s a false prize, and it’s not available to anyone. Being authentic is the real prize, and it’s a continuous practice.
Again, I want to point out that you can do all four steps without saying anything to other people. For instance, if your experience is about wanting to kiss your co-worker, you can query the experience with love and understand what it has to teach you without actually kissing your co-worker. Being in an authentic state is your business. And yet when you are not authentic, you suffer, and others do as well.
Okay, but what about those business consultants who help coach people towards authentic leadership, or want us to “manage” our authenticity? That makes it seem like authenticity is in fact other people’s business, and can be perhaps be faked! What’s the deal with that?
I’ll discuss this and other related ideas about authenticity in Part Three of this series, The Perils of “Inauthentic” Authenticity.
This blog post is dedicated to my step-mother, who still knows when I’m being authentic.
Note: This blog post was written under the focusing influence of Focus@Will Alpha Chill channel, one of the many channels of neuroscientifically-inspired focus-inducing music available on Focus@Will.
About Julia Mossbridge:
I am a parent of a 16-year old composer and a partner to a wonderful human being. I give talks about work engagement, authenticity, and aliveness. I am working on changing the culture of Silicon Valley to move it toward a greater appreciation of the gifts of being human. I am the author of Unfolding: The Science of Your Soul’s Work, and my upcoming book co-authored with Imants Baruss, Transcendent Mind: Re-thinking the Science of Consciousness, will be released by the American Psychological Association in August 2016. I am also the Science Director at Focus@Will Labs, Director of the Innovation Lab and a Staff Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and a Visiting Scholar in Psychology at Northwestern University.
A great book on authenticity in parenting: Parenting without fear: The foundation for raising balanced children in a healing world
My book on finding your truth and your life’s work: Unfolding: The perpetual science of your soul’s work
Barušs, I. (1996). Authentic knowing: The convergence of science and spiritual aspiration. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.
Levin, W.S. (2013). Parenting without fear: The foundation for raising balanced children in a healing world. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Two Harbors Press. LINK:
Mossbridge, J. (2002). Unfolding: The perpetual science of your soul’s work. Novato, California: New World Library.