How to Live With Authenticity and Be Your Truest Self

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While there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what authenticity means, researchers generally describe it as a state of self-awareness and self-determination that allows a person to act in ways that align with their core values, beliefs, and psychological needs.

In that sense, being authentic can be just as important for your wellbeing as food, shelter, and sleep. Just as you would eat when you’re hungry or sleep when you’re tired, you need to act in ways that fulfill those core values and emotional needs.  

What Is Authenticity in Positive Psychology?

In an article published in New Ideas in Psychology, researchers identified the following four components of authenticity:

  1. Experience, or paying full attention to your present environment and internal state.
  2. Understanding, or reflecting on that present experience to better understand the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  3. Judgment, which is meant more in the analytical sense of identifying whether or not this experience aligns with your core values and fulfills your psychological needs.
  4. Decision, or choosing a response to this experience that is aligned with those values and psychological needs.

In short, authenticity is about paying attention to all of the relevant details in a situation and making decisions based on what feels most in sync with your true self.

What Is an Example of an Authentic Person?

In theory, that four-part process sounds simple enough. But what does that actually look like in practice? What is the “self” and how do you know your acting in sync with it?

In psychology, the self refers to a collection of ideas we each have about who we are. This includes our various social roles like parent, hiker, and nurse as well as secondary traits like curious, generous, or ambitious. Most of us define ourselves according to multiple roles and traits, all of which are true but not all of which can be aligned in every situation.

For example, the nurse who is also a parent may often encounter situations where the two roles conflict. Maybe they’re scheduled to work on the night of the school play. Maybe their child gets sick the morning before they’re supposed to go to work.

An authentic person doesn’t try to pick any one of these many dimensions as their truest self. Instead, they constantly self-reflect and look for balance. Being authentic is about identifying all of the aspects of yourself that matter to you and making sure that you’re acting in ways that align with each of them, even if some situations require you to privilege one aspect over others.

Why Is It Hard to Be Fully Authentic?

As fulfilling as it can be to live authentically, actually doing so all the time can be difficult for a lot of people. People with mental illnesses, for example, often don’t feel safe or encouraged to be authentic. “There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness,” said Dr. Sam Zand, psychiatrist and founder of the Anywhere Clinic. “This can make it difficult for people to talk about their experiences or seek help without fear of judgment or discrimination.”

Beyond fearing judgment or discrimination, certain conditions can make it hard to achieve those four components of authenticity defined earlier. “Schizophrenia or some personality disorders can make it difficult for a person to understand their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors,” Dr. Sand explained. He also noted that these and other conditions like depression, anxiety, or trauma can erode a person’s sense of trust in their own thoughts, feelings, and values.

It’s hard to be your truest self if you’re overwhelmed by doubt about what the truest version of yourself self would even look like.

In other cases, that true self might be in conflict with societal norms. Clinical social worker and therapist, Erika Nelson, explained that this can often be the case for Autistic people. “For Autistic folks a huge value often centers on fairness and justice to the point that many of my patients struggle to function in a traditional workplace because when attempting to express their core values and beliefs it does not align with how the system needs people to behave or work,” Nelson said.

If your true self is not accepted by society or the environment you’re in, behaving authentically can be painful or even dangerous. The same is true for trauma survivors, according to therapist and program manager at Thrive Therapy & Counseling, Ileana Arganda-Stevens. “If our needs or preferences are consistently ignored or punished during childhood or in an important relationship, we may learn it isn't safe or worthwhile for us to notice or express our needs and preferences.”

In abusive or hostile environments like that, survival may depend on suppressing their psychological needs or hiding their true selves. As a result, Arganda-Stevens said, “we learn that there's no room for our authentic selves.”

5 Ways to Develop Authenticity

If you’re struggling to be more authentic, try incorporating these strategies.

Practice Mindfulness

The key to authenticity is developing the self-awareness to know who your truest self is. It’s tough to know that when you spend so much of your day trying to suppress your emotions and intuition, meet the expectations of others, or go after the goals you’re supposed to want. Mindfulness is a great way to bring your attention back to all of those things you’re suppressing.

If you’ve never tried it before, carve out just five minutes of your day to sit somewhere quiet, even if it’s just going out to sit in your car during your lunch break. Set a timer and then put away your phone. Close your eyes and just notice your physical and emotional state right now. Name the feelings and sensations but avoid trying to justify or explain or challenge them. Your mind is going to wander during this process. When it does, just notice that it did and bring it back to the exercise.

Over time, this exercise will help strengthen your self-awareness, so you’re more conscious of those moments when you’re behaving in ways that don’t align with your true self.

Define the Actions That Would Be Authentic

If you don’t feel like you’re being fully authentic right now, reflect on the specific actions or behaviors that come to mind as examples of that inauthenticity. Also reflect on what specific actions or behaviors would feel more authentic.

If you struggle with a mental illness, for example, maybe you’re avoiding treatment for fear of friends, family, or coworkers finding out. If you’re in an unhappy relationship, maybe you’ve been putting off confronting the fact that it might be time to end it. If you’re in a career you hate, maybe you’re ignoring the fact that it isn’t the right career path for you.

Once you can identify the key issues that make you feel inauthentic, you can start thinking about steps you can take to work toward being true to yourself. You might not be ready to take the leap of ending a relationship or making a career change, but you can find smaller steps that feel less intimidating and move you in the right direction. For example, step one might be just acknowledging that truth.

Find Ways to Act on Your Core Values and Beliefs

Use the self-awareness and reflection tips mentioned above to identify your core values and beliefs. Then, think of ways that you can act on those. If you care about animals, volunteer at a local animal shelter on weekends.

If you value independence, challenge yourself to learn a new DIY skill, like changing your car’s oil or fixing that wobbly chair leg. If you have a strong sense of justice, find a local organization working toward a cause you care about.

Stop and Reflect Before Making Decisions

One of the best ways to live more authentically is to get in the habit of reflecting before making an important decision. Important, in this case, means any decision that could impact your physical or mental wellbeing, including those that could conflict with your core values and beliefs.

Jot down the four components of authenticity described earlier and use that as a kind of blueprint for reflecting on the decision you’re currently facing and figuring out what the most authentic choice would be.

Don't Shame Yourself for Surviving

If safeguarding your wellbeing and meeting your basic needs means masking or code-switching, as they sometimes do for people with mental illness or who belong to marginalized groups, do what you need to do to survive. Instead of directing that sense of shame or disappointment about being inauthentic at yourself, channel that energy into finding ways to reduce the need to be inauthentic.

If you’re in a hostile work environment, for example, start job hunting to try to find a more welcoming and inclusive workplace. If you face judgment from family, look for support groups, counseling, or online communities where you can get the nurturing and support you aren’t getting from the people closest to you.

Do what you need to do to survive, while always working toward creating a life where your survival no longer depends on hiding your truest self.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Helminiak DA, Feingold BD, Donahue MJ. Clarifications about Lonergan’s “authenticity” for application in psychology. New Ideas in Psychology. 2020;57:100773. Doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2019.100773

  2. Touré-Tillery M, Light AE. No self to spare: How the cognitive structure of the self influences moral behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 2018;147:48-64. Doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.05.002

By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.