you and me

How Do We Lose Our Authenticity?

“Children are a great incentive and impetus for parents to learn about themselves, about each other and about life itself. Unfortunately, much of the learning may occur at their expense.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté, Physician, Addiction & Trauma Expert

I used to dress like a cross between bag lady and fairy princess. This was when I was very young, about 3-5 years of age. According to my mom, I went through a period where the first words out of my mouth the moment I woke up were, “I wanna wear a dress.” (in Mandarin)

I loved skirts and dresses, and couldn’t wait to wear them every day. A part of me felt alive and pretty in a dress. The movement around me both mesmerized and brought me joy when I twirled.

But the dress wasn’t enough on its own. I would also accessorize with long beaded necklaces that came down past my knees, and slouchy bags that dragged around my ankles, picked off from the adults’ closet to complete my ensemble. Sometimes I’d add an umbrella, other times I’d throw on a makeshift cape or headdress for added pizzazz.

That was the outfit that made me feel amazing. Dressing myself on the days that I was allowed to was one form of self-expression that I loved as a child.

Although hobo chic has made a trendy comeback since, I’d say my wardrobe choice has definitely taken on a more mainstream look as I’ve gotten older. It’s now less abstract expressionism and more modern-day contemporary. Although my husband will unwittingly signal periodically with a look of wonderment when I slip back into eccentric moments (some people just don’t understand the comfort of a muumuu).

The point is, we were all born with an unabashed love for self-expression — of  who we are and what we want. Just observe children under the age of six — they dance, sing, speak, gesticulate, play (and in my case, dress) exactly how they want, without a care about what anyone else thinks. We were born knowing and embodying authenticity. In fact, covering up authenticity is very difficult for young children.

This isn’t to say children can’t hide their authenticity, but it doesn’t come naturally and it has to be taught. In other words, there has to be reward associated with suppressing authenticity or withholding of love and acceptance for expressing the default mode, which is pure authenticity.

Over time, we learn what’s expected of us even if we don’t want to do it, what’s the right response even if it’s not our truth, what’s acceptable even if it’s not acceptable by us, what is desired even if it doesn’t bring us joy. Slowly, we become more distant from our authentic self, in exchange for being accepted, loved, protected and belonging.

The psychological term for the emotional bond that we need as a child more than anything else is called attachment.

When does bargaining with one’s truth start? I believe the negotiation between authenticity and attachment begins from Day One.

We learn very early what our caregivers expect of us. We do this because adjusting our preferences and behaviors keeps us alive. We come into the world expecting nothing but love, care, safety, security, understanding, and comfort. These are our basic needs as an infant.

If we don’t get any one of our needs met, we begin to adjust our behavior, because we’re smart. We might try looking adorable, cooing, grabbing, crying, pouting, kicking, biting, screaming. As a last resort, when all else fails and we believe no one’s coming to help, we go quiet, tune out, or escape into an internal world to cope.

Our primary goal as an infant is to win the affection and attachment of our caregiver, because that secures our ability to survive, and without a caregiver’s attention, we die. It’s that basic. According to trauma and addiction expert, Gabor Maté, when given the choice of attachment versus authenticity, attachment always wins.

One can say it’s normal and a part of life.

This negotiation of authenticity continues into formative years and into adulthood as it shapes our identity. Throughout our life, we’re constantly bargaining with our world: how much of my true self can I embody while still be accepted and belong?

The level of trading our true self for attachment can range from the most pale to the deepest trauma.

Maybe your mom appeared to be content only when you were quiet and undemanding, so you learned to silence yourself. Or people seemed to be upset when you were too emotional, so you suppressed your emotional outbursts — both joy and sadness. Or your dad seemed to beam with pride when you dreamed to be a doctor and less so when you shared your love for the arts.

Perhaps someone shamed you for liking the color pink, or your eccentric taste, or your curiosity for the mundane. Maybe you had to endure or see things as a child that no child should ever see or endure, but you accepted it because you needed the attachment to survive.

Whatever it was, we all went through this process — negotiating and fine-tuning ourselves based on our environment for what’s acceptable.

Some of us had to give up less of our authenticity for the love and care from our environment, while others traded more than they could afford or wanted to in exchange for attachment.

To paraphrase the author Shahida Arabi, children are born knowing only to love. So a mistreated child doesn’t stop loving others. She stops loving herself.

No matter what your situation was and how you got here today, you still have an authentic core within you that’s untouched. There’s a part of your inner self that can’t ever be altered.

That energy is your authentic core essence. No one can change your core essence.

If you believe in a higher self, the Universe, life source, god, Mother Nature, or some other force that’s greater than yourself, your core essence is the part of you that’s in direct communication and connection to that life force.

If you don’t believe in the above, then your core essence is who you really are stripped of life’s BS.

How do you know if you’re out of alignment with your authenticity?

  • You say things you don’t mean
  • You mean things you don’t say
  • You laugh and smile when you feel the opposite inside
  • You’re quiet when you’re shouting in your mind
  • You’re bubbly and talkative when you’re really feeling exhausted 
  • You go along or agree to something that you don’t believe in
  • You’re not lit up with joy
  • Everything feels difficult 
  • You feel it in your gut that you’re out of alignment​

Here are five things you can do today to reconnect with your authenticity.

1. Follow the energy: Notice what energizes you, lights you up and brings you joy. Then fine-tune that energy and notice what makes you feel funny, talented, beautiful, strong, powerful, magical, wise, connected, loved, compassionate, blessed, whole, healthy, vivacious, alive, and anything else that you enjoy feeling. Go in that direction. Do more of that.

2. Think less, feel more: What contributes to modern-day stress is our over-thinking tendencies. Our thinking brain works well when it’s the servant to our higher self, not when we make it the master of our being. Einstein agrees.

Your core essence lives in your body. You need to feel into it to get to know it. Your brain is filled with society’s and other people’s ideas and thoughts — spend less time there if you want to connect with and get to know yourself.

3. Flow with the current: Your authenticity already exists within you. You don’t need to find it or create it, because it’s already there. You don’t need to push that boulder up that hill.

What you want to do is take off everything that’s not you and feel the direction of your core essence, lean into it and allow your energetic currents to carry you.

You’ll find that when you’re authentically you, you’ll be in more flow states in everything that you do. You’ll find fulfillment and lose track of time in the process.

4. Notice what makes you feel brighter, bigger, more expansive, blossoming vs. what makes you feel darker, smaller, confined, stagnant: There was a time in my life when my head was so full of other people’s wants, wishes and preferences that my own truth was muffled. It became hard to decipher what’s other people’s and what’s mine.

I mean, did I really want to climb Kilimanjaro or do Machu Picchu or was that someone else’s goals? PS: that was someone else’s goals.

When you’re faced with a decision or a crossroads, instead of doing what conventional teaching has taught us to do, make a pro/con list, think about what makes the most sense, ask yourself how this fits into your five-year plan, and feel out your answer instead.

Without fail, the right decision for you will always make you feel more expansive and bigger vs. boxed-in and smaller.

5. Turn up the volume on your intuition: Your gut and your intuition is 100% authentically you.

Your senses hold a lot of information, and they are the most direct route into your authentic self.

Here are some common applications of intuition:

  • Going out vs. staying home one evening
  • Taking one job over another one
  • Going on a second date with someone or parting ways
  • Marrying someone
  • Booking one flight over another
  • Signing up for a class
  • Reaching out to contact someone
  • Stopping into a shop or making a detour along the way
  • Selecting a vacation destination

Next time you make a decision, try turning down the volume of your thoughts and turning up the volume of your bodily sensations. Notice what happens.

Many people are out of practice when it comes to connecting with their intuition. If that’s the case for you, start small. Play around with low-risk decisions and questions first to better tune in and connect with your senses.

Check these out. Don’t think about it at all, answer the following with your gut:

  • Do you like to dance?
  • Do you like chocolate, vanilla or swirl ice cream?
  • Do you prefer loud parties or quiet gatherings?
  • Would you rather live in the city or the countryside?
  • Would you rather be close to the ocean or the forest?
  • Do you prefer a fast-paced or slow-paced lifestyle?
  • Do you like new cars or classic cars?
  • Do you prefer fancy-pants dining or rustic cooking? 

There is no superior answer over another here. But these simple questions are the tiny steps into who you are, what you prefer and desire.

You might have noticed that your answers made you feel more expansive versus constricted (see #4 above).

If you find that you stopped to think about each question, I’ll offer you two considerations.

First, it means there’s an opportunity to better get to know yourself. Second, you might be operating disproportionately from your thoughts vs. your senses.

When we operate only from our mind, we miss out on the other sets of information that come through from our senses.

A final point. I don’t believe in coincidences, so if an opportunity presents itself, get curious. If a new person comes into your life, get curious. If a pattern emerges, get curious.

The thing is, life is fluid. We shape our environment as our environment shapes us. Some of it is bound to happen and it’s neither good nor bad — it’s the push and pull of the tides of life.

Maybe my taste in clothing isn’t as eccentric as it used to be, but maybe I’ve also rubbed off a little bit of my eccentricity onto those around me.

I’ve come to learn for myself that it all comes down to awareness of my own thoughts, emotions and behaviors. For me, my goal is to continue to look under and peel back all the layers and discard what’s not mine so that I can live deliberately and make decisions consciously based on my own truth. The more I do this, the better I feel, the easier things get, and the more exciting life becomes.

As the psychologist Carl Jung once stated, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

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Ruth Kao Barr is the founder of My Breathing Mind — mental & emotional well-being coaching. She helps busy people clear the noise and reconnect with the self to experience a more meaningful life. She regularly publishes well-being tips and mini-blogs on Instagram.

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