Authentic self-expression is, in an ideal world, a natural extension of self-understanding. It is a way of putting all that self-understanding to use. It’s the ability to share our thoughts, feelings and actions in a way that gets perceived truthfully and accurately. While all forms of inauthenticity in communication often get attributed to dishonesty, it is rarely the case. The reason for this bias is evolutionary. Most present-day humans are incredibly good at intuitively realizing when someone’s not being authentic. All the humans with genes that didn’t allow them to know when someone was lying to them became extinct. We may have learnt to suppress that awareness or any reaction it provokes, but our unconscious mind usually registers even the subtlest of hints that someone’s not being truthful. This makes us trust them less and the most obvious explanation we use to explain this feeling is – “Oh, they must be dishonest in some way.” This is something that experienced grifters know. Beginners try to hide such hints, but experienced con artists give your mind an alternative explanation for why these hints exist. “I’m nervous”, “I’m anxious” or “I’m scamming someone else, not you” – whatever the alternative explanation might be. They also give your mind a strong emotional reason to side with this alternative explanation by linking them with strong incentives that you care about. Implying, for example, “if you choose to believe I’m lying, then you’re giving up the romance or friendship or money or some other thing you care about getting from me.”
Authentic self-expression is about not fooling anyone, including ourselves, for temporary gain. Richard Feynman once said, “The first principle (of life) is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person (for you) to fool.” Most lies we tell are to ourselves. Once we become good at catching ourselves in the act, our communication with everyone starts becoming more and more authentic. The more authentic our communication is, the fewer reasons we give their subconscious mind to distrust us or to find us creepy.
How do we go about it? By addressing the main reasons why our mind tends to choose inauthenticity in communication:
- Lack of self-understanding: When we ourselves aren’t sure how we’re feeling or what our thoughts are about a topic, we’re more likely to guess. When we’re guessing, it’s easy to go with the flow because our brain considers guessing as a less serious activity than knowing or believing – so it doesn’t apply any rigorous truth-filters on our guesses as it does on our beliefs or knowledge. Practising being mindful of when we’re guessing vs when we know is a good first step towards improving our authenticity.
- Lack of confidence in our communication abilities: When we aren’t confident in communicating the complexity of our thoughts, feelings or actions, we tend to oversimplify. When we oversimplify, we are expressing something in a way that’s likely to get perceived inaccurately just because it’s easier to communicate than the truthful version. Practising communicating the most complex thoughts and feelings in our mind when we are in safe settings – with trusted friends or even via journaling, is a good way to improve our confidence.
- Fear of rejection: Sometimes, we don’t tell the truth because we’re afraid of the consequences – “what if they don’t like the real me?” This is a very widespread fear and it is usually really hard to overcome. Evolutionarily, being liked by the people around us has always had a huge advantage on our survival. This makes it a difficult drive to edit – it’s like rewiring our survival instincts. To make things worse, we’re living in an age of social ostracization. It’s the only form of punishment that’s violent enough to coerce people effectively, yet woke enough to uphold our righteousness. Witnessing this all around us all the time, maybe even participating in it at times, makes it hard for us to forget how dire the consequences of rejection can get. How then can we escape it? As far as I know, there are only two ways that are reasonably effective and both are very hard to achieve. The first focuses on becoming powerful – the way of Kings and Queens – to become so powerful that the consequences of rejection don’t matter anymore. That’s what we’re trying to do when we are chasing money (to become rich) or people (to become a public leader) or knowledge and skills (to become indispensable). The second focuses on becoming detached – the way of the monks – escaping our fears, even our own survival instincts in the end, by becoming detached. We don’t fear losing something we aren’t attached to. Interestingly, there’s a popular tale in Buddhism – when Buddha was born, an oracle predicted that the child would grow up to become either the greatest king or the greatest monk the world has ever seen. His dad, who was a King himself, tried everything he could to make sure his son wouldn’t become a monk. We all know how that ended. But the “either-or” part of this story seems valid even for us. By virtue of being on the opposite ends of a spectrum, it is almost impossible to make progress on both paths at the same time. That requires us to pick one path and start making progress. Our own either-or.
- Lack of trust: We won’t bare ourselves to someone who we suspect might take advantage of our vulnerabilities. When it comes to strangers, our readiness to trust them is almost completely shaped by our past experiences of trusting people, especially during childhood and adolescence. If bad experiences in the past have made us distrust new people by default, this bias can only be fixed by a much larger number of good experiences of trusting people. Much larger, because our brain is a lot more sensitive to negative experiences than positive ones. After the first 6 years of adolescence, we learn from new experiences a lot lesser than before unless we consciously pay attention to them. As a result, even a thousand good experiences as an adult might not be sufficient to erase the impact of a handful of negative experiences as a child or a teenager – unless we consciously pay attention to these good experiences. That’s why we’re often stuck with behaviours that we fail to unlearn even after realizing they’re bad for us. Luckily, there’s a simple way to fix this – practice noticing whenever a good experience happens to you and write them down each time, even if it’s only a word or two. If you don’t like writing, register it by means of some other physical action as opposed to mere thought. Say it aloud or do a gesture of happiness or gratitude or something else that’s easy for you. This is the simplest and the fastest way to unlearn inaccurate biases about the world from our childhood.
- Conflict avoidance: Just because we’re communicating truthfully doesn’t mean it’ll always have the desired impact. When we feel truthful communication will result in an unfavourable disagreement or a conflict, we might choose to hide or sugar-coat our true thoughts and feelings. While it does make sense to avoid conflicts whenever possible, it’s disadvantageous to avoid them at the cost of unfair suffering. What’s more, it might even embolden others to take advantage of us by introducing the threat of a confrontation whenever they want us to do something we dislike or disagree with. How can we learn to deal with conflicts when it’s disadvantageous to avoid them? There are a number of techniques, but they broadly focus on 4 strategies:
- Assertiveness: Mustering the courage to stick by our choice or decision in the face of conflict. This might look like saying no, setting healthy boundaries or insisting that the other person change their opinion, decision or behaviour.
- Involving others: Sometimes, assertiveness isn’t the best way forward, especially if it’s likely to worsen our situation instead of resolving it. At such times, it’s a good idea to involve others who may be able to de-escalate tensions or provide expert or neutral inputs that will be respected by everyone involved.
- Making it a negotiation: When it looks like we might have to give in no matter what we do, try to convert the conflict into a negotiation by shifting the focus on how they think you can benefit by agreeing with them.
- Buying time: If things aren’t going your way because of heated emotions or bad timing, try to buy time and wait it out.
- It’s genuinely the best response: Sometimes, being inauthentic is the best response. When you’re forced to deal with toxic people who are likely to take advantage of you, for example. In such situations, go ahead and be inauthentic. Don’t let your authenticity become your weakness.