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The Compromise Between Authenticity and Belonging
‘All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you’
‘All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you’
From ‘Everything is waiting for you’ by David Whyte₁
When I set out to research spirituality, I never imagined I would spend so much time exploring authenticity. Authenticity found me. All participants in my research study discussed how having a spiritual framework or belief system enabled a more authentic life. It shouldn’t really have surprised me. The meandering path towards authenticity, to reveal our true nature, is itself the essence of any spiritual journey.
As often happens in life, this revelation coincided with my own journey towards more authentic living. Changing career and moving to a new country, I was trying to establish a new sense of how I showed up in the world. Anyone who has been through a change of this magnitude will tell you it is not a linear process. Change is an internal cat-fight between your old self and who you are becoming. Part of this fight is centred on authenticity. You are fighting for the most authentic version of yourself.
When authenticity is an area you write and speak about, the challenge becomes how you model it. My friend Ruth told me some months ago she was speaking at an event and asked to name a role model and she thought of me; ‘Because you live your life so authentically. As if you’re unafraid even when you might be. And I aspire to that. To me the question “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” is a Fiona question’. It meant a lot to me she thought that but equally it made me realise I should be more open and share that I am afraid. Authenticity is not a quality I carry seamlessly. Nor is it a place I have arrived. It is a daily practice. I, too, continue to aspire to be the most authentic version of myself.
Authentic Living is a Lifelong Journey
Increasing depth of authenticity has been very much part of my spiritual path. On the journey back to yourself, you are relearning authenticity. Each time you sit in your truth, you take another step towards who you really are. What begins as a hazy outline grows in its solidity as you travel the fearful road back to yourself. Authenticity is a deeply revealing process that requires great strength in the face of the strong winds of conventionality. To step outside the status quo and favour your authentic self is a radical decision. To leave the safety of where you are and move towards the uncertainty of where you are going. As I walk the path back to myself, I am often still afraid. Yet I feel to act on my fear is no longer a choice. Either I am who I am called to be, or I dull my authentic voice to fade into old stories which dull us all.
Abraham Maslow₂ viewed authenticity and self-actualisation as similar constructs. That to reach the full potential of who we are is to be our most authentic selves. I see authenticity and self-actualisation not as some pyramid to climb but as the divine spark inside you waiting to be revealed. Cultivating a spiritual way of experiencing your life is your roadmap to authenticity and self-actualisation. At my most fearful, when I must choose between hiding who I am or accepting the vulnerability of being visible and seen, I ask myself the question: ‘Fiona what is your truth?’. It helps me ground myself in the deep roots of the truth of who I am, strong like an oak tree, against the external hurricane of expectations and opinions.
The Conflict between Authenticity and Belonging
I have also appreciated that authenticity is just one side of the coin. Authenticity requires us to reveal the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to others. The parts we value the most are the parts we hide. Because authenticity carries risk. That risk sits in the aspect of authenticity which is rarely spoken about. The relational aspect. Being my true self requires me to show myself to others. And with that, there is a risk that you will reject some part of me. What I have learnt is authenticity and belonging are often in conflict. To nurture our authenticity, we must sacrifice belonging. This is why, although authenticity is something I strive for, it has equally involved struggle for me.
I always felt all the different parts of myself didn’t belong. Like I had bought a dress that was a smidgen too small. Parts of me celebrated in one group in my life were not palatable for another. To belong I had to switch on and off different parts of who I am. I was compromising myself by trading my authenticity for belonging. Allowing other people to feel more comfortable in lieu of my own comfort. Because I had been assuming my lack of belonging was personal to me. That there was something about me that wasn’t right with certain people, certain situations, certain places. It took a long time for me to understand I had been looking through the wrong side of the glass. My authenticity was never the issue. Rather to be truly authentic, I needed to relinquish my human desire to belong.
The social order encourages our sameness. As I was working to mould myself into the version of me society preferred, I abandoned parts of myself. When we abandon any part of ourselves, belonging becomes more unattainable. We believe we are safe, making ourselves smaller to fit, protected from external criticism, comment and judgement. The journey to authentic living begins the moment we loosen the tight grip on this perceived safety. When it becomes excruciating to stay in that safe space. When we recognise it was never safe. That our soul is not safe there, shrinking each time we deny it. When, for the first time, we reject belonging externally to start belonging internally.
Authenticity is Hard
When Ruth text me to tell me that story, I told her that I still regularly have barren moments when I feel naked and alone after bringing my authenticity to a place where it could not be honoured. On the road back to yourself, this happens regularly. These are the moments that no one tells you will occur when exclaiming the infinitely positive ‘Be Yourself’ on social media. In fact, posts like these are negligent. Will the same people posting these light-hearted messages hold a space for you when you reveal an authentic part of yourself and someone rejects that?
For me, this challenge is also part of my professional life. You cannot speak and write about such personal topics as spirituality, meaning in life or authenticity without bringing yourself and who you are to the story. I know if I am writing something or speaking at an event, I need to feel a bit afraid. If I am not being truthful enough, vulnerable enough, if there is no fear, I am diluting my authenticity, the very thing I have been called to share.
There are still instances when I feel deeply exposed and not accepted. These are times which rarely make their way to social media posts. They are lonely moments. The only person who can help you in these moments is yourself. To soothe yourself when a part of you feels rejected. The only solace I can offer is that it gets easier or you get better at it. Authenticity like everything requires practice.
Despite these difficult moments, for me authenticity is the only way. I refuse to be someone I am not. What I have come to realise is that part of my calling in life requires me to accept a lack of external belonging. To do this, I have come to befriend my fear. My job is not to quench my fear but to grow my courage. If we push our fear away it emerges in another form. If I nurture my courage, my fear becomes a portal for learning and growth. I see my fear as an indicator of the correct path and an invitation to continue my journey. A constant companion asking me daily; What will it be today so? Safety or Authenticity?
Authenticity Requires Depth
Abraham Maslow was not trying to tell us to climb some pyramid of success. He was encouraging us to open ourselves up, reveal ourselves knowing that our unique individual gifts and deep potential lie within us. Latent. Waiting to be expressed. You can’t swim at the shallow end of life and expect authenticity and self-actualisation to arrive at your doorstep. To become more fully ourselves, we must be willing to dive into the depths of our unconscious and see what is there waiting to be retrieved. But equally that means we will see what fears lie there holding us back. Professor Stephen Joseph believes the formula for authentic living is Know Yourself+Own Yourself +Be Yourself₃. Embracing a path of spiritual growth or personal development is a requirement for authentic living.
True Belonging is to Belong to Yourself
True belonging is birthed in authenticity. You cannot belong until you are connected to who you are. When we are not living from the strength of our authenticity, we will always struggle with belonging. We will spend our lives struggling to understand what fits in one group or another, creating personas which take us further from ourselves.
What I have found is the more I set the intention to live authentically, the more I feel I belong. Yet, to get to this place, I had to take the leap of being willing not to belong. There is a gap between when you give up external belonging and when you find internal belonging. It is not a process that is linear nor is it always pleasant. You are walking a rocky, sometimes barren, path back to a more sacred place of belonging. Allowing yourself to be seen is the hardest part of doing heart-centred or soul-led work. It is painful to bring the most vulnerable parts of yourself to the light. Fear that these parts might not be able to cope with the criticism or reaction of others. Showing openly the non-conformity of who you are.
When you are not fighting to deny parts of yourself, you enter a calmer, more serene state. In this state, your inner voice has the space and safety to speak to you. To tell you that you already belong. What I have found is that when we accept ourselves, consider all parts of ourselves sacred, the door to belonging miraculously opens. When you live authentically, the feeling of belonging is more rooted, more stable, more long lasting. Authenticity is a deep knowing that you belong in the universe. That is unshakeable, powerful, expansive. Truthful. True belonging is to spiritually belong.
Your greatest spiritual practice is your life
You must not forget that your greatest spiritual practice is your life. How you live every day is a gift to the person you are. There is little joy being enlightened in your head and not expressing it in your life. Contemplative practice such as meditation allows us to connect more deeply with ourselves, to understand ourselves more. But contemplation or thought alone does not mean we are authentic. As you achieve greater internal wholeness it needs an external experience. Truly living authentically is expressing who you are on a daily basis. It is the greatest demonstration of your spiritual path.
Our greatest teacher of authenticity and belonging remains nature. No other part of nature resists who it is. No flower ever wanted to be yellow instead of red, water doesn’t ask to be rock. They exist exactly as they are recognising that their interdependence and survival is reliant on their difference.
₁Everything is Waiting for You. Poems by David Whyte
₂Maslow, A. H. (1961). Peak experiences as acute identity experiences. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 21(2), 254–262.
₃Authentic, How to Be Yourself and Why it Matters by Professor Stephen Joseph