Most of us grew up believing that by the time we hit our 30s, we’d have it all figured out. What a shock then to get here and realise that, while we may have done a good job of achieving all the milestones in our very own Game of Life – we’ve got the car, the education, the job, the husband, the kids – we are still nowhere near as ‘complete’ as we thought we would be. It’s as if we’ve been so focused on what we think we should be doing, that we’ve lost sight of what we actually want to be doing and then, at some unexpected point – probably in a very average moment, of a very average day – we take off the blinkers, look down at ourselves and say, “Who am I again?”
If this sounds familiar, fear not. This confusing sense of not knowing yourself, or what you want out of life, is a lot more common than you think. American coaching expert Marcia Reynolds is the author of Wander Woman: How High Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction and writes an emotional health column for The Huffington Post. According to Reynolds, in their adult years, many women embark on a mid-life quest for identity. She says, “For smart, goal-driven women, a mid-life crisis isn’t about recovering lost youth. It’s about discovering the application of their greatness. The problem is that no one has defined what ‘greatness’ looks like so the quest has no specific destination. Having the goal of being great is as hard to define as it is to achieve. There is always the next great thing to master, which may leave them feeling incomplete. I have come to call this phenomenon the ‘Burden of Greatness’.”
Lucy, 31 from the UK, has lived life to the full – good jobs, a few solid relationship experiences (including one short but heartfelt marriage), lots of travelling, financial freedom and a full social life. Everything was going fine until a light-hearted conversation with a stranger at a party opened her eyes to the fact that she was practically a stranger to herself.
She says, “We were just chatting and he asked me what my hobbies and interests were and I was paralysed… I didn’t know what to say.”
For Lucy, the seemingly simple, surface-level question was a gateway to something much deeper – a lack of connection with herself. She says, “I feel like I have kind of missed out on being me. Perhaps it’s because I got married at quite a young age… I have pretty much been in back-to-back relationships since I was a teenager without much time in between and when you’re in a relationship, you end up doing everything together, don’t you? And you can easily lose sight of yourself. Since that conversation, I have been on a mission to get to know myself.”
In the past few months, Lucy has done a diving course, a sewing course, a TESOL qualification and bought herself a paddleboard. She is currently halfway through a mindfulness course and is in the process of deciding what to sign up for next.
She explains, “I’m trying lots of different things so I can find out who I really am and what I really like. I guess it is a quest to know myself and to be honest with myself… If I can’t be honest and genuine with myself, how can I be honest and genuine with anyone else?”
What Lucy is looking for is authenticity – the ability to be true to herself. The term was originally used in the emotional and mental health field by existential philosophers and psychologists in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. They believed people should choose who they wanted to be in life and stick to that choice rigidly, despite social trends and pressure to conform.
These days, authenticity is used to mean something quite different – rather than choosing a persona and sticking to it, authenticity refers to finding the true you below the personality that has evolved according to your environment and adhering to that truth. Some people call this quest finding your authentic self. Since 2002, when this new understanding of the word was coined by psychologists Brian Goldman and Michael Kernis, authenticity has become a commonly used emotional health and self-help buzz term, with counsellors, life coaches and other experts pointing to it as a foundational pillar in the general search for happiness.
And the trend for deeper authenticity doesn’t appear to be dying out. In fact, it seems to be spreading from the world of emotions to almost all areas of our lives. We don’t want supermarkets, we want farmers’ markets. And we don’t want nicely packaged pre-chopped vegetables, we want organic carrots, fresh out of the ground with mud still on them – the weirder shaped the better.
Instead of a lovely luxury hotel, we want a cottage in the country where we get five-star care and service, but a log fire in a room and a leaking tap in the bathroom. Second-hand is now the glamorous ‘vintage’. We want Instagram, rather than glossy pics; distressed wood cupboards over shiny pine; unpainted cement floors rather than floorboards; a nude eye and hastily applied lipstick rather than a skilled smokey eye.
Everything has to have a raw, untouched feel to it and practically every trend report for 2014 – whether for cookbooks or for travel – predicts this will continue.
Advertising firm JWT has declared that this year everything will be “proudly imperfect”. In its trend report, it says, “Imperfection and even outright ugliness – the quirky, the messy, and the flawed – are taking on new appeal in a world that’s become neatly polished and curated.”
What does this mean for us and our quest to find our true selves? It means more and more people will be on the same path and this search for genuine individuality will become the norm.
In the US, a young, glamorous motivational speaker by the name of Gabrielle Bernstein is quickly rising to fame due to the public’s hunger for her authenticity advice and spiritual guidance. What started out as evening meet-ups with her friends in 2006 to talk about spiritual growth and development quickly snowballed into workshops with hundreds of women attending and a successful social networking and mentoring website www.HerFuture.com
Now, with four books published in as many years, Bernstein is being touted by Oprah as being one of the ‘next generation of spiritual leaders’. In one of her workshops on the power of authenticity, she told the crowd of women, “As I have become a Spirit Junkie, I have chipped away at the outside reflection of who I thought I should be to come back and find, ‘Oh wow, I am really me right now. This is really who I am’.”
Although Bernstein is doing a grand job of marketing authenticity to the American masses, authenticity workshops are nothing new. Local authenticity guru Helen Williams, counsellor, founder and owner at LifeWorks Personal Development and Training Centre (www.counsellingdubai.com), started running authenticity workshops more than a decade ago having realised that it was at the centre of many of her clients’ issues and unhappiness.
According to Williams, our inability to be authentic often began when we were children. “As kids, we started learning to hide our weaknesses,” she says. “Mum was happier when I was like this. Or Dad wanted me to be sporty, or to be a doctor, even though I really wanted to be a teacher. We started losing our connection with ourselves way back then and we ended up being afraid of being ourselves.”
Dubai-based coach Carolyn Coe, CEO at OP Lifestyle (www.oplifestyle.com) also puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of authenticity with her clients. In her Sky Rocket Sessions – a four-session coaching programme created to enable people to find themselves, identify their goals and plan how they will achieve them – authenticity is dealt with straight away in session one. She says, “Many people can’t even see that they are not being genuine. But not being your authentic self can cause massive inner conflict, leading to confidence issues and feelings of fear, and anxiety.”
Jared Alden, counsellor at the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai Healthcare City (www.gncdubai.com) agrees with Williams and Coe. He says, “I wouldn’t just say this issue is common, I’d say it’s universal…
“If you are doing things you don’t believe in, you break the relationship with yourself. If I tell a white lie to my granny, it has implications. But if I’m continuously lying to myself, it robs me of my peace of mind. When we have that lack of authenticity, we don’t allow ourselves to be happy. Something in us says, or thinks, we don’t deserve it.”
A long road
The good news is that having a better level of authenticity and trueness to yourself is achievable. Perhaps not overnight, but certainly over time. But it’s a journey, rather than a destination. Like with any healthy relationship, no matter how well you get to know yourself, there will always be more to learn. LifeWorks’ Williams’ says, “The thing about it is, we’re all on a continuum of becoming more authentic and more self-aware. At 60, I’m hugely more self-aware than when I was in my 20s, but I am discovering new stuff every day. Some people are driving a fast car, and some are on a push bike – but we are all going in the same direction and there is no room for judgement.”
This is where the world of self-help comes into its own and plays a positive role in the emotional health of an entire society. By talking about an issue, and bringing it out into the open for everyone to see, the issue becomes normalised and less of a stigma-laden secret to be ashamed of.
So what if you’re feeling a little lost in your direction? If you bring it up with your girlfriends, or family members, chances are many of them will say they feel the same way too. Our experts would probably take it one step further and say you should be proud of your self-awareness – that the fact you are even asking the question means you are further down the yellow brick road of authenticity than those who are coasting through life, not knowing what they are smiling about.
Wander Woman author Reynolds says, “It is OK to lose your equilibrium when others think your life should be smooth sailing. It is OK to question your life’s purpose. It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know who I am.’ It is better to ask the questions and seek the answers than to live a numb life. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself. Some call this a mid-life crisis… I call it the Heroine’s Journey.”
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