By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 55 and this week I’m talking about authenticity. I’ll be discussing what authenticity is, why it’s the foundation of not just your mental health but your overall happiness, and how to be your most authentic self every single day. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- When we’re not true to ourselves it will eventually catch up with us in the form of general unhappiness or dissatisfaction, or even leading to mental health challenges like anxiety or depression
- If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the value of focusing on what really matters (like our loved ones) and also the importance of being true to ourselves.
- Authenticity is about tuning in to your true needs and wants, and making life choices that are aligned with your deepest desires, your most private dreams, and your ability to use your talents and fulfil your potential.
- When you make choices that are true to who you are and who you want to be, you begin to become more aligned with the very truest version of yourself which leads to greater life satisfaction and happiness.
- For some of us, we might have been suppressing or ignoring our innermost desires and dreams for so long that it may take a lot of work to even begin to bring them to the surface, but with time and perseverance all things are possible.
Hello and welcome to Episode 55, and thanks for joining me!
Just a quick reminder before I begin that if you’d like to contribute a question to the Ask Me Anything segment I’ll be including in Episode 59, the final episode of the year, you have until end of day on December 1, 2020 to send me your question — I cannot guarantee all questions will be answered, but I will get to as many as I possibly can. Head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/ama2020 to submit your question and hopefully it will be included in that episode at the end of December!
Alright, on with this week’s episode which is all about authenticity…
When I turned 35 I had a bit of a crisis of identity. Now, some might refer to that as a midlife crisis and to that I say ‘piss off!’ because I’m 44 now and I can tell you that 35 is definitely not midlife! Although (complete side-note here) I have to admit that when I was in my 20’s the idea of someone being 35 seemed really old, so you can imagine how I would have felt about the fact that I’m talking to you now as a 44 year old… anyway, back to my point (although I think I just earned an award for the earliest instance of getting off on a tangent of any episode of this podcast so far! It’s a talent!).
Turning 35 coincided for me with a really rough time in my life — I hated my job and felt trapped in a career stream that just wasn’t the right fit for me anymore, and my desire to do something about it had all but evaporated. I was in a total mess financially, I was drinking my body weight in alcohol every week and overeating whenever my emotions were out of control (which was most of the time), and my relationship with my mother had sunk to a completely new low which was making things really difficult for me as an only child. Little did I know that within five months of turning 35 I would have a total nervous breakdown which would lead to both the lowest lows of my life and the highest highs, because without all of that I would never have started this podcast and I wouldn’t be talking to you today.
Now that I look back at that period that started nine years ago I can see exactly what the problem was: I wasn’t being fully authentic. I wasn’t real with myself about what mattered and what didn’t and I hadn’t yet figured out how to let of the stuff that doesn’t matter so I can focus on what does really matter. I also had all of these notions of happiness and life satisfaction being tied up in money, which is not particularly surprising given how poor we were when I was growing up (but that’s a whole other story…).
When we’re not true to ourselves it will eventually catch up with us in the form of general unhappiness or dissatisfaction, or even leading to mental health challenges like anxiety or depression (or in my case back then, both).
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the value of focusing on what really matters (like our loved ones) and also the importance of being true to ourselves. What we so often refer to as ‘life’ is simply this stuff that we go through, this collection of artificial constructs we’ve created to try and find purpose and meaning (like our jobs and the size of our house and what car we drive), but true purpose and meaning is to be found in following our heart… and that is what authenticity is all about.
What is authenticity?
The word ‘authenticity’ might make some of you cringe because it’s one of those terms that gets used and abused by many in the self-help industry over and over again, along with expressions like “honouring your true self” and “finding your path to live your best life.” Do you know why people say things like that? Because most people are trying to find a polite way of saying, “If you want to be more satisfied in life, get your shit together and be true to yourself”!
Authenticity is about tuning in to your true needs and wants, and making life choices that are aligned with those. I’m not talking about everyday decisions like what to wear or even necessarily whether or not your decisions are aligned with your broader goals, but what I’m talking about here is the stuff that sits right down in your core; your deepest desires, your most private dreams, and your need for self-actualisation (which is just a nice way of saying using your talents and fulfilling your potential as a human being).
When I was a kid I wanted to be one of two things: either a pop star or a writer. Now, it turns out that I can’t sing for shit so I have to reserve my sold-out concerts for driving in my car, but in terms of those dreams I once had, look at what I’m doing now: writing! Plus talking, but that’s mainly because nobody can ever shut me up so I kind-of had to find a way to turn that into an advantage…!
Often we have dreams and aspirations when we’re children or teenagers that over time fall by the wayside because we become so weighed down by all of the expectations of life; I’ve done it myself and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve actually gone back to those original goals and dreams that I had around writing, and as I’ve been doing so I feel so much more fulfilled.
You know, we’re told that life requires you to finish school, get a job, turn it into a career, pay the rent or the mortgage, settle down and wait until you grow old to retire so that then you can enjoy yourself. Do you know what that is? That, my friends, is bullshit. Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that and for some people that is what feels right… but it’s also true that it’s not the exact right thing for everybody. Not all of us want to feel like we’re constantly running on that treadmill and we don’t all buy into the notion that the purpose of life is to constantly upgrade everything: your phone, your clothes, your car, your house, your career. Authenticity isn’t about having more stuff; it’s about having better quality of life.
Let’s talk for a moment about what ‘authenticity’ is not, and as usual I’m going to be really blunt here: being authentic is not an excuse to behave in an entitled way towards others and it is definitely not an excuse to be an arsehole (or for my North American listeners, ‘asshole’ — I find that really hard to pronounce, so I’m sorry if it sounded funny!).
You can be authentic and still be a half-decent person — seriously! Unfortunately many people choose to hide behind their so-called ‘authenticity’ to be vile towards others and to justify why they take, take, take without giving back to society. That isn’t a choice of being authentic; that’s a choice to use authenticity as a veil for being selfish, entitled and hateful. Look, I’m being blunt here as per usual but I think it’s important that we’re on the same page here because being authentic to ourselves doesn’t give us an excuse to forget about doing no harm, being kind and giving more than we take — that’s how society breaks down, if we forget those things. Instead, it’s about choosing to be a decent person and living our life in a way that feels truthful for us, rather than just giving in to what might be expected of us by our family or by society.
If you follow your heart in a way that does no harm, is kind and serves to give more than you take, that will then flow into better mental health and wellbeing because you get back what you put out into the world.
So, with that said…
Why is being authentic important for good mental health?
From childhood we’re bombarded with messages about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad… and we take all of these things and we begin to create a map of what we need to do to survive in the world. In high school, that might mean modifying our behaviour so we can fit in with a certain group of people rather than becoming a social outcast. At college or university, that might mean choosing to act a particular way or wearing certain clothes or even taking specific subjects that all send signals to others, and ourselves, about who we are and who we want to be. And then we join the workforce and suddenly we have a whole new range of choices to make: what will we do and where will we work and what will we wear and how will we behave, plus outside of work where will we live and what kind of car will we drive? Every single choice we make, whether consciously or subconsciously, says something about us.
My point? Authenticity matters because it’s about making choices that are absolutely true to both who you are and who you want to be. And when you do that consistently, you begin to be more aligned with the very truest version of yourself which leads to greater life satisfaction and happiness (because there’s much less of a disconnect between who you are and who you want to be).
As noted in an article [about authenticity] in Psychology Today:
“…by being someone you are not, you are telling yourself that who you really are isn’t okay. So hiding or suppressing who you really are can end up leaving you feeling lonely, disconnected from others, or even worthless.”Psychology Today (source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/click-here-happiness/201904/develop-authenticity-20-ways-be-more-authentic-person)
So, if the focus of creating greater happiness is around being more authentic, how do you that? How do you become more authentic? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode.
How to be more authentic
Let me preface this section by saying that being authentic takes work. Hopefully that should come as no surprise, but given that we’re bombarded with thousands and thousands of choices to make every single day it takes time, effort and perseverance to wade through all of that stuff to get to the core of who we are and who we want to be. For some of us, we might have been suppressing or ignoring our innermost desires and dreams for so long that it may take a lot of work to even begin to bring them to the surface, but with time and perseverance all things are possible.
So, how do you start to do that? Well first, it’s about reflecting. Take some time for yourself (and I’m talking about a good couple of hours, not just five minutes), go somewhere scenic or find a quiet corner of your home and just reflect. Think about who you are, where you are (and when I say “where you are,” I’m talking about where you are in life, not just your physical location)… think about where you’ve come from, where you want to be and how on-track you are to get there. Think about your needs, your wants, your innermost desires, your dreams, your values and beliefs… all of it. Take the time to be completely clear about who you are today, because in order to take the next steps in life you need to be crystal-clear about where you’re starting from.
Next, I would suggest that while you’re spending that time reflecting also take some time to think about your belief systems and what effect they may have on how authentic you are. Sometimes the things we believe are more about what we’ve been taught rather than what we actually believe. Your parents and your family, your teachers, your religion (if you have one), etc. — these people have influenced your beliefs and likely continue to do so, and so the challenge for each of us is to take a conscious step back and really look at our beliefs with a critical eye so we can work out what we truly believe in versus what has been believed for us by others. For example, my mother was always a big fan of celebrating Christmas and so I was raised in a household that was absolutely covered in decorations each year; I, however, don’t really celebrate Christmas (my partner and I do presents and we have a nice lunch on the day, but that’s it), and so there is not a single decoration to be seen in my house because I don’t like the waste that goes with this holiday. I fully respect everyone else’s choices and in fact I love seeing how other people decorate and celebrate the holiday, but for me I choose to follow the belief system that feels right to me rather than just inheriting the belief system from my mother. Just because you were raised a particular way, that doesn’t mean that is how you must think and behave; you are, and will always be, your own person. You can be respectful of other peoples’ beliefs without adopting them yourself, so take some time to look at what you really believe in and consider how authentic you’re being in terms of living as that person.
Next, look at and confront any possible disconnects between who you are, who you want to be and how you act. For example, if you live in a vegetarian household but you eat meat dishes when you’re alone, there’s a disconnect in terms of your beliefs and actions. Often we do things to please others or because we struggle to accept the truth about our feelings or desires, and that can then lead to what’s called cognitive dissonance (which is a whole psychological thing that I won’t get into, but it’s basically just a way of saying that your words and actions are inconsistent or that you suppress reality; for example, people in hospital with COVID symptoms who continue to deny the existence of the virus because it goes against what they want to believe). Look, the thing is that you can believe whatever you want but if it isn’t grounded in reality then there’s a disconnect somewhere. Living truthfully involves acknowledging and accepting the truth, not just what you wish the truth was. If you identify any disconnects in terms of your beliefs, challenge them. If that triggers fear for you (a topic I covered extensively back in Episode 10), identify your fears and confront them — life is too short to live in fear of the truth.
Tell the truth, to others and to yourself. Do you know how many times in the past I have come up with excuses for not doing something because I was so worried about hurting someone’s feelings, when in fact the truth of the matter was that I just didn’t have the emotional strength to give to other people so I had to cancel plans I had previously made? A lot, that’s how many times. We all do it to some extent — some people tell outrageous lies to further their own agendas, some people tell smaller lies to save face or save their dignity or to try not to hurt someone’s feelings, but really when we start being completely truthful with other people and with ourselves we begin to release our burdens and can be more authentic. I’ve been doing this recently with saying no to collaboration requests people have been making, because I just don’t have the mental capacity at the moment to be thinking about someone else’s needs aside from those I’m closest to, and so it’s best that I am completely honest and just focus on what I can focus on. And the other great thing about being honest is that it’s much easier to remember what you told people!
Next, make the choice to be authentic today and every day from now on. Authenticity begins with what you choose to do next. Do you keep on doing the things you’ve always done because they’re expected of you, or do you listen to your heart (and yes, that was a Roxette reference) and do you start to make choices that are more aligned with your true self? For example, if you’ve been working in banking for years but you hate it and you’ve always wanted to be an artist, what exactly are you waiting for? Do you expect that banking will suddenly become artistic and make you feel good about yourself? Well, it won’t. Make choices that help you to take steps towards a more authentic life — you don’t have to suddenly change everything overnight, but if you want things to change then you have to change things. You can make all the excuses you like — we all have bills to pay and pets to put through college — but ultimately you can either make excuses or you can make choices that help to bring about that more authentic and truthful life you want to live. Choose to shape your life into what you want it to be.
Identify what you need from your relationships (personal and professional) and ask for it — I say this all the time but if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Remember that healthy relationships involve both give and take, so it’s about finding the balance between what you want and need versus what the other person wants and needs in a way that is authentic for both of you.
If you’re struggling with where you are today compared to where you want to be and you’re not sure how to go about building the life you want, honestly assess what needs to change to get to your goal(s) and break it down into bite-size chunks. Getting started can be tough and it can be daunting, especially when there are massive changes involved. When I decided recently to get my emotional eating under control once and for all, I was so overwhelmed by the size of the problem (both literally and figuratively, since I had packed on the weight over the past couple of years) that I immediately went running to the nearest block of chocolate. Once I calmed down, I was able to start breaking things into smaller steps and looking at the kind of actions I could take myself (such as modifying my diet, taking up exercise, etc) as well as what support I would need (such as working with a professional to get to the root of why it kept on happening so I could confront and address the root causes), and setting weekly and monthly goals (such as losing one kilo/two pounds a week). When you break things down into smaller goals that you can achieve over a shorter period of time, it makes it easier to focus on because it’s far less overwhelming.
Here’s the thing: if you’re really honest with yourself, deep down you know who you are, who you want to be and what you need. Sometimes you might not be prepared to admit that to others and sometimes you might not be willing to admit that to yourself, but it’s still there. You can either pretend it doesn’t exist or you can face it and do something about it. What’s right isn’t necessarily what is easy, but taking the easy option doesn’t get you what you need. Learn about yourself and be true to yourself. Listen to your instincts and follow them. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses, and make the most of them. Be true to what you want and don’t want; if you want to say no to something, say no. If you want to say yes to something, say yes. Take every opportunity you can to be as authentic as you can possibly be.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to authenticity and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Life is too short and far too precious to spend it being some version of yourself that you think you’re supposed to be or that you’ve been told you should be. When you live a life that is authentic you’re able to find greater satisfaction and happiness within yourself and and also in your relationships with others, because you’re more capable of giving all of yourself. If the purpose of life is to become the best version of yourself possible, then surely being true to yourself and following your heart must lead you in the right direction… because when you live in a way that is truly authentic, other people are better able to connect with the real you and since you’re unique, that can only be a good thing!
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the American writer Sarah Ban Breathnach [pronounced BON BRANNOCK], and it is:
“The authentic self is soul made visible.”Sarah Ban Breathnach
Next week I’ll be talking about manipulation. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been on the receiving end of manipulation in the past, and often it can happen in both our personal and professional relationships without us even realising it. So next week I’ll be discussing what manipulation is (including gaslighting), why it can have a negative impact on your mental health, and how to address it for the sake of your wellbeing.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 7 December in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; the evening of Sunday 6 December in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 6 December in the US, Canada, Central America and South America.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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