Issue #10: Who are you, really?
“Do you!” “Find yourself!” “Know your truth!”
It feels like we are constantly being told to find our “authentic selves” – whether through films, cosmetic companies or, our favourite social media influencers. The constant tidal wave of messaging on authenticity can make “finding yourself” feel like a chore, or worse, an unattainable ideal. The trope of people (or talking animals) looking into a mirror or a reflective pool and asking “Who am I?” resonates so deeply with each of us, because it is perhaps one of the most universally human questions we each ask of ourselves.
But what if you don’t like who you find? This past month, being indoors, alone or with family, has become a large reflective mirror and a stress test for our relationships. In between video calls and charting of new culinary waters, without errands to run or colleagues to bounce ideas off, we’ve spent a lot of time with ourselves. No doubt, at times during this lockdown period, how you’ve seen or experienced yourself has not been great. Perhaps you’re impatient, or unproductive, or just boring? And you’ve found yourself circling back to the question: Who am I?
“When you know better, you do better.”Dr. Maya Angelou
Perhaps we keep circling back to this question because the answer is elusive. Who you are changes from year to year, moment to moment, and it doesn’t mean we’re lost or confused. It means we’re flexible and evolving and that’s okay. Poet and author Maya Angelou once said “When you know better, you do better.” We can use this as a sign post that we return to over and over again on our own journey. Who we are at a given point in time and how we respond may not necessarily be how we respond tomorrow, when you know something more or different than the day before. But as Maya Angelou’s autobiographies show, the guide to a fulfilling journey of self discovery is honesty—the willingness to face your own mistakes and inadequacies, and to assess what you’ve learned from them.
Maya Angelou herself lived many lives—poet, activist, speaker, teacher, dancer, singer, mother, wife—and so do we. We all have different faces that we show to the world at different times to help us navigate the roles we inhabit. Being your authentic self during your various roles can be challenging, but being authentic is as simple as responding from a place of truthfulness, especially in the moments when you don’t have the answers.
We’ve all seen Dolly Parton’s viral meme on everyone’s various social media personas — LinkedIn, versus Facebook, Instagram and Tinder. While it’s all a lot of fun, it forced us to think about the different visages we show the world. Social media has become so powerful because it fulfils our inherent need for connection, yet it also amplifies inauthenticity through knee-jerk responses and curated profiles. We’re all still trying to figure out how to truly use and grow our social media connections for good, but one way to start is to own your own true story.
The financial toll of living inauthentically is debt. Historically, women are more indebted than men, especially single women. This is exacerbated by the fact that women earn less than men. A clear sign of an inauthentic relationship with money is living above your means. In an indebted culture, where South Africans spend nearly half their salaries repaying debt, we can miss the red flags that indicate we could be drowning, and living on credit or not saving can be the norm. Living within your means may require some short-term sacrifice, but it is the start of an authentic financial relationship.
In an industrialised world, we’ve lost touch with how our food gets from the farm to our plates. A large percentage of the foods we eat everyday are processed, and while this makes food more accessible or last longer, it isn’t always good for our bodies. Our food not only loses authenticity, we lose vital nutrients. Even when we’re trying to eat healthier, it can make for a restrictive, expensive diet. There is a way to create a more balanced diet without spending too much or turning to farming our own food: by adding more whole foods to our meals.
“Authentic leadership” is the buzz phrase in corporate culture, but what does it mean to be authentic when most of us curate a persona for work? Being authentic at work can feel counterintuitive when work demands that we adapt, change direction or reassess. The authenticity paradox reminds us that because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. Perhaps work requires us to think about authenticity differently—for us to be adaptively authentic and avoid inadvertently reinforcing old patterns.