Being Authentic

By Chris Chittenden

“Even the fear of death is nothing compared to the fear of not having lived authentically and fully.”

… Frances Moore Lappe, O Magazine, May 2004

The idea of living or acting authentically has presented itself to me on a number of occasions in recent times and given me pause for reflection over just what it means to be authentic.

My listening to most people’s understanding of being authentic is that we are authentic when we act in accordance with the story we have about ourselves. When we do so, we are being true to ourselves. Yet if we act in a way that is inconsistent with our story of who we are, then, by definition, we are not being authentic. When I thought about it, this did not make sense to me.

In ontological coaching, we hold that people observe what they do and then generate a story (an interpretation) about what they have observed that is their self-story. We can say that there is some action and then a story about that action. The story of who we are does not come before the action, yet often we are not able to distinguish the difference. For example, someone might say he has trouble managing his anger, but he would not have thought that about himself before he observed himself be angry in a certain situation. Now clearly there is a flaw in this line of thinking because if this was the case, then we would all have a very accurate story about who we are based on what we have seen ourselves do and this is definitely not the case. The key to understanding this anomaly lies in the way in which we generate our stories. Any new stories about ourselves and the world in general are created from our existing stories, which in turn have an impact on what we observe in the first place.

Let’s look at a simple example. Say I hold a story about myself that I am a coward based on a number of experiences I have had in the past. I am walking down the street and notice smoke coming from a building. I also hear a call for help from inside. Without thinking I run inside and help an old lady out of the building. Even though others may see me as a hero for doing this, I will put the event in the context of previous events and I may or may not change my story that I am a coward.

What does all this have with being authentic? Well, we would hold you are always being authentic. Indeed you cannot be any other way as your actions are fact and you will act in coherence with your way of being. This will almost certainly mean that you are not acting according to the story you have about yourself. Indeed, research shows that around two out of every three people are dramatically out of touch with regard to how they see themselves in relation to how others see them. From our point of view, the breakdown exists in our poorly aligned interpretation of our actions not in being authentic or inauthentic.

The good news is this presents an opportunity. Our actions point to what is important to us. It tells us what our values are at a very fundamental level. For example, the primary style for managers in many countries has been shown to be avoidance. Avoidance can be seen as taking care of our security, which is one of the key values people will hold – to protect what they have. When we become more attuned to our actions, we become more attuned to ourselves and what we value. We may not like all that we see, but in many ways, this is better than believing we are acting in a way that we are not.

The key opportunity here lies in looking at our actions to develop our self-awareness and a more aligned self-story. From that starting point, we can better shift our actions to the story we would prefer to have of ourselves.

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© 2005 Chris Chittenden