Health & Fitness Is authenticity overrated? Why our obsession with our 'true self' could be damaging
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'Authenticity' is a watchword of our time, especially in the business world. Every seminar, conference and HR department wants to know if you’re “bringing your whole, authentic self to work”. Warning – they don’t mean it. If you really brought your whole self to work, you’d call someone a small-minded, entitled dictator and get fired inside a week. What they really mean is “bring more of your best self to work”. Your worst self is of course reserved for those who love you most – your family. It’s no less authentic but far less socially acceptable.
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Personally, I’m not a massive fan of the obsession with authenticity. Of course, you should be who you are and say what you mean. But in truth, my authentic self likes to eat cake and lie down. My best self likes to eat fruit and do yoga and I find if I just consciously and artificially do the things my best self does for three to six months, they become authentic. I’ve been into yoga for about six years, and it is no less authentic for me to go into downward facing dog now, than it was for me to be sedentary then. This is because your authentic self is just your habitual self. Don’t let what feels comfortable or natural today limit you. You can alter your habits and patterns to find a new way of operating that may make you feel elated, stretched and powerful in brand new ways and those new ways will become what you’re known for and what feels right.
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Just over a year ago, when we went into lockdown I crashed and burned fast and hard. I’m an extrovert which means I get my energy from other people. It was like coming off the caffeine of humanity. I felt like I was going to die. I realised I needed a strategy and so decided to book a one-on-one dance lesson via Zoom at 9.15am every morning, six days a week - just so I would be sure to get out of bed, put clothes on, move a bit and have a shower. It worked in more ways than one. Turns out it’s really hard to dance to show tunes and still feel totally miserable. It is not impossible – but it’s difficult.
I chose dance because I saw a story from the 1960s about James Dean telling Eartha Kitt that he wanted to move like her and her taking him to dance class. I’m verbally and mentally extremely dextrous on stage. If I’m anxious, it seeps out in the way I move. If I ever had to do a little light choreography in a comedy sketch or on a hen night, I’d start checking the exits – convinced everyone else would be able to do it better than me. Fifteen months of Strictly Come Lockdown later, I am rehearsing a routine to Get Down from Six the Musical, in heels that includes both some of the OG choreography from the West End show that we’ve lifted from TikTok and a tap break. I took up tap dancing with a friend about six months in. It’s so precise. You can’t fudge it. I started to enjoy the extra challenge of accuracy. I dance about nine hours a week and do four hours of personal training and am pretty addicted to short bursts on the Peloton. If I don’t exercise for two days, I can’t sleep. I’m tense and at least need a long stretch. Moving is the only thing I know how to do now.
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This would shock all of my judgemental PE teachers because I was a good student, but bunked off sport whenever I could. It was baking hot for much of the year in Queensland where I was raised, and I wasn’t good at catching things or running fast. I could think and talk fast though – and so I was picked for the debating team. That might not sound cool, but winning trophies in sport was currency at my school and I won stuff while being funny and drawing a crowd, so it was where I got my street cred. Sometimes what we think of as authentic to us is actually something that gave us status or kept us safe when we were young. There’s nothing wrong with that. People do things for good reason. A man I coached once loved his job so much he told me that he wouldn’t take a day off if someone put £500 million in his bank account. When he went for job interviews, he constantly got the feedback that he seemed experienced and clever but showed no passion. His authentic self couldn’t communicate the passion he was feeling. I asked him about his childhood and discovered that if he brought home good news or a new interest from school, his parents would pour cold water on his fire and put it out. He’d learned to hide his fire, to keep it aflame - a behaviour that had helped him emotionally survive as a kid, wasn’t serving him as a 45-year-old executive, so he needed to let it go.
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You might be feeling as you’re reading this that some of your behaviours that kept you safe in sixth form, made you popular when you reinvented yourself at university or allowed you to keep your head down and stay invisible the first year on the job when your boss was a bully aren’t serving you anymore either. You might also feel that, despite this, anything else seems inauthentic now and university is widely accepted as the last socially acceptable chance to reinvent yourself. But why?
Imagine you are standing by a fire at a party and you’re wearing a really wet coat because you got stuck in the rain on the way there. It’s dragging you down and it feels heavy, but it kept you dry when you were outside. Now you’re by the fire and you don’t need that coat anymore. A voice in your head tells you that if you take it off, you’ll get cold and wet because that’s what happened outside, but you’re not in the same place as you were anymore. You can shed any old behaviour like a coat. Thank it for its service as you take it off because it has been good to you - but have the courage to let it go. Your 21-year-old self is no more authentic to you than the 35-year-old powerhouse you have grown into. Bravely change patterns and form new bold, exciting habits. They might feel sticky and fake for three days, three weeks or three months but gradually they will become the only thing you know how to do and you’ll get to bring your best self to work and home again every day – genuinely.
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