In Search of the Elusive Authentic Self

In my coaching practice the issue of authenticity is a featured player. More often than not clients will, at some point in the session, tell me they are either:

  1. Searching for their authentic self
  2. Struggling to live an authentic life
  3. Questioning whether their motives are coming from an authentic place.

What has to happen for the conditions for self-doubt to manifest? When do we begin to feel we’ve lost touch with the image we hold in our mind’s eye of who we believe ourselves to be? And how can we return to the clarity that keeps us grounded and focused on the values we cherish most? When we answer those questions authenticity becomes less of an intention and more of a truth we live. 

When I was a child I was teased for having two left feet. More often than not I had fresh or fading scabs on my elbows and knees from all the falls I took. Like a puppy learning to leash walk I was easily distracted by metaphorical squirrels. I tripped over sidewalk cracks, missed steps when climbing stairs and walked into people, poles and walls in my pursuit of something different from the task at hand.

As an adult, while my elbows and knees have healed, not much else has changed. I’m still easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. I still stumble. I fall, enraptured by the aspirations of others at the expense of my own. My admiration for the high bar others set for themselves ignores the higher bar I’ve set for myself and fills my brain with ‘you should do this’ or ‘you should do that’ at the expense of my heart’s song. This longing to be someone I’m not steals validity from the wonderful life I’m living. It diminishes the dreams I have. It diverts my attention away from the values most important to me and ultimately away from my authentic self.  

The best we have to offer the world is grounded in personal authenticity. When we lose sight of that – when we feel lost – how do we find our way back? The answer to that question is as unique as the journey we’ve chosen for ourselves. But I find these suggestions useful:

  1. Get away from the noise. Take a day to yourself. Set work, obligation and commitment aside and give your heart the space to expand.
  2. Breathe with intention. When you feel unmoored, close your eyes and breathe. Lengthen the exhalation until it’s longer than the inhalation. Imagine the in-breath moving into the soles of your feet and connecting you to the earth.
  3. Trust your instincts but know that the answers aren’t black and white. Some of us choose to listen to our heart. Others listen to our brain. But what about the space in between? What is that space saying to you and how does it align to the authentic life you want to live? Is there an equilibrium to be found?
  4. Honor the truth that journeys change. There are detours, road closures and surprises if we choose to spend some time exploring roads taken less often. It’s these moments that help us take the next step.

When we look carefully, we discover that the sense of self is not a particle that never changes, but rather a flow, a wave of thought and feeling that can increase and decrease and is therefore not permanent.

—Shinzen Young, “Brief Teachings”

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