Jesper Juul, a family therapist from Scandinavia and director of Family Counseling International, writes that in order to help children grow and develop in the healthiest ways possible, “Parents need to shift their consciousness toward a more authentic way of being.” After reading that sentence, I found myself coming back to it again and again. The idea resonated with me, though precisely why was not clear to me.
what is an authentic way of being and how might it help us?
Personal authenticity means many things to many people. I think we can all agree that when politicians (or others) use the term to describe themselves (see NY Times article “Authentic? Get Real”), something is amiss. At the same time, there is something powerful about recognizing deep within ourselves that we’ve not been as authentic in our lives as we could be. Maybe we got caught up in excessive approval seeking? Maybe we’ve been overly guarded in the majority of our relationships? Maybe we feel like chameleons, contorting ourselves in ways that do not feel good, simply in order to fit into different settings?
As I think about it now, I am reminded of a few years back when a friend told me that her therapist had been helping her to express herself with more “emotional honesty.” By using this phrase – emotional honesty – she had helped me put words to the unmistakable growth I had been noticing in her at the time, in her body language, the things she said, her tone of voice and her overall energy. One way of describing this process is to say that she was becoming more real, more genuine, more authentic. As she became more emotionally honest with herself and others, it increased her ability to be self-aware and comfortable in her own skin. As a result of this inner growth process, her relationships began to change as did her confidence and effectiveness at work.
Something special happens when we commit to being more authentic and emotionally honest with ourselves and others, though it is hard to capture exactly what that ‘specialness’ is. We can feel it and experience it – and others can recognize it – even if none of us can completely describe it. I know for myself that as a husband, a friend, a supervisor and a therapist, all of my interpersonal interactions are enhanced by the degree to which I can let down my guard and bring my most open and authentic self to the table. It is easier said than done, but it is always well worth the effort.
when life gets difficult
Emotional honesty and authentic living are priceless resources for us when it comes to overcoming the difficulties and challenges of life. It is an important accomplishment for many people when they are able to say, “I’m really hurting today – I need to take it slow” or “I feel really lonely and scared right now, and I need support.” This connection to our own vulnerability and range of emotional needs is the foundation of our capacity to manage our moods and to practice self-care. When we can do that somewhat consistently, we no longer need to avoid or act-out the feelings that are painful; instead we can process, work through and use them in ways that advance our growth and bring us closer to others. Many people come to therapy precisely because they’ve had little to no experience identifying and taking responsibility for their own vulnerabilities and emotional needs, and it has caught up with them, resulting in failed relationships, ongoing depression and anxiety, abuse of mood altering substances, self-defeating habits and more.
being ‘out of touch’ with our own emotions
A core aspect of authenticity in adult life is to be attuned and connected to our own emotionality, which allows us to be attuned and connected to others. When we are not attuned to and familiar with our own emotional experiences, when these internal experiences are alien to us, we are said to be ‘out of touch with our emotions.’ This is often akin to a cell phone being in a dead zone, out of touch with its source of power. When this happens, all the amazing functions of the smart phone are incapacitated. In a similar way, when we are cut off from our emotions, many of the most important capabilities within each of us are either dulled or end up functioning erratically because we are disconnected from our own power source.
Take a moment and think about the ways you avoid being ‘in-touch’ with your own emotions:
- Do you get gossipy and judgmental when you feel insecure? This is a sure-fire method for ensuring that people will not want to get close to you. To be gossipy and judgmental is to be emotionally avoidant of what’s really going on for you, and what your deeper needs are.
- Do you use alcohol or other mood altering substances in order to achieve what seems/feels like intimacy? Newsflash: That is not intimacy, nor is it about real emotional honesty, and you know it (afterwards).
- Do you wear a habitual but fragile smile during the day, while feeling dread most nights when you leave work – and then regularly numb out at night with food and television, only to get up the next day and follow the same deadening routine over and over again?
- Do you work compulsively, in frantic and frenetic ways, ensuring that you excel in order to obtain maximum (external) rewards at work, while paradoxically never experiencing any deep or meaningful sense of accomplishment or inner peace?
Instead of getting in touch with, expressing and attending to our vulnerabilities, it is often easier and more common for us to remain cut-off from emotionality that is uncomfortable. We recognize it is there, but we run from it, avoid it, deny it, and get caught up in the endless ways that adults ‘act-out’ their difficult emotions. Being on the run from our own truth is destructive. Stopping to face ourselves can be scary and difficult, but it is the foundation of all healthy and successful living. As we cultivate the ability to be more emotionally honest with ourselves and others, fear-based living starts to slip away. Over time it can actually leave us completely, becoming a distant memory.
getting real with yourself and others
Take time today to ‘check in’ with yourself, emotionally. Instead of sprinting off to happy hour after work, take yourself to a coffee shop and do some journaling. Ask yourself: If this was my last day on earth, did I spend it in a way I feel good about? To what degree was I emotionally connected to myself and others today? What am I doing with my life, and how do I feel about that? What emotional needs have I been neglecting, either my own or others? Am I being as emotionally honest in my relationships as I need to be?
These are not easy questions to ponder; they raise anxiety and cause internal turbulence. So why do it? Because we NEED to provoke constructive types of anxiety and turbulence in our lives, as a means to growth and positive change. It’s like going to the “emotional” gym – no pain, no gain. All growth and change begins with wanting things to be different – and then taking consistent and constructive action in a new direction. What better investment can we make but to prioritize getting more real with ourselves and those we love?