We chose Frida Kahlo’s paintings as the visual theme to accompany this handout. Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was a Mexican artist whose art work is mostly biographical, depicting with brutal honesty her own life experiences of love, heartbreak, physical and emotional pain, death and femininity. Kahlo contracted polio at the age of six and suffered permanent damage to her leg and foot. At the age of 18, she was involved in a serious bus accident – she was impaled by a steel handrail which went into her hip and came out the other side, and suffered fractures in her spine and pelvis. She began painting in hospital to pass the time. She spent significant amounts of time in hospital as she underwent what became 30 operations throughout her life.

Painting was also a way for Kahlo to process her experiences – as a woman trying to navigate the many oppressive forces against her, as someone in incredible pain, as a lover, as someone who felt different to others as a result of the leg deformed by polio. These are all graphically depicted in her work. Also visible is Kahlo rebelling against the social norms of what femininity was supposed to look like, of creating works of art that were visceral and provocative in their realness, and not the glossy, veneered, pretty art woman of that time were expected to create. She was telling us who she was as a person, and not presenting the version that was perhaps expected of her.

Authenticity is a word that most people have heard of, maybe even use themselves, but may have never stopped to think about what it actually means. We might hear about a restaurant serving authentic Chinese, or a shop selling authentic Japanese kimonos. But what the word authenticity itself?

Broadly speaking, authenticity is a state in which a person’s values, thoughts, heart (or gut) and actions are all in alignment. What we feel inside is reflected in what we do and say, and how we appear on the outside. Being true and honest with oneself and others. It sounds fairly straight forward until we begin to think about the many things that prevent us from living authentically. We explore this in this handout.

The authentic self is often also referred to as the ‘true self’. This is a concept that people in the West have grappled with for centuries. From the ancient Greeks stressing the importance of ‘knowing thyself’, to Shakespeare stating ‘To thine own self be true’… and from 20th Century psychologists and philosophers debating the existence of the true self to the Latin phrase Temet nosce (‘Know thyself’) being inscribed over the door of the Oracle in the film The Matrix.

Depending on who you ask and what they believe in, there are different answers to the question of whether a true self actually exists. To Buddhists, for instance, it’s an absolute NO. Cultures that are more ‘collectivistic’ rather than individualistic – East vs West for example – believe that the needs of the self not be prioritised for the needs of the group. Group harmony to collectivistic cultures is more important than individual harmony. For the sake of keeping things relatively simple and this paper not turning into a book, the first stage in understanding the concept of authenticity is accepting that there is indeed a true self.


So what is it??

The psychoanalyst Karen Horney describes the true self as ‘the alive, unique, personal centre of ourselves’. It is something we see in [most] children, a self-expression that is often lost as a result of the influence of outside forces as we grow into adults. Horney describes the actualisation of this true self (actualisation meaning: bringing forth, making something real) as being the very meaning of life and the alienation of this self as being what she calls ‘psychic death’.

According to Horney, self-realizing people – people expressing their true selves – know what they really think, feel, and believe; they are able to take responsibility for themselves and to determine their values and aims in life. Their judgments and decisions are in the best interest both of their own growth and that of other people. They want to have good relations with others and care about their welfare, but they have their centre of gravity in themselves and are able to say no if others make irrational demands or attempt to impinge upon their individuality.

Living authentically then, requires not just an awareness of the existence of a true self, but a sense of who that self is, what the true self is about (in terms of values, beliefs, desires and so on), and the courage to express that self in our daily lives.


So what gets in the way??

We are moulded by outside forces before we are even born. We are shaped by the environment we experienced in our mother’s womb, and as we enter the world, by the quality of the relationship we have with our caregiver(s). As we grow older, we are influenced by messages coming from our parents, our siblings, our peers, our teachers, our culture, our religion, the media, and more. We are conditioned and programmed to fit in, to conform to the groups to which we are supposed to belong. As a result, we often develop ways of thinking and being that keep us acting in the ways we are taught to act, not in the ways that fit with the person we feel we are becoming. Sadly, we are often completely unaware that this process is taking place, particularly as we haven’t developed the critical thinking to question the process or the veiled messages we are receiving. As a social commentator once said, “It goes without saying because it comes without saying.”

Some thinkers call this the ‘adaptive self’, the self that learns to act, that helps us adapt to the situations we find ourselves in. Others, like the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, call it the ‘false self’. Winnicott was also a paediatrician and described the impact of inadequate nurturing on the development of the true self as “something that could have become the individual becomes hidden away… protected from further impingement by a ‘false self’ that develops reactively and supersedes the true self which might, under more favourable circumstances, have been gathering strength”. We unconsciously become our false self more and more as it helps us survive difficult and non-nurturing environments.

Others call this false self ‘character armour’ – something we put on in response to the worry that expressions of weakness or vulnerability will lead to rejection by others. The more we allow our true selves to become masked by the false self, the more it becomes deadened. We lose touch with who we are and increasingly succumb to what the existentialist thinker Soren Kierkergaard called the biggest danger – losing oneself.


Authenticity and Existentialism

Existential thinkers place great value on ‘authenticity’ – acting (and living) according to how you feel you should act rather than how you feel you are expected to act.  Many people are very unaware of the issues we have been talking about. In such cases, they never develop into what they could have been and instead take on the personality traits, desires, likes and dislikes of the dominant culture they are a part of. From a psychological view, this person is not mentally healthy at all, even if outward symptoms never develop. They are like a robot, missing out on unfolding their unique potential or of finding the path that is personally satisfying. Instead, they follow the paths they feel they are expected to follow and expect happiness to arise as a result. Needless to say, it often doesn’t.

So the inauthentic life is one whereby an individual feels pressured to appear to be a certain kind of individual (for instance a sensitive man who is forced to act macho to not appear feminine or gay), or feels pressured to ignore his or her own moral objections in order to live a more comfortable life.  This lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be ‘bad faith’. The existential philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Satre described the phenomenon in which human beings, under pressure from social forces, adopt false values and beliefs, thereby disowning their own individual freedom, and live inauthentically. Essentially it relates to us lying to ourselves to spare ourselves short term pain. It is connected to the idea of cognitive dissonance – we rationalise an uncomfortable situation we are in often my lying or deluding ourselves to make us feel better or to avoid taking responsibility for something. This obviously doesn’t work in the long-term.

Existentialist thinkers such as Martin Heidegger link authenticity to an awareness of mortality, believing that by keeping in mind one’s inevitable death, a person can lead a truly authentic life. Generally we don’t face up to death - we avoid it in a tonne of different ways. People think it is morbid to think about it, or they just don’t think they need to think about it yet. We fail to recognize both the importance of death in our lives as well as the ever present possibility of it. In facing death we are able to reflect upon what matters most to our existence, to choose our own path, and to live authentically.

Another existentialist thinker, Albert Camus, claimed that the awareness that that we inhabit a God-free universe which doesn’t care about us and offers us no salvation compels us to recognize that the only path to freedom is creating our own meaning in life and living lives we feel align with our own personal values and beliefs.

It is a difficult issue – it is incredibly difficult to even see how oppressive your background and the expectations on you to be a certain way are, let alone breaking free from them. It can also be an incredibly painful process to realise how held back or oppressed you have been from forces you may not have been aware of or had the language for. Existentialists believe that lasting happiness is a symptom of the inner peace that comes from confronting existential anxiety head on – the anxiety we experience by the very fact of our being alive and knowing that one day we will die - and working with it in a constructive way. They advocate becoming aware of this anxiety rather than blocking it out through substances, sex, shopping, and other distractions – and finding the direction in life that fulfils your human potential.  Happiness in this sense is finding your personal path and following it, knowing that you are becoming the fullest possible version of yourself, thereby not living in bad faith.

The quest for authenticity is in part related to achieving some measure of autonomy and freedom – to the desire to be the architect of one’s own life. Striving for personal authenticity provides an antidote to outside conditioning or programming, and to some extent is a reaction to the inauthenticity prevalent in culture, religion, politics, and everyday life. In general, the profound cognitive dissonance experienced when being inauthentic is a feeling that can be harnessed to prompt people to try to become more authentic - in harmony in their inner and outer lives - rather than something to shut down.

It is important to say that becoming authentic is an individual mission, since each person has their own way of being human, and consequently what is authentic will be different for each individual. Personal authenticity is deeply related to the contexts in which we live and affected by various social, political, religious and cultural characteristics. It is also important to say that becoming authentic is a continuous process, a lifelong one, and not a destination to reach or state to attain. Thinking of it as something to achieve once and for all can very easily morph into a proverbial stick to beat yourself up with, particularly if you have the core belief of ‘not being good enough’. Try to instead approach the idea with a sense of curiosity that you cultivate as you unfold, unravel and explore what makes you YOU.

Some tips on cultivating the state of authenticity

  • Pick up a magnifiying glass. Really deeply understand the concept of the adaptive self: what it is, what purpose is serves/served, where it came from and why it arose. Remember that in psychology, everything comes from somewhere – try to be curious about what you find rather than judgmental and critical. Understanding the character armour you have developed and recognizing where it came from is the first step in being able to take it off.


  • Now that you have understood and seen some of your character armour, pick up an even stronger magnifying glass. Reflect on your upbringing, particularly your family environment and the culture you grew up in. Was your true self given space to express itself? Were there particular times in your development that you can point to as being the moment you had to develop specific character armour? Can you understand why? And how that may have helped you cope? Again, try not to judge yourself about wearing the character armour – it protected you and helped you survive. More important is understanding what was missing in your life (love, affection, encouragement, praise, space to express and be yourself) that meant that you had to pick up the armour and keep it on.


  • Think about your life now – are there parts of your life where you feel you are able to be yourself more than others? Examine what is going on in those scenarios – who are you with? How do they make you feel? Are you hanging out with people and doing things you don’t like just to feel like you’re fitting in? What is the cost of this on you? How do you feel when you are able to be alone again?


  • Examine your core beliefs – what are the voices saying? Whose voices are they? What is the voice saying when you are trying to express your true self? Our true self often holds a lot of fear, anger, sadness – they are the part of us that was hurt which is why the adaptive self took over. Keep a hold of the magnifying glass and try to get a sense of the inner beliefs that are holding you back.

  • Often when we are breaking free from something which held us back – a toxic relationship, drugs or alcohol, our families – particularly when we’ve been in it a long time, we have to begin the process of reconnecting to our true self. A good place to start once you’ve had a look at some of the above points is to begin exploring your values. There are lots of exercises online that can help you discover these – this is one example.