authenticity

On becoming real

The work of authenticity is supposed to feel very vulnerable and scary. If this process is not terrifying, one has not yet begun to approach the truth.

It works in a somewhat backwards or negative fashion. You don’t technically become something; it is a peeling away so that something else can emerge, rather than a becoming something entirely new. It works by a continuous recognition of where we are not being authentic or truthful, and then the awareness and healing work to fix it. So we are actually learning at each step by failing. The ideal standard is to “be fearlessly real,” and the actual work is the constant recognition of where we fall short. For some people, the very nature of this constant sense of failure is enough to demoralize them and drive them away, but that’s the only way it works.

While it does get easier with time, at first it is really complex and dangerous. With each new deeper level of truth that seeks expression, fear is triggered again and again, until it is processed out and a comfortable equilibrium is reached. In this way, the process of authenticity is also helping us to conquer a whole bunch of fear.

I’ve met a few people over the years who claimed that they are “ego-free” and “totally authentic.” Surprised by their assertions, I asked them to share a bit more of their work with me. It turned out (each and every time) that they just “decided one day” to “stop being fake” and “got real.” Or they had an “ego-death” experience, and that was it. Just like that, with a snap of a finger, they magically stopped having an ego… Silly, right? That’s not how any of this works, but people have an endless capacity for self-deception. God bless them. (I find it’s better not to engage with them or make any attempt to explain anything. Just let them believe whatever they wish to believe and back away slowly. Trying to convince them that they’re confused doesn’t ever work out.)

Back to those of us who are engaging in real spiritual work…

The ego, by that I am referring to the false self, is formed in childhood as a response to fear and pain. As aspects of our personality emerged and were rejected or scolded, we learned to hide those feelings, behaviors, and expressions. The false self then is the collection of traits, behaviors, and expressions we learned that we must be, in order to feel safe, accepted, and loved, because the real version is not acceptable or leads to pain. The more hurtful and oppressive the childhood, the stronger and broader this false self is. (This makes sense, right? The more you experience rejection of the various parts of yourself, the more you learn to hide those parts away, until the only thing left on the surface is the acceptable pleasing version.). So the false self is really a game of pretend, designed to seek love and approval from others, while the real version, the truth of who we are, stays buried deep inside.

To now unmask the real version (which, absent a psychosis experience, happens very slowly in stages) and to emerge as that person, is going to naturally trigger all of the original pain of rejection. It will also trigger fear of it all repeating, and it will likely even bring up lots of childhood trauma.

The real version, with authentic feelings, is going to threaten existing relationships and dynamics, which have been comfortably stable up until now, even if they were dysfunctional. It is going to threaten careers and livelihood, and the relationship to work. It is going to bring up and revise the entire value system, and likely with that existential questions and moral concerns will arise. It is really nothing short of a revolution of one’s entire life. And all of this doesn’t even begin to touch the mystical arena (which is a far grander and infinitely deeper area of work).

This basic process of becoming real is very hard. And it takes a lot of time, effort, and dedication. It’s also filed with incredible joy, satisfaction, soulful meaning, and the healthy pride and confidence of personal achievement. There are experiences of real freedom and liberation of the spirit. There is a growing sense of love and belonging (often to a new community of like-minded folks). There is inspiration, creativity, hope, and healing, and most importantly, the sense that one is finally “on the right track.”

Being ego-free or totally authentic all the time is an impossible ideal. No one is that through and through. But getting to some imagined ideal isn’t the point. It’s not about being or becoming something perfect. The point is really each tiny step we can take in that direction. That’s perfectly enough. This is precisely what the evolution and transformation of consciousness is about.

Confession: I don’t know how to tell you that you’ve hurt my feelings.

 
Some time ago, along the path of intense self-discovery, I realized that I’m not good at conflict, neither the confrontation, nor the resolution. Ironic, for a litigator, yes? (You’d be surprised how many lawyers have a problem with healthy interpersonal conflict resolution.).
 
But conflict happens in every relationship, and if you don’t know how to handle conflict in a healthy constructive way, you’re in real trouble. I was in real trouble!
 
What I mean when I say that I’m not good at conflict, in a practical sense, is that when my feelings are hurt; when I am mistreated in some way; when a friend or loved one oversteps a boundary – I avoid confronting them about it like its the plague.
 
I don’t say anything. Avoid avoid avoid.
 
I just pretend it didn’t happen. I ignore it. I shove it down, deeper and deeper, as though that will make it just disappear out of existence. I will push it down as far as possible, and I will let it rot in the depths of my psyche forever. I always assumed this was normal, and called it “forgiveness.” Boy, was I wrong!
 
Here’s how this dance goes: My friend, Jennifer, says something to me that I perceive as hurtful. It’s not malicious, I assume. It’s not intentionally hurtful. It’s just some casual comment, to which I am extremely sensitive. I feel a slight inner pang, an unpleasant but familiar twinge of something. I brush it off without saying anything. 
 
Inevitably, later when I am at home by myself, I am haunted by the replay of the comment over and over in my mind. “Why did she say that? How could she think that? etc. etc.” I start having pretend conversations with her, trying to crawl into her mind and figure out what she meant or whether my worst assumptions are true.
 
But I never actually say anything about it to Jennifer, and because of that, she has absolutely no idea that her comment affected me. The next time we speak she makes a similar comment. And again, that unpleasant feeling bubbles up in me. Again, I ignore it. Then some time later, another comment, and another comment, and pretty soon I’m in resentment-land. I start having anxiety at the thought of seeing Jennifer again. That’s when I become passive aggressive. It’s not fun (for me, or for Jennifer).
 
(While this post is about me and my personal flaws and failings, I should also tell you that my track record of Jennifers almost always skews narcissistic. So this isn’t entirely my fault all the time, but this post isn’t about bashing the Jennifers or blaming them. This one is about owning my end of the problem.). 
 
If Jennifer has the guts to ask me if something’s wrong, I will be annoyed that she doesn’t intuitively get why I’m upset. “How could she not get it?” I think to myself. And so I punish her by saying “nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.” Let her suffer in guilt and confusion, I decide. Somehow in my mind, withholding the truth of how I feel has turned into a weapon, which I’m using to hurt her? I don’t know. It doesn’t make a lot of sense when I say it out loud, but that’s the truth of what I do. 
 
Sexy, right? Don’t all line up at once to be my friend! I’m pretty sure that I acquired this pattern of relating when I was four years old. 
 
Ultimately, Jennifer will do some innocuous mildly offensive thing, (which I perceive as “the final straw,”) and I lash out, in self-righteous rage, and sever the relationship entirely.
 
When I looked at why this happens, I realized it’s because I’m afraid to verbalize my hurt feelings when they first arise. I don’t want to appear petty. I don’t want to create drama. I don’t want unpleasantness between us. I don’t know how to address it, and I don’t know how to begin to manage that interaction. Mostly, I feel guilty that my feelings are hurt to begin with. But at the heart of it, if I’m being really honest, I’m afraid that my feelings don’t matter. I’m afraid that this person doesn’t really care that they’ve upset me, and if I bring it up they will just invalidate my hurt feelings or dismiss me. Or worse yet, they will explode in reactionary anger. This is, of course, my deep-seated sense of unworthiness, some traumatic stuff, and a whole bunch of dysfunctional relating patterns.
 
On the other side, what ends up happening, is that I don’t actually connect with people in a vulnerable way. I don’t ever allow myself to be seen, authentically. The friendship always stays at the surface level, because I don’t want to invest emotionally when I know it’s going to end in separation.
 
So, I keep my distance, because I know they will just end up doing a series of hurtful things (which I won’t bring up or resolve), and I want to stay away from that drama and discomfort. Alternatively, I will tell them my feelings are hurt, they will invalidate or dismiss them or get angry, and that will just make everything worse.
 
The world I live in is so fun!! 
 
And so when I first realized this, and learned that there was an entire set of healthy relationship dynamics that don’t operate on destruction, and that there are human beings in the world who carefully and conscientiously practice healthy conflict, I became really embarrassed. I thought “Oh god. I’ve been acting like a complete childish jerk for so long!” (More self-judgment, which I promptly turned around).
 
I decided to make a note of all the places I do this – places where I don’t voice my feelings; where I don’t speak up for myself; where I am afraid of being vulnerable; where I am afraid of showing the side of me that is sensitive and scared; where I put the feelings and potential negative judgments of other people above my own. The list just grew and grew and grew. It wanted to fix it, but it was like a toxic fungus everywhere. It was very sad.
 
That’s when I made the decision to stop compromising myself entirely. It was going to require a complete revolution inside. I would have to re-align my loyalty with my own heart, rather than with the feelings of other people around me. I would have to actually care about my own feelings, and give them value, without waiting for someone else to do that for me. I decided that I’m going to stop being a coward, stop betraying myself, and face my fears (and scary destructive relationships) head-on. I am going to let people know when something has made me uncomfortable, and they can then value my feelings or not, that’s their business. (If they don’t value my feelings, that’s usually a great relationship red flag.).
 
I found a ton of books and methods that helped me find a way to communicate my feelings without escalating drama, without anger, without blame, and without judgment. (This is an art-form that takes a lot of courage and practice).  
 
As I started sharing my personal revolution with others, it turns out that actually lots of people struggle with this. Most people are terrified of speaking honestly and vulnerably about their feelings. Good, kind, decent people also avoid conflict like the plague!! I am not alone. Their coping strategies vary, but at the root is the very same fear that their feelings aren’t valid, worthwhile, or important. 
 
Here’s the upshot, if you haven’t figured it out by now, your feelings are really really important! Honor your feelings. Speak up for yourself in a kind, loving, and compassionate way. Be true to how you feel by allowing it to be expressed. If you see that you can take care of your own feelings, you will be better able to bond intimately and more deeply with other emotionally safe people. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world when you find the courage to allow yourself to be really seen. Your heart will thank you!
 

 

Honesty, instead of eggshells

 

One of the most challenging aspects of love and living authentically is developing the courage to speak with truth. This is a really difficult area of work. It sounds easy, but it’s really not. 

At the outset, the search for truth within can be a scary endeavor. To be honest with ourselves, to admit our real feelings and allow them into conscious awareness, can be terrifying.

Forget big universal truths; I’m talking about little truths, personal truths, aspects of our personality which are in conflict with who we think we are or should be. Most of us are afraid to really look inward, and to be honest with ourselves, to admit the truth to ourselves, because we might find some really shameful and unacceptable parts. We might find some parts that require us to make difficult choices or changes.

Naturally, none of us really want to endure feelings of shame or emotional turmoil, so most of us prefer to live in denial than to face the difficulties that truth presents. Denial has the appearance of safety and stability, and for a while it can certainly help keep things quiet. 

For those of us who are courageous enough to go within, and to do this inner truth seeking privately and make peace internally with who we really are, life offers us the next great challenge and obstacle – other people!!

Sometimes admitting truths to ourselves privately feels ok and comfortable, and we can certainly build up resilience to face greater and more unpleasant truths as we go. But the idea of saying those things out loud to another, or asking that the needs we’ve discovered, or the feelings we’ve found, be accepted, respected, and honored by someone else? That can feel overwhelmingly scary. 

The people in our lives, our most intimate relationships, can sometimes turn out to be the scariest places of all.

We might fear their shame, rejection, invalidation, or ridicule. We might fear that the other person will abandon us if they really knew the truth. Other times, we might be very concerned with the feelings of others, afraid of hurting or upsetting them with our truths, and so we become afraid of being honest, or telling them how we really feel. Sometimes we find ourselves in relationship dynamics with people who are psychologically fragile and explosive. They might often respond to our feelings or vulnerable truths in very harmful, toxic, and emotionally violent ways.

As a matter of course, in destructive dynamics like this, especially if there is a power imbalance, in order to stay safe, we learn how to subjugate ourselves and maneuver around others very carefully. We do everything we can, twisting ourselves into knots, just to avoid their psychological landmines. We learn how to coddle them and their insecurities. We learn how to cater to their unreasonable demands and manipulations. We learn that saying an honest and authentic “no,” or expressing contrary feelings can lead to destructive explosions and retaliations. We never know when we’ll step on some trigger with them, so we make ourselves really really small and unobtrusive. We tread lightly. We forgo our own needs and wishes. We speak less and less. We express ourselves less and less. We keep our truths, our opinions, and feelings suppressed, all in an effort to avoid upsetting them.

This is how we end up on “eggshells.”

Despite our best efforts, when we deny and silence our real feelings to avoid conflict with others, inevitably our resentment grows more and more. We end up feeling a variety of contemptuous feelings towards them, which then has carry over effects in all other areas of our lives. 

But what’s worse than resentment is that instead of moving towards greater and greater courage in expressing our truths, these relationships drive us further into oppressive silence. We can feel suffocated in these dynamics, which don’t allow any space for our real selves to exist.

So part of the spiritual maturation process involves a kind of unshackling within these relationships, and a liberation of our authentic honest feelings. That requires siding with our feelings, making space for them to exist in our relationships, standing by them when they are attacked or disallowed by others, and learning how to express ourselves honestly to other people, especially if we are used to walking around on eggshells.

That’s part of the real terror of this process – working to wisely and prudently heal the shame and fear of being our authentic selves with others, even if that means incurring the wrath and disapproval of those who seek to keep us silent and small.

We have to slowly work to unlearn the eggshell patterns, and as we do this more and more, we begin to develop greater courage with speaking truth.