Authenticity – developing identity through the losing & gaining of self

Credit. Three Faces. 1929, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artist

by Edward Reid


“To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else–means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.” E.E. Cummings, A Miscellany

We battle every day to be our original selves. Our society is a society of standards; if we don’t abide by those standards, we may be considered abnormal or even disturbed. Authenticity also takes a certain amount of vulnerability, and being too vulnerable is seen as a weakness.

We praise “authentic” people, but many are rarely courageous enough to be authentic. There is safety in conforming. It is commonplace to join the ranks of everyone else so as not to stand out. So why is it so hard to be authentic, and what comes with being authentic?

For over 500 years, authenticity has been embedded in the ethos of Western civilization. “To thine own self be true” (Hamlet’s Shakespeare), reflect as well as any others what authenticity has meant to the Western mind. According to this ideal, each of us has our own path, determined by our unique traits and potential.

If we believe in the ideal of authenticity, then a “true” and “real” self must exist. While such a conception of the self may seem vague and inexpressible, numerous thinkers have attempted to elaborate coherent positions regarding its existence.

The psychiatrist Donald Winnicott conceptualized the true self as the source of one’s spontaneous and creative energies, which are abundant in children at play, but often repressed in adulthood. William James envisioned the true self as “the palpitating inward life.” While psychotherapist Karen Horney described it as follows:

“the alive, unique, personal center of ourselves; the only part that can, and wants to, grow.” (Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth)

Living authentically has two elements. First, we must become aware of our true selves, which can be a challenge, requiring self-reflection and introspection. Secondly, this true self must be reflected in our day-to-day lives.

Taking such actions may be necessary if one wants to live a fulfilling life, for as the Gospel of Thomas states, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (The Gospel of Thomas)

In the majority, the true self is often denied. Little opportunity is given to expression, so in response to the feeling of vulnerability and insecurity, we develop what is  “Character armor” or the “false self.” People develop character armor to shield themselves so others cannot see their true selves. They fear ridicule and rejection, which we all do, so this is a normal human response, but there are some ways of moving beyond this or practicing not to be so sensitive to others’ reactions.

While character armor protects us from what we may perceive as ridicule or threats, it cuts us off from truly being alive. “Only the True Self can be creative, and the True Self can feel real,” wrote Donald Winnicott. “the existence of False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility.”  The more one immerses themselves in the false self, the more one becomes deadened to their true self, and one falls victim to what Soren Kierkegaard called “the biggest danger, that of losing oneself.”

In “Sickness Unto Death,” Kierkegaard wrote about how one could succumb to spiritual sickness and “losing oneself.”  A chief method is by having an extreme identification with society. Perhaps this is something we see here in the US politically when people align themselves with a party. There are no real in-betweens; we are either in one of the two major parties and vote along party lines, not looking closely at all the issues. What happened to being “independent”?

Or we see others on social media and want to be like them, although they want to be like someone else. We live in a society of envy and a belief that those that have “more” are the “most.” That’s what we are brought up to believe; that we are what we are perceived as. So many people are, in many ways, just fakes and anything but authentic. They fake their way through their whole lives playing a role, and on their deathbeds, they don’t even know who they really are.

Obviously, most of us will adhere to some societal standards so we can make a living and not get arrested. Throughout history, cases existed where people almost went out of their way to be authentic, like the philosopher Diogenes who lived in a wine barrel.   When asked what he desired the king of Greece to give him, he told Alexander the Great to “stop blocking the sunlight”. He often practiced his begging by asking statues for money, so he would learn not to be disappointed if he was refused. He was also known to relieve himself in public and walked backwards down the street to confuse other pedestrians.

Kierkegaard wrote:

“What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world. They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out worldly enterprises, make prudent calculations, etc., and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves. In a spiritual sense they have no self.” (The Sickness Unto Death)

Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, was a keen observer of mankind and took note of the human ability to flee from what he labeled the “authentic ability-to-be-self” into conformity. He saw that our standard mode of existing was inauthentic, a form he called “falling”. One way we “fall” is by existing as das Man, or German for “the they or as “the one simply does things like that.”

Das Man is a representation of the anonymous, average member of the social group. Modes of thought, belief, and behavior are all considered normal, and they are expected. When we exist in the Das Man state, we allow our experiences and behaviors to be shaped and determined by what “one says”, “one thinks,” and “one does”. Instead of saying what we see, rather the reverse, we see what one says about the matter.

Like philosophers before him, Heidegger advises us to reframe our thinking and attitude toward death. Most of us don’t want to face up to death, so instead, we evade it all cost. We will tell ourselves that this is morbid, irrelevant to living and a waste of time.

We can recognize that others will die, and of course, one day we will too, but “for the time being, not yet.” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time). So to remedy this, he recommends cultivating what he calls a “resoluteness” towards death. He also tells us to “run ahead” with “anticipation.” With an awareness that we can die at any moment, which we can. Adopting this stance is what Heidegger calls “being-towards-death.”

This is a challenging endeavor to be more aware of the omnipresence of death. In a way, it also invites more anxiety, but for Heidegger, this anxiety is key to freedom and authenticity. With Das Man we take our values and society for granted, immersing ourselves now naturally into our roles. It is almost the opposite now.

Seeing death in front of us may frighten us out of this monotony. As mentioned, other philosophers also viewed death differently than our current society.

It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” —Marcus Aurelius

That fear or anxiety of death may fade away as we become freer in our authenticity. This anxiety, Heidegger explains as “is essentially anxiety.” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time). When we pass through the anxiety, the world seems strange.

Our thoughts about “what one does” and the expected tend to vanish in time as we live more authentically, facing our mortality. In “Being and Time” Heidegger wrote that anxiety stimulated by being-towards-death “individualizes me down to myself” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time).

For Heidegger, this challenge is daily since our tendency to conform is deeply rooted, but he states that the few who attain this position will be greatly rewarded. Perhaps we can consider these schools of thought, realizing how deeply rooted our lives have become considering societal conformity.

I am not advocating radical behavior, but learning who each of us are and expressing ourself without fear.

Life is uncertain except for my death, and by losing the fear of death and losing the corresponding fear to live, I gain my “self”and my “being”. What could be more positive?