Is There a Downside to Authenticity?

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Turns out that authenticity may actually have a darker side…honestly, I’m a touch disappointed. But it’s an important reminder of what keeps us grounded. In order to grow, we MUST consider opposing views with an open heart and open mind. Ultimately, we often arrive at the same conclusion. But every once in a while we disappoint ourselves gracefully. 

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To Thine Own Self Be True

“This above all: To thine own self be true.” This quote, made famous by Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been used for many generations to signify and define authenticity. It is universally accepted as profoundly true. But as one curious student asked me in a recent leadership class – Can you be too authentic? Is there a downside to authenticity? I thought these were interesting questions, ones that I didn’t have immediate answers to. So I thought I’d dig into it.

Authenticity – A Philosopher’s Play-Toy

Authenticity in a human sense is often defined as being true and honest with oneself and others, having a credibility in one’s words and behavior, and an absence of pretense. Simple enough right? Well, not really…For centuries, philosophers have had a heyday with their own interpretations of authenticity, leading to a multitude of arguments for and against its desirability. Some even view authenticity as a human impossibility. For the purposes of today’s discussion, let’s agree to accept the common definition above.

Authenticity in Decline

First, a plug for authenticity. I would argue that authenticity in our world is in troubling decline. I believe the vanity that social media enables is largely to blame (When was the last time one of your “friends” posted a picture of themselves in sweats at a 3-star hotel?) Of course, this is the very reason that the premium on authenticity has risen significantly. In my humble opinion, the components of authenticity – realness, sincerity, transparency and vulnerability – have never been more important.

I believe another important component of authenticity is the ability to consider opposing arguments. Hence, in the spirit of authenticity, and with the knowledge that anything taken to extremes can be dangerous. it’s important to consider the potential downside of blunt authenticity.

1) Stalled Personal Growth

In the extreme sense, those people who believe they have “found their authentic selves” may find it comfortable and fulfilling to consistently revert back to tried and true behaviour they define as authentic. What’s the risk in this you might ask?  Well those who too rigidly identify with any part of their persona will undoubtedly miss important cues urging change and growth.

I see this all the time in my sales and leadership classes. Inevitably, the most successful are always the ones who realize they will never have it figured out…which keeps them consistently open to new ideas. Those who think they have anything “figured out” tend to be too busy stroking their own egos to recognize that, in doing so, they close their minds to contradictory ideas which could help them grow. Any period of stasis in one’s personal development is a lost opportunity to become a better human.

2) Exposing Yourself to Judgement

The reality is that highly authentic people tend also to be open books. I must admit that I suffer from this affliction myself. The risk in over-sharing is that you expose yourself to judgment. For the most diehard authentics, this judgement may not matter. However, in a world where stigma, segregation, and a rampant “us versus them” mentality are all too common, blunt authenticity can expose people to the most extreme forms of judgement from those who are less enlightened. And let’s be honest, there are many unenlightened people in this world who masquerade as sophisticated rational-thinking adults driving BMWs, Mercedes, and Mazaratis.

The reality is that there is still a heavy stigma around mental illness, gender identity, religious beliefs, and even eccentric behaviour.  Regardless of how the unenlightened justify their views, there are enough of them around to significantly impede progress in both business and social circles. Though it seems rather unfair, such is the reality of an imperfect world.

3) Extreme Authenticity Perceived as Narcissism

People don’t often recognize that authenticity is not a one- way street. While our culture has been busy glamorizing the meaning behind “To thine own self be true”, we have glossed over the fact that the objective view is equally, if not more, important. It is not exclusive adherence to your true self that creates opportunities in life. Relationships are formed and opportunities are created when others perceive your authenticity. In plain language, if you’re truly authentic, you will be perceived as authentic. if you’re an asshole, authenticity won’t help you much.

Rather ironically, extreme authenticity runs the risk of being perceived as narcissism. And if an adherence to the true self requires ignorance of others, I would argue that perception holds water.

Damn…I Thought Authenticity Defied Categorization

Well who knew…there are some downsides to authenticity. And perhaps several more that I haven’t listed here. The reality is that authenticity is rather like any strong character trait. It is inescapable that there is always a dual edge to the sword. I’ve said before that extreme manifestations of strong personalities run the risk of crossing a line into a dark place. It would appear authenticity is no exception…Damn.


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Brent C. Wagner