What is Authenticity? An Integral Look
Deconstructing Authentic Expression, Encouraging Purpose
When people pursue “authenticity,” real transformation and healing occur. Yet I often disagree with what people mean by authenticity. I propose that we gain a more nuanced understanding of a word encompassing more supportive, loving interactions that are more in touch with reality.
Why bother with authenticity at all? Each understanding of “authenticity” can be used to perpetuate suffering or liberate us from it. So we must understand it.
From an integral perspective, there are many authentic truths in any given moment; and some are more accurate and better for certain purposes than others. Therefore I suggest using a developmental scale to understand levels of “authentic” expression. From this vantage point we can identify what to limit and what to encourage for any individual or culture to be healthy, happy, and evolving appropriately.
As you consider the following stratification of authentic expression, consider if it matches what you have observed. Consider if you have a definition of “authenticity” that might accidentally hurt another based on where they are and what that means to them. Consider if a wider embrace would allow you to love them and yourself more fully. Would this map, as limited a representation of reality as it is, allow us to more consciously navigate life with care and compassion? Will it help us wake up to a deeper realization of what is?
*If you are unfamiliar with these Integral levels and colors, just think of them as different styles that build upon each other, like stories of a skyscraper. You can do different activities from each story, and moving up to a higher story doesn’t delete a lower one or make it less valuable.
I Have Wants and Needs
If you are operating from a Red point of view, others knowing what you want gives them power over you. On the flip side, if you know what others want, you can manipulate them to get what you want. As a result, “authentic,” self-expression is generally geared towards getting personal wants and needs met with little care for others. What looks like regard for another is actually a self-oriented tactic.
Encouraging someone at this stage to share their vulnerability could cause trauma rather than release it, because the world is generally considered a dangerous place and the desire for respect and self-protection is far more important/“authentic” to that self-system.
Better Get That Authenticity Right
With Amber thinking there is a right way to be authentic, and this gets one “in” with the group. Unfortunately, even our progressive self-help groups often fall prey to this trap. “Being vulnerable” becomes “the right way,” and one doesn’t get social approval unless they conform to crying and share deep feelings. This simply isn’t commensurate with the reality of who we are—complex beings with a variety of conflicting feelings, emotions, and thoughts in any given moment, whose understandings of authenticity are culturally constructed and developmentally influenced.
Imagine for a moment that you are in a group who implicitly equates “vulnerability” with authenticity, and they are pushing you to reveal how you feel about some previous abuse. You don’t want to reveal this, but you want to be accepted in the group. Saying “I want approval but I don’t want to share about a painful memory in the past,” is actually more authentic. As a community, if we hold an amber perspective on “authenticity,” we might accidentally rob people of both the true expression of their being and what they want—from social acceptance to spiritual liberation.
Authenticity is something to “do”
Orange authenticity generally encourages analyzing oneself to get deeper into the underlying causes behind a particular emotion. I enjoy this activity, but it is not without its foibles. This tends to take one into a third person perspective whereby one studies oneself and others as if they were data in an experiment—which is usually less satisfying personally and relationally than staying connected to a feeling in the moment that it is happening. It implicitly assumes that an objective truth exists and can be found through rational thought, and it reinforces separation … we all have our individual story.
A more honest expression of what’s actually happening in these moments of analysis might be, “I am excited to analyze myself because I want more information about why I act the way I do so I can achieve greater levels of happiness.”
Authenticity is something to “feel”
Oh Green, our authenticity flag bearer! The gift of this stage’s view on authenticity is that they truly value and encourage each individual finding her own personal truth, and they start to examine the cultural conditioning of “authentic” expressions of previous stages. “Throw out conditioning and find your authenticity!” this stage says. But then one becomes aware of internal contradictions and often has trouble integrating them into a coherent picture. “I know that I feel both proud and ashamed at the same time, but what does that mean about who I am, and which do I choose to express?”
The endless pursuit of “authenticity” can exacerbate this despair about ever really knowing oneself. It maintains ego-separation through reifying individual identity in a way that can never overcome a fundamental loneliness. And in that eager and often healthy embrace of each individual’s unique perspective, without understanding worldviews and the larger context of theirs and others’ developmental sequence, the Green authenticity often accidentally welcomes all of the aforementioned problems without discernment.
Choosing Which Authentic Story To Tell
It would be easy to say Teal authenticity is to include all of these perspectives and pick which is appropriate for the moment. But be wary of such approaches to integral; I think this is just applying cognitive understanding of integral theory to authenticity and could be easily done with orange or green intention.
From a Teal perspective the idea of authenticity might be seen as frustratingly limited and out of touch with the complexities of reality. Since authentic expression changes from moment to moment, and one can integrate sub-identities and contradicting roles and emotions, one does not seek to express an “authentic” self, one seeks to express the most potent version of self for a deeper purpose—generally their own and/or others’ growth. In other words, one chooses which of many stories to tell. And one seeks authentic communities because, as developmental researcher Susanne Cook-Greuter says, “good feedback makes one aware of what one is defending or blind to. One needs the caring presence of others to become the most one can be.”
Authenticity is Impossible and Wonderful
At some point a person might see that authenticity can be a useful concept, but it is also limited just like any other concept—including the concept of a separate self. Defining anything—including authentic expression—requires its opposite. Therefore “authenticity” at Turquoise becomes a commitment to awareness. Awareness of the limits and benefits of defining, of the ego’s language habits, of psychological defenses, of humanity’s automatic drive for self-preservation, etc. And underneath this commitment to awareness is a yearning to experience the undifferentiated continuum of reality without limits (limits of self, concepts, etc.)—while recognizing the inherent paradox of an individual pursuing the transcendence of individuality.
As a result of this commitment to deconstructing the permanent sense of self, the turquoise person is ironically more “authentic”—generally less interested in appearing put-together and therefore more free to express the full range of human experience. They have a deep ability to share exactly what is going on inside of themselves in any given moment, with access to more data (rational, non-rational, intuitive, feeling, etc.) than any previous stage.
What is the Purpose of Authenticity?
Authenticity looks very different from each level of development. Yet wherever we are on the developmental scale, we contain all the previous ways of being inside of ourselves, so we use these distinctions to better love and care for each other. Each one of these ways of understanding “authenticity” is accurate and limited; each can be used to perpetuate suffering or liberate us from it.
Knowing that, it is up to us to choose what our purpose for authenticity (or anything else) is in any given moment. Are we using ideas of authenticity to exclude ourselves or others? To judge ourselves or others? Or are we using our concept of authenticity to feel more truth and beauty in each moment?
Perhaps instead of pursuing “authenticity” we can go straight to this underlying decision point: to “be purposeful” in everything we do. From this purposeful place we can pursue our own highest good without requiring anyone else to agree or do what we do. Then we can be purposeful no matter what the outer circumstances are.
For me, this means choosing love instead of fear, and seeing that any event or circumstance can be used to either justify fear and defensiveness or allow me to see blocks to the awareness of love.