This article first appeared on Happify.com.
We all know that feeling of waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Grumpy and irritable, we lumber through the day, getting needlessly upset over the smallest of things. We know that we’re out of sorts and feel a strange sense of chaos within ourselves.
Could it be that we are simply not being authentic? And then there’s that feeling of going after something we think we desperately need, like the latest “everything” gadget or the L.L. Bean boots that everyone seems to possess, and experiencing only momentary pleasure when we get it. We wish we could hold on to the fleeting joy but it evaporates surprisingly soon. Could it be that, again, we haven’t really listened to our authentic self?
A few of us develop a consistent and predictable machinery of the self pretty early on in life. Those people understand not only when we deviate from it, but have an internal system in place that rapidly guides us back to a place of equanimity. They also know the fruitless chase of mistaken direction and live lives of stability and clear purpose.
But most of us are more malleable and thus more vulnerable to the unexpected twists and turns of life. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ability to step out of our default state allows us to enter the lives of others with greater empathy and compassion. We can let go of a singular view of the world and a rigid sense of the self and are able to open ourselves up to greater creativity and inspiration, all of which are multiple expressions of the self.
The problem arises when this flexibility is not grounded in a strong sense of self. Unless our ideas of who we are and our aspirations for who we want to become are coherent, we experience unease and fear, and begin to feel lost in the web of life.
So here are four essentials of living authentically, in the sweet spot between rigidity and chaos.
Dig Deep for Those Natural Resources
We are all born with an innate set of character strengths, some of which come more naturally to us than others. Some of us may be readily inclined to seek out adventure, others may find that kindness and empathy comes naturally to them while still others may be born leaders. Research shows that knowing and using our top strengths makes us feel authentic and provides us with a sense of fulfillment. It also connects us to our passions and gets us into moments of flow.
Connect to Your Guiding Light
We are shaped by our environment more than we are often aware, especially when we’re young. The values that we form through our early interactions become our moral compass and guiding light. They’re so essential to our well-being that we have an internal warning system that alerts us when we act in ways that are contrary to this moral code. We feel guilt, shame, and perhaps even anger at ourselves that reminds us to correct our behavior. Being aware of these negative emotions keeps us from going astray, especially when we need to adapt to new challenges. At the same time, we also need to update our values and not get caught up in the ones that were formed by past experiences and that no longer benefit us in life.
Release the Conditions of Worth
Values also give rise to the dreams we aspire for and the goals we create. As such, they become the driving force of our lives and make us strive for the best possible version of ourselves. Sometimes though, we can get confused between this ideal self and the “ought self” that can arise when our early interactions are based on what psychologist Carl Rogers called “conditions of worth”. We can get caught up in the expectations that other people and society place on us, and lose sight of what we truly desire. Being clear on how we want to be remembered releases us of all this nonessential baggage and frees us to be true to ourselves.
Perform on the Stage of Life
Humans are unique in the mental images we create of ourselves in a heavily interconnected world. It is through these connections to other people and other places that we form a sense of identity. We can’t be authentic unless we are able to adapt to social and situational factors. A toddler may not know that the tantrum at the grocery store is totally inappropriate, but as adults, we know the importance of place. A little child may give away family secrets to a stranger without inhibition, but as adults, we know how much to open up to whom. We’re not inauthentic when we adapt according to situations. We are simply performing on the stage of life, playing different characters, all of which emerge from the dynamic interaction of our many strengths and values.
I think of authenticity as a tree—the majestic edifice that teaches us much in its silence. Our strengths and values are the roots that nurture us, the trunk is the solid structure of purpose, and the flexible branches that sway in the breeze are our fluid selves that allow us to become one with the flow of life.