It starts when we’re kids: just be yourself, and people will like you when they get to know the real you.
Just be yourself in the admissions essay/in the interview/on the date. Just be yourself and your friends/coworkers/spouse will respond to that and be more whatever-you-want-them-to-be.
Later, as you age, it becomes more about how you’re living. Be true to yourself and the rest will follow. Maybe you land on an entrepreneurial path and you get the advice to just be authentic in promoting yourself and your business. After all, your potential clients are really buying you (yuck).
God help you if you end up on a spiritual path. You’ll hear that spiritual development is all about finding your authentic self. And if that path includes practicing and teaching Yoga, it goes this way: be authentic in your teaching and you’ll build a following. Teaching is all about authenticity. People respond to authenticity!
Sure, people respond to authenticity.
You know what else happens? Sometimes the response is “no thanks.”
The conflation of authenticity and likeability, acceptance, and success is a big lie of self-help, and also a grossly limited reading of many of the types of Eastern spiritual teachings that people turn to when their lives are empty and they’re looking for something real. Just be your authentic self and you’ll have the world at your feet.
But, what if your authentic self isn’t actually that likeable? What if your authentic self isn’t aspirational? What if your authentic self is someone most people don’t want to spend a lot of time around?
What if you’re Pantone 448 C?
Everyone once in a while, someone puts out a cheeky article about the “world’s ugliest color.” I always read this kind of article when it comes up in a news feed, and I always feel bad for the color. What’s wrong with Pantone 448 C? It’s a color. FFS, there can’t be anything wrong with a color. Who came up with that? You can like it or not like it. You can say “yes” or you can say “no thanks,” to having it in your palette.
There is nothing wrong with a color. There is nothing wrong with you.
Your authentic self may not gain you more followers, more accolades, more money, or any of those things that are supposed to “just happen” as the unsought fruits of getting your spiritual shit together. But that kind of talk doesn’t fill workshops or get sponsors. No one puts Pantone 448 C on a book cover.
This idea that authenticity = likeability, acceptance, or worse yet, marketability, isn’t just wrong, it is really damaging, especially when comes from a trusted authority. When you are showing up authentically and still not reaping the promised rewards, the doubt creeps in. Maybe I’m not actually authentic. Maybe, after doing all the hard work with myself, I don’t know myself at all. You start to doubt what’s real. That you’re real. Are other people somehow more real, more valid? You become mistrustful. It’s gaslighting from within.
I’ve been fighting with myself about this for a long, long time, almost always around teaching. Yoga world can do a number on your head; I’ve been following this authenticity drumbeat for 13 years. Authenticity is supposed to fill your classes. So, every time my classes are small, it eats at me, even if the class is small because of weather or something else out of my control. I know I’m a skilled asana teacher. I have basic social interactions down passably well. I care. So, have I failed at realness, or do I just suck as a person? What is going on with me that I don’t get how to be someone people like? I know why I’m not aspirational, and that’s fine – I’ve never been Yoga-cute and no one in eastern Baltimore County wants to be a middle-aged Jewish woman with weird hair. But the likeability thing, man. Does the real me suck, or am I not even real or valid at all?
Then, the wiser story comes in: I’ve never really fit in anywhere, but it doesn’t get to me like it does with teaching. Being odd has always been (almost) a source of pride. So, why do I keep telling myself this story about likeability? Why can’t I let it go?
This is the head trip. This is the authenticity lie: if I keep tearing away pieces of myself, I’ll find something “real” and people will like that. At last, I’ll be given the keys. There is even yoga scripture that you can wildly misread to support that idea (and sell more books).
This is where I am right now. I am as clear-eyed and certain about who I am as I have ever been. In my clear-eyed certainty, I see that who I am is not especially likeable or aspirational to most people around me.* I have a limited audience. This has nothing to do with my worth or value as a human. Likability and aspirational qualities are indeed only qualities. They are merely different hues of human existence.
So, what if I just accepted that, and stopped fighting with myself about it?
And then, what if I got on with things, because not being likeable or aspirational doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with me? Those qualities may be valued by the culture, but neither of those qualities have anything to do with my innate worth or validity as a human. Pantone 448 C cannot be Pantone 17-3938,** but one is no more a color than the other.
I think that what would/will happen is this: a brief grieving process where I grieve the lost dream that I’ll ever be really likeable or fully accepted anywhere (especially in Yoga world), and also grieve the years I spent spinning my wheels with all this business. And, a quick thank you for how it also gave me the energy to learn a lot of stuff.
And then I get free from it.
I don’t know what that freedom will be like exactly. But it’s so close.
Let’s undo this. Who wants to undo this together? What I want to know specifically is: who else has fallen into this trap? Are you okay? Do you want to hang out and possibly not like each other, and then go home feeling good that we’re not the other person? Because that would be cool. Let’s keep it real.
* Basically non-existence if you’re socialized as a white woman.
** Very Peri, A New Pantone Color Whose Courageous Presence Encourages Personal Inventiveness And Creativity! Source: pantone.com