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Personal Authenticity

We recently held our spring Open Events at St John’s. At these events, I introduce St John’s to the families who are thinking of joining us and, during my talk, I set out some of the things that we consider integral to the personality and ethos of our school.  I spoke to many parents during the event and was filled with pride for the praise they had for the politeness, enthusiasm and knowledge of our current pupils.  But I was also really pleased how many parents commented that, as our current pupils showed them around school and they had the chance to speak to teachers and other staff, they recognised many of elements that I had touched on in my speech: they were sensing the authenticity of our message.

This got me thinking about the importance of personal authenticity.  As human beings we have an instinct for those people who we feel are inauthentic and, when we sense that we are not seeing the ‘real’ person, it can make us feel uneasy.  By contrast, authenticity is perceived when a person’s actions are consistent with their beliefs and desires: what they say about themselves seems to match up with what they do. The Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’, which in modern times has been expanded to ‘know thyself be thyself’ to capture the idea of authenticity, is well-known but what does it take to be authentic and how authentic do you think you are?

People who have personal authenticity tend to have realistic perceptions of reality and an understanding of themselves.  Inauthentic people are often self-deceptive and this is why they can end up behaving in ways that don’t appear to correspond with who they are.  You cannot be authentic without first possessing a strong sense of character. So you do not say things you don’t mean, you don’t make promises you can’t keep and you maintain integrity in how you interact with people and the things you do. We tend to trust people who we sense are authentic because they keep their word and there is a sense of consistency to how they act and what they do.

To know ourselves we need to be self-reflective because if you don’t examine the values you hold, the things you enjoy, the political views which best match your ideals, then it is difficult to know yourself.  Knowing what matters to you can be very liberating - it frees you from worrying about what other people are thinking and doing because your knowledge of yourself determines your actions and decisions – but this self-reflection should be ongoing.  It can be easy to think this sort of process is most important during teenage years when you are establishing your independence and forming personal views on the world but, over time, with maturity and life experiences, the things which are true reflections of ourselves evolve. 

In a study which measured the personalities, values, and preferences of more than 19,000 people aged 18 to 68, the subjects were asked to report how much they had changed in the past decade and/or to predict how much they would change in the next decade. All age groups (young people, middle-aged people and older people) believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. Psychologists have called this phenomenon ‘The End of History Illusion’. We all believe that who we are now is the finished product and that we will be the same in five,10, 20 years. But, as this study uncovered, this is completely delusional: our preferences and values may well be very different in the not-so-distant future.

To be authentic we need to accept ourselves.  It’s all very well to ‘know ourselves’ but if we decide that we aren’t too keen on what we find, or are overly concerned about what other people might think, then we will present something false to the world and our sense of self-worth will be reliant on approval from others. This potential social barrier to achieving authenticity (or self-realisation) was emphasised by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), who argued that personal authenticity is diminished by the need for the esteem of others in societies characterised by hierarchy, inequality and interdependence. But presenting a false version of ourselves to the world will not only lead to us being perceived as inauthentic, it was also be hard work and, overtime, is unlikely to be good for our mental health.

I think another element of authenticity is to challenge yourself and your behaviours to check that the person you are presenting to the world is a true reflection of yourself. If you believe you are open-minded, inclusive or kind, then it is worth checking that the way you are behaving (in both the real and digital world) aligns with who you think you are. 
Authenticity takes some effort and may require us to act with courage and conviction on occasion but I have no doubt that the benefits of both knowing yourself and being yourself far outweigh this effort.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey