Authenticity and Vulnerability

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I have been thinking about authenticity and vulnerability for some time now. When I was struggling with discouragement and disillusionment about life and started planning this blog, I sensed that part of the solution to my problems would lie in allowing myself to become more authentic and vulnerable. As a strong introvert and a very private person, sharing my personal life has never come easy for me. In addition, my professional roles require clear boundaries and do not allow for much personal sharing. Plus, some things are simply not very accepted to talk about in certain settings. I have been called distant, stealthy, and of course quiet. The feeling of leading a double life or a secret life is very familiar to me.

Inner congruency
While I felt that the concepts of authenticity and vulnerability had a lot to do with the answers I was seeking, for some time I have not quite been able to apply them to my life to bring about the change I needed. Being authentic and making ourselves vulnerable go hand in hand. One is not possible without the other. Being authentic means acting according to our beliefs, standing for something, being open and honest with ourselves and with the world around us.

It is well established that as humans, we generally have an inner need for consistency and congruency in our values and actions, our inner and outer lives, our mental state of awareness and our communication. This concept was originally developed by psychotherapist Carl Rogers. When I first heard about this in a philosophy class over a decade ago, I was impressed by this simple and intuitively sensible truth. We want our values and actions to align. In other words, we have an inherent need for authenticity. A truly fulfilled life requires authenticity, which to me also implies integrity and being genuine.

Need for authenticity vs. fear of rejection
As we strive to meet this need and live authentic lives, vulnerability naturally follows. Making ourselves vulnerable involves bearing parts of our soul, making our true self visible to others, and consequently opening ourselves up to judgement and rejection. The more we try to avoid rejection, the more invisible we become. It can be nice to blend in and not be noticed, but if carried to the extreme, it can also become limiting and lead to stagnation.

We all need to find the right balance between authenticity and vulnerability, and people’s comfort level with these concepts may naturally vary among different personalities. Yet, on a deep level we all desire to be seen, understood, and accepted for our authentic self. – What holds us back is the equally strong fear of rejection.

Degrees of authenticity
Our level of authenticity depends on many factors, and the degree of appropriate vulnerability may vary widely from person to person and situation to situation. Extroverts may appear to have an easier time being authentic than introverts. However, extroverts may also be at a higher risk of being distracted and affected by outer influences, whereas introverts generally tend to be more in touch with their true self and less susceptible to distractions (see Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” for many more insights on introversion).

Our social roles may also have an impact. A very public professional figure may not be able to share certain personal things as easily as someone who is less scrutinized by the public eye. There is a wide spectrum between over-sharing and overly isolating ourselves out of fear of rejection. There may also be legitimate secrets to be kept in certain contexts.

Lessons in authenticity
During a recent event, I received a great lesson in authenticity, modelled by others, and the liberating power and strength that comes with it. I also experienced the inspiring power of vulnerability. I learnt how it makes us more complete, more credible, and more human. After this experience, about which I deliberately remain vague here, I bore my testimony in church on Fast Sunday. I spoke authentically, openly, and allowed the real me to glance through my masks – doubts, fears, struggles and all, along with the renewed hope and excitement about life I had developed.

The reactions from church members after my testimony were overwhelming and unlike anything I had anticipated. For the rest of the morning, people thanked me for my testimony, including many people I never or rarely had talked to before. One person asked me for a written copy of my testimony, another encouraged me to submit it to a church magazine, others shared their own personal experiences with me. People offered their support and invited me for lunch. I realized that on some deep level I had connected with people, and it caused them to open up to me in turn. It was a very new experience for me, and one that confirmed that if I have the ability to inspire people, I should continue to find ways to do so.

Healing power of authenticity
My journey of becoming more authentic is in no way finished. To give a more concrete example, I recently witnessed a touching scene of one woman comforting another. Of all places, it happened in the Mormon temple. A woman who likely was fairly new to the temple experience was obviously a bit lost and uncertain about what she was supposed to do. Another woman readily and patiently helped and supported her. After the ceremony was over, the helping woman walked up to the one she had helped, hugged her and offered words of encouragement. The other woman opened up, and both cried and held each other in an embrace while talking in a whisper for what felt like a good 5 to 10 minutes.

I was touched by the first woman’s boldness, sincerity, authenticity, and warmth, and by the beauty in this scene. Briefly, I felt a sense of envy, because I don’t see myself as warm and nurturing like this woman. Does it mean I’m less of a good person? I believe God wants each of us to become the best version of ourselves, and perfection looks different for each of us. While I can strive to make baby steps in that direction, it is very likely that I won’t ever be quite like that woman, and that’s okay. I have other strengths to develop, other weaknesses to work on, and my manner of being authentic may not look the same as her’s. I may not reach the same people that she is reaching. Yet, I may be able to connect in different ways with different people than she is connecting with.

Navigating the path between authenticity and vulnerability
Finding the right balance between authenticity and vulnerability was for a long time the main issue that kept me from starting this blog. Should I blog anonymously or use my real name? What level of personal sharing was appropriate? I wanted to let my answer be guided by the question: What will allow me to most effectively inspire others? The answer to that is that a higher degree of openness would breed a stronger potential for inspiring others. I’m also realistic enough to know that my impact is very limited. I don’t expect a large number of readers. My insights are mostly humble reflections, and my many other roles and responsibilities do require some level of privacy. Thus, I settled for using a pseudonym, and setting clear boundaries regarding what is or isn’t blog material before I for stated. This can certainly change over time, yet I chose to err on the side of caution.

I suspect for most people, and certainly for myself, navigating the path between authenticity, vulnerability, safety, and privacy is a lifelong project that requires regular reminders, re-evaluation, and self-reflection. Writing about these concepts is the easy part; as so often, the challenge lies in applying them to daily life.

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