“We are constantly invited to be who we are.” ~Henry David Thoreau
When your circumstances invite you to present your true self to others, do you accept the invitation?
I think of authentic communication as sharing the unfiltered essence of ourselves with others, including our identities, feelings, needs, boundaries, and desires.
It’s taken me many years to learn how to communicate this way. I’ve written in prior posts that speaking my truth once felt like an insurmountable challenge, like rolling an elephant up a hill or finding another living being who actually likes Nickelback. (Anyone? No?)
I was plagued by inauthenticity.
I would leave conflicts wishing I’d spoken up for myself; leave social settings feeling totally drained; over-commit to obligations and under-commit to activities that brought me joy; agree to be intimate with people, only to later regret my decision; and give more than I received in the majority of my relationships.
Somewhere beneath the layers of people-pleasing, white lies, and insecurity, I knew there was a bold, confident, self-actualized woman. I wanted, more than anything, to become her.
On the journey to becoming that woman, I have learned that authentic communication is like working a muscle: hard at first, but ever easier with exercise.
As with all exercises, you don’t run the 400 meter dash right out the of gates. You stretch; you jog a lap; you warm up.
Here are nine easy ways you can warm up your authenticity muscle today to prepare for a lifetime of authentic communication.
1. Name how you feel, right now, as you read this.
“There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.” ~Tara Brach
Let’s start off on the right foot. Take thirty seconds to reflect on how you feel right now. Notice what’s going on in your heart; notice what type of tension you might be carrying in your neck and shoulders; notice how it feels to let a deep breath land in your chest.
Perhaps you’ve been operating on autopilot since the moment you woke up and reached for your phone. Perhaps you’ve stumbled down an Internet wormhole, and this is the first time in hours you’ve remembered you have a body. In order to communicate your feelings authentically, you first must know how you feel.
2. When a friend/family member/barista asks how you are, tell them the truth.
“The speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never had realized you had… And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” ~Audre Lorde
Social convention tells us that there are only two acceptable answers to the question “How are you?” “Good” and “Fine.” This is a microcosmic example of our cultural disdain for sharing our authentic feelings. Nonetheless, the habit persists.
Remember: Inauthenticity breeds inauthenticity. Authenticity breeds authenticity. Give yourself permission to say “I’m a little sad today, but I’m hanging in there” or “I’m fantastic; today’s been an inspiring day” or “I’m so stressed I can’t even feel my face.”
Whatever’s going on for you, give yourself permission to share it. These small moments of authenticity replace the loneliness of emotional isolation with the belonging of vulnerability, and allow you to receive others’ gifts in the form of compassion and empathy.
3. If you have nothing to say, embrace the silence.
“To become authentic, we require a thirst for freedom.” ~Don Mateo Sol
As a recovering people-pleaser, I spent much of my life believing it was my responsibility to facilitate, or ease the tension in, conversations. For many years, I feared “awkward silences” the way someone else might fear spiders or clowns.
First dates, group gatherings, work parties, and girls’ nights found me paving endless roads of conversation. For every answer, I had a follow-up question, and in every second-long pause, I rushed to find a story to tell.
Eventually, I realized that my silence-avoidance only led to 1) complete emotional exhaustion, and 2) many moments where I looked back and wondered, “Why did I even say that? I don’t think cybernetics are interesting at all…”
Free yourself from the pressure to perform. Embrace the silence. Sometimes, the most authentic response is to say nothing at all.
4. When someone makes reference to a show, movie, or news story you haven’t seen, tell them you haven’t seen it.
“I have the right to say ‘I don’t know.’” ~Edmund Bourne
I warn every new friend that I am pop-culture illiterate. If you name a TV series, movie, actor, actress, or rising pop star, the odds are I have no idea who she/he/they are. (I’m pleased to report that last week, I watched The Godfather, and on my list for next week is Breaking Bad. I’m making progress in this department.)
Anyhow, in the past, when friends made reference to such icons in conversation, I often feigned familiarity to help the conversation flow more easily. These were totally inconsequential white lies, right?
I’m not so sure. White lies add up, like small bricks laying the foundation for a falsified persona. I hyperbolized my knowledge because I wanted to feel a sense of belonging. (Nothing malicious about that: we all want to belong!) But presenting a false self in order to feel a sense of belonging doesn’t generate a real sense of belonging. It simply makes our authentic selves feel less acceptable.
Tell your friends you haven’t seen the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. Liberate yourself from the impossible responsibility of being all-knowing.
5. When someone asks your preference on a simple matter, tell them the truth.
“You denying your heart’s desires is not noble. It’s a waste of some damn good desires.” ~Jen Sincero
If you really pay attention, you’ll find that your daily life is chock full o’ simple, tiny choices, like:
Where do you want to go for dinner?
What do you want to watch on Netflix?
Where should we meet?
What are you in the mood for?
In the past, my de facto response was: “I don’t care.” (Can you relate?) But by “I don’t care,” what I really meant was: “I really want a burrito, but what matters more to me is that you’re happy with where we get dinner. I would rather sacrifice that burrito and deal with less-than-satisfying pizza than bear the burden of your disappointment. So can you pick?”
The truth is, I did have a preference. It was just buried under layers of people-pleasing.
Get in the habit of honoring your preferences, even if they’re seemingly inconsequential. After all, today it’s what to watch on Netflix, but a year from now, it might be what city to move to, or whether or not to have a second kid, or what to do with your lottery winnings.
6. Tell someone you care for that you care for them.
“Courage is like a muscle. We strengthen it by use.” ~Ruth Gordon
A lot of literature around authenticity and truth-telling centralizes around saying no, boundary-setting, and self-care. That’s all well and good, but true authentic communication addresses both sides of the vulnerability coin: speaking truths that are hard, painful, or have the potential to distance others, and speaking truths that are intimate, loving, and have the potential to bring people closer. Such truths are equally courageous.
When we communicate care for others, we expose the soft underbelly of our hearts. We acquiesce omnipotence over our own emotional state and give another person the power to affect us, sometimes deeply.
Today, take a moment to tell someone you care for them. It could be your mom, your coworker, or your mailman. Let that sweet heart of yours peek out from its shell.
7. Acknowledge one thing you really want.
“A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want.” ~Madonna
There are a lot of things I want. I want a new blender. I want to enjoy my own company more. I want more friends. I want to make six figures. I want to spend less time working—on my business and on myself—and more time having fun.
Our desires are a critical part of who we are. They reflect our values and our identities. When we’re not in touch with our own desires, we’re susceptible to putting others’ needs before our own.
If you’ve been out of touch with your own desires for a long time, saying even one thing you want—something as life-altering as a new job or as contrived as a new blender—can be scary and revolutionary. For now, give yourself permission not to worry about how you might get it. Just notice how it feels, to really want this thing you want.
8. For fifteen minutes, be without technology. Bonus points if you’re in nature.
“If you want more time, freedom, and energy, start saying no.” ~Unknown
At our core, we humans are intrinsically creative and innovative. However, it’s challenging to summon our deepest, truest, most authentic selves when we’re bombarded with stimuli from every direction. Many of us spend hours every day merely skimming the surface of life, hopping from app to screen to notification.
In such a state, we’re not thinking deeply. We’re hardly here at all. If we’re constantly in response-mode, how can our inner selves emerge?
For fifteen minutes, sequester yourself. No phone, no screen, no TV. You can drink your coffee while staring out the window. You can sit on the carpet and stretch your legs. You can go sniff your flowers, or dive nose-first into the green, green grass. Give your mind the space to explore uncharted territory, and watch with curiosity what arises.
9. If you feel uncomfortable, scared, resentful, sad, angry, or guilty, name it.
“Don’t light yourself on fire trying to brighten someone else’s existence.” ~Charlotte Erickson
Make your way to any water cooler or happy hour and you’ll find plenty of folks complaining, comparing, and airing their grievances. But genuine expressions of hurt, discomfort, and sadness are far rarer.
Growing up, I made it my mission to brighten my loved ones’ days and hold space for their unhappiness. With time (and therapy), I realized that “The bubbly one” was a role I had assigned myself—not my God-given duty.
After so many years of tampering down my sadnesses as if they were pests, I needed to retrain my brain and body to notice my own discomfort.
Today, give yourself permission to acknowledge when you feel off. You can write how you’re feeling on a post-it note or simply whisper the words “I feel sad.”
The inner liberation that comes as a result of this simple acknowledgement can feel enormous. It removes the conflict between what you feel and what you portray to the world around you, which is what authentic communication is all about.
Authentic communication has made my life simpler. No longer do I spend precious moments juggling my false personas and my little white lies. Working this muscle has been worth every growing pain because it’s enabled me to live in alignment with my inner truth and find freedom, self-respect, and confidence along the way.