“How do I stay true to myself?” “How do I remain authentic?” These questions and others like them are questions I hear regularly. And each time I’m asked these types of questions, I respond: “Who do you want to be?” and “How do you want to behave?”
I’m not trying to be a smart-alec. I recognize that questions about authenticity are born out of a desire for clarity and simplicity. But I don’t think who we are is that one dimensional. There are so many dynamic life events and experiences that call for us to be flexible.
Humans are wonderfully and confusingly complex beings. We have behaviors that are hard-wired. For example, we are designed to live in community. Hence the long years of infant development that requires a caregiver(s) to ensure survival. Research also indicates we live longer when we are in relationships and engaged socially.
Humans crave predictability. We want to be able to determine how we and others will behave in situations. (We have a better chance of predicting our own behavior than that of others.) We become excruciatingly uncomfortable when our predictions are incorrect. Guess what? We are wired that way. The brain is constantly capturing information and analyzing it on behalf of creating predictions. It’s an efficiency play and a survival mechanism.
Let’s get back to this notion of authenticity and remaining true to oneself. What does that really mean? I believe we endeavor to craft a vision of ourselves that is the ideal of how we want to operate in the world. Unfortunately, most of the time it is a one-dimensional model. “It’s either this or that.”
However, life isn’t one dimensional. It doesn’t operate as an “either/or.” Life is about navigating the perceived polarities and living within the “both/and” world. For example, I have strong introverted preferences and yet I have delivered dynamic presentations to packed conference rooms, engaged in lively conversation with a stranger at a party, and can play charades with abandon.
I also crave alone time, quiet, and losing myself in whatever I’m reading or writing. I speak after I have gathered my thoughts although, not always. And, if I don’t believe my comment will positively impact a conversation, I remain silent, most of the time.
We like to create categories and house people in crystal boxes, believing they will remain static. But that is not how life works. The more we try to categorize others (and ourselves), the more we limit our ability to see all their dimensions and complexity.
And when we place ourselves too tightly into a category or mindset, we limit our ability to grow, see possibilities, and continue our development, whether personal or professional.
I try to remind others (and myself) that we have incredible innate wisdom that is always available and ready to help guide us in our navigation of the polarities of life. We have 100 billion neurons in our brain, 100 million neurons in our intestines, and 40,000 neurons in our heart. These are considered brain cells as they are all connected and can sense, feel, learn, and remember.
Each of the centers, the cephalic brain (the head), the cardiac brain (heart), and the enteric brain (gut) have complex neural -networks to store and process information. And, if we pay attention, we can access all that inherent, interconnected wisdom as we skate across the slippery surface of life.
So, how does one operate from a philosophy of life and a set of values to guide their behavior when life (and humans) are so unpredictable? By being flexible and accepting that life is uncomfortable. We may feel out of our depth in situations, especially when we are stretching our boundaries.
Being open to different situations may call for new behaviors, learning new skills, or trying out a new strategy. Flexibility increases our ability to be resilient. At times it is helpful to remember that there is no perfect or prescribed experience in life, and “going with the flow” may be our only strategy.
We need to take each step as it comes along our life path, trusting our gut, checking in with our heart, stretching our brain, and asking questions for which we don’t have ready answers. Some questions are more powerful than answers.
The challenge is staying with a question for which you have no easy or ready answer. It is uncomfortable, frustrating, and at best irritating. Yet, I’ve found if I can continue to sit with a question and trust myself, the answer will appear. The trick is to not expect an immediate answer and to trust your own inner wisdom.
Who do you want to be?