Emotional Authenticity

I was listening to a podcast recently (The Anxious Achiever) and the topic of being authentic came up in the context of women expressing their emotions.  In all of my writings, I must admit, I never considered the subject of authenticity.

During the podcast, authenticity was discussed as directly expressing the emotion in the given situation.  While it was acknowledged by the host and the guest that it was not always “possible” to directly express an emotion such as anger, the connection between being authentic and emotional expression was never really established.

As I began to think about authenticity, I realized that I had a different point of view.

To me, being authentic was baked into the emotional cycle and the concept of mastering your emotions as tools.

I alluded to it but never used the label authenticity.

Recall the emotional cycle which involves the following steps:

  1. unconscious scanning of your surroundings for “threat”
  2. unconscious physical reaction to perceived threat
  3. conscious awareness of the emotion via the body’s physical reaction
  4. take a step back and a deep breath
  5. acknowledge the emotion
  6. assess the validity of the emotion by comparing what you perceive with what is actually taking place
  7. choose an adaptive response
  8. respond

The above is, of course, an overview as there are many elements involved in each of the above steps.

The idea of being authentic applies to step 5 acknowledging the emotion and steps 7 and 8  choosing an adaptive response and responding.

The common misconception is that in order to be authentic (and its sister..being honest), you need to be true to your emotions and take direct action by directly expressing that emotion in your immediate situation.

To put it another way, you are being authentic to the situation.

While this is certainly desirable and, yes, authentic/honest, it isn’t always adaptive.

And, to me, being adaptive, in the situation may be more appropriate to both short and longer term goals as well as safer and more expedient.

I’ll address this in more detail below.

As there are situations in which the direct display of an emotion is problematic, I am suggesting that authenticity be reframed as being open to the message of the emotion (and, therefore to the emotion, per se) and acting in such a way that the message of the emotion is acknowledged and validated by the individual regardless of whether it is directly expressed in and acknowledged by others in the given situation.

If the display rules in any given situation are going to expose you to consequences that it is in your best interest, in that situation, to avoid, then you might need to take an indirect approach to expressing your emotion.

This is what I suggested in Chapter 10 of my book Beyond Anger Management for Professional Women and in several subsequent blog posts (checkout the Anger category under the Index tab above).

Anger can be problematic for women.

When a woman directly expresses anger, she tends to be marginalized and demeaned by men and (sometimes) women who feel threatened by her anger.  Cultural display rules dictate that women are “supposed”to be nice, caring and supportive and anger isn’t appropriate to this view of women.  So, an angry women is viewed as bitchy, hormonal, etc.

So, for a woman to be authentic, she may have to acknowledge that her anger is correctly both infoming her that a threat exists in that a boundary has been violated and preparing her for battle to right the violation

But, how she chooses to manifest (be authentic to) that anger as a motivator to take action may involve a more indirect approach.  In addition, if she is being authentic, she should avoid deploying other emotions such as sadness or hurt as a secondary emotions or being nice.  She doesn’t have to get excessively angry, but she can be irritated, annoyed, upset or even highly concerned and question what is going on but not nice, sad or supportive.

In doing the above, she is still just as angry and is moving to deal with the threat, but is not exposing herself to unwanted negative consequences  in her given situation

She is being true to emotion while acquiescing to the reality of her situation.

A man in that same situation might just get pissed off and be “rewarded” for his assertiveness.

Men, however, have other issues.

Anxiety, uncertainty or even sadness can be problematic for men…

For a man, expressing anxiety or uncertainty might be considered as weakness.  And emotions such as sadness, empathy, support, or love might be experienced as overly emotional or unmanly.

When a man feels inadequate or unmanly, he may express anger as a secondary emotion.  This, by the way, is the basis for the myth that anger is a secondary emotion

The truth is that anger is a primary emotion that humans and subhumans are born with.  Anger can, however, be and is expressed as a secondary emotion to cover over other, often uncomfortable for men, emotions.

So for an man to be authentic, he needs to learn to acknowledge and accept all of his emotions and then assess the degree to which he can, or cannot, directly express that emotion in a given situation.

If he is anxious about a situation, he can acknowledge the perceived possible threat to himself and go into problem solving mode (publicly) to assess his options. Similarly, if he feels inadequate, he may not state this but he can evaluate his own skill sets, what may be missing, and work to get some help to shore up his weak areas.

Or, he can, in a safer setting, reevaluate the real risk of being vulnerable, discover that he can survive that risk, and choose to express his emotion and be vulnerable.

This is the approach that Arum Weiss, Ph.D. takes in his podcasts and books.

So, to bring it all together, cultural, social, or work display rules may render the direct expression of an emotion problematic, non-adaptive, or even dangerous.  Because of this, viewing authenticity as being emotionally true to the situation can be maladaptive or disempowering.

Defining authenticity as being true to the emotion and choosing the most adaptive way to express, honor and utilize the motivating energy of the emotion is adaptive and empowering and consistent with the emotional cycle.

If you google authenticity, you will find a variety of articles on the subject that go into much more detail than is possible here.

Rationalize vs Rational Lies

In my last post, I talked about how I justified stealing pocket patches as a Boy Scout by rationalizing that my actions were okay because my patches had been stolen by another Scout.

Let’s explore this idea…

A physical example:

Have you ever taken a rusty item such as a lawn chair and put a coat of paint on it without having properly prepared the chair by sanding and applying a primer?

I have.

The veneer I applied looked great but did nothing to deal with the underlying “issue” (the rust).  The unresolved “issue” worked its way through the veneer and came back.

The chair looked great until the rust came back!

This is the physical equivalent of psychological rationalizing.

What happens when you rationalize your behavior?

Psychological rationalizing:

Merriam Wester defines rationalizing as:

a way of describing, interpreting, or explaining something (such as bad behavior) that makes it seem proper, more attractive, etc.

Let’s say that you are thinking of engaging in an action that you know is “wrong” in some way because..

  • It violates an external “code of conduct”
  • It is violates an internal “code of conduct” such as your values by being dishonest, or “wrong” for a variety of reasons
  • It utilizes a “short-cut” by cutting corners, disregarding accepted practices,   ignoring important information etc.

The emotion you experience as you contemplate engaging in a “wrong” act is discomfort or guilt.

You know what you are doing is “wrong” and you initially feel uncomfortable about what you are doing.

Rather than utlize the message of your discomfort/guilt as a motivator to stop what you are  (or contemplating) doing, you  minimize the “wrongness” by applying a “logical veneer” which appears to justify or explain your actions.

Rationalizing allows you to continue what you are doing and quiet the guilt which comes up as a reaction to your knowing what you are doing is indeed “wrong”.

It works for a while.

Until, it doesn’t!

The knowledge of the “wrongness” is like the rust on the chair.  It most likely comes back and results in unwanted consequences.

In my last post, I discussed how I felt guilty about stealing pocket patches as  a Boy Scout and “nullified” my guilt by noting that my patches had been stolen previously so I was justified in stealing someone else’s patches.

Let’s unpack this (rationalize vs rational lies)

A word about “rationalizing”..

While the correct spelling of the word rationalize is, indeed,…

r a t I o n a l I z e

the psychological spelling of the word is…

r a t I o n a l    l I e s.

When we rationalize, we tell ourselves plausible lies to justify whatever the issue is that is eliciting discomfort. The “reasons” you give yourself are plausible because they sound logical but are actually lies because they do not really fit or justify your actions!

In my earlier example,

I noted that some of my patches had been stolen.  This was true.

The lie was that I was justified in victimizing another person because I was a victim. This was not true but it sounded plausible.

And, it worked for a while to keep my discomfort/guilt away.

No “wrong doing”…No guilt.

In my last post, I laid out the emotional process.

In summary..

  • step back
  • take a breath
  • assess (this is where rationalizing may come in)
  • choose a response

The Take-away…

When you notice yourself feeling uncomfortable (guilty) about something you are about to do and you begin to justify (or rationalize) your actions, stop and reframe (redefine) the (plausible) reasons you are giving yourself to justify your actions as rational (or logical) lies.

However reasonable they may sound, or even if they are true by themselves, they are lies because they are not appropriate in your situation.

When you accept that you are lying to yourself about (rather than giving plausible reasons for) what you are thinking of doing, you validate your discomfort/guilt as a strategic tool and, possibly, avoid any future unwanted complications which will come about from the “wrong” actions you are about to engage in.

In my next post, I will address two processes which, like rationalizing, contribute to your misperceiving what is going on and the actions you take in an emotional situation: assuming and acting as-if.