8 Ways to Lead an Authentic Life

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – Carl Jung

How do you know when you are truly leading an authentic life? Many people experience a subjective sense of authenticity in life when their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all in harmony. There is often a sense of internal distress when one’s opinions or beliefs are in conflict with their actions in the world. This sense of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant and is generally resolved through either changing the way that one thinks or the way that one behaves. Once the internal and external “worlds” are once again in line, peace is restored within.

When you take the time to mindfully identify your true values and then direct your behaviors to be in accordance with those values, there is often an inner sense of contentment, peace, and meaning. Identifying values is not about focusing on what you believe you “should” want, do, or be, but is instead focusing on what you really do want to do with your life or who you truly wish to be. It can be difficult to identify your values if you feel overwhelmed by self-denigrating cognitions. Mindfulness provides you with the space to take a step back from self-directed judgments and observe your authentic thoughts, feelings, and values with openness and acceptance.

Characteristics of Leading an Authentic Life

Consider the following characteristics of leading an authentic life and notice any characteristics that you identify with or wish to experience more fully in your life:

  • Feeling open to your moment-to-moment experience without distortions, denial, or self-invalidation.
  • Living a fully awake life in the present moment, allowing the self to feel fluid and dynamic, rather than static.
  • Deep inner trust and faith in your own intuition and ability to self-direct your own course in life.
  • Feeling the freedom and ability to respond, rather than react to experiences as they occur… being mindful.
  • Adopting a creative approach to life, demonstrating psychological flexibility rather than rigidity and closed-mindedness.

How to Begin Living Authentically

Various experts in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and academia offer the following suggestions to move toward living an authentic life:

(1) Read novels

John Portmann, professor of religious ethics at the University of Virgina, notes that reading novels is “the best way to figure out what it feels like to be in someone else’s head—and that’s what helps us to distinguish our own identity.” Another way to think about this idea is to consider the benefits of taking a step outside of total attachment to your own experience and becoming more observant. Developing empathy for the experiences and emotions of other people can help increase your ability to make meaningful connections with other people and build lasting relationships. The development of accurate empathy can help you truly understand what other people are feeling, which can have a potentially unintended consequence of developing deeper compassion and understanding of your own experience.

(2) Meditate

Steve Cope, scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, explains, “Meditative absorption creates moments of happiness not contingent on outcomes or external factors or manipulation of the environment. From that platform you can investigate how to create real fulfillment.” Mindfulness meditation enables you to become a curious, accepting, and nonjudgmental observer of your moment-to-moment experience. When you are truly absorbed in and connected to the present moment, there is less attachment to needing certain outcomes or trying to control the way things are. Meditation can lead to developing a greater sense of authenticity by putting things in larger perspective and increasing connection to truly living your life.

(3) Be deliberate

Roy Baumeister, social psychologist at the University of Florida, states that “authenticity consists in being aware that you have choices and consciously choosing what you do.” A large part of living a truly authentic life involves being mindful of your ability to chart your own course and responsibly choose your behaviors. When you exercise greater intentionality and deliberation on your interactions with yourself and others, you may experience a resulting sense of authenticity in word and deed. Being deliberate means slowing down and taking the time to mindfully choose how you wish to respond in your interactions with others and your life choices.

(4) Don’t be too deliberate

Mark Leary, social psychologist at Duke University explains that “people often make better decisions when they don’t think about them. Go with your gut. Authentic reactions are much more at a gut level.” Without this seeming like a completely contradictory message, consider how you can learn to be deliberate and intentional in your behaviors and interactions without becoming robotic or mindless. The idea is to make choices that are in line with your true values and centered within a deep intuitive understanding of who you are as a person… this is being authentic.

(5) Cultivate solitude

Peter Kramer, clinical psychiatrist at Brown University, notes, “Quiet and time for the self are a big plus. If you’re worried about inauthenticity, there’s nothing like shutting the door.” While people differ on their individual needs for more or less quiet time to relax and recharge, there are incredible benefits to taking a bit of quiet reflective time now and then. When you feel bombarded by repeated or intense interactions with other people, taking the time to check back in with yourself through quiet reflection can allow you to tap back in to your inner sense of authenticity and purpose.

(6) But stay connected

As with all things, the idea is to find the right balance between reflective solitude and connection with others that is healthy for you. Thomas Moore, psychotherapist, explains that “community is an outlook toward life in which you define yourself in relation to the world around you, rather than only in connection with yourself. I recommend enlarging the sense of self.” You can learn a great deal about yourself, your strengths, and your areas for improvement through mindfully examining your interactions and relationships with others. Notice the way that you are perceived by others and use the information that you receive from your interactions to build on your sense of an authentic self.

(7) Play hard

Michael Kernis, social psychologist at the University of Georgia, states, “Whether it’s taking an art class, playing basketball, running, or just hanging out with friends, doing something you really enjoy allows you to express who you really are.” Use all of your present moment experiences as opportunities to truly throw yourself into the task at hand. Develop a deep sense of authenticity by allowing yourself to fully experience moments of play and relaxation. Allow your leisure and playful activities to be authentic expressions of your true self, highlighting the way that your behaviors are in line with your deepest values.

(8) Be willing to lose

Thomas Moore observes, “Feelings of inauthenticity are heightened by a lack of a philosophy that allows failure to be part of life. If you’re leading a full life, you’re going to fail some every day.” Everyone makes mistakes at different moments in life. Try to change the way that you think of what it means to make mistakes by remembering that failure is inevitable and is a wonderful opportunity for growth and improvement. When you truly throw yourself into your work and play with a full heart and an open mind, you are allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes because you recognize that these are opportunities to learn valuable lessons.

When do you feel most authentic in life? Try to take time to identify your true values and reflect on whether or not you are truly living in accordance with those values. We often feel a sense of inauthenticity when our hearts and minds are in conflict. Try to resolve these inner struggles by becoming more mindful of what truly matters to you and examining what opportunities you have to live a more authentic life.

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If you are interested in assessing your own authenticity in life, try this free Authenticity Quiz.

Wright, K. (2008, May 1). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200805/authentic-and-eudaimonic

Featured image: .sM!l_e by .sandhu / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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