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Authenticity Versus Inauthenticity (Impression Management).

Updated: Apr 5

At times, we all default to striving to control how we are perceived by others. Typically, the striving is behaving in a way that comes across (or so we'd like to think) favorably. It's a habit of presenting a version of ourself that leaves a positive impression on others. The is often the idealized version we have of ourselves. Some might call this the ego: stories and narratives about who we think we are or should be. This habit is deeply wired, and even subconscious. What's interesting is that in actuality, love and authenticity are the default, the blueprint we are born with. Impression management is the result of trauma imprints that accumulate over one's life.

It happens to all of us: little or not-so-little moments when we feel confused, hurt, uninformed, lacking, incompetent, or afraid. We fear that acknowledging the felt-sense of the above, would make us look, or feel, small.

authenticity versus inauthenticity

So we adapt by editing ourselves, our appearance, our words, demeanor and how we interact. The belief is we must appear aligned with how we believe ourselves to be, so we manage behavior and appearance to get a favorable impression.

authenticity versus inauthenticity

When speaking with clients, I'm often reminded of Mary Stancavage's dharma talk on 'The Undefended Heart.' In essence, it's letting go of who I think I should be, in order to be who I really am.'

I know for me, setting this as a daily intention, as part of my morning meditation has been life-changing.

Impression management can consist of:

  • omissions (leaving out information we think other's won't like about us).

  • faking well (I'm fine, thanks).

  • smiling/laughing when something isn't funny.

  • saying yes when we ought to be saying no.

  • creating the impression that we are someone that we are not.

  • not skilled in separating ego (stories/beliefs that form identity) vs. truth (vulnerable authenticity).

To some degree, this is a necessary part of functioning and surviving in this world. At its most harmless, it might consist of saying "I'm fine" when someone asks how you're doing, even though you might not be fine. This is habitual, and ingrained within us, right? However, it is a form of impression management, wanting to appear a certain way. It's safe to say what people post on social media is another way of managing impressions: it's always the image of us looking our best, or doing the coolest things.

One downside of this is conditioning yourself to believe you're only likeable if you present yourself in these very specific ways. People-pleasing can be part of this dynamic. Check out this article for more on that.

authenticity versus inauthenticity
You are not your mask.

We do this of course, because we are hard-wired, from birth, to connect with others. When we are upset as infants, we can only be soothed (our little nervous systems can only get regulated) by another being, the parent(s). If our parents had too much going on, their own trauma, stressors, blind spots, lack of attunement etc., they may have not been able to see us, validate us, accept us, and even not neglect us. We then had to learn how to adapt to our parent's temperaments, in order to be accepted in the home. What happens when you adapt? You relinquish, or stifle your authenticity. You disconnect from certain real parts of yourself, or real feelings, because parents couldn't accept these parts. We have now moved away from the authentic blueprint of authenticity and love, and shifted toward a traumatic imprint, one which we align with as adults, because we learned our original essence wasn't good enough, or so it felt. To learn more about this, you might want to check out this Attachment Wounds article.

Just like our ancestors, we too need to be (and feel) approved of, accepted, and feel connected to the tribe (family), otherwise risk being cast out, judged, criticized, and leaving one to fend for themselves. This is the origin of our wiring today, and why we deeply fear rejection, judgement and criticism. Thus, we have adapted to this fear with the impulse to appear certain ways, as likeable, put together, intelligent, attractive, and competent.

authenticity versus inauthenticity

In her poem Wild Geese, Mary Oliver says:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Another downside to not disclosing the truth about our inner experience: the shadow self remains unintegrated. We remain un-whole. Without disclosing the truth about our felt experience, we don't feel connection and emotions don't get felt and/or regulated. By opening up authentically, our experience that we once felt needed to be hidden, now gets normalized by another, and accepted. When we don't open up, we solidify the core shame, a poor sense of self, and that feeling of un-lovability persists and grows. We feel empty, we feel anxious socially, and we become frightened that someone might 'see' or discover the real part of us that we believe must be kept secret. We don't even think of it in these terms, or recognize it in this way. It's more like a felt sense in the moment that gets acted out with a defense mechanism.

When we are not truly seen by others, the sense of core shame doesn't diminish. When we are not truly seen by others, our emotions don't get felt and worked through. When we are not truly seen by others, we harden that belief that something is wrong with us. When we are not truly seen by others, we feel anxious, depressed, or unworthy. Our shadow parts go unseen, unacknowledged, and unloved, and we believe that we don't measure up. Mental health is about integration and wholeness. To integrate and become whole, we have to befriend these parts, and become aware of the impulse to manage impressions. In order to be truly seen, all of that scary transparency and vulnerability must be felt. The corrective experience happens when you allow your truth to be seen, and you feel seen and accepted by another. You also learn that vulnerable authenticity is safe enough, even if you're not completely heard or understood in that moment.

authenticity versus inauthenticity

Nervous system states dictate how we react in certain situations. In fact, one could argue that unless we are currently in the safe/social state of the nervous system, free will doesn't exist at all. Do we really make the same choices when we are dys-regulated, in fight or flight mode, than we would if we felt totally psychologically and emotionally safe? You can do a deep dive into nervous system health here.

Carl Rogers said 'The curious paradox is the more I accept myself, just as I am, the more I change.' I've always loved this notion. We are not a constant self-improvement project. You are not your mask. Our true being is loveable, authentic, and present. Can we practice coming back to this, over and over again, and lean into accepting all our parts?

Matthew Brensilver says 'clinging to an auto-biography, or a view of oneself, is very fertile ground for suffering. Clinging always obstructs love.' He also says 'the hallmark of ego is defensiveness. When we claim territory, we become territorial.' Authenticity versus inauthenticity is noticing ego and then learning to set it down.

Now that this article is mostly finished, before rushing on to the next thing, I'd like to invite you to slow down, and check in with yourself. Slower now, and tune into your body. How do you know you have a body? What do you notice, both within, and the space around? How's your breath, where do you notice it? How does it feel to stop doing and just be? Can you find a sense of ease, or safety anywhere? Tune into it, marinate it, let your awareness linger there.

authenticity versus inauthenticity
I love this graphic when thinking about being embodied. The levels we potentially tune into with mindful awareness.

Now, where might your un-integrated parts reside, in this body? Your fear, your shame, your impulse to appear a certain way. Can you locate it? I invite you to be curious about this, and remain curious, incorporating this practice of checking in with yourself consistently. Especially when that impulse to manage an impression arises. What do you notice in that moment?

Can you set an intention each day to work with that impulse in a more wise, skillful, and compassionate way? Something like: 'It makes sense that my protective parts resort to impression management. This is the practice of validation, self-compassion & befriending. Today, may I notice all the subtle and sneaky ways (and the more obvious ways) that I attempt to manage an impression. May I incorporate a sacred pause in that moment, and inquire, what is it that I feel needs hiding, covered over, exaggerated, left out, or edited? Can I come back to my body and my authentic self? The ego and impression management come from the head and mind, whereas your blueprint and softened authenticity come from the body. Can you connect to your shame, your fear, your need to be seen and understood? Validate it. Can you tune into your vulnerability and authenticity? Act from that place.

You are your joy. You are your dark secret. You are your spontaneity. You are your skeleton in the closet. You are your playfulness. You are your shame. You are your beauty. You are your pain. You are your tenderness. You are your fear. Can you connect with it all? Make room for it? Let it all be seen? This is integration. This is wholeness. This is you being loved for you.

Thanks so much for reading. I'm a licensed psychotherapist, currently living in Vietnam. You can support free content like this by buying a coffee below.


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