Is your authentic self something you are born with or is it something that you create?
Finding your authentic self can boost your confidence and aid your sense of personal direction. But is your authentic self something you are born with or is it something that you create for yourself?
And if there is such a thing as an authentic self, does its needs outweigh those of the people around you? When does ‘being true to yourself’ tip over from authenticity into narcissism or self-centeredness?
The idea of ‘being true to yourself’ can be traced all the way back to Aristotle. It begins with the view that each of us has the capacity to judge our situation, assess it, and then act in accordance with our own sense of what’s best. The opposite of this — by way of comparison — is when we judge and act on the basis of other people’s preferences, because it seems like the right thing to do.
So we might pose the question: What relationship do you have with your actions? Do they come from you, or are they the effect of someone else’s priorities? Are you making your choices because you believe in them, or are they a result of wishing to please others?
In the 18th century, the philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau conceived of the idea that society has the habit of corrupting the individual. Our natural tendencies, he said, of compassion and feeling towards others, can get side-tracked by other preoccupations that society encourages in us, such as how we appear to others and how materially successful we are.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard took this idea further, arguing that society tends to encourage people to conform — the idea of ‘joining the herd’ — whereas the individual human has the innate ability to think for themselves. And it is our responsibility to do so.
For Kierkegaard, who was a staunch Protestant, the authenticity of the self was important because it was about how closely a person connected directly with God without the influence of outside mediation.
In the modern world, as we wrestle with our sense of selves and deal with the different demands made of us — as members of families, mothers, fathers, siblings, as wives and husbands, partners, as friends, as workers, colleagues, bosses, and so on — it can sometimes feel that finding an authentic self is impossible. So many conflicting demands can make our lives feel like a spinning whirlpool of distractions and obligations.
First principles of authenticity
So how, in the modern world, do you become authentic?
Making our lives our own is key to being authentic. Taking responsibility for your life, and not falling into a passive mode of existence, is the first principle of authenticity.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger made the argument that each of us has a different life that is unique in its own way, and therefore we should not look to others for a model of how to live.
Authenticity is really about how one feels about oneself. All external judgements are secondary. To be authentic is to have achieved some measure of autonomy and freedom from external pressures, to not only “Know thyself” as instructed by the Oracle of Delphi, but also to “Be thyself.”
Existentialism and authenticity
In existentialist philosophy, authenticity amounts to a search for the truth of ones beliefs and desires, and for finding fulfillment in life by acting in accordance with them.
Jean Paul Sartre, a great proponent of authenticity, states that the conscious mind is a completely free thing, free to make it own choices, to choose its own values and also take responsibility for them.
A person may find themselves confined to a set of conditions, but the choice to change those conditions is always available. This even extends to one’s character: a person maybe shy or inward, say, but that condition, according to Sartre, remains a choice and can always be the subject of change.
Sartre describes the opposite of authenticity in his concept of ‘bad faith’. According to the Sartre, bad faith is a form of lying to oneself, an act of deception in which the deceived and the deceiver are one and the same person. The falsehood is to believe that external circumstances and the apparent fixed-nature of oneself put choice beyond reach. Such a pretense allows a person to disclaim responsibility for their condition and yet remain in a state of blamelessness.
So authenticity, in Sartre’s world-view, consists in the overturning of bad faith in favor of good faith: by being oneself and also doing so with the recognition of complete individual freedom over and above the concept of a fixed character. Even when life turns bleak or tragic, there are still choices to be made.
Life is a series of commitments and allegiances which, naturally enough, evolve and change as they fall into conflict or else disuse. There is, instead, a basic ambiguity of perpetual change in the human self.
Authenticity, then, consists not in claiming ones territory and stubbornly defending it, but in acknowledging with clear-sightedness the choices ahead of us — the depth and breadth of life in all its shades of colour — and coming to terms with the sense of vertigo that choice may give us.
Through choosing, we may articulate who we are. Or as Sartre put it in one of his later works:
“Authenticity, it is almost needless to say, consists in having a true and lucid consciousness of the situation, in assuming the responsibilities and risks it involves, in accepting it … sometimes in horror and hate.” 
To surmise, the pathway to authenticity might consist of the following:
Trust your intuitions.
Don’t worry so much about what other people think.
Don’t get caught up in fads and fashions.
Act with a clear sense of your full array of choices.
Be honest about who you are.
Don’t be odd or eccentric for the sake of it — this can be inauthentic too.
Look at your life and express your personal beliefs.
Don’t be dogmatic or stubborn.
Decide how you are going to occupy your self with all its different facets.
Be proud of the responsibility that you take for your life.