The Secrets of Being Authentic (and Why It’s Important)

UPDATED: August 22, 2017
PUBLISHED: August 22, 2017

We like how Leonardo DiCaprio didn’t bring a beautiful young actress to the 2016 Academy Awards but rather his mother. I’m not the only person who’s lacking a date this upcoming weekend, we tell ourselves.

We love how model Chrissy Teigen shares a photo of herself and her husband John Legend on Instagram with their new baby girl, sans makeup and fancy clothing. She’s just like the rest of us, we think.

And we relish the stories of celebrities who struggled before becoming incredibly successful: How J.K. Rowling was living on welfare when she wrote Harry Potter, how Richard Branson struggled with dyslexia, how Stephen King’s first novel was rejected 30 times before finding a publisher.

We eat these stories up because they emanate authenticity. DiCaprio values his relationship with his mother just as much as his career. Teigen isn’t afraid to show her less-than-perfect side. King was a failure for many years before succeeding.

Related: 8 Tips for Being Authentic

“People follow authenticity. They are searching for it,” says Karissa Thacker, a psychologist and author of The Art of Authenticity. “I think it’s twofold: The drive to be authentic and the drive to be around other authentic human beings goes back all the way to philosophy. But positive psychology also tells us that this sense of being true to yourself creates meaning. There’s a drive to be authentic inside all of us. Fundamentally, it’s part of living a meaningful life.”

The word authenticity is loaded, but Ryan Lee, founder of FREEDYM, a training resources website for aspiring entrepreneurs, believes it’s imperative we remember what it truly means. Some people might think having piercings or pink hair is authentic, but wearing Banana Republic and listening to Coldplay can be just as authentic if it’s who you truly are.

“Because of the trend of being authentic, people think you have to grow a big beard and you have to have tattoos and curse,” Lee says. “That’s not authentic if that’s not you.”

Room for Growth

Although authenticity might seem like an innate trait and something we’re born with, Thacker believes you can develop it much like you would any other trait, like curiosity, kindness or honesty. For many years, our society has held the “I am what I am” view, she says, when in fact people regularly adapt themselves to context and situations.

She suggests the first step in building authenticity is turning on our “authenticity meter” to determine whether we are in touch with ourselves and our actions.

“A lot of us move through life reaction to reaction and we don’t stop and go, Wait, I just did that. Did it feel real to me? Why did I do that? Did I feel pressured by context? Was I trying to be cool? Nobody can tell you what’s authentic for you,” she says.

Another way to be seen as more genuine and real is to feel comfortable not being perfect in the eyes of others. Be comfortable sharing your failures and weaknesses. You might not think this is the best route in business, but when done appropriately, it can work. “If you understand your context, your environment and the relationship you have with the person you’re sharing the weakness with, I think people are more inclined to help—it’s more honest and it’s true.”

Related: 9 Reasons Perfectionism Is a Bad Thing

We can relate to others better when we’re not afraid of being vulnerable. “I’ve seen this happen time and again with executives who on the surface look perfect and can do anything,” Thacker says. “But nobody’s smart enough to figure it all out. Embracing your weaknesses and your quirks is just as much a part of being authentic as embracing your strengths.”

Lee agrees. For him, being authentic boils down to one concept: trust. “Be truthful to who you are,” he says. “Tell the truth. It really comes down to being you. It’s having the confidence to be you.”

Don’t be afraid to tell people what you believe in. Don’t think you need to straddle the line to please all of your friends, family or clients. Stay firm on your values and beliefs.

Forces Within

In attempting to appear open, honest and true, some people might inadvertently create a false sense of authenticity. Thacker believes both external and internal roadblocks stand in the way of becoming truly authentic.

The external forces are environmental—say, worrying your boss might think you’re not competent if you tell her you’re uncomfortable with a particular project, or feeling concerned that your husband will be hurt if you tell him how you really feel about his relationship with his brother.

Internal forces are more ingrained and much more difficult to overcome. For example, if you’re a naturally gregarious and extroverted person and someone told you to tone down your personality early in your career, you might have dialed it down too much. If you’ve squelched it for long enough, it will be much more difficult to bring your true self back.

Related: 6 Steps to Discover Your True Self

“Stepping back and examining those habits of mind that are internal is a powerful step,” Thacker says. “Our internal barriers are often harder to move than the external ones.”

Double-Edged Sword

Because people in leadership positions are among the most scrutinized, being vulnerable, honest and letting go of the “perfect” image can be challenging. But conversely, these are the people authenticity matters most for because it goes hand-in-hand with trust. Leaders who are kind to others are often seen as more authentic.


“Embracing your weaknesses and your quirks is just as much a part of being authentic as embracing your strengths.”


“I think [authenticity] does fundamentally come back to this: If I’m going to follow you, if I’m going to take a risk, if I’m going to put hard work and effort into a vision that you’re throwing out, can I trust you’re also looking out for me? Can I trust that you’re a kind person?” Thacker says.

The kindness and trust a leader emanates will ripple through one’s entire organization.

“When you see somebody else do something kind, what happens for you?” Thacker asks. “When you see somebody else do something you know is selfless, how do you feel in that moment? The scientists call it a feeling of elevation. I call it a virtue buzz. I think the vast majority of us want to be around goodness. We want to be around higher virtues like curiosity, kindness and honesty.”

Whichever virtues leave you buzzing, keep in mind that no matter who else is around, your constant companion is yourself. So like who you are (or grow into the person you want to become) and enjoy the company.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.