Authenticity and Emotion

Our culture tends “to regard the mere energy of impulse as being in every mental and moral way equivalent and even superior to defined intention.” Instead we should consider “an idea that once was salient in western culture: the idea of “making a life”, by which was meant conceiving human existence, one’s own or another’s, as if it were a work of art upon which one might pass judgment…. Sincerity and Authenticity Lionel Trilling

Since you are free to choose, you’re free to make inauthentic choices as well as authentic ones, and that’s why some people, indeed, are living inauthentic lives.  There is nothing that guarantees that you make the right decisions for your life.

Where does authenticity show itself? Primarily in social relationships. Not in the way you sit in the corner by yourself, but in the way you interact with people.  Personality and Personality Theories   Peter Ossorio

What Is Authentic Action?

A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Adam Grant wrote a piece titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice.  The gist of the article was that authenticity is hazardous, that “nobody wants to see your true self”.  By way of example he wrote, “A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.  He went on to add, Deceit makes our world go round… Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

Grant is confusing authenticity with stupidity and boorishness.  Authenticity, being true to oneself, is not some mindless ‘let it all hang out’.  And deceit is beside the point, not the central issue. Refraining from blurting all one’s urges is not deceit,  nor is it being inauthentic. It’s being emotionally competent.

Authenticity is one of those wastebasket terms that collects much worth discarding.  Nonetheless, it has use in understanding how behavior and the course life provide satisfaction.

Let’s start with what we all know:  A person’s actual behavior follows from their particular values, knowledge, and competence, and takes place in a more or less recognized set of circumstances. Notice that “values” is plural. Ordinarily, in any given circumstance, we have a multiplicity of values in play, with some being more intrinsic and dear than others.

Here’s what I want to keep in mind: Authenticity and satisfaction go hand in hand. The values held most significant define the through-lines of character linking authenticity, personal integrity, and satisfaction. Personal integrity is a matter of grit and resilience, of maintaining the centrality of one’s fundamental and intrinsic values in the course of life’s pressures and coercions. To the extent a person’s intrinsic values hold sway, to the extent compromise does not violate integrity, life is authentic and satisfying. That’s how I see it.

The Descriptive Psychologist Anthony Putman in his essay, Being, Becoming, and Belonging provides a vision of authenticity that avoids Grant’s caricature and respects the heart of the existentialist idea that authenticity is in contrast to “bad faith”.  Authentic action is true to a person’s actual freedom within their world.  A person’s  choices within constraint and the pattern of enacted values define this understanding. Paradigmatically, what identifies an individual as a person is their ability to engage in deliberate action in a dramaturgical pattern.  Deliberate action follows the motivational weight people give their specific reasons to do one thing or another. The specifics, the individual differences people show, are largely a matter of what they encounter and are actually able and disposed to value, know, and know how to manage. Over time, given a world of circumstance and “thrownness“, this constitutes life’s drama.

Here are a few excerpts from Tony’s essay”

Every day, as we go along being and doing in the world, we experience actions ranging from ones that seem straightforwardly an expression of “who I am”, to ones where we are just going through the motions and know it. We are interested here in the ones that are not an authentic expression of “who I am.” “My heart says one thing, but I do another.” “My job (school, church, marriage) requires me to act in certain ways, but that’s not the real me.” Some of these instances drop out of the picture as soon as we acknowledge that a person can deliberately choose to engage in an action which she knows is not an authentic expression of who she is. These choices are often made on prudential grounds (“Better not burn that bridge just yet”), moral/ethical grounds (“The fact that it’s true doesn’t outweigh the harm I would cause by saying it”) or even hedonic grounds (“Let’s just take the easy way this time.”) If these choices are inauthentic at all, they are at most “garden variety inauthenticity” and not likely to cause too many sleepless nights so long as they are balanced with a sufficiency of authentic acts. 

…we can understand authenticity as referring to the situation where 
a person is well-cast in the status she is being. Who she is and knows herself to be, is a good match for what the status requires her to be; what she is called upon to do in this status gives her good opportunity to express who she really is; as she “be’s” this status, she feels like her “true self” because the version of her this status calls for includes some of her most important personal characteristics.

Inauthenticity can be seen, then, as miscasting. The status he knows… he must be, is a poor match for the status he in fact is being in the world…. He is called upon to act on personal characteristics he in fact does not have, or which are weak in his overall scheme; the version of him this status calls for includes little of central importance to him. (As the Wizard of Oz said to
Dorothy: “I’m not a bad man. I’m a very good man. I’m just a bad wizard.”) Small wonder, then that he feels phony or inauthentic or empty….  One can take only so much of this miscasting before beginning to wonder, “Who am I, really?” because it has been a long time since “I have felt like myself” – that is, “since I have been well-cast in a status where the version of me I was being included important aspects of me, and matched well what the status required me to be.” “Real self”, then, is how we refer to a particular state of affairs. A person is his “real self” when who he is at the time…is a good match for who he is called upon to be by the Status he is currently being…. 

Authenticity is not in the expression of all one feels but of being well cast, of finding roles and communities where one’s intrinsic values count.  Compromise is the nature of real life, but a person can act authentically when necessary compromise does not violate personal integrity.  Participation that facilitates authentic expression is inherently satisfying.

Emotional Action and Authenticity

We tend to view emotional presentations as revealing something authentic about a person. Emotion as a spontaneous expression may be taken to reveal “true feeling” free of guile. A sort of “now I see how you really feel!”  But does it?  Like all other actions, emotional behavior can be performed competently or incompetently. The Descriptive concept of emotion as a variety of felt and immediate intentional action may clarify this.  Emotional behavior involves the learned tendency to act on an appraisal of a situation without deliberation.  We don’t first think it through and then decide what to emote. It’s more immediate and impulsive.  This is not to say that some balance, a simultaneous recognition of what is appropriate or effective, isn’t involved.

I am not suggesting that emotional reactions are necessarily the best evidence pointing to what is authentic.  My immediate response may not necessarily reveal “the true me”.  Over time, the satisfaction of authentic expression may come more from reflection and reconsideration.  People are, after all,  deliberate actors capable of deliberation.  Some circumstances require a considered response that overrides initial reactions of fear, hostility, lust, and the like.  We’re able to change our mind.  The “unless clauses” that guide considerations, when they protect a person’s integrity, are as much a feature of true character as anything else.

A satisfying and happy life requires understanding and competently dealing with the sort of natural complexity and ambivalence that accompanies the inter-dependency of intimacy, friendship, and family life, to point out an obvious few.  Is it inauthentic if I show my love and concern without reminding my beloved that her broken toe came from choosing the wrong thing to kick?  The time may come for that, but need it be said be when I apply the splint?

Two Descriptive Psychological tools

Two Descriptive tools, the Judgment Diagram and the Emotion Formula, can help us sort these issues out. Let me show you.

The Judgment Diagram 

The Judgment Diagram is a format for understanding how a person weighs his or her circumstances, forms an appraisal (with or without deliberation), and acts accordingly. A central reminder here is that the overall circumstances (the big “C”) can have many relevant considerations.  The varied reasons (from the small “c”)  can work well together or can conflict.  In sum, they create the dynamic we call a motivational hierarchy.  A person’s “true colors” are revealed by the weights they give their various reasons to act one way or another. This diagram also serves as the basis for the Psychodynamic Judgment Diagram where unconscious and under-examined motives are included in the judgment.

The Judgment Diagram can be used to illustrate a temporal or sequential process of thinking over the circumstances and reasons to do one thing or another. (She loves me, she loves me not?)  Or, it can simply list the features of the recognized overall circumstances, immediately seen as such. A person does not have to think through what they already recognize as the case. People differ in their sensitivity and understanding of their overall circumstances. A person’s grasp of the “big picture”, the differentiated nuance they simply see, is a way to conceptualize intelligence, emotional or otherwise.

Circumstances provide reason to do one thing or another. Some of these reasons might be represented by the “unless clauses” of the emotion formula.

The Emotion Formula

The Emotion formula is a special case that applies the behavioral logic of The Relationship Formula.

W:  What the actor Wants to accomplish.
K:  What the actor Knows, distinguishes, or recognizes in the circumstance that is relevant to what the actor Wants.
KH:  What the actor Knows-How to do given what the actor Wants and Knows about the relevant circumstance.
P:  The procedural manner or Performance of the action in real time.
A:  The Achievement of the action.
Emotional behavior involves a leaned tendency to act without deliberation.   Deliberate action and the process of deliberation are not the same although they share the common feature of recognized alternatives.  What I recognize in an instant can be complex and nuanced and simply how I see and know how respond.  Or, on the other hand, circumstances can give me pause and reason to think it through. Deliberation is a useful option when the consequences of my action are not what I want. Given what I hold dear, my sense of integrity, I might want to rethink my priorities or the manner I’ve implemented my intentions. 
Or consider this mundane example.

A young and beautiful colleague, warmly smiling, brings to my desk a problem she wants to clarify. I don’t have to think about the reasonable possibilities of this encounter. I know enough about who we are to each other how to act accordingly.  I maintain eye contact rather than look her up and down. I’ve learned to act this way without deliberation.  In my pleasure to be in her company, I drop what I’d been doing and engage her question. She clearly shows her appreciation for my shift in priorities.  I don’t spend time thinking about any of this. I’m simply present for her. Do I need to think through that I’m old enough to be her father, maybe grandfather, that I’m married and her advisor? That despite any sexual tension, it would distract from the business at hand? (OK, probably mine, not hers).  I may be old but not just an old fool.

My immediate happiness, my emotional response, is to be in her company and of valued service. After all, here’s an opportunity to share my wisdom. (Be nice now). Her beauty is icing on the cake, known, hedonically responded to, and ethically and prudently a significant part of the moment’s dynamic.  I don’t have to think it over. Are their similar circumstances where I might think through my options? Sure, but not this one. During this encounter the overall situations includes her beauty, youth, and sexuality. All this carries weight in balance with my other valued dispositions and recognitions.  I know all this without having to think it through.  Authenticity does not require commenting on how hot she is. She’d find that creepy.  We’re not “well cast” for each other this way.  Here, authenticity is expressed by my enjoyment of her company and not pretending otherwise, while doing a job I intrinsically value.

Is authenticity necessarily a good thing?  This depends, since authenticity notably matters in social encounters.  What works in some circumstances may be deeply troubling in others.  Consider current presidential politics.  What to make of probably an authentic  demonstration of unbridled narcissism, ruthlessness, and entitlement?

Authenticity can, I suppose, lead to boorish and unconsidered disregard.  We have moral and clinical language, from jerk to personality disorder, to get at this. In most people, such miscasting would not work out well.  Very few can afford the price, the payment, the bribe to get away with it. People have their own integrity to maintain in dealing with such folk.

But unless you really are an asshole, being yourself is probably good advice. Try to find, it is not often easy, the roles that fit your intrinsic values, the relationships where you’ll be well cast, where necessary compromises won’t violate your integrity. Try to find it somewhere, with someone. If you do, you’ll find life satisfying.

Emotional competence is explored in the entry,  Emotional Competence, Self Experience, and Developmental Patterns. 

Totally antithetical to the above, but well, in character.  “Let it all hangout!

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Authenticity and Emotion was originally published @ Lessons in Psychology: Freedom, Liberation, and Reaction and has been syndicated with permission.

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