August 21

Authenticity: Who are you when no one is looking?

Pretending to be someone else is hard work. Authenticity is a city that most of us have lost the directions to. To be peaceful and content, we should remap those directions soon.

A morning encounter

On an early morning run, I spotted an older lady about a quarter-mile ahead of me. From my vantage point, I could watch her movements though she couldn’t see me. She presented a rather unusual sight. She was moving her hands strangely, walking backward, singing (or reciting) something. At first, I thought it was all very comical, then I worried for her safety because her movements seemed rather wacky and disjointed to me. 

So, I ran in her direction. As I got closer, I could see the sun rising on the horizon. I realized she was in the midst of some kind of ritual, like a bizarre version of a yogic-sun-salutation. But she was absolutely loving it, that is until she sensed me heading toward her. Within seconds, her actions were back to ‘normal’. Gone was the joy on her face and with it all her odd movements. She turned stiff and started shuffling ahead. For my part, I felt like a jerk interrupting a rather sacred moment. 

By then, though, the damage had been done. So, I waved and ran past her. I also noticed that I had, during this time, picked up my own pace, and straightened my form to ‘look’ like a runner rather than a mass of something that was set in rolling motion. 

In other words, both of us resorted to playing our roles - serious walker and serious jogger, respectively - in the way we were supposed to.

Philosophical question

This incident left me a little perplexed. Remember, I said exercise triggers out-of-the-box thinking, whether you want it or not. So, it wasn’t long before a profound question popped up in my head.

Who are we at our core, when no one else is watching us?

In other words, what does it mean to be authentic?

I’ve pondered, researched, and reflected over this question quite a bit since then. In the process, I uncovered some deep truths and valuable lessons. 

Since sharing is caring, I feel compelled to share these findings with you.


By definition, authenticity means being true to our actions, thoughts, and words. It means we say what we think and we do what we believe is right. In other words, it means we are comfortable in our own skin.

Oscar Wilde said

Be yourself, everybody else is already taken

Why be authentic?

It’s our natural state

You need to be authentic because putting on another persona can become very tiresome, very fast. It’s like wearing a fun-to-look-at but uncomfortable Halloween costume. While you may enjoy the show in your costume, there’ll come a time when you’ll just want to get home and change into cozy PJs. 

Your relief after the change into PJs will be directly proportional to how hard you tried to be someone or something else during the day. 

Authenticity is the behavior equivalent of cozy-PJs. It’s when you can just be yourself and ‘let it all hang out’. I have a theory that the term ‘let it all hang out’ must have originated to describe someone that didn’t have to suck in their gut or straighten their spine, as they sat on their couch after a long day. Oh, the sweet relief!

It’s easier to remember

It’s better to be authentic than not because it’s harder to keep track of the various personas that you put on for various people. The longer you do it, the harder it gets to peel off those masks.

Like Mark Twain says,

If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. 

If you are true to yourself, you don’t have to keep track of the various ideas you peddled, especially the ones you didn’t understand or believe in. 

Being authentic is not a license to be a schmuck

Before I get much further, I need to state the obvious. Authenticity is not an excuse to engage in obnoxious behavior. We see this all too often in the world today. Throwing insults, name-calling, belittling, making derogatory remarks about another person or culture – these are behaviors that need to be condoned. Period.

The #1 rule of Authenticity 

If I cause willful distress to others in the name of authenticity, I lose the license to practice authenticity.

Simple as that.

Why is it difficult to be authentic?

Evolutionarily speaking, our survival depended on how well we belonged to a group. Dissenters and lone voices were usually left to fend for themselves in hunter-gatherer societies, making them more susceptible to become easy prey for predators.

So, we learned early on to check our inner voices, pretend to be like everyone else, and indulge in group-think.

Somewhere along the road, though, we forgot the difference between fitting in and belonging. As famous TED speaker and researcher, Brene Brown, says 

Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.

Being yourself really means being comfortable with who you are. 

Sure, there may be areas that need improvement but we start with where we are today. I might use a filter on my photo to hide the half-dozen chins that show up instead of one. Trouble starts brewing when I start to believe that the filtered version is who I really am.  

I know, it is easier said than done to be authentic. It takes enormous courage and strength of character to remain authentic to ourselves and what we believe in. Especially in this age of social media validation, political correctness and cancel culture, we are all a bit too eager to say what’s right, to fit in, and to please. 

Cultural factors

As someone that has spent an equal amount of time in both the Eastern and Western cultures, I felt there are some cultural inputs to Authenticity. I was right (for a change). 

Studies have shown that people’s views towards authenticity are also influenced by the cultures they are raised in. 

Western cultures tend to be ‘individualistic’ with the emphasis on being strong and assertive. You wear your authenticity on your sleeve.

On the contrary, Eastern cultures tend to be ‘collectivist’. How good you are in the Eastern culture is dependent on collective sacrifice and how dependable you are. 

I wholeheartedly attest to this clash of cultures. I have exhibited deer-in-the headlight moments when the two cultural voices conflict in my head – one says 'Speak up' and the other says 'Shut up'. As a result, I usually end up mumbling some inconsequential gibberish. 

Just to be clear, it’s not that the East does not embrace authenticity. It’s just that the greater good of the group takes precedence over individual wishes and wants. When that value system is ingrained early on, belonging just gets easier – the authenticity is still intact but the identification is with a group.

With globalization though, this cultural paradigm is changing quite rapidly. But the lessons are clear. The sooner we learn what it means to be ourselves, the happier we’ll be.

How to be yourself?


The first step is to find out who you are when no one is looking. Shockingly, most of us have no idea. Discovering what makes you comfortable, out of sight, will help reveal to you your true authentic nature. This requires a lot of self-reflection, though. 

List out all the activities you do, the company you keep, the stories you read, the choices you make. Find out which ones resonate and which ones don’t. Be brutally honest with yourself.

This test of authenticity will unearth for you what your strengths and flaws are. Then, be prepared to play to your strengths and address your weaknesses.


The next step is to accept yourselves for what you are. Without judgment.

I’m closer to 5 ft than 6, so expecting to become a WNBA star is futile. The sooner I accept this, the sooner I can move on to more important and realistic issues.

This does not mean we stop aspiring to improve ourselves. But this means we appreciate what we have today. Gratitude first, improvement later. 

Don’t Me-too the wrong things

Just because some cool co-workers praise a heavy metal band doesn’t mean you, with your taste for Bach symphonies, should join in. Firstly, you won’t be able to get past empty-sounding superlatives when describing rock music. Even if you did, you’ll know you’re faking it and your co-workers will know you’re faking it. Soon they’ll be taking all their conversations, not just about music, offline from you. 

Don’t try to be a people pleaser

Don’t shove all your hopes, aspirations, and ideals aside to please someone just for the sake of gaining acceptance. This never ends well in the long run. 

As a rule, sychophants are highly irritating. I’m reminded of a Dilbert cartoon where an employee says to his manager ‘I love it when you exhale in my direction’. Don’t be that employee.

Stop needing to be always liked

I’d like to piggyback on to Franklin’s famous quote, ‘In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes’ 

My addition to the quote: And not everyone will like you all the time.

The sooner you understand and embrace this concept, the better it is for you. 

In short

Pretending to be someone else is hard work. Authenticity is a city that most of us have lost the directions to. To be peaceful and content, we should remap those directions soon. 

With some self-assessment, you’ll know how deeply mired you are in inauthentic behaviors: 

Find out if you’re 

  1. A mirror with a layer of dust that can be easily removed or 
  2. An onion core that requires peeling away so many more layers before revealing your true self

Then, get to work dusting or peeling off, as the case may be.

Don’t spend your life conforming to labels (self-imposed or otherwise), especially if they conflict with your core ideals and values. 

Don’t adopt someone else's likes or life ambitions as yours without understanding your capacity and motivation. 

And use common sense. Remember there are going to be times when ‘You be you’ may not be the greatest advice. Let’s say you’re a Chatty Cathy and start conversations usually with ‘Hey dude, how’s it goin’? If you are granted an audience with the Pope or the Queen, you may not want to use that opening line, however inauthentic you think you sound. 

Finally, remember this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.


Authenticity, selfawareness


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