“Be Yourself” Paradox: Can Authenticity Do More Harm Than Good? Part I

August 13, 2020 | Leadership & Management | Written by Mohamed Soliman

Case Scenario

“Just be yourself and you will do great.” I caught myself before saying this statement to a client of mine last week, wishing him good luck before an interview for his dream job. I am glad I bit my tongue before saying it; this benevolent statement could have been dreadful advice. This particular client tends to be quiet; showing enthusiasm for the interviewer does not come naturally to them.

Reflecting, I should have told him “Don’t be your quiet self. Be your enthusiastic best possible self that will get you the job.”

The “just be yourself” expression became a cliché that we all use repeatedly without realizing the serious unintended consequences of this well-intended advice.

What is authenticity anyway? philosophically, authenticity is defined as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures.” Authenticity is, hence, limited by your concept of yourself, and the ideas for which the “self” holds true. We frequently use the term to signify truth, self-ownership, and even individuality.

And what is the self? It is a construct defined by your beliefs, culture, the books you read, your family values, the role you had in life. It also extends to include your gender identity, religious values, and ethnicity. Do you, then, have one fixed self?

⁣This singular construct of a single self cannot explain human inconsistencies, contradictions, and biases in our decision-making choices. If being true to your self means estranging from work colleagues, does this “authentic self” imply personal integrity or is it a self-sabotaging behavior? Should your boss treat you badly because this is their genuine self? Should you politely accept and respect these “authentic selves”?

Does this authentic self have an excuse not to grow and improve because you just want to be yourself? Is doing what feels natural even when situations and environments change, such as starting a new relationship, job, or career? If you have been told many times that you are blunt, should you stick to the “blunt self”, hurt your colleagues with colorful words, or even jeopardize your chances in a job interview to stay authentic to yourself?

Should you stick to the same one true self they are aware of out of fear that they will not be perceived as “true to thine self”? Or should you explore your other authentic selves with the help of colleagues, mentors, and coaches?

These are not rhetorical questions. These are pragmatic challenges that face many who perceive a change as a decision between a non-authentic adaptive self versus a rigid authentic one.

The multiple self-model suggest that multiple selves that interact and to make a decision. It explains our irrational behavior as an aggregate decision of the many selves and their contradictory objectives. Rather than exploring and growing the multiple selves, you do not know, you might default to shortcuts and fixed patterns that fit our and others' perception of ourselves.

“Just be yourself” ignores that you have distinct selves that acted differently throughout your respective roles. A deviation would risk being perceived as non-authentic. To thine self be true seems more comfortable to adopt and less mentally tasking!

The empirical reality is you are more than one authentic self. We all might agree that fake is false. When it comes to being genuine, you can choose which part of yourself to express based on the circumstances. You are the same person talking to your 5-year old nephew, your partner, and your boss. Yet, you are subconsciously using different authentic selves to communicate with each one. It won’t make sense to use the same authentic self to communicate with different ages, relationships or statuses.

Every virtue lies between the vices of insufficiency and surplus. Too little of any virtue is sub-optimal, and so is too much. Too little kindness is selfishness; too much becomes self-martyrdom. Too little confidence makes you submissive; too much makes us egotistical. Too little authenticity makes you fake; too much have its cost than outweigh its vowed benefits.

...So, what is the cost of being too authentic? This will be the topic for Part II of this article. Keep tuned!


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