Attempting to be authentic is very difficult; it’s not something that we are naturally inclined to do, as often we build our personality structures to defend against our authentic selves. This often happens as a defence from what we perceive of ourselves and the outside world and how we are expected to be to fit into this world.

In Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, we see the protagonist Dorian make a deal with the devil so he can retain his beauty and all his “ugliness” will then go  into his portrait. Part of the deal is that he will not look at the portrait and when he does he loses his beauty and becomes what he truly is. In psychological terms, we could say he faces his Shadow.

We are all very much like Dorian Gray, we choose to present to ourselves and the world the image of us that is deemed acceptable and is easier to face. We not only do this with how we look but we mould our personalities from a young age and learn to dismiss or cut off aspects of our personality that we fear are bad, unacceptable and not to people’s liking. When we cut these parts of ourselves off, they do not die or cease to exist, they are “authentic” to who we are but are cast in our Shadow life, our inner world and are often expressed in a much distorted way. These distorted expressions can emerge unconsciously, so we feel we have little control over the way we express this.

Without acknowledging and owning our full sense of self we deny our internal sense of power, courage, and self-worth

In this space expression can take many forms, outburst of anger, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, and so on. We can also project these aspects of our shadow onto others in our outer world. We might find we don’t like someone but we don’t know why. We can blame the other or judge others and in doing so we forget to take responsibility for ourselves, and our own actions. It’s the others fault not mine. We as a society also banish the shadow we carry, blame might be placed on immigrants for the lack of jobs, increase in crime, and we scapegoat people within our society who help to run our society for flaws in our own democratic system. 

There is a further push in our world to live by family and societal guidelines and steering away from this is always condemned. If we look further back still, we find in religious traditions of all faiths following a sacrificial practice: Jesus died taking everyone's sins, Yom Kippur where the goat is banished into the wilderness where the other is deemed sacred. Banishing the shadow is taught to us by separating it from ourselves and placing it on an outer object or being, we thus cleanse ourselves from the responsibility of having to hold any of it and can comfortably fit into our world and society as we know it.

What does authentic mean?

If we look into the Latin translations of the word, authenticity means “author” which opens up a whole new window into what being authentic really means. When we start depth work and begin to uncover our shadow, we are on a path to taking responsibility. We begin to dis-identify from what we think we know of ourselves and start to learn who we are. This process moves far beyond our personality and personality structures. We become fluid and adaptable as we are no longer holding on to the identifications that limit us, we widen our world and our role inside it.

Many mythologies speak of the depth work as a journey into the underworld. The underworld often represents the unconscious as you never know what you will find there. Often in these stories the heroine or hero are scapegoats themselves, they have been banished or punished and encounter an adventurous and mysterious path leading them to fight their demons and emerging as a King, Queen, God or someone who has reclaimed power or wholeness.

In depth work we consciously follow our need to explore our inner world, and start to reclaim our lost and banished self in our underworld. This is obviously difficult as we need to face what has always debilitated us, facing trauma, facing fears, hate, dislike, abandonment. When we are in our unconscious world we can contact these parts of ourselves and reclaim them in their purer forms, our need for connection which might have been dismissed could come across as needy in our outer world. But if we face this need in our inner world we take responsibility and can grieve over the needs which were not met and dismissed. We might them reclaim how to connect without judgement and take care of ourselves in a more rounded way in our outer world.

It can also be that the main character in the story has been abducted due to an event, such as Persephone’s abduction by Hades and she is taken to the underworld without her choice. In such cases we might find people who are stuck in their underworld and facing all their shadows but struggling to move beyond this point. This process is again similar in separating the outer influences from our inner purer selves, so we can emerge from the darkness and return to it as we wish, but not as a victim, as the Queen of the Underworld, like Persephone.

Without acknowledging and owning our full sense of self we deny our internal sense of power, courage, and self-worth. All of our qualities and flaws are projected onto other people, or we carry distortions (such as, having an expensive bag shows I’m of higher worth; being in any relationship shows I’m loveable). Yet these in reality don’t ring true to what might be happening inside. What we cannot connect with inside ourselves we seek outside ourselves, and thus begin an inauthentic relationship with the world. Yet when we can connect with our inner resources and don’t need to seek beyond ourselves we are fuller in our lives and relationships. We are thus more authentic.   

Further reading

Why politicians need to be more authentic

How do I know who I really am?

Am I an introvert or extrovert?