This is the second article in the series Baring It All: Living Authentically From the Inside Out. If you are new to this series, check out our introduction here.
Before we can work on finding and living within our authentic selves, we need to make sure we agree on what authenticity actually is. So get your nerd hats on. We’re going learning.
The Stream of Consciousness
The easiest way that I can describe the authentic is to imagine a stream. All streams start from some sort of source point, flow from that source, and eventually flow into a bigger body of water.
Think of the source point as your genetic makeup, your biological circumstances, and your early childhood experiences. Like the source determines the general size and shape of the stream, these first factors are the basis for how your brain develops and learns to interact with the world.
As the stream flows, it interacts with its environment like we do. Sometimes we shape our surroundings, the way water erodes the ground or changes directions. Other times, the environment impacts us, just like how a heavy storm or dam can change the flow of the stream.
Eventually, the steam meets up with other streams. This is how you contribute to the world and the people around you. The self meets up with other selves and learns to be something larger. Still, however, that stream remains an individual.
Throughout this journey, the water is still water. It still comes from the same place and is still made up of the same basic components. It’s just that how it looks, the type of things it holds, and where it goes may change.
""...authenticity is the act of differentiating yourself from your environment..."
Like a stream, the way you present your authentic self is subject to change, and exists within your environment. Sometimes, if outside forces are strong, they can choke off or alter the stream in destructive ways. A massive landslide (trauma) can completely block up the flow of the stream and muddy the water so much that it’s hard to tell what’s stream and what’s dirt. Alternatively, other people may try to redirect or dam the stream in ways you didn’t expect or maybe even want.
But at the end of the day, it’s still you. If you strip away all the leaves, rocks, fish, and bugs (AKA the criticisms, the social norms, and the expectations), you can see that it’s still water underneath. No matter how the path of it changes over time, it’s still the same stream.
Cool Story, What Does it Mean?
Living authentically requires us to look beyond our environment and learn how we really feel when we aren’t flowing through and around all the voices that take up space in our brain. Next week, we’re going to learn how to identify and work past those voices to find our own flow.
And now onto the definition.
To put it in the most basic of terms, authenticity is the act of differentiating yourself from your environment by:
- recognizing the forces that influence your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors,
- accepting ones that will help resolve inner conflicts, and
- discarding ones that do not serve you
Note that I started that definition by calling it “the act of.” Authenticity is not a state of being; it is a continuous and active process of working within yourself to listen and respond to your inner guidance. It may sound exhausting, but as with any skill, over time you will be able to hone this ability and make it a more automatic process.
It’s also important here to point out some of the common misconceptions about the concept. Authenticity is not:
- Static - Philosophers will argue forever about whether or not a person can change at their core, but what matters is that the feelings we automatically feel as reactions, and what we do about those reactions, can absolutely change over time.
- Predetermined - Yes, genetics and biology will always have an affect on how our brains think and work, but we are constantly observing and evolving based on our environment.
- Enlightenment - Getting in touch with who you are at a deep level is an important first step to healing and growth, but it is not in itself an endpoint.
- Objective - What is right and healthy for you at a fundamental level will not be the same for everyone else, nor should it be.
There is one other word I was going to add to that list: Positive. However, I think we need to dive a little deeper into this one.
“The Natural Goodness of Man”
When authenticity is discussed in the mainstream, it often has a bias towards positivity and clean, healthy living. This isn’t new; the title above references a treatise written by 19th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He was a bit of a bastard, so we won’t be discussing him, but the concept of “natural goodness” does have a pretty solid psychological basis.
Back in the early to mid 1900s, much of what the general public heard about psychology was that the brain was constantly fighting between its base instincts and the constraints of morality. This is where we get the idea of the Oedipus Complex and other ideas attributed to one Sigmund Freud. Freud was also kind of a bastard.
But you know who wasn’t? Carl Rogers, father of modern psychology. Rogers had this radical idea that people who are dealing with mental and emotional issues might actually be good people who are just stuck in a place of stagnation. Unlike Freud, who believed that psychologists were smarter than their hapless patients, Rogers believed that most people have the tools to help themselves, and just need to be given the space and safety to learn how.
One of the hallmarks of Rogerian therapy is that counselors are expected to show their clients “unconditional positive regard.” Basically, a therapist must believe that the person they’re helping is good deep down and that they have the ability to let that goodness out. This premise builds off the works of many philosophies that see humanity as fundamentally good, and started combating the stigma that anyone who needed therapy was a bad or broken person.
But What About My Natural UN-goodness?
It is hard for most people to believe in the idea that their authentic selves are good. And it’s true that many of us have behaviors and feelings that we don’t like and may even be toxic or abusive. Furthermore, psychosis is a real thing. There are legitimately people who have negative, even dangerous, automatic responses that are neurological or fundamental in nature.
And this is why I bring up the idea that authenticity isn’t enlightenment. If you discover that there are pieces of you that feel like your true self but you don’t like them, that’s alright. Learning about them is your first step to helping overcome them. And honestly, most of the time what you think is your true self and what you’ve been led to believe is true can be hard to distinguish.
Alternatively, you may find peace in the idea that some of your parts aren’t perfect. We are flawed beings and we don’t have to be perfect and happy in ourselves. We’ll discuss issues later on regarding needs for external validation and body acceptance, with the goal of helping you find the emotional place you want to be.
What Does This Have to do With Boudoir?
The question of authenticity is a recurring theme when it comes to intimate photography. Boudoir is a paradox when it comes to the idea of reflecting the true self. On one hand, it is by its nature a highly stylized artform. It focuses on drama, expression, innuendo, and sensuality (if not sexuality). On the other hand, it also requires the subject to abandon the comfort of self-control. There are no selfie angles or head-to-toe coverings to protect you from the judgment of your own perceptions.
What is vital to determine, however, is whether those perceptions truly are yours, and if not, where they are coming from. A boudoir shoot is going to be much more satisfying and productive if you are able to look at your photographs through the lens of your personal beliefs, not the ones imposed upon you.
For now, I encourage you to think about your stream and how you can start sifting through some of what’s floating around in it. Next week, we’re going to wade in.