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Aug. 17, 2021

What Does It Mean to Uncover Our Authentic Selves?

What Does It Mean to Uncover Our Authentic Selves?

The Soul's Work Podcast is the show about uncovering our authentic selves through doing both light work and shadow work. But what the heck does that even mean? What is authenticity? What is light work? Shadow work?

Well, this is my one take on the matter.

To me, being authentic means living our life in as close alignment as possible to our "truth" – our truth being our core needs, desires, sense of self, purpose, what have you.

In an ideal world (which doesn't exist), we as our authentic selves would feel completely in tune with and at ease in our bodies, deftly communicate our needs and set boundaries with the people we are in relationship with, express the way we want to look, love, and be in whichever ways are honest to ourselves, and make all the "right" decisions of how and with whom we spend our time.

Can we get anywhere close to this idyllic state of being? Perhaps with a ton of self-awareness, work, and sometimes fight against the system.

First, cultivating a more authentic life begins with identifying what "living our truth" even means to us individually. Here, we are already faced with a huge challenge: How do we discern between what we truly, authentically want for ourselves and the expectations society, culture, and family have ingrained so deeply into our psyches that we often come to own them as our actual desires?

"Success" in terms of a "good" job and "more" money. A "loving" and "secure" relationship. "Healthy" children. Greater "positivity" and "mental wellness." The list goes on of all we've been told will afford us a "happy" and "meaningful" life. All the things in quotation marks are relative and ultimately social constructs. But at the same time, might we want certain types of connection, a sense of aliveness, and so on, that are genuinely requests of our authentic selves, perhaps even biologically based needs? I believe so.

(By the way, most of me believes we'll never get to a 100% clear answer about this, and maybe that shouldn't be the goal.)

Then there is the second challenge: Once we identify what it means for us to be authentic to ourselves, how do we then summon the courage to act on it?

This process of uncovering our authentic selves often demands great change, perhaps a significant disruption in our lives and relationships, or a shaking-up of deep-rooted worldviews and self-identities. Sometimes not, but I think it's fair to assume that at the very least some majorly uncomfortable feelings will be experienced in moving from a long-lived state of operating by someone else's standards to being more led by our authentic selves.

(Third, how do we logistically do the damn thing? Courage is one thing, execution is another. We won't even touch that question here.)

As I've said before in my podcast, "uncovering" our authentic selves (to me) seems to encompass two main things:

1) Unlearning a lot of stuff (e.g., protective adaptations to trauma that don't serve us in the long-run, gender role expectations, internalized oppression, our privileged identities, capitalist ideals, "beauty" standards, etc.) that layer atop our authentic Selves like a weighty curtain. These layers make it difficult to see through to who we would be if truly autonomous.

That being said, I believe that no matter how many layers have been thrown over us, our authentic Selves are so powerful and relentless in their desire to be heard that the sense of suffocation, denial, deceiving of ourselves and others, unclarity, and internal dissonance will always be felt enough to remind us that we are living out of alignment if we are.

2) Learning new ways of being that are authentic to us. Just because we do the unlearning and peel back those layers of "stuff," it doesn't mean our authentic Selves are suddenly jumping to life, fully realized, rarin' to go. Oftentimes, this uncovering can be a jarring process. We've spent so long thinking that x, y, and z were actually what defined our identity and gave us a sense of self.

Once we disrupt that, we can be left with an unsettling feeling of: "Well, who am I now? What the heck do I do with my life?" Our "old" self might not have been our "real" identity, but at least it was anchoring us to something definable (and oftentimes "acceptable" to those around us).

To me, learning new ways of being doesn't mean we don't already have the innate capacity to embody those ways of being. But sometimes it's like an underused muscle that's always been a part of us but now needs to be exercised more – and so that exercising part might be the new practice we take on.

In many ways, I see a lot of the practices, exploration, etc. that fall into the first, "unlearning" category or process as encompassing what some call "shadow work." Unlearning things related to trauma, social injustices, capitalism, etc., can bring up a lot of grief, anger, feelings of helplessness, shame, among other uncomfortable and painful emotions. As heavy as the curtain may feel at times, the overwhelming prospect of doing this shadow work can actually make the curtain feel protective.

Many aspects of the second, "learning new ways of being" category are what some refer to as "light work." (I'd also include here completing certain developmental processes, like learning self-regulation through co-regulation, that we might not have learned in childhood.) This is just my one impression, and I'm sure there are exceptions to both things. But I'm using these loose categories to make my main point, which is that I often see people skipping category one and mainly focusing on category two.

I unwittingly went down this path when I first began my "spiritual development journey." While I understood the importance of diving into the shadows and "facing my demons," I largely focused on things like identifying my core values, pursuing the "happiness list" I created, meditating to quiet my anxious mind, giving gratitude, and the like.

These were all great practices that helped me connect more with my authentic Self (and that I still engage in today), but when I kept running into the same old triggers and painful feelings again and again, I had to wonder what was missing.

It wasn't until I did the deeper work of exploring my unconscious biases, processing unhealed traumas, learning about and grieving the intergenerational traumas that had been experienced and passed down in my family, etc., that I could make more space for the "light work" to actually...work.

I believe that when we haven't really confronted all the layers of "stuff" that are still shielding us from our authentic Selves, trying to sustain a connection with our authentic Selves through all those "high-vibing" practices can be a struggle.

It's like we move the heavy curtain aside long enough to engage in the light work, but when the veil inevitably falls back into place (because it will), we lose sight of our authenticity once again or try to strong-arm our way through the curtain in an attempt to re-experience the "high" of inner peace we felt for a fleeting moment. It's exhausting and unsustainable.

It's only when I've actually examined each of those layers weighing on me – identified them; reflected on them; fearfully, lovingly, and sometimes painfully lifted them up and off one piece at a time (and not through sheer will but through a complex process of healing) – that I've truly had the breathing room and capacity to let in "love and light." It's in lightening up the shadow of hypervigilance those layers had casted over me that I have felt greater safety to let in more joy, connection, and possibility.

So what does my authenticity look like? My authentic Self lives most of her life in nature because too much city depletes her soul. She travels a lot because she wants to experience other ways of living. She listens when her body tells her, "This situation isn't quite right," and has the self-awareness and courage/self-love to assert her boundaries if needed. She opens herself up to genuine connection but knows her vulnerability needs to be earned and reciprocated. She invites all her emotions into the room and serves as a grounded presence for all of those accepted parts. She sings a lot. And so on.

Up top, I said that (to me) authenticity means living your life in as close alignment as possible. I add the qualifier because I highly doubt it's possible to live one's life in complete authenticity. There is just too much working against us in this world to have complete free will and agency over our lives. (And to anyone who disagrees with that, I'd invite you to reflect on your privileges first before responding.)

Many things have gotten in the way (and sometimes still do) of me living a more authentic life: fear, perfectionism, trauma, addiction and other coping mechanisms (P.S. I am one year and four months alcohol free though!), internalized oppression, my privileged identities, the oppressive systems I live under and am impacted by, etc.

Some of these things can be overcome, others healed to a certain extent, while others still will involve a life-long process of unlearning with no final destination. And some are completely inescapable.

And so part of my authenticity is also understanding my and the world's limitations – and thus, giving myself a break many times over when I don't show up as my most authentic self.

It's about having the awareness that even in the attempt to become a "better" version of ourselves, there is always the danger that we might simply bring those ideals we criticize in other worldviews (e.g., a hyper-focus on results, perfectionism) into the process.

And it's about having the self-compassion and self-love to know that my authenticity can look just as messy, complex, and dark as it does grounded, pure, and light.

So what does your authentic Self look like (in an ideal world)? What layers make up your curtain? What new ways of being would you like to experience in your life moving forward?