How Choosing Authenticity Changed My Life
I’ll never forget an incident that happened my freshman year of college. My family lived in Hawaii, but we spent the winter break in LA visiting relatives. When school started up again, I got a ride back to San Francisco from a hot SoCal surfer in my dorm, Dave. I had a huge crush on Dave.
In the car, Dave listened to rock. I’d always been a mainstream pop kind of girl. We were cruising up the 5 when a song I recognized began to play on his car stereo. I sang along.
"Whoa, you know Led Zeppelin?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure," I smiled. "They’re great."
Dave proceeded to pepper me with questions. Which was my favorite album? Song? What did I like about the music?
I had no answers. Other than this one song, which a friend had put on a mix tape for me in high school, I had barely even heard of the band. Mortified, I turned purple and slunk down into my seat.
"You don’t have to pretend," Dave muttered.
We spent most of the ride from then on in silence.
While this may not seem like a big deal, the story has always stuck with me because it typifies how I used to live my life: rife with inauthenticity. I was raised by wonderful, loving parents who nonetheless placed great emphasis on appearances. My mother was a debutante whose own wealthy parents valued their beautiful house and garden, private club, and having the "right" set of friends above all. My father worked in politics. We were told to put on a happy face and project perfection to the world no matter what was really going on.
Rather than being destroyed by shame, I found myself utterly and completely liberated.
Well, all that fell apart when, in my early 30s, I got divorced, and my father was convicted of a minor crime that landed his face on the cover of the local newspapers. Suddenly, I couldn’t pretend anymore.
Everyone knew I had failed at my marriage and that my family was humiliated. I simply couldn’t hide my devastation as I spent months crying and dissolving into a state of embarrassment and self-loathing. "What will people think?" I worried. "Will anybody like me? Surely, no one will want to date me."
And yet, this meltdown, this public proclamation of my flaws, proved to be the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the critical turning point in my life. Rather than being destroyed by shame, I found myself utterly and completely liberated. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted—the weight of worry about what others think.
Through going into therapy for the first time in my life, reading spiritual books, attending yoga classes, and making friends with wise mentors who helped guide me, I was able to realize a completely different version of reality than the one I had been living for the previous three decades.
Instead of hiding my faults and mistakes, I learned to lead with my vulnerability.
I came to discover that it doesn’t matter what other people think, as long as you are being true to yourself. Even better, I came to realize that knowing and accepting and even loving who you are, flaws and all, is perhaps the greatest key to long-term joy, health, and intimacy.
Instead of "What will they think?" I proclaimed, "Here I am. Take it or leave it." Instead of hiding my faults and mistakes, I learned to lead with my vulnerability. When meeting new people, writing articles and blogs, and even at the family dinner table over the holidays, I shared openly and fearlessly what was going on. "I’ve had a really challenging few years. I’ve spent many days in a puddle of despair."
Rather than causing people to laugh at me or run away from the "crazy person" in the room, I found that being vulnerable and authentic drew people toward me. Well, the kind of people I wanted to hang out with now, anyway. People who were real about life’s ups and downs. People who were courageous about sharing their gifts and their challenges. People who wanted to connect on a heart level.
These days, I work as a life coach. I find that nearly all of my coaching clients struggle with this issue of being authentic. They’re so afraid of how others will judge them that they don’t take the time to listen to what it is they really want and need. They spend so much time faking a great life (hello, social media!) that they don’t form deep, empathetic relationships with their children, parents, and friends.
Being vulnerable and authentic drew people toward me.
But it’s so easy to make the shift to living authentically. All it takes is letting go of ego, of a sense of being embarrassed or not living up to some imaginary standards. All it takes is embracing the truth that life is messy. The more you can bond with others based on that messiness as opposed to some falsified version of what "should" be, the happier you will be.
I had a hip-hop dance teacher in my 20s who made us learn a short routine in every class, then split us into two groups. Each group had to "perform" for the other. It was insane how nervous people got when it was their turn to dance in front of the group. Micaya would laugh and say, "Everyone is too busy stressing on themselves to be stressing on anybody else."
I have found this sentiment as true for everyday life as for dance class. People are too caught up in their own stuff to worry about yours. But even better, when you’re authentic about how things are going, you can form wonderful relationships based on a foundation of courage and the outright highs and lows of human experience. Especially with yourself. Set yourself free.
Not sure where to begin? Here's how to start living an authentic life today.
MeiMei Fox is the published author, co-author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor of numerous nonfiction health, wellness, spirituality, and psychology books. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honors and distinction from Stanford University with a B.A. and M.A. in psychology. She also holds an M.A. in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and is a certified yoga instructor. Fox has worked on over a dozen books, and co-wrote New York Times bestsellers Bend, Not Break with Ping Fu, and Fortytude with Sarah Brokaw. She has edited a book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was expedition writer for Alexandra Cousteau's 2009 Expedition: Blue Planet. Currently, she sits on the board of the HOPE Foundation, an NGO dedicated to helping street kids in Calcutta, India.