Why I’m Over Authenticity: The Intersection of Honesty and Empathy
Some people are naturally authentic.
I am not.
When I was a kid, I was bullied at summer camp. It was rough, and at ten years old I made a vow to myself, to never be the reject again. I decided to hone my social skills so finely I would be popular for the rest of my life. Rather than saying what was on my mind, I trained myself to guess what people wanted to hear from me. So I could say the right thing and be liked.
This became my pattern, woven deeply into the fabric of my personality.
But for the past three years I’ve worked to unravel the threads. I made a conscious decision to stop optimizing my life to be popular and, instead, to focus on being authentic.
It took extreme actions. I took a trip around the world recently and decided to overcome every physical fear I had, from SCUBA diving to zip lining to bungee jumping.
Only after these terrifying moments did I gain the confidence to tackle my biggest fear: speaking up for myself.
In short, I’m a huge fan of authenticity. I think about it, write about it and talk it up. Many others are, too (despite what Adam Grant thinks). It’s a trend among spiritual people, millennials and in the business world. Harvard Business School professor Bill George wrote an excellent book called Discover Your True North and developed and teaches one of the most popular classes at the school on authentic leadership. His work is excellent. But sometimes too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.
“I believe the cult of authenticity has gone too far. It can be hurtful. Self-serving. I no longer think authenticity on its own should be revered.”
This thought was crystallized at dinner with a new friend. It was a guy in the spiritual community, a healer interested in working with my company The Path. He asked to get together and offered free treatments during the day. But I generally work until dusk, then enjoy social time and culture in the evening.
So I invited him to join a film screening one evening. He said yes, and after we went to dinner.
Amidst sushi, seltzer and a relaxed chat about his background, he suddenly he leaned towards me and looked directly into my eyes. On instinct, I leaned back.
“Are you deeply attracted to me?” he asked.
“What?” I asked, shocked and not sure if he was joking.
“I’m reading your energy right now as being really into me. And I noticed that each time I try to offer you a healing treatment, you try to turn it into a date.”
Inching my chair away, I explained that I work during the day, then socialize in the evening. This conversation, I said, felt a bit aggressive.
I had wanted to relax with a new friend, but I now felt guarded, watching my words.
“Well, I just have to say that I think you’re really attracted to me,” he continued. “Are you? Or are you not? Answer me. And, you should know, I’m at a point in my life when I’m trying to be as authentic and transparent as possible.”
“It felt like he was using authenticity as a blunt instrument. ‘I need to say my piece — no matter how it makes you feel.’ The first rule in medicine is Do No Harm. Can we seek the same ethic in our communications?”
I stared at this guy, stunned. His words felt like fire. Almost mean. It was the opposite of gentle or compassionate. I felt like he was trying to shine a flashlight deep within me, searching for something to critique. A few weeks earlier he had asked about working together professionally, and the request was now swirling in my head.
In this moment I realized I don’t want to surround myself with people who focus purely on authenticity. I want to surround myself with people who also value kindness.
“The new ideal should be authenticity with awareness, the realization that our words and actions have an impact on others.”
Sometimes being “authentic” is a veil for inconsiderate. Meditation teacher and author Jay Michaelson calls it “spiritual passive aggressiveness.”
Knowing what you feel and want to say is an important first step. It took me years and a bungee jump to get there. But it’s not enough. The second step is understanding whether, when and how to convey it.
A year ago I had dinner with two close friends. Each of us was going through a rough patch, and we sat together sharing our stories (mine involved something that had occurred the night before), crying and supporting each other.
On the way home, sharing a taxi with one of the friends, I mentioned that I missed hanging out as much as we had in the past. I asked if everything was ok. She proceeded to explain, with full authenticity, why she had pulled back from our friendship for a short time.
Normally I would have valued this feedback. I had recently given her a critique, at her request, and I value open communication. But on this night, already feeling fragile, I didn’t have the bandwidth to process her words. Again I felt a harsh light shining into my darkest places. And like a spotlight in your eyes at night, it felt startling and scary. I don’t blame her for sharing her feelings, since I had invited it, but it strengthened my belief that my values had changed.
I believe authenticity should be paired with empathy.
Here’s a guide to figuring this out:
1. First, what do I have insight into?
2. Second, do I want to share this? Will it help someone or hurt them? A core Buddhist principle is “ahimsa,” which means not to injure another, to act with compassion.
Is there a reason to say this beyond simply expressing myself? Will it help the world become kinder, better or have more knowledge?
The great Vedic teacher Thom Knoles says to only share wisdom if there is “worthy inquiry.”
3. Is this the right time? Is the person I’m speaking with ready and wanting to learn this information from me in this moment?
4. How will it be heard? My friend Frank Luntz, the brilliant linguist, wrote a book called, “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” Ask yourself, what impact will my words have? Is my language kind and humble, helpful and spoken with the right tone? Woody Allen once said, “It’s ok to say what you mean but don’t say it mean.” Tone and language can make a big difference in how someone hears what you say.
My friend the psychotherapist Meg Batterson says, “Mindful speech is about speaking from the heart with the other in mind.” It can establish real intimacy, she says, “and convey an important relational message: You matter to me, so I will take the time to consider my impact on you.”
That judgment lives at the intersection of authenticity and empathy.
Two years ago I published an article about why I don’t lie. I still believe in this. But it’s not enough. Honesty should be paired with empathy.
My friend Biet Simkin, a meditation leader, lives by “radical kindness.” Sometimes that means offering tough feedback, but only when she senses it’s the right time. And she’ll always err on the side of kindness.
In recent years I’ve over-indexed for authenticity. I thought I was doing everyone a favor by offering advice on whatever came to mind.
Then one night I heard DJ Yogi sing, “Be the Lighthouse.” I stopped still on the dance floor. He was rapping about living by example. Not offering unsolicited advice or word frothing what’s on your mind but simply living by the values you set for yourself. Be the lighthouse everyone looks up to.
This is a better way to be.
And so I am attempting to live by this principle. Be the lighthouse. Speak authentically but with awareness of how my words will affect someone else. I want to live at the intersection of authenticity and empathy. The Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is kindness,” and I want to err on this side. Because authenticity is cool but compassion and kindness — are even cooler.
Dina Kaplan is a certified meditation teacher who leads online Meditation Teacher Training programs. Dina is also founder and CEO of The Path, which teaches meditation for the modern mind, including corporate wellness programs, private meditation coaching and the renowned Mela meditation retreat. Dina has guided meditations, retreats and corporate meditations across the U.S. and around the world. Previously Dina co-founded a web video start-up and was an Emmy award-winning news reporter. She has been named a Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneur and has published articles about mindfulness in The New York Times, Marie Claire, Town & Country, Today.com, Time Magazine’s Motto brand, Forbes.com and more. Please follow Dina at @dinakaplan on Instagram, follow The Path at @the.path and join Dina for meditations and more at thepath.com.
This post was originally published in Everup.com.