Authenticity is one of the most common buzzwords taken from psychology. I hear people using it every day in the media and in conversation. But it is also one of the most misunderstood terms. A lot of the time, I hear people using it when they are just saying what they think or feel. Sometimes it seems to be a justification for being rude. “I’m just being authentic, telling you what I think.”

Certainly, that is a part of what authenticity is. But the problem is that a lot of the time people don’t really know or understand what they think or feel. Authenticity is the opposite of defensiveness. When people are defensive, they use all sort of psychological tricks on themselves. We distort, transform, and falsify reality as a defence mechanism.

It was Freud who originally developed the idea of defences, but it was his daughter Anna Freud who extended her father’s ideas. In 1936 she published her most well-known book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, in which she described the different forms of defence that people use.

The first and most basic of the defence mechanisms is denial. Denial is the refusal to accept reality. Another defence is repression. The essence of repression is not allowing dangerous, unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses to enter our consciousness. Projection is when we attribute to another person motivations, feelings and thoughts that are actually our own, but we are unable to see these in ourselves. Another immature defence mechanism is rationalisation. This is when we give socially acceptable reasons for behaviour that is based on unacceptable motives: for example, when we are not offered that dream job, but we then tell ourselves and others that we didn’t really want it anyway or that actually what was important was the experience of the interview itself. It’s not simply that we are telling people this, but that we come to believe it ourselves.

Those are some examples of defence mechanisms. The truth is that often we paint a distorted picture of ourselves in our own minds that simply does not match reality. We may see ourselves in a more positive light than we deserve and see others to blame when they are not. The point is that until we overcome our use of defenses, we don’t really know what we think or feel. Defences are ways of avoiding reality, excluding reality, repackaging reality, reversing or redirecting reality. We use defences to protect our self-esteem, avoid anxiety, and shield us from reality when it is too much for our ego to hear.

The continual use of defences prevents us from the joy and freedom of living an authentic life. It stops us from knowing ourselves. When we use defence mechanisms, we don’t know that’s what we are doing. We are literally defending ourselves from the truth about ourselves. That’s why authenticity is not about saying what you think or feel.

Authenticity, first and foremost, is simply about knowing yourself. I wrote about this in my previous book Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why It Matters, in which I described authenticity as involving three steps, “know yourself, own yourself, and be yourself.”

Yes, it’s important to be yourself — to say what you think and feel — but first you must really get to know who you are and what you actually think and feel.

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