Bizarro Land: What It Means To Be Authentic

“To be authentic, one must be will to show their contradictions.” -Jean-Paul Sartre

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and what it means to be authentic in everyday life.

The general definition of authentic is of undisputed origin; genuine. When applying this term to a person, I understand it to mean a person who is clear or transparent about where they are coming from, true to how they are thinking and feeling in the moment. A person who is honest about their contradictions.

In my psychotherapy practice the struggle to be authentic in relationships and at work is one of the topics that comes up most in my work with people. I work with many younger people who are resisting entering the workplace because they do not want to give up their authenticity.

It is my opinion that we are currently living in a culture which advocates for non-authenticity. We are expected to play a part, to not be authentic. If we are authentic, we worry about the harsh consequences that will occur. So many of our daily interactions seem to be built upon this unspoken expectation to not be authentic. If we are, we fear we will be harshly judged and even discarded. So, we hide who we really are and play along.

For whatever reason, authenticity has always been important to me. Maybe it is the residual effect of my more youthful punk rock values. I don’t like or respect myself if I am not being authentic and having respect for myself always trumps other people respecting me. At the end of the day I have to still live with me and if I am not practicing transparency in my life it is hard for me to like who I am. But still, it is often very challenging and even frightening to be authentic. Why? I have some ideas.

We all want to do what is right. We all want to be seen as being right and making the right decisions. We live in a culture that supports this idea that we should always do the right thing and be striving for perfection all the time. But the problem with this ideal is that it is impossible to achieve.

No one is consistent all the time. If there is a person out there who always makes the right decisions, always does the right thing, never messes up, is always on time and always says the right things and who has no contradictions- well then, good for them. But I doubt this person exists.

It is very difficult to be consistent all the time, in everything we do. There are often two parts to our brains; one part that always wants to do what is right for us (exercise, meditate, be kind, be honest, eat well, be organized, be on time) and another part of our brains that wants to do what is wrong for us (eat unhealthy, sleep too much, not do anything productive, skip exercising, skip meditating, watch mindless television shows, procrastinate, avoid and on and on).

It is very difficult for anyone to be as consistent as they want to be all the time. We often give into what is not best for us because of how we feel emotionally or physically. If we feel good it is easier to do what is right for us. But if we are not feeling well emotionally or physically it is much easier to neglect brushing our teeth or skip exercising.

The truth is that most likely everyone deals with an inability to be consistent. No one really discusses their contradictions, so this often goes unnoticed in our culture. But we all struggle to do what is right and best all the time. We all contradict ourselves much of the time, but yet we prefer to not talk about it.

Appearing to be this good and perfect person who has it all together is a false narrative that we have created as a society. This false narrative creates a constant and intense pressure in people to be always seen as perfect and doing the right thing. Especially in business. Authenticity is what gets lost as a result.

It seems difficult for people to admit their imperfections or contradictions out in public, since this stuff is not accepted by most. As a result people pretend, or play the role of having no contradictions within them. “I am not like that,” people often believe and as a result harshly judge those whose imperfections and contradictions show through. It is much easier to judge and discard others for their contradictions than it is to be transparent and authentic about our own.

Someone I know once called this “Bizarro Land.” A place where the norm has become everyone living their everyday lives where everything is seen as being great and perfect. A world where when a person’s imperfections show up they are harshly judged and even dropped. The problem with Bizarro Land is that it creates these standards of who you need to be that are so high, that we spend our entire lives (or at least until retirment) trying to achieve them. As a result we surrender our ability to feel authentic in our lives, because we are afraid of being seen as the contradictory person we really are.

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Emotional Intelligence, Mindfulness and Hurt Feelings

No one likes to talk about hurt feelings. I would be willing to bet that we sweep hurt feelings under our proverbial carpets than any other feelings. Look deep within most people and you will find a massive bundle of unresolved and unreleased hurt feelings. Hurt feelings make us feel weak and vulnerable. Hurt feelings are too hard to talk about. Most of us just feel more frustrated and hurt whenever we try to talk to the person who has hurt our feelings. So we stuff our hurt feelings deep down and try to get on with our lives. Unfortunately, this never works.

As teenagers and young adults hurt feelings might manifest as destructive behaviors, uncontrollable rage, rebellion and other forms of acting out. As adults hurt feelings may show up as depression, cynicism, passive aggressiveness, misanthropy, relationship difficulties, chronic stress and anger, chronic pain, anxiety and other feelings of overwhelm. When we are hurt it does not take much to make us scream out in pain. However hurt feelings manifest, my point is that for most people hurt feelings do not go away. Hurt feelings age along with us, forming the basis for who we are and how we see the world. Even though we often just sweep them under the carpet and try to pretend they are not there, hurt feelings can influence almost every aspect of our lives. I know from personal experience. I think I have been learning how to deal with hurt feelings almost as long as I have been alive.

For most of my life I would either express my hurt feelings in fits of rage and self-destructive behaviors or I would become like a rock and completely shut down. More often than not I would keep my hurt feelings to myself but they leaked out in all kinds of passive aggressive ways. Before I began practicing mindfulness, other than repressing or raging, I had no idea what else to do with hurt feelings. What else was there to do? I presume most human beings are in a similar situation and this is why most acts of violence, rage, war and hate are nothing more than unskilled expressions of hurt feelings.

Mindfulness is a practice of generating awareness of what we experience in our consciousness. The good news is that if you are reading this you are conscious. Everything you experience, you experience in your consciousness. Walking, driving, talking, thinking, eating, sitting at your desk, hearing sounds, anxiety, reading, pain in your back, watching television, making love, petting a dog, exercising, sitting in a chair, hearing sounds- all of this is experienced in your consciousness. The moment you are no longer conscious you will not be able to experience any of these things (such as when under anesthesia). But in order to know that you are experiencing all of these things in your consciousness, you have to be aware. If you are not aware, then you don’t know.

Most of us live our lives so deeply entrenched in thoughts and emotions that we are not aware. We fly airplanes, drive cars, cook dinner, work at jobs, talk with people, walk down the street in states of complete unawareness. But just because you are not aware of your awareness, does not mean it is not there. A person who practices meditation is basically practicing becoming aware of their awareness. They are creating some detachment from their identification with thoughts and feelings so that awareness can show up. Once you spend any significant amount of time practicing meditation you realize that awareness is like a mirror and thoughts, feelings, sensations and sounds are like objects appearing in the mirror. We know that the objects appearing in the mirror are not the mirror, they are just transient reflections temporarily appearing. In meditation we are practicing watching these objects as they come and go.

When we become more aware we are able to notice how thoughts and feelings are always coming and going, coming and going. Continually. If we are aware of thoughts and feelings we are able to avoid becoming so deeply identified with them (and then suffering the consequences). We can notice the hurt feeling or the negative thought appearing in our awareness but then let them move through and gradually dissolve. Like an object appearing in a mirror we can avoid becoming identified with the hurt feeling. For example, when we see ourselves reflected in a mirror we do not think that we are the mirror. We realize that we are just an object being reflected by the mirror. Same with feelings and thoughts. If we are able to be aware of thoughts and feelings that arise within our inner space, we can also let the thoughts and feelings come and go. We do not have to be identified with them if we don’t want to. We do have a choice.

Ideally you want to be able to be aware of a hurt feeling the moment that it arises in you. Hurt feelings are really sticky and if we are not aware that they are there often they will consume us. If we are able to be aware that the hurt feeling is there and if we can notice the hurt feeling in the same way that we notice an object appearing in a mirror, we will also be able to notice how the hurt feeling gradually dissolves. All feelings and thoughts are continually arising and then dissolving away. Every single one. When practicing mindfulness we are cultivating the ability to be aware of thoughts and feelings as they arise and dissolve away rather than letting our lives be dominated, shaped and messed up by negative thoughts and hurt feelings.

I still experience hurt feelings, but now I notice them. “There is a hurt feeling Randall,” I tell myself and then without reacting to it, I remain aware and just watch the hurt feeling as it gradually dissolves away. I wish someone would have taught me this when I was 15! I could have avoided many holes in the wall, bouts of bitter drunkenness and days or weeks spent in complete emotional shutdown! It feels like this is what is meant by that term emotional intelligence, this ability to be mindful of when hurt feelings arise and then remain mindful as the hurt feeling dissolves away and is totally released within ten minutes or so. Gone. And then I go on with my day without sore knuckles. Who would have thought?

Procrastination, The Importance Of Putting Everything Off

“A nice piece of modern contemporary philosophy and contemplation about the way we live our lives in the modern world.” -Tracie Sokoloff

Nothing makes me happier than the complete absence of all obligations. Nothing. To be alone in wide open time and space, free to go and do whatever I want, is the ideal condition for myself to exist within. Free to listen to music, free to write, free to make art, free to fall asleep in my garden, free to go for a long walk, free to drift in whatever direction I get blown in without any concern for time or things that must be done- this is what I consider to be basic human freedom. Human freedom is a basic need that we all share and the more that this basic need goes unmet, the more we experience mental and physical illness. (It is ironic or tragic that in the society we have created, the more this basic need goes unmet the more material and financial gain we often get. This is why in America more people are on psychiatric drugs and suffer various addictions than any other country in the world.)

For close to thirty years now, I have managed to put everything off. As I get older I am becoming more skilled at doing this. Prior to thirty years ago, I still put everything off but I had my parents continually placing in front of me what I was trying to put off. Without anyone forcing my hand, I am able to keep everything away. The difference between myself and most Americans is that I see what is often referred to as procrastination as a very healthy behavior (if done right). In fact, I feel it is necessary to put things off in order to live a life free from as may obligations as possible. I have always believed that the person who dies with the largest amount of things put off or not taken care off, has lived the fullest life. In a society where a person’s value is in equal measure to the amount of obligations that they have, we must actively engage our ability (which we all have) to put things off, if we want to live free from this often self-made prison.

In order to successfully put things off for as long as possible (in order to live more fully now), it is important to know how to be alone. If an individual is not able to be genuinely alone without anxiety, it will be difficult for he or she (or it) to free themselves from all obligations. Putting things off will be a struggle for the individual who is not able to be alone. By being alone what I mean is the ability to be completely undisturbed by the outside world. To shut the entire outside world out as if it was not even there. When we shut the entire world out, people who want something from us no longer exist. Other people become like trees or clouds in the sky- they are just there, coexisting along with us rather than wanting or demanding something from us or us needing something from them (obligation means to need something from another person or for another person to need something from you). To be free of obligation means to not need anything from others and to not be disturbed or anxious about what others might need from you. This is why being alone is a skill that is crucial for successfully being able to put things off.

The skill of being alone is in great decline in American society. This is one of the most tragic phenomena of our time. The ability to be alone is disappearing in front of our eyes. Individuals can no longer even be alone while sitting on the toilet! Most individuals sit on the toilet with some kind of digital device in their hand. These digital devices (computers, smartphones) serve one fundamental purpose, to prevent people from feeling alone. Most of us can’t handle being alone. We don’t like how it feels. We become uncomfortable and anxious, feel like we are missing out when alone and digital intervention comes to our rescue. This is tragic because the human soul needs to be alone in order to flourish. Less time alone equals less soul and more mechanization (which is what the corporations who sell us these products need and want us to become- mechanized).

The one phenomena that differentiates our period in human history from any other period is that we can now avoid being alone even when we are alone. Our phones and computers are doorways through which the outside world can slip in and fill our aloneness. Most of us voluntarily open up this door for the outside world to come on in when we are alone because we have forgotten how to be alone. Being alone is a skill that requires practice. Once we are constantly interrupting our aloneness by checking our emails, texts, Facebook and Instagram our ability to be alone becomes weaker and weaker until we can not be alone anymore without some sort of distraction present. This is a human tragedy.

If we are not able to shut the outside world out and be fully alone, we will not be successful at freeing ourselves from all obligations. As long as we let the outside world in, even if we manage to put most things off, we will still be tormented by the lingering feeling of all the things we are not getting done. There is no greater waste of time (life) than putting things off while worrying about what we are not getting done. The entire world must be completely shut out, forgotten about or neutralized (meaning everything is just how it should be) in order for a person to successfully put things off. Our day is spent doing exactly what we want to be doing, free of any extraneous concerns or worries, free from the constraints imposed on humans by time. We are fully content and at peace in our aloneness, not worried about what is being left undone or missed out on because we are fulfilled (engaged) in our lives now. This is what it means to be free and the only way to be truly free in our contemporary world is to put everything off.