Authentic selves don’t exist

“Whaaaaaat????”, I can imagine you disagree, look puzzled, maybe even angry as you read the above statement. There is so much talk about “authentic selves” in the coachosphere: Leaders are supposed to be authentic, the coach is supposed to be authentic, instagrammers are supposed to be authentic…. etc. etc. Note the “are supposed to be” and the inherent contradiction in the demand: “be authentic!!!!” It is just like when I tell my husband to “be nice to me spontaneously, not because I tell you.” “Coaching authentic self” gets 63.000.000 results in a simple google search. It seems to be a thing.

So here’s why it does not exist:

If we take seriously that “we are who we are through others”, our experience of our “self” will be different in the various communities that we interact with throughout our lives. Our world is becoming more and more complex and many of us are exposed to a lot different communities with different local rules of correctness and distributions of rights and duties daily. This week, for example, I coached a devout catholic, someone from Saudi Arabia and an LGBTQ person, who all live in very different communities and who believe radically different things and intend different things for their lives. We are shaped by our environment and by what our communities deem important (and we can agree or disagree — both is “shaping” what we hold dear).

So what can an “coaching the authentic self” even mean?

Ludwig Wittgenstein coined the phrase: “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43). So I think it might be a good idea to look at how “authentic self” is being used:

I think people notice their “authentic self” when they experience a difference to their environment. When they have a “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God” moment. In situations, where we become very clear on what we believe, value and intend for our lives. These moments can happen in coaching, especially when we are coaching people on important life decisions. Inviting our clients to describe what they believe, value and intend in interactional terms can be very helpful here. An example could be:

  • Coach: “You’ve mentioned the word ‘equality’ a lot and it seems very important to you – is it?”.
  • Client: “Yes!!”
  • Coach: “So how are you and others noticing that equality is important to you?” (Eliciting an experience near, rich description in interactional and observable terms)

“Authentic” can also mean that someone no longer wants to outwardly play along with something that they do not agree with. For example, when there is a culture in an organization that your client is uncomfortable in and they would like to change it. Also in this situation, the coach might invite the client to explore what is important to them and where and when they learned that it is important. Coach and client might co-create descriptions of preferred futures, for example: “Suppose you were able to ‘be more authentic’ or ‘live what you value’ more, what would you and others be noticing?”

“Authentic self” as a metaphor

The danger of assuming an “authentic self” inside a person is that the assumption creates a dichotomy of “right and wrong”. You are either living as your “authentic self” or not. It also sends people on wild goose chases into their “inner worlds”, to overthinking and over-reflecting. If we treat “authentic self” as a metaphor for “how I would like to show up in the given environment and community”, I think we can work with the concept if clients bring it.

So — how would you like to show up today in your communities? What would they notice that’s different if you showed that you value what you value, believe what you believe, intend for your life what you intend a little bit more strongly?

If you want to join us for musings like these, exchange coaching ideas, do or watch a demo, bring a coaching case, get information on our courses — here are our weekly free meetups and exchanges:

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