The Limits of Authenticity

Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. – Brené Brown from The Gifts of Imperfection

There are a lot of reasons people live lives that aren’t authentic to them. Messages about who we “should” be come at us even before we’re verbal. Just look at how children are taught what it means to be male or female, as if an infant really cares about having a pink bow or a baseball cap on their head. But it certainly affects how others interact with that child, which trains them into performing the gender role they’ve been assigned. This certainly isn’t limited to gender, either. There are lots of ways in which our authentic expressions are bottled up, shamed away, or result in punishment.

There was a time when I believed that when it comes to sex, we should all tap into our sexual authenticity. And while I think that’s mostly true, I started thinking about the fact that I’ve never come across anything that applies to 100% of the human race. So I’ve been sitting with the question of what the limits to advocating sexual authenticity might be.

On the “pro-authenticity” side of the equation, I certainly recognize that many, many people live lives of sexual desperation as the result of being shamed for their sexualities, their gender expressions, and their desires. I see people whose restricted (or non-existent) access to accurate, non-judgmental information about sex has limited the choices that they can imagine, which shapes their thinking about what is possible to them. I see relationships where partners are so worried about hurting the other or about “making” the other go away that they become too scared to speak up about what they want, and often (rather ironically) create the very situation that they were trying to avoid. And I’ve witnessed plenty of amazing transformations as folks learn how to tap into their authentic sexual selves and discover how to share that with their partners. Even when it leads to major changes or the end of a relationship, many of those people have said that it was worth paying that price in order to make the shifts that they needed in order to become who they wanted to be. I can’t deny the power of tuning into authenticity for many people.

And yet, I also can’t help but think that when sex educators, relationship coaches, and therapists advocate that process without considering that it might not be of universal benefit, we overstep. For example, there are some people who, for whatever reason, genuinely enjoy causing non-consensual pain. Some might suggest that that’s the result of trauma, or insufficient attachment in childhood, or any of a number of causes. As people move through healing, they can tune into a deeper wisdom and stop reacting to their pain by hurting others, at least much of the time. But what about the people who, for no cause that they or anyone else can identify, prefer to hurt than to pleasure? What about the people who, when they embrace who they really are, turn out to be people that harm? What about the sociopaths of the world?

This rather thought provoking letter from a self-identified sociopath and the response got me wondering about this. If, as some people claim, sociopaths are 4% of the population, what does it mean to advocate for tuning into authenticity?

I find this question quite challenging. On one hand, I really do believe that many of the problems that lots of people face are connected to the belief that they need to be someone who they aren’t. The pain, fear, and shame that result are profound and as a sexuality educator, I’ve helped many people learn how to let that notion go and discover pleasure, happiness, and love. On the other hand, I think I (and my colleagues) have a responsibility to acknowledge not everyone makes the world a better place when they tune into their authentic selves. What happens with that?

So far, the only guideline I can think of is the same one I use when I talk about sex-positivity. When someone expresses their genuine self, if that leads them to ignore another person’s consent, pleasure, or well-being, then I think that’s a place to set a limit in the advocacy for authenticity. I don’t see any easy answers for how those limits are decided upon or enforced. All I’m suggesting it that it’s important to be clear-headed about the fact that sometimes, that needs to happen. It would be reassuring to come up with some sort of system, but my sense is that this is one of those times in which we need to develop principles that we can apply in each situation, rather than a set of rules.

A piece of this is that, as I grow older, I let go of the belief that all people are inherently good, deep down. Back in my hippie-fairy days, I really wanted to believe that the pain that we cause others and ourselves is always the result of our own wounding and that, if we could each heal from that, we’d be able to stop treating each other so badly. I still believe that one of the main reasons we injure others is in response to our own pains, but I don’t think that’s the only motivation. I find that to be a much scarier idea, because it means that it’s not always something that can be influenced or fixed. But I’d rather look at it clearly than hide behind my desire to feel safe. And if someone isn’t willing or able to restrain themselves in order to prioritize the consent, pleasure, and well-being of another person, then I think that’s a reason to intervene.

I have a lot of colleagues and friends who offer coaching, counseling, and workshops with the goal of helping their clients tune into and express their authentic selves. Most of the time, I think that’s just fine. I also challenge them (and myself) to think about where we make room in their work for the fact that nothing works the same way for everyone and that for some people at least, we’re better off when they don’t tap into their genuine selves.

One Response so far.

  1. Jonathan Korman says:

    I have been reflecting on similar questions myself lately. I too have been fascinated but the question of sociopaths. And Lance Mannion has some choice words about “following your heart” which I have found instructive:

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