This is the third and final part of a blog series on authenticity. In the first blog we spoke of the definition and value of authenticity as a personality trait. In the second blog we spoke of how to maintain a degree of authenticity as a person and a professional. In this blog we’ll take a look at how to maintain authenticity in personal relationships. But first, what is the cost of not being authentic in personal relationships?
Simply put, the cost is invisible but huge. We don’t pay it in one go. We pay it over time, without our knowledge. Very often we never realize we are paying such a high cost for being inauthentic because from the outside things look fine. Sometimes, when we do realize, we also get sinking feeling because we realize too much time has been wasted and as a result of our inauthenticity, we have changed other people and now they can no longer revert to who they used to be.
Sounds undesirable? Well, it is. Here’s a story.
Margaret and John are going steady. They plan to get married next year. They are clearly in love and have a lot in common. They are both sensitive, introspective people who like to read, go to the theatre, and buy art for the house. There is mutual respect, affection and passion as well. But lately, they have both been displaying a cycle of behaviour typical among relatively new lovers. Here is what happens:
John says or does something that Margaret doesn’t approve of. For example, the whole weekend goes by and Margaret doesn’t hear from John. She tries to reason with her feelings. Perhaps John is busy with a lot of work. Perhaps he is busy with his parents how have recently moved to town. Or maybe John just needs some ‘alone time’ once in a while. He needs space. But even as she tries to manage her emotions about John not messaging her, she feels a little neglected. Why can’t he take out five minutes from his schedule and say hello? What will he lose? Is he losing interest? Maybe he thinks she is not good enough for him? Is there someone else he is considering? But she cannot assuage her insecurity by simply calling him. Because she also has an ego problem. She will not be the first to broach the subject of neediness. She will not be the first person to show weakness. If John can go the entire weekend without expressing his need for her, why she can do it too!
And in this way, the foundation for a dangerous kind of inauthenticity in their relationship is laid. The foundation is forged in a false ego-driven confidence that comes with its own mantra: I don’t need you.
I don’t need you is a kind of defence that Margaret has built up after facing ‘rejection’ from John for months and months. Whether John’s rejection of her is real or imagined, we don’t know. But what Margaret knows is she experiences pain and she is not sharing that pain with John. Why? Because her ego doesn’t let her be weak. Or, worse still, she has learnt in the past that sharing weaknesses and other sensitive emotions makes her vulnerable to manipulation.
Hence the protective armour comes on: I don’t need you.
But as much as it appears like a kind of spiritual self-sufficiency, it is actually not that. It is fear and resentment disguised as spiritual self-sufficiency. In truth, Margaret needs John very badly and the good news is there is nothing wrong with this. It is normal for people in relationships to need each other. That kind of mutual but healthy neediness is what sustains relationships. Expressing the neediness is what keeps the relationship warm. And being authentic about one’s feelings and needs is the tactic to do that.
When we express our needs with our partner in a healthy way, when we share our fears, we do not become weak; we become strong. We are telling our partner, “This is the real me.” This takes courage and if we are on the receiving side of this, we should never forget that it is the greatest gift another person can give us. This unmasking of fears and falseness is the first step to building a more real and deeper connection where both partners can feel authentic and ‘safe’, without the suffocation of role-playing and the need to appear ‘strong’ and ‘independent’.
So why don’t we do this more often? Why doesn’t Margaret just tell John she misses him? Why doesn’t John message Margaret over the weekend and tell her he misses her? When and why did both these perfectly smart, emotionally well-developed adults begin this game of mutual independence?
When they listened to their ego. The ego, as helpful as it is to cultivate a sense of self-respect, can also be dangerous in relationships. This is because, after years of human evolution, is predominantly designed to undertake the vital task of self-preservation. And being authentic, being vulnerable about fears and hopes – is the very antithesis of self-preservation. This is why it is so hard to be authentic in relationships. We strive to protect our ego, and in the process, we damage the relationship.
Now that we know the value of authenticity in one on one relationships what steps can we take to make sure we be more open and real with our partners?
1. For starters, we can share our feelings. This doesn’t mean we have to place every troublesome feeling at our partner’s door. That is the extreme end of the vulnerability spectrum and it is not healthy and can certainly put a partner off. No, we need to have the maturity to screen our emotions and decide what to share and how. We should strive for a balance between too little and too less. But always share the emotion. Not communicating emotion is one of the main reasons why relationships ossify into dead-end games of ego and survival.
2. Ask your partner how he or she is feeling. When was the last time you asked your partner how they were feeling about something? Sure, we ask the customary questions like “How was your day” or “What are your thoughts on this rug?” But we don’t delve into feelings. Feelings are the main barometer of someone’s well-being. They are also the tip of the authenticity iceberg. The iceberg hides a lot of valuable authenticity underneath and the only way to get to it is by chipping away at emotions. Make feeling-centric inquiries into one another’s lives.
3. Write letters to each other. Find it hard to share emotions? Resort to email! There is nothing awkward or quaint about it. The alternative – an emotional deep freeze – is much worse! Write down your feelings on an issue and share them with your partner. Slowly, you may be able to evolve from the medium of paper to the medium of face to face conversation.
4. Bond on the plank of art: Art is a good way to get feelings to unfreeze and come into the conversation. People are authentic and hence more vulnerable when they discuss the books, movies, and other art forms they love. This is because art touches the soul in strange places and so when people discuss their favourite art forms they are, unwittingly, exposing pieces of their soul. Developing or appreciating an art form is a way to make the soul grow. So if both of you can find and practice an art form together, your collective soul will be nourished and it will grow – and you will be laying the foundation for a more intimate, authentic relationship over time.
Authenticity is to important relationships what a lubricant is to gears. Gears can do their job without lubricants but over time a lot of friction develops and one day, the damage gets too serious to repair. The lubricant of authenticity helps the gears of your relationship connect better and move more easily. And the way to get there is through the pathway of expressing and inquiring about emotions.
About the Author:
Sandhya Reddy is a leadership & transformation coach based in Bangalore, India. She is the Founder and Principal Coach at Chapter Two Coaching, a coaching consultancy that enables everyone from CEOs to work-from-home parents to achieve their goals by replacing self-imposed limitations with enabling stories.
Many of us in our thirties experience a disquieting realization: what brought us to middle-management may not take us to senior-management. This is true. To chart a new career path, one needs to think and do things differently. This is where Sandhya can help. She is a coach. Life coaching, executive coaching, business coaching, personality development, leadership coaching… they are all part of her forte. Her Executive coaching programs helps tomorrow’s leaders set new goals, make new plans to achieve those goals, get that elusive promotion through a blend of knowledge, action and image-building, enhance influence among the leadership team, be more productive, get more out of one’s team, and be known in the company as an indispensable performer and future leader.