Photo by Ionut Coman
Longing to be Real in an Age of Appearances
by Catherine Liggett
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It
takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are
Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
- Skin Horse to Rabbit in The Velveteen Rabbit
The classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit deeply moved me as a child, as it does almost everyone who reads it. All of us want to become Real, which means to be seen and cherished as our authentic selves. We yearn to be loved without having to be a certain way to get it, but most of us have no idea how to get there. It’s so ingrained in us to try, to work hard to get love, that we need guidance even to begin our paths to true authenticity. In order to be seen for exactly who we are, however, we must know who is there to be seen in the first place.
This is a problem for us today, because our notion of identity has rapidly become a presentational commodity. It’s about “being ourselves” in a way that others can see, mostly online. Most of us barely know what our authentic selves might look like, beyond a moderately edgy post on one of our online profiles, or going to Burning Man. The truth is that in order to know our authentic selves, we must be intimate with ourselves. I use intimacy here as meaning into-me-see, looking inside to see what’s really there. In this age of postable identities that exist to be seen by others, we’re seeing the value of our invisible inner worlds less and less. And in this way, we’ve quietly outsourced our sense of self, all while wondering why symptoms such as anxiety are on the rise.
With open eyes, the reason is so easy to see. We don’t have our homes within ourselves anymore. We’re strangers to the ephemeral being that’s right here, in this body, feeling everything. At its core, anxiety is a vague and constant feeling of rootlessness. You’ve become a stranger within yourself, unsafe and afraid, because your safety, your anchor, is outside of you. This isn’t your fault. It started in your infancy, far before you had a choice about how to relate to yourself. Now, you do have the choice and the ability to choose intimacy with yourself, bring the anchor inside of you, and come to know what it really means to be authentic from the inside out.
Ask yourself, right now, What would it mean to be authentically me? Take a moment to breathe into this question and see what arises, if anything does. See if what you came up with revolves around what you or your lifestyle would look like to other people. This will be the case for most, and that’s ok. But if so, I ask you to try again and go deeper. What would it really mean to be authentically me? Take another deep breath and imagine yourself sinking below the surface, below the posts, below the outward appearance of your life. Sink into how it would feel to be authentically you, how it would feel if you weren’t trying to feel any certain way, right now. How would it feel if you weren’t pushing any of your emotions away at all, including the fear, the uncertainty, the numbness, or whatever it is? Take a deep breath into this question, and feel it in your body. What feelings do you discover? Put this device down and take as much time as you need to get there and feel as much as you can.
If you dove deep into this exercise with me, chances are you’re at least a little bit uncomfortable with what you saw. And that’s exactly what you needed to see, because that, my dear, is Real. That is intimacy with yourself.
The story you’ve been sold about authenticity doesn’t touch the Real. It doesn’t even come close. The story we’re all sold in the age of the internet and trendy lifestyle branding goes something like this: Living authentically means you’re positive, successful, thin, active, beautiful, and probably white, presenting your life in a way that other people will recognize as “authentic.” It might mean your Instagram account has yoga or meditation pictures, healthy food, “woke” quotes, or maybe at least one remarkably well-lit “no makeup” picture. Maybe you even have at least one picture of yourself feeling difficult emotions- but none of that “ugly crying” (the existence of this phrase says volumes in itself), because who wants to see that. Even if you do “ugly cry” in your everyday life and aren’t ashamed of it (which is fantastic), you’re likely to compare yourself to the figures online that don’t seem to ever “ugly cry”, because we never see them doing it.
Comparisons happen automatically and mostly unconsciously. It’s simple human nature. But the comparative tendency that we all have becomes rampant and profoundly self-destructive in this age of curated images, because we’re all so desperate to know if we’re really okay. Instead of reassuring us that our intimate, messy humanity is beautiful and normal, it messes with our heads and makes us believe that we’re alone, weird, wrong, and generally not good enough. Women are hit especially hard by this mindf#$%, and unfortunately, it’s everywhere we look.
There really is no way to overstate it. It determines the way we view ourselves and everyone else, all the time. No one sat down and decided to dupe us into believing this dangerous story of fake authenticity. It’s just the reality of living in an age where most of the time, we interact with static images on screens and online profiles instead of complex, breathing human beings. In a day, we’re likely to see more polished pictures of ourselves than imperfect reflections in the mirror. We spend far more time interacting with images and words that represent our friends than with face-to-face interactions. I’m not here to criticize the age of the internet, but I do notice that the more we interact with images of people, the harder it becomes to value the kind of authenticity that has no image, and that only exists within. And that’s the only Real there is.
Whether or not we admit how much we want it, the longing to be Real lies at the core of everything we do. It’s our most fundamental motivation. Even if we intentionally hide who we are and attempt to fit in with others, part of us secretly hungers to be found out and be recognized as special in our own unique way.
We long to be Real the moment we’re born, when we look into our mother’s face for the first time and see ourselves through her experience of us. This is how a human being learns that she exists at all, through being seen by others. Research now shows that emotional attunement, which means the intimate moments in which an adult mirrors an infant’s emotions back to him through facial expressions, is the single most important determining factor for emotional health in adulthood. We arrive on this planet hard-wired to be seen as we are. When an infant receives enough emotional attunement, he’s able to form a stable sense of self in adulthood. In other words, he has a much better chance of developing the emotional foundation to live authentically, not in an “Insta-perfect” way, but from within. This means that he’s far less likely to develop anxiety, and is much more likely to have a naturally intimate relationship with himself.
Another casualty of the age of appearances is real intimacy with others. I can’t tell you how many people I know- especially women- who wonder why they can’t seem to find the partners they want, people who really get them and with whom they have amazing intimacy. Many of these singles, like most of us, have shockingly little intimacy with themselves. They don’t even realize that the version of themselves they’re putting out there to be seen on dating apps isn’t really who they are. Even when meeting in person, most singles try so hard to be an idealized version of themselves that the possibility for authentic connection is completely lost. It’s no wonder that they can’t find the right person, because they’re not revealing the very aspects of themselves that they long to have cherished by a partner. This doesn’t mean writing on their profile about that weird quirky thing they like, or telling their date about their deepest fears and traumas right away. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything they would tell another person. It means accepting their full spectrum of emotion, within themselves, and then showing up from the inside out, instead of polishing and censoring their presentation based on what they think would look appealing to others. Almost all of us do it, and that includes me too, by the way. The less you think you do it, the more you really do, and the less likely you are to find a partner to share the level of intimacy for which you hunger.
So what does is really mean to live authentically, intimately, from the inside out? The first step is self-awareness. If we wish to be seen by others for who we are, we must first see it in ourselves- with the exception, of course, of infancy and early childhood, when our sense of self is naturally dependent on our caregivers and rapidly developing. The second step is summoning the courage to see our pain, our discomfort, our grief, our anger, and everything else that we discover when we ask the question, as we did before, How it would you feel, right now, if you weren’t pushing any of your emotions away at all? The third step is accepting it unconditionally, and this might be very difficult if the emotion is especially hard to feel.
Unconditional emotional acceptance means that we choose to believe that it’s okay to have a certain emotion, and it always is. It’s ok to feel hurt, to “be a trainwreck”, to be enraged, to be jealous, and so on. Truly, all emotions are valid and acceptable. It’s never wrong to have an emotion, but we so often censor ourselves, based on how we were raised and other influences in our lives. We only allow certain colors of the rainbow to be okay in our emotional world, and then we wonder, one day, why we feel dead inside, or filled with anxiety. Being Real requires us to reclaim and embrace the emotional colors we’ve disowned over the course of our lives. This can take a while, but the good news is that it only takes the first step on this path, and your dedication to becoming Real, to lead a truly authentic life. It’s not the destination that matters here. Authenticity is a life-long journey of becoming.
Some people ask why they should accept an emotion that’s challenging, and that they wish weren’t there in the first place. Furthermore, they might ask, doesn’t acceptance mean that they might lose control and react out of the emotion, like punch someone in the face if they accept their anger unconditionally? Believe it or not, the opposite is true. Especially in the case of anger, aggressive actions are most often the discharge of previously repressed anger, not the result of unconditional acceptance. If someone is willing to accept that they are angry, and thus own that feeling within themselves, their likelihood of becoming violent is much lower than if they resist the feeling within themselves. When we resist a feeling in this way and refuse to own it, what typically results is blame, and that is the recipe for violence.
The paradox of human emotion is that what we resist persists, meaning that the more we try to push a feeling away, the stronger its influence becomes in our lives. No emotion disappears, it just festers. To use a more likely example with anger, if you don’t openly express it by setting a boundary with someone in a clear and direct way, you’re likely to behave passive-aggressively, sabotaging that person indirectly, creating “drama”, and making the situation much more destructive for everyone involved. It’s infinitely more simple to own and accept our emotions, but it does take practice, because we’re not usually raised to be that way, to say the least.
“Ok Catherine,” you might say, “so what it sounds like you’re saying is that to be authentic means intimately embracing my whole emotional rainbow- which is dorky and hilarious by the way- and this means that I have to feel and accept emotions that I don’t really want to, and somehow think that’s totally ok?”
Precisely. You’ve just cracked open the door to doing shadow work, and becoming Real.