Once, back in college, I declared war on a big, hideous yellow billboard that appeared one day on the previously harmless wall outside my apartment window. In the wee hours of a Saturday morning, a friend and I crept up to the building's roof and demolished the damn thing with oil-paint-filled balloons.
This was an (admittedly illegal) form of protest against the inescapability of in-your-face marketing in the city I live in. And now that the internet is part of the fabric of most people's lives, ad-saturation is near universal, even if your home is in the middle of a cornfield. Hell, these guys want to put ads on the moon. How do you sell things? Mainly by convincing people that they are inadequate and your product will make them less so. So in an ad-driven culture, we're surrounded by messages insidiously, endlessly reminding us of how ugly, unintelligent, and poor we are. And making promises of redemption they can't possibly keep.
For Americans especially, "being yourself" is a basic cultural value. For the psychologically vulnerable, the cognitive dissonance between this and the constant external pressure to be something other than ourselves can be toxic.
Recent psychological studies of authenticity have demonstrated convincingly something we probably already knew – that contorting yourself into ill-fitting shapes in a desperate attempt to be happier or more successful actually has the opposite effect. A study at the University of Georgia defined authenticity as "the unimpeded operation of one's true or core self in one's daily enterprise." As reported in Psychology Today, people who score high on authenticity "are more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies, rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits. They often report having satisfying relationships. They enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, confidence in mastering challenges, and the ability to follow through in pursuing goals."
Authenticity doesn't mean showing up for a job-interview in a ketchup-stained t-shirt because "that's just you." It doesn't mean acting like a jerk because politeness is "fake." It's not incompatible with setting lofty goals or trying to become a better person. Authenticity means recognizing your unique strengths, acknowledging your weaknesses, and deliberately putting yourself in jobs and relationships that will facilitate your growth rather than hindering it.
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