Anxiety and Authenticity

Anxiety and Authenticity

As seen in Psychology Today.

After passing through the anxiety fever dream that was the past four years, many of us feel a renewed sense of hope, possibility, and something else – nostalgia for the days when, like President Biden, we can take pride in honesty, directness, and expressing our true selves, even if it’s out of fashion. I’m talking about authenticity.

I believe that the United States elected President Biden because authenticity is having a renaissance. We are waking up to the fact that authenticity makes us stronger because it helps us forge ahead and tune into what really matters during fraught, anxiety-provoking times. There is a link between authenticity and anxiety because tuning into authentic feelings and experiences, even when (especially when) we’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety is among our best ways to move through and use anxiety to our advantage, rather than be used by it. Yet, authenticity is a loaded concept. It’s built upon the idea that to find our ‘true self’ we must create or discover a concrete and stable identity. This is no small endeavor, and is the stuff of hundreds if not thousands of years of philosophy and spirituality (e.g., to thine own self be true). But 21st century authenticity is a particularly tricky mix because it is powerfully intertwined with the social-media-driven idea that our identities amount to brands, that if we carefully craft and curate them, will get us into that college, or get that next job, or be the envy of our friends. We are like the panoply of items and experiences that are advertised to us – we believe they will bring happiness if we own and consume them. We by association become things to be consumed. And the more we’re consumed, the better and more powerful we are. Our social media profiles, our stories on Instagram, are thinly-veiled attempts to sell the ‘brand of me.’

I don’t intend to regurgitate the perennial trope, kids today are so …. fill in the blank, or, in the old days, we were REALLY authentic….while shaking my tiny fist. Rather, a point for consideration and debate is this –  the world provides new opportunities for authenticity but also throws up unique road blocks that can keep us  – not just ‘kids today’ – from tuning into authentic and messy feelings, thoughts, and dreams of who we are and who we can become. One of the major roadblocks is how we conceive of the balance between authenticity and conformity.

When I was coming of age in the 80’s and 90’s, being authentic meant the polar opposite of being a brand. Deciding who to be based on a calculation of gain meant you were a poser. And poser was among the worst insults that could be levied against you. Conformity was not only uncool, it was soul killing. Let me put it in terms that every Gen-X’er like me will understand – think of it like The Breakfast Club, that quintessential John Hughes 80’s coming-of-age film. Using the plot engine of a group of disparate teens stuck in a day of detention together, Assistant Principal Richard Vernon commands them to stay in the library and each complete a 1,000 word essay on the question, “who you think you are.” Next we learn that there are stereotypes and cliques that they have the option to choose among – they could be a snob, a geek, a jock, a punk, or an angsty ‘kook’. For example, the ‘kook’ was Allison, played by Ally Sheedy, and the snobby, pretty-in-pink perfect Claire was played by Molly Ringwald. Drama ensues, and incredibly, Allison and Claire sorta become friends. Claire even does a makeover on Allison by restyling her hair and replacing Allison’s signature dark eyeliner with pastel eye shadow. As a kook-leaning teen myself, I remember being deeply disappointed when the movie showed Allison’s life getting so much better after the makeover, in large part because she started making the jock, played by Emilio Estevez, a bit weak in the knees. Blech. Don’t be a poser, Allison.

The real take-home message of The Breakfast Club, however, was that Allison should be free to be pretty in pink and a kook, because in the end, no one – not teachers, adults, or other kids – can tell them who they are. As we hear in voiceover in the final scene, as the Assistant Principal reads the single essay left on his desk, “Each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?” And who can forget that last freezeframe shot of Judd Nelson, playing the misunderstood punk of the crew, John Bender, raising his fist in the air as he walks away, and the movie fades out to the rock anthem, “Don’t you forget about me….” Ah. the 80’s.

Growing up with movies like The Breakfast Club helped set the tone for my generation’s story of identity by calling out false binary choices and showing that it was not only possible but important to think outside stereotyped boxes to authentically ask “who I think I am.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we were all pure souls in parachute pants and shoulder pads, boldly breaking stereotypes as we moon-walked around, and refusing to conform or sell out to The Man. The Baby Boomers didn’t, so why should I expect that of my generation?

Yet, since the pandemic blew most everything we believed about the predictable world out of the water, I believe we are craving authenticity because we know it will help us pursue a fresh start. Along with our terrible losses, many of us see new possibilities. Authenticity hones our ability to focus on what we truly care about, and on what gives us meaning and purpose. These benefits far outweigh the benefits of selling the ‘brand of me.’

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