Becoming an Authentic Person

Have you ever found yourself in the following kinds of situations experiencing these feelings?

1. At a party a person tells a mean and derogatory story about another race. You resent the story but do not say anything and then feel somewhat ashamed of your own cowardice.

2. You hear a moving testimony at testimony meeting that touches you. After the meeting you want to go and express your feelings to that person, but shyness or something else keeps you quiet.

3. There is a moment when you look at your mother or father and a wave of deep love and appreciation sweeps over you, but for some reason you say nothing and the moment passes.

4. In a meeting two people engage in a quarrel that is not related to the agenda of the meeting, and a great deal of time is wasted. Later the chairman asks how the members felt and if anything could be done to improve future meetings. You remain silent.

If you identify with any of the above situations, you are fairly normal. Most of us find it difficult to risk expressing our true feelings, especially when we are not sure how people will respond. Currently there is a movement on the part of some applied behavioral scientists to reexamine and encourage the building of “authentic” relations, those kinds of relationships between friends, family, fellow Church members, and coworkers where people have enough deep concern for each other to express honestly their true feelings. It is difficult to know exactly how to represent our true selves in particular situations where sensitive areas are involved. Consider the following incidents:

A Neighborhood Dilemma

The Dixons were having a private conversation, and Mrs. Dixon was confiding in her husband that she was about at her limit in her relationship with their neighbor, Mrs. Wilson, an energetic widow.

“The problem,” said Mrs. Dixon, “is that whenever we get together Thelma Wilson always dominates the conversation, and the essence of every visit is to listen to her complain about how bad everything is. She is always upset over something or somebody. I sit and listen to her complain about the bishopric, the noisy Sunday School, the neighbor’s dog, the unfriendly neighbor on the other side of her, the poor Relief Society lesson, the ill-mannered Peterson kids, and on and on. I get so tired of her negative remarks that I don’t know what to do.”

Mr. Dixon listened quietly. He knew, as did his wife, that Thelma Wilson was also a very good neighbor in many ways. She was generous and willing to help others in need. He asked his wife, “What do the other women in the neighborhood do with Thelma?”

“We have talked about it,” said Mrs. Dixon, “and most of the other women handle it by avoiding her as much as possible. Still, they don’t feel very good about that, but what else can they do?”

The Gift

On the day before Christmas Fred turned into his driveway after a hard day at work and noticed with relief that the driveway and walks, which had been covered with ice and snow when he left for work, were now completely cleared. To himself he mused, “I wonder who Marie got to do that job?”

He went into the house and took off his coat and gloves. In the kitchen he met his oldest son, a lanky youth of fourteen.

“Dad, did you notice the walks were all cleared off?”

“Boy, I’ll say I did! I couldn’t miss that.”

“I didn’t have any money to buy you a Christmas present,” the son continued, “and I knew you would be tired tonight, so I cleaned the walks right after I came home.” And then to the father’s deep delight and surprise, his son walked over, put his arms around his father, and hugged him tightly in the awkward embrace of a teenager. The father hugged back, grateful for a gift he would never forget.

Why are people afraid, embarrassed, or reluctant to share their warm and positive feelings with others? The resistance usually comes from what we imagine might happen: We might embarrass other people. Others might suspect our motives. They might cry, which would put us in an uncomfortable situation. We might appear awkward, or even cry ourselves and that would be even worse. Sometimes we are stopped because we feel that there is not enough time or that too many people are around.

The person who fears an authentic encounter with another can find many reasons why he should stay behind his mask and not let anyone know his true feelings.

Sharing love and warmth is a great gift. To those who hide such gifts because of the fear of what others may do or say, the Lord said:

“But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given unto them, because of the fear of man. Wo unto such, for mine anger is kindled against them.” (D&C 60:2.)

Shakespeare felt that being authentic was the beginning of moral behavior when near the beginning of Hamlet Polonius says to Laertes, “… to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” To be false to oneself is to not let your behavior represent what you really are like inside. The Latter-day Saint who does not represent by his actions a respect of purity; a rejection of bigotry, insensitivity, and crudity; a love of truth, beauty, and goodness is not being true to himself.

A man with canny insight described his reactions this way: “I am tired of having two opposing sets of feelings. When I pretend to be good and people praise me, I often feel guilty and think, ‘If they really knew me they probably wouldn’t like me.’ On the other hand, when I do something inadequately or ineptly and people respond negatively, I think, ‘If they really knew me, they would like me.’”

This man decided that the best solution is to always try as best he can to let his behavior represent what he is truly like inside. Then if people like that kind of behavior they really like him, for that is the kind of person he honestly is. And if they don’t like that behavior, he knows they don’t like him, for he truly represents his values as best he can.

Sometimes there are things about ourselves that we don’t like and would like to change. To be authentic would require us to admit those dislikes to others and to honestly try to eliminate or change undesirable areas of our behavior. A person who has a sharp tongue that wounds others’ feelings should not say, “That’s the way I am and if I am to be authentic I will just have to tongue-lash people and hurt them.” If that person has other values, such as wanting to be kind and responsive to others, he will build people up rather than put them down. He must be honest to these values too, and this will lead him to try to eliminate the sharpness of tongue.

To be an authentic person is a risk. Most of us have hidden behind a facade or mask in some areas of our behavior for so long that it would be difficult to try to be different.

It would be a risk for a teenage girl to go to a teenage boy who was a fine example in the ward and say, “Greg, I just want you to know I admire you and appreciate the good example you have set for me and the other kids in the ward.”

It would be a risk for a man to go to his bishop and say, “Bishop, I have been complaining about some things in the ward to my family and others, and I think you should know how I feel. I would like to meet with you and tell you my reactions in a way that I hope might help make this a better ward.”

It is a risk for a father who has been silent too many years to tell his twenty-year-old son, “I love you, son. You are the most important thing in the world to me.” And it would be a risk for the son to share the same feelings with his father.

Perhaps if we can be assured that the Lord has counseled us to share our true feelings under the influence of his spirit, we might gain the courage to be an authentic person and to build relationships that may have the potential to last through eternity.

Dr. Dyer, chairman of the Department of Organizational Behavior at Brigham Young University, has written widely in the field of human relations and has been a consultant in training programs both in the United States and abroad. He is assistant Sunday School superintendent in Edgemont Eighth Ward, Sharon East Stake.