Humanistic psychologists (I identify myself as one) are fond of talking about authenticity. Mention the words “genuine,” “real,” or “deep” and you’ll see our faces light up. I ran a therapy group not so long ago and during the last session a few of the participants teased me about my oft-repeated catch-phrase: “Keep it real and go deep.”
But before I continue, let me define some of the terms I’m using here. Humanistic therapy refers to a strengths-focused approach (as opposed to a pathology-based one) that aims to increase a client’s awareness of subjective meaning, enhance personal growth, and encourage a genuine and trusting relationship. In other words, instead of emphasizing what’s wrong with a client, a humanistic psychologist tries to understand and empower the client’s full sense of self. Psychological maladies (e.g. depression, anxiety) are seen as symptoms of a lack of congruence or authenticity in a person’s life.
Authenticity is a little trickier to define. In a way, we all know what it means, but how do you conceptualize it psychologically? To the humanistic crowd, being authentic means that I’m aware of how I’m really feeling and that I can communicate that to myself and others, if I choose to. So, as a therapist, if I’m in a session with a client and I find myself feeling sad when I hear my client tell a story, I want to stay connected to that feeling. I want to stay present with my client, with the story, with how the client is feeling, and with the thoughts and emotions that I’m experiencing in the moment. In that way I’m bringing the full me, my real self, into the room (instead of aiming to remain a detached expert who only thinks intellectually). A long time ago I got to observe a therapist who was conducting an intake with a new client. The therapist looked at her clipboard, read out questions, and took notes. It was a rather formal/standard procedure, but as the client answered the questions, she started tearing up and soon began crying. The therapist stopped the questioning, looked up, and quizzingly asked the client, “What’s the deal with the tears?” So that’s an example of not being authentic. (And I was disturbed seeing that interaction take place. I found it very difficult keeping quiet, but my role was very clearly laid out: to be a silent observer. In that scenario I didn’t get to communicate as authentically as I wished…)
So humanistic psychologists have been preaching the value of being authentic for decades. As a therapist, it’s not just about being authentic myself, one of my goals is to work with my clients to form an authentic and meaningful relationship and assist them in developing an authentic sense of their own selves. If my client shares something that comes across to me as deep and real, but if the client seems somehow disconnected or not fully giving themselves credit, I’ll say something. I might say, “You know, that was such a meaningful and powerful thing for me to hear, and I feel like I got a real sense of you as a person, but my sense is that you’re not experiencing it fully, or that you don’t realize the full power of what you just said.”
It’s not that humanistic psychologists are the only ones who value authenticity. There are many therapists from other theoretical fields who value it strongly. But for the humanistic camp it’s one of our defining elements: being humanistic means valuing and encouraging authenticity both in ourselves and in our clients.
Authenticity sounds nice, but mainstream science sometimes pooh-poohs on its relevance. If I decide, hypothetically speaking, to apply for an NIH research grant and I use the terms “going deep,” “keeping it real,” or “being authentic,” I’m not very likely to be taken seriously or receive any funding. And you hear many modern-day psychologists say, “Well, of course you want to be authentic, but there’s a lot more to therapy.” There’s a sense out there that the authentic stuff is not much more than a touchy-feely sort of concept with not much meat.
Humanistic psychologists will tell you that authenticity is a tremendously important factor. That it’s a huge element in the process of healing. It’s not just a prerequisite, it’s one of the chief goals of therapy. And as a client becomes more and more authentic, they become happier and their psychological well being increases.
Fortunately for us humanistic folks, it turns out that the empirical data lends support to the authenticity hypothesis. Just last month, a small group of psychologists from England published a study in the prestigious Journal of Counseling Psychology. The study empirically examined the effect of authenticity on people’s lives. The researchers (Alex Wood, et al) asked people from different walks of life about the their authentic qualities: self-awareness, communication style, and openness to others’ feedback. These authentic measures appeared solid (e.g. they did not correlate with any other likely confounds like the Big 5 Personality traits or social pleasing). But what was really amazing was that the researchers found that that, in general, the more a person acted authentically, the more likely he or she were to be happy and experience subjective and psychological well-being. These results might appear self-evident from a humanistic perspective, but there’s a lot more there than meets the eye. The researchers shed light on an area of study that has been empirically neglected. Being authentic is not just a nice-sounding catch phrase. It’s an important part of personal growth that carries beneficial values. It might be simple, but it’s also profound.