So lately I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts on authenticity. It is a concept that is all over the self-help and Positive Psychology arenas (areas that I find myself most comfortable). To me practicing activities that have led to my own personal connection with my authentic self has been a liberating and empowering experience, one that I’ve wanted to incorporate in my work with my clients. This idea of taking off layers and layers of externally imposed masks and becoming aware of our truest thoughts, impulses and desires is something not too far from spiritual to me. Who wouldn’t want to connect with themselves on that level?
But in practicing career counseling I have come to realize that “living your authentic self” is a position of privilege that many of us educated therapist take for granted. Many of our clients will have realities and obligations that make discovery of self sexy, but not entirely realistic. Working in a uniform on an assembly line from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday limits your ability to watch the sunrise and journal your thoughts (one of the authenticity exercises that I’ve come across).
For many of our clients being authentic equals being different, and Western “work” often requires conformity. Accounting firms have a “look.” I teach my college students how to show up dressed for the culture of the organization that they are attempting to enter. I’m asked time and time again about cutting off ponytails, hiding tattoos or wearing skirts versus pants and time and time again I sit down with students and help them research the organization’s culture so that they don’t show up too far off the mark.
I’m fully aware that I am contributing to the machine when I present information about professionalism and what it looks like in corporate America, but I find it necessary because of the question being asked. How can I get a job is a different question then how can I find more meaning in my work or how can I connect more fully with myself?
I sometimes feel like I’m grooming students to become future clients when I teach them to conform in order to be accepted, but the reality is many of my students will be workers and workers have to understand organizational culture. This doesn’t mean they cannot practice authenticity outside of work, but it means the skill of “fitting in” is a necessary one in the beginning unless you are bold enough, brave enough, maybe even naïve enough to buck the system and go at it alone. System Buckers require a great amount of skill, tenacity and in many cases privilege. That’s the reality.
So I’m careful with authenticity. I encourage clients to identify their stressors and priorities and we work on finding balance and happiness always keeping Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in close view. I recognize that many of us define ourselves by our work, but work may not be the first place to practice becoming our authentic selves. Above all I appreciate the internal struggle and would love to hear your thoughts.
Finding yourself in your work is a sensitive and personal process, one that Career Counselors help clients navigate through introspection, talk therapy and exploration. Career counseling is personal counseling.
Andrea Holyfield is a counselor specializing in career counseling and womens' empowerment. For more information go to www.LiveWellCPS.com