Being our true self is the most beautiful experience that we can share with another while inviting internal contentment. There is only one you in this whole universe. Not one other person is you. Take a moment to consider how remarkable that truly is. Yet, so many of us get caught up in what other people think, what the world tells us, about us. We embed messages about who we “should” be from our earliest days to our latest interactions. We ingrain millions of data points that shift us away from our core authentic selves to a version of ourselves that we think is more appealing to the world.
So how do we let go of what people think and embrace our authentic selves? Right out of the gates, we have to define authenticity and there is no better person than Brené Brown. Her definition reads, "Authenticity means choosing to cultivate courage to be emotionally honest, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable." She furthers by stating that authenticity when practiced is “how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”
What gets in the way of authenticity as it relates to the autistic community?
In one word: SHAME. It's impractical to think that I could review every experience, as I am not you, nor do I know your story. The ideas reflected below are really just a starting point to consider how you might invite more authenticity into your life. Sort through what internal and external messages get in the way of you fully believing that being your authentic self is a worthy practice.
For the Autist
If you were diagnosed while still school age, then the first thing that comes to mind is measurement. Your life was boiled down into a set of measurable goals, tallies collected, and graphed, perhaps rewards earned for various forms of being “good.” This level of scrutiny would be painful for any grown adult, but for a child, it means that your worldview was largely shaped on the false notion that every little thing that you do defines who you are and that if you don’t perform up to the set forth standards, you aren’t good enough.
In fact, you probably heard “Try again” way too many times. This phrase followed by “Good job” when your efforts met someone else’s benchmark of who you should be. Whether your neurology initially was a bit more shame-prone, or if your early experiences hardwired you into a full and complete understanding; the message is clear; you’ve been told “You aren’t good enough” way too many times. With this message, you were told to change, change, change. In fact, you might have spent hours upon hours of your formidable years being told to change in various therapy sessions. With all that, it’s no wonder, you might struggle with a deep sense of inadequacy, a complex conflict between the self you enjoy and appreciate and the self you show others.
Perhaps, you have self-diagnosed or received a later diagnosis, then you missed the tally-counting gummy-bear routine, but you still may contend with a healthy dose of “not good enough.” So, these messages suggest that “you aren’t autistic enough” or perhaps “you don’t look autistic.” Messages such as these require that you explain yourself to others, defend yourself or even educate when you haven’t signed up to be a public service announcement. These sentiments expressed, sometimes by both family members and strangers, erodes our sense of personal identity. Each of us can engage in a practice where we examine these unhealthy internal and external expectations. We each can fully embrace a life where we feel “good enough.” Whether we are 2 or 22 or 52, being our authentic self matters.
What gets in the way?
As parents, most of us want to raise children that feel good enough, know their value, and treat themselves and others with loving-kindness. Yet, we find ourselves trapped in our own internal messages that we aren’t good enough. In the autism community, these messages come in all kinds of judgy packages; “You haven’t tried the GFCF diet?!!” Internalized as “I am not a good parent.” Another mom asserts, “My child receives 2 hours a week of speech,” we hear “If you were a good mom, you would get more services for your kid.” Family member states; “He’ll grow out of it, you worry too much,” and we hear “This is all your fault.” All these messages suggest that what we are doing as parents isn’t enough, we are doing it wrong and because of this, our children will suffer now and in the future. This is painful.
First, know that we all have unwanted identities, tendencies towards perfectionism and stories of our own inadequacies. Even still, we can make a commitment to discovering, appreciating and embracing our authentic selves.
What gets in the way?
In any profession where you manage the hearts of other human beings, there is a lot on the line. A few things get in the way of professionals showing up at work being their true selves; first the fear of not being good enough. What if people discover that you don’t really know what you are doing? These things seem to be general things that human beings contend with in work situations.
Specific to our community, an over-focus on ‘the science,” “the research” interrupts therapist from being their authentic selves in their clinical practice. We have walked away from being intuitively good humans and instead have embraced an attitude that reduces those that we intend to serve to percentage points.
We, as a treatment community, need to require it of ourselves to be real in the room with our clients, to allow people to see our imperfections, and to foster emotional connection between our clients and ourselves. There is a huge vulnerability in allowing your true self to be part of your clinical practice. Yet, when we allow ourselves this experience, we give other people permission to also be their authentic selves.
Moving Towards Authenticity
When showing up as your true self, you have to be willing to have hard conversations which Brown coined, “Choosing courage over comfort.” We have to allow ourselves space to feel good enough and to understand what gets in our own way. We have to create experiences where those that are around us feel safe and secure. We need to set limits and keep them - to surround ourselves with those that allow us to live authentically. We need to foster a sense of belonging through our everyday actions with those we love. We also need to heal from the past messages of inadequacies, while also examining ways that we continue to carry shame through unhealthy comparison. It’s not simple or easy, but it’s definitely worth of our attention.
For those that want to get all in on living authentically, my go-to read is The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown. Set an intention in your heart to discover what it means to be you. Find a therapist that can help you on your authenticity journey. Stay tuned for local Love & Autism events, authenticity is a big part of our values.
Dr. Jenny Palmiotto