When Sharon Hall realized her senior management job in government was slowly sucking the life force from her, she let her fear stand in the way of making the change she so yearned for. In her heart, she knew she wasn’t in a place of authenticity. But the thought of abandoning her secure position scared her to bits.
“I stood on the open door of the golden cage for two years before making the leap to coaching, my own business,” says the certified executive coach. She’d been trained. She knew she’d be excellent at it. And eventually, she realized, if she didn’t go after it, she would always regret it.
Now Hall spends her days helping other people figure out how to do the same: to push past the barriers that are holding them back from pursuing a more authentic way of living in this world.
The concept of authenticity has been so popularized in recent years that it’s almost entered the realm of cliché. But let’s look at what being authentic really means. Put simply, it’s speaking truthfully according to what you know, finding and honouring the things that fit your soul, and making choices that affirm and align with your values. And perhaps, most importantly, it’s not trying to fit into anyone else’s vision.
“To me, it means finding out who your best self is and being that person, and not being afraid to be that person,” says Carolyne Taylor, owner of 24 Carrot Learning and founder of the Victoria Yoga Conference and YoUnlimited, all of which bring speakers and audiences together for professional and personal growth.
Letting your light shine is a risk, Taylor acknowledges, because there will always be people who don’t want you to. “So many of us have buried ourselves in the expectations of others,” she says. “But if you’re sitting in everyone else’s expectations and you’re not doing anything different to find out what your own expectations are of yourself, you can’t move forward.”
Straight to the heart of fear
We humans like to feel safe. In an insecure world, a sense of security reassures us. Neurological research shows that we’re programmed to seek the familiar. The problem is, that sense of security offered by what we’re familiar with often holds us back from seeking deeper meaning by going after what we want.
“To get out of that reptile brain we have to trigger our frontal brain,” says Hall. “It’s visionary. It can see something in the distance that’s inspiring. And it might be terrifying.”
The illusion of security — the paycheque and the pension — is what keeps people in jobs that are unfulfilling, says Hall. The same argument can be made for any situation where the loss of perceived security dulls one’s spirit: an unfulfilling marriage, a toxic family, even an uninspiring wardrobe.
Yet time and again, research shows that people who take risks are happier. It’s essential to figure out what you’d rather be doing, then claim your courage — and take the leap. Jumping off is the way out of any challenge, says Hall, “especially if you’re stuck in a place where your spirit is going to die. That’s often the feeling that will finally make people leave: If I don’t get out of here I’m going to be dead.”
The beautiful thing about taking those risks — making the leap — is that new pathways will open up. The German writer Goethe wrote about how hesitancy makes us ineffective, and about how, once we commit to a new path, “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
It’s all about managing to stare down our fears and actually reaching for what we want.
So, what do you want?
“Interestingly, most people tend to make choices based on what they don’t want to have happen rather than on what they do want to have happen,” says Michael Keller, who instructs at Royal Roads University and consults in human potential and development. He says we’re happiest when we get what we do want — not when we protect ourselves against what we don’t.
Get clear on your values, advises Keller, and start to make choices about what you engage with. Pay attention to your pain. If something constantly brings you down, it’s a sign you’re paying a high price in that area of your life. This is the centre of your motivation for change.
To bring about that change, you need a clear intention. Figure out what matters, and what doesn’t. Through journaling, constant reflection, and a commitment to keep your promises to yourself (because if you can’t do that, says Keller, your authenticity is nil), start to figure out what your time here on the planet is in service to.
“Ask yourself, is what I want just another bright shiny object?” says Keller. “Or is it something that lines up for my own potential and for my best contribution to the whole? Most people don’t have this as an intention.”
The bigness of it is frightening to people. But paying those high prices for being inauthentic is the only alternative.
A pearl of wisdom from Hall: Be careful who you share your dreams with. Family can often erect the highest walls to prevent you from going after what you want. “They want to keep you in the safe and familiar,” she says. “Go talk to people who inspire you, people that you admire. Share your dreams with those people who are already doing what you want to do, at a different level.”
Open to growth
Being authentic means you’re willing to admit your limitations, and that you’re open to seeking constant growth and improvement.
“As a musician, I think it’s got to do with a vulnerability of not always knowing,” says Michelle Mares, internationally acclaimed concert pianist and instructor at University of Victoria. “So there’s this being open to discovery, and not getting ‘fixed’ on a position.” For Mares, the sense of never arriving keeps her looking at things with a critical, searching mind.
Part of this continual growth means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. “We are always looking for the familiar,” says Mares, “but we’re not being authentic that way.”
The quickest path to authenticity is straight through the fear. Embrace things that, even though they scare you, will better you. Don’t run from them. “In my late 40s, I went back to skiing and learned to ride a motorcycle,” says Hall, who now helps others find inner empowerment on the back of a bike.
“Those were incredibly empowering because they pushed the edges of my fear.”
Forcing yourself to face things that are new or difficult creates growth. “When it resonates, I say yes,” says Rob Dyke, keynote speaker and CEO of The Carbon Solution, an organization with the goal of integrating corporate wellness with green programs and a healthy environment.
“It often becomes one big yes, and then the 10 little no’s that follow,” Dyke admits, adding that it’s universal to hate the idea of failure, or of looking stupid, the first time we try something.
With his commitment to yes, however, Dyke has tackled discomfort in everything from taking on Mount Everest to swimming around Vancouver Island and, most recently, in treating his cancer diagnosis as a blessing — especially since it reminds him to squeeze more out of life. He’s spent the past couple of years seizing every day out of the hands of Stage IV lymphocytic leukemia, carving out more meaningful time with family and friends, and shining his light ever more fiercely for the benefit of others.
“I’m not afraid to be uncomfortable because, as a human, when you’re uncomfortable, you’re growing,” says Dyke. “And that growth is probably very genuine or authentic.”
It’s a journey
Whether you’re sticking your neck out to create a life that reflects your values, or you just want to make a few changes to reflect who you are on the inside through what you wear, don’t forget that this trip to authenticity is a journey. It’s ok to make adjustments.
And remember, your ability to be authentic isn’t all down to you. “You have to be careful who you surround yourself with, because it has a big impact on your ability to be yourself,” says Mares. “It’s a bigger piece of the puzzle than we realize.”
Do like Dyke does, and surround yourself with people who encourage you. Life’s too short to spend your time with people who live in the grip of fear.
Hall agrees. “The more authentic we are, the more we find our tribe and the more we find the support to be who we are.”
Go. Be yourself. Find others who let you be you.
By Alex Van Tol