The Dangers of “Being Real” — Or Why Authenticity Can Become Toxic

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Lately I have noticed the same topic coming up again and again, everywhere I go.*

Whether offline, online, listening to podcasts, reading a book or watching Netflix, I’ve noticed people praising the virtue of “authenticity.” Core to the value of authenticity seems to be the belief that those who talk about their struggles are more “real.”

An example of this could be people speaking about difficulties within a variety of areas, whether related to their career, housing, or parenting. The rush of approval is what I’m talking about — a slew of “wow, I can relate” and “thanks for being real” sentiments from an audience. The current popularity of social media platforms where people project an edited, ideal version of themselves is often cited in contrast as “inauthentic.” Which isn’t incorrect.

The “I can relate” statements are quite telling. Relatability is a key aspect that determines whether someone is liked by others, and I suspect it’s a quality that is more meaningful if you are a woman. We tend to like people more if we think they are “like us.” Jennifer Garner, a star who is worth millions of dollars, is a great example of someone who puts her relatability front and center. In this picture, she points out she wasn’t invited to something out of reach to most people (New York Fashion Week) while looking quite silly in some colonial costume. For all her self-deprecation, if you look at her IG, it’s clear she’s paid a lot and has insane arms that would be difficult for most women to achieve. She’s a mix of aspirational and relatable, and that makes her very appealing. Read the comments on her photos for the full effect she has on people.

The Failure Formula

So, what is my problem with “being real?”

Let me be clear. There is a time, need and a real place for true and empathetic support. Expressing pain, fear and emotion to a group of supportive, similarly affected people is often healing for those going through cancer, infertility, divorce and other hardships. “Not wanting to feel alone” is a universal human quality, and we know that hearing individual stories can be a key element to changing someone’s mind about a political or social issue.

But, getting validation simply for expressing hardships can be a bad thing. This post sums up an interesting technique the author has noticed certain writers use — it’s called the “failure formula.”

Step 1: Write about a mistake they made

Step 2: Get hundreds of supportive/validating comments (“I definitely needed this today!”)

Step 3: Repeat!

The Dangers of Co-rumination

I, like many women, learned early on within social interactions that if I did one thing, I would often receive solace and understanding. A simplified way to put it is this: if I complained about something to someone else, I could often create a bond.

Relying on this type of bonding is a common trope for female friendships. The idea is women vent to each other over a glass of wine about their boss, husband, the patriarchy, etc. then they will “feel better.” But, this cycle can become destructive, not just to the person who complains, but the one who is listening and empathizing as well. Because a pattern of complaining, then “feeling better” doesn’t cause real change, either personally or on a broader stage.

Turns out there is an actual word for this destructive venting: co-rumination. Rumination is obsessing over a problem and can “make us feel stuck and less inclined to actually do anything constructive about a situation and our associated distress.” Co-rumination is the venting process of that problem to someone else–and it is deceptive. “Talking with a friend, partner, or family member about our problems can feel really good. It can make us feel supported, bring us closer together, and even trick us into believing that we are doing something productive about our situation.

We’re all going to have problems, always. For me, the key is to be around people who don’t just offer support, but push me to solve my problems. I also try to read and listen to content that offers real solutions and inspiring tales of grit, not just sad stories of woe.

Some examples:

  • When I was mad at what was going on politically? I made my calls/emails!
  • If I thought too much about my weight and eating habits? I re-read this and this, then reminded myself to make healthy eating and exercise (the REAL kind, not the Goop kind) my new goal.
  • When I wasn’t getting enough sleep and struggling with some things, a friend told me I needed to make it my number one priority. She was right. Sleep is everything. EVVVEERRRYYTTTHHHIIINNNGGG!!!!

* Turns out, there’s an actual word for this phenomenon and it’s called the Baader Meinhof Syndrome.

That is the end of my soapbox lecture. For anyone (still) reading, how much do you value authenticity? Do you agree too much real-ness is unhealthy?

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9 Comments

Filed under stoicism

9 responses to “The Dangers of “Being Real” — Or Why Authenticity Can Become Toxic

  1. Men talk about sports. It’s more fun.

  2. Preach! We’ve got some supporting deliberately controversial posts somewhere deep in our archives, but I will note that if you look at our about statement we started the blog not wanting to be trapped in that cycle—hence the at least one joy post for every two grumbles.

  3. Pingback: Ring in the Link Love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured)

  4. I’m fine with authenticity if it comes with a a side of problem solving. I do some level of navel gazing all the time in my writing but I almost always, except for the really tough stuff, close with some kind of actionable conclusion or change in mindset so I can tackle it again. I can’t relate to the posts that are just about a problem with no attempt at resolution.

    • You nailed it. The problem-solving or actionable conclusion is the key. Without that, you get the rumination problem (or, if you are the listening person, the co-rumination problem) and nothing ever improves.

  5. Loved this. It’s given a name and concept to something I’ve been thinking about for years in terms of support groups. That they’re only useful if they help us move on. Otherwise, as I’ve written, there’s a danger of becoming “stuck” in our misery. I may ruminate (!) on this further, and write a post of my own.

    • YES–people *can* get stuck in misery. There is a strong and real role for support groups to play and they can be so helpful! But as you said – they need to provide the right form of support. The kind that helps us ultimately to move on…

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