• Authenticity is a key piece of success and life satisfaction for the highly sensitive person. It combines both your strengths and your values. When you lack that alignment, some of your energy is drained off by the extra effort needed to keep moving forward. The question to ask: what makes your heart sing?

    In this article you’ll find more about why authenticity is so important for everyone, especially to the HSP, and how authentic goals mean better results. We'll talk about how using your strengths is the easiest way to authenticity. Included as well is how much is too much—those times when authenticity is overused or misapplied, especially at work.

  • Defining our terms---what is sensitivity?

    Sensitivity: studies have found that one person in every five is more alert to nuances in their environment and subtleties in relationships. This highly sensitive person is also generally ethical, courteous, conscientious, and good at conceptualizing.

    They are deeply moved by the arts, music, and spirituality. Because they take in more and process it more deeply, they are also more affected by other people’s moods, harsh lighting, loud noises, stress, criticism, caffeine, drugs, and allergies.

    As a result they need more quiet time. This understanding is based on the work of social psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron. Her research on thousands across North America shows that 20% of all people, men and women equally, are highly sensitive. Another 22-27% moderately so. Aron is also the author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.

    Authenticity is a virtue that rubs shoulders with honesty and integrity, but they are all a bit different from one another. Authenticity is not premature self-disclosure or over-disclosure, although we’ve all endured those awkward TMI moments, and maybe created a few ourselves. Being authentic means what you say and do is consistent with what you feel.

    Honesty has to do with telling the truth. You don’t imply that you or your actions, the product you sell, or the outcome that you promise is different from reality. Ideally, it is practiced with some diplomacy, taking into account the situation and the people in it, as well as your intentions for a positive outcome.

    Integrity goes beyond that to telling the other person any fact relevant to the interaction and implies ethical as well as honest action on your part. You say what you mean (within limits), mean what you say, and keep your promises. People feel like they've been treated fairly when they interact with you.

  • The ingredients of authenticity

    Authenticity consists of knowing your strengths and values, resisting unhelpful ideas from others, and putting all that into action. For a great visual on internal versus external (intrinsic versus extrinsic) motivation, see the illustration by Ted Kasser, Ph.D. of Knox College. It is based on his research on motivational aspirations.

    Your sense of self and the ability to express it may be delayed or obscured through no fault of your own. Possible delays in finding your authentic voice might include:

    • Authoritarian parenting: shaming, blaming, shouting, scolding, slapping, and spanking meant you were trained to be obedientnot authentic.
    • Authoritarian communities of thought: extended family, community, ethnicity, religion, or culture were repressive about issues like accepting diversity or about “a woman’s place” or the role of a “real man.”
    • Limited finances: you were not accustomed to having your first or second choice—ever—in activities or possessions.
    • Social pressures from the kids at school and later from the culture at work; HSPs, as a minority, find fewer kindred spirits in many settings.
    • Youth or a lack of experience in a given arena at any age, being naïve or overly trusting; you weren’t able to assess the situation accurately, much less react in a way consistent with your values and strengths.
    • Lower or limited physical activity, perhaps illness; you lost the learning you would have had if you were out and about.
  • The well-documented importance of authenticity

    There are a number of studies underscoring the value of being yourself-your best self. Just a few are included here. England’s Alex Linley, Ph.D., with whom I was fortunate to audit an eight-week teleconference class on positive psychology and coaching several years ago, describes the alignment of acting authentically as being

    …like when a bicycle wheel is turning and set perfectly straight, working most efficiently. But when the wheel is slightly off-centre, and is catching on the brakes, that alignment is missing and so it takes more effort to achieve less—because we are trying to turn the wheel against resistance. When we are behaving in ways that are authentic, we are like the wheel turning when it is perfectly aligned—at our most effective and efficient.

    First of all, when you’re acting authentically, you are at one with yourself. Then you have more to offer yourself and others. You’re happier and more energized. It takes less effort to accomplish your goals, and others are more often drawn to you. If, instead, your tastes, passions, and perceptions are identical to those of your peers, you may have traded your authentic expression for the group’s approval. Over time, you may find this route disappointing. For the highly sensitive person, the cost of being inauthentic tends to be higher than for most.

  • More benefits of being authentic

    Linley, author of Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others also writes that…

    Authenticity is a very powerful feeling, because it comes from an alignment between our temperament, what we are, what we believe, and what we are doing. Strengths contribute to these feelings of authenticity because strengths are an aspect of who we are (our pre-existing capabilities) and it feels very natural, authentic and congruent for us to be using them.

    Linley is a renowned British psychologist and a leader in the positive psychology movement in Europe. In Average to A+, he goes on to say authenticity is associated with enhanced well-being, better health, reduced psychological distress, and improved relationships. Linley’s research at the University of Leicester, London, showed authenticity is associated with higher levels of:

    • Happiness.
    • Fulfillment.
    • Gratitude.
    • Emotional intelligence.
    • Self-esteem.

    In addition, authenticity also predicted lower levels of anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions. Other researchers have found similar results.

  • And still more evidence

    Research from Ken Sheldon from the University of Missouri also demonstrated that higher levels of authenticity are associated with higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress, and fewer physical symptoms of illness.

  •  Being authentic and using your greatest strengths means that you are:

    • Acting in ways consistent with your core self.
    • Using pathways in your brain that already exist.
    • Aligning with your deepest values.
    • Building on your most natural abilities and preferences.
    • Able to function more effectively.
    • Finding more energy available.
    • Feeling more fully alive.
    • Creating an upward spiral.
    • Increasing the likelihood of achieving your goals.
  • Dr. Aron tells HSPs that on the job many of your problems at work disappear when you understand who you are and what you have to offer:

    But much of our difficulty at work, I believe, is our not appreciating our role, style and potential contribution.

    --Elaine Aron, Ph.D., The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You

    Using four or more of your strengths at work is recommended, and you can start by adding one more at a time.

  • Authentic goals

    Psychologist and author Sonja Lyubormirsky echoes this and tells us that one way to “own” your goals is to select those that are a good fit, saying

    We are happier and more likely to persist at a goal when our striving toward it consistently makes us feel good. The more a goal fits your personality, the more likely that its pursuit will be rewarding and pleasurable and will increase your happiness.

    Dr. Lyubomirsky is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want she tells us that this self-determined motivation is one of the things that helps us continue a practice after the study or class ends. When you identify with a project, you are more likely to stay with it until it’s completed.

  • Meaning and connection

    The goals we want to choose are those that have personal meaning and bring us closer to others. In Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write:

    There is a temptation when envisioning a happy life to think only of desirable life circumstances—money, health, and friends—and certainly these things can help. But we hope we have also shown you that happiness requires more—positive attitudes and working toward meaningful goals and values.

    Interestingly, these authors are father and son, each highly respected in his own area of study. They continue:

    A life of meaning and values, supportive social relationships, and rewarding work is the framework for a happy life. The processes of happiness within that framework require positive attitudes, spiritual emotions such as love and gratitude, and material sufficiency.

    In their view a satisfying life includes meaningful goals, effective actions, positive relationships at work, in our families, and in our cherished friendships.

  • Using our strengths is the single best route to authenticity

    You may have expected a list of 26 tips on what to say when, but instead there is a single, over-arching approach recommended. It is the use of your unique combination of character strengths.

    A strength is different from a talent or skill. A talent is a special natural ability, like perfect pitch. A skill is the ability to do something well consistently and involves training and practice. A strength is a trait, a way of approaching a situation, and is usually consistent over time.

    How can you recognize a strength? It is something you look forward to doing, and it’s something you do well. Friends, family, and coworkers often compliment you on it. You seem to have a special knack and perhaps an exemplary level of ability. This is an area where you pick up new information and skill more easily. You feel energized, and are disappointed if you cannot engage in the use of the strength. When you do, you lose track of time, and are fully absorbed and involved. It feels like who you are and what you were born to do.

  • Knowing and claiming your strengths

    Here are three research-backed and highly respected profiles for determining your strengths. They can identify the qualities that most of us take for granted, assuming that others have them too.

    • VIA or Values in Action survey has been taken by 2.6 million people in more than 190 countries. It focuses on your top five or “signature” strengths that you use most often and which feel the most natural to you. The VIA is free. You can also purchase a strength development report that will guide you further in tailoring your activities to your strengths and shoring up your lesser strengths.
    • The Strengths Profile (formerly Realise2) explains how to “marshal realized strengths, moderate learned behaviors, minimize weaknesses and maximize unrealized strengths.” The fee is minimal and depends on the exchange rate between the dollar and the British pound.
    • Gallup StrengthsFinder has been taken by 23 million people across the world. Prices vary according to the report you order, but the fees are reasonable.

    There is little overlap in their descriptions and each describes some aspect of what you do and what approach you take. Strengths provide a touchstone, bringing you back to the workstyle and goal focus that brings the most enjoyment and ease of doing. They also suggest a way of approaching even the tasks you don’t like.

    As Alex Linley would say, knowing your strengths and using them as often as possible is the smallest thing you can do for the best resultsIdentifying our children’s strengths helps us as parents and helps us help our children recognize and value their own strengths.

  • How much is too much—authenticity over the top

    A few cautions are in order. Being authentic does not mean the refusal to monitor your speech and actions. Tact and good judgment are still important. On the job, new responsibilities can challenge your sense of self and be the catalyst for positive change:

    …the notion of adhering to one “true self” flies in the face of much research on how people evolve with experience, discovering facets of themselves they never would have unearthed through introspection alone. And being utterly transparent—disclosing every single thought and feeling—is both unrealistic and risky.

    -–Herminia Ibarra, The Authenticity Paradox, Harvard Business Review

    If your self-concept is too rigid, it locks you in place, preventing learning, growth and change. When you are unproven in a new role, disclosing your uncertainties is especially risky and can cost you the credibility you need to be effective. For anyone in a management position, Ibarra also describes the need to manage the tension between authority and approachability:

    To be authoritative, you privilege your knowledge, experience and expertise over the team’s, maintaining a measure of distance. To be approachable, you emphasize your relationships with people, their input, and their perspective, and you lead with empathy and warmth.

    -–Herminia IbarraThe Authenticity ParadoxHarvard Business Review

  • Writers Lisa Rosh and Lynn Offerman acknowledge that:

    The rise in collaborative workplaces and dynamic teams over recent years has only heightened the demand for “instant intimacy” and managers are supposed to set an example.

    They continue:

    Despite its potential benefits, self-disclosure can backfire if it’s hastily conceived, poorly timed, or inconsistent with cultural or organizational norms—hurting your reputation, alienating employees, fostering distrust, and hindering teamwork. Getting it right takes a deft touch, for leaders at any stage of their careers.

    -–Lisa Rosh and Lynn OffermanBe Yourself, but CarefullyHarvard Business Review

    For HSPs in the business world, manager or not, the authors’ checklist on When—and When Not—to Share is brief, clear and useful. I’d recommend it for wherever you might be on the job.

    In the meantime, rememberauthenticity is not doing what others want you to do. Authenticity is about what makes your heart sing!

    Learn more about becoming an authentic HSP