Year 4: Authenticity (Again)

Become who you are.

Thoughts of Authenticity often conflate two different questions: (1) the impersonal, “what is the meaning of Self?” and (2) the more personal, “what is the meaning of myself?” The first suggests universality, the concept of Self that applies to everyone. The second suggests particularity, inviting each of us to consider our unique selves. I’ll say a bit about the universal self and follow up with some discussion of what I learned about myself in the second yearly meditation on Authenticity (check out Year 3: Authenticity).

The Universal Self

Two broad theories of the universal Self have been offered by philosophers: that of self-discovery, often referred to as essentialism, and that of self-creation, often referred to as existentialism. Typically, essentialism and existentialism are presented as opposing views, contradicting one another. I’ll argue that both are required for understanding ourselves. A metaphor will be helpful. Imagine that an acorn represents essentialism whereas an oak tree represents existentialism.

We search for the acorn. We dig around, look under leaves, peel back layers of earth, and if we’re lucky, we find it. We discover it directly, hold it in our hands, and examine it carefully. The acorn is static, unchanging. It remains the same no matter how long we look at it or how many different angles we analyze it from. But we can also plant the acorn. Planting the seed is necessary for the tree to grow.

Discover the acorn to unlock your potential.

We create the oak tree indirectly. Not by continuing to focus on the acorn or even the tree but by cultivating good soil, watering the appropriate amounts, and providing ample sunlight. The oak tree sprouts and changes as a dynamic, living thing. It simultaneously grows upward toward the sun and downward into the interconnected mycelium. It feels the seasons, ebbing and flowing with the environment. Cells being destroyed and created each second. There’s nothing necessary about the oak tree; it is pure possibility. Maybe it never grows. Maybe it’s the tallest tree in the forest. Each limb, each shred of bark, each ring, each leaf creating the tree’s new form each day, each minute.

Create the oak tree by nurturing its environment.

Returning to the universal concept of Self, which best captures authenticity: the acorn or the oak tree? In my Year 3: Authenticity post, I concluded that you become your authentic self by removing the shoulds imposed on you by yourself and others and by tuning into what you really want. Digging out from under the shoulds to discover what you really want sounds a lot like self-discovery or essentialism. You’re trying to find your acorn, which represents your unique set of desires.

It’s incredible how good we are at hiding our deepest desires from ourselves. A crucial task of authenticity is unlocking your acorns. Examples of hidden acorns might be uncovering repressed sexual or gender identity, realizing a new talent or admitting you hate doing the thing you’ve got talent for, discovering that your current career path/relationship/hobby is not what you really want or finding out that what you really want is something else entirely, like becoming a parent. Some of us have more hidden acorns than others.

Does this mean I am committed to essentialism? I’m afraid so. I believe that to live authentically, we must discover our acorns–what we really want in our heart-of-hearts. And that’s not always clear to us, and so we must dig and search and seek and listen and tune in and tune out until we find ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes the self-discovery hurts the people we love, and that’s hard.

Does this commitment to essentialism mean there’s no place for the oak tree? Certainly not! The Self is more than the Authentic Self. Any viable concept of the universal Self must make room for the Evolving Self. Discovering the acorn is necessary for creating the oak tree. We must unlock our deepest desires—who we truly are separate from others’ expectations of us—before we can nurture the Evolving Self. Without a seed, the tree will never grow to its fullest potential (or, like, at all).

And yet, to nurture the Evolving Self we must focus on everything but ourselves. Staring at the acorn as though it holds the key to unlocking all of us amounts to nothing more than naval gazing. No matter how many different angles we view the acorn from, it will remain the same. Stagnant. We must plant the seed underground—out of sight, out of mind—and turn to the sky instead. Will the seed get enough sunlight here? Examine the quality of the soil. Does it have the right balance of nutrients and minerals? Assess nearby water sources. Turn to the environment to nurture the budding tree.

The universal Self is comprised of two things: the Authentic Self and the Evolving Self. While we must unlock the Authentic Self to see the potential of the Evolving Self, once that’s done, authenticity simply flows through each emotion, action, experience, and decision we make. Without thought, without focusing on “am I being authentic?” we are able to live authentically while growing and changing.

What About Myself?

The real surprise of my second year spent with Authenticity was that, at the end of the day, authenticity doesn’t matter all that much (after you’ve discovered your acorn). It’s a one and done sort of activity in many cases, and the more we choose to focus on it, the less energy we can put into nurturing our environments and community for mutual growth.

To be fair, if you haven’t found your acorn yet, the search (or the cover-up) can be all-consuming. If you’re living your life under all those shoulds or if you’re in denial about an essential part of yourself or if you just don’t know what’s going on but something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s nearly impossible to focus, in a deep and connected way, on nurturing much of anything. I get it. I was there.

In my second year of Authenticity, I came out as queer, ended a 10-year relationship with my (cis, hetero, male) partner, and built a “broken” home for our kiddo. While that admission of queerness and the subsequent fallout was terribly painful, it made room for me to become who I am today. And today, I’m well on my way to fabulous. Join me?

Tarot Time!

I pulled The Moon card, and the first line in my guidebook says, “The full moon brings out the weirdos.” Oh, fuck yes. My nickname in middle school was “the weird girl,” and boy am I getting in touch with my roots. Hold on tight—shit’s about to get wild and weird and wonderful. Love to you all.


Year 3: Authenticity

Do whatever you want loves

Preface: I have written, struggled, deleted, and re-written this post on Authenticity for too long. I chose the word Authenticity because I had no idea where mine was. No clue. Totally lost. I spent two years on this meditation, blew up my life because of it, and I still feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface. This one’s all about sifting through the inner muck only to find more muck. The best I can do today is say a bit about why I chose the word in the first place, and vaguely nod toward what I think Authenticity is, even though I’m still very far from living authentically. I would love to hear if you’ve had similar experiences. It would be a great comfort to know I haven’t been down in this muck all by myself, friends. Okay, end of preface.

Why did I choose Authenticity for my 2018 word? Well, I felt like I was performing my life rather than living it. While not often conscious, the little things I would say and do weren’t quite right. I didn’t sit well with me anymore. As I worked in previous years to unpack the Narrative understanding of myself and set healthy Boundaries, I quickly figured out that piled under all that baggage was more baggage. I felt like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag: I kept pulling shit out, but I could never get to the bottom of it.

I was performing my life rather than living it.

I was also beginning this new management role at work, and in reading about quality leadership skills (yes, I’m a Virgo), the idea of showing up as your authentic self pops up everywhere. Seriously. Try to find a leadership book written in the last ten years that doesn’t mention authenticity at least once. I felt paralyzed. How could I be a good, authentic leader in the workplace if I couldn’t be authentic with those closest to me, much less myself? I felt like I was failing before I even started.

It wasn’t that I was hiding some secret part of me or intentionally trying to present myself as something I wasn’t. That was not (is not) my struggle with authenticity. It felt more like I was buried. I was buried underneath everyone else’s wants and needs: my kids, my partner, my parents, my in-laws, my siblings, my past selves, my adorable pets, my future self, my friends, my peers, my co-workers, my social media acquaintances, the laundry, the dishes, the cooking, the daily grind dropping one granule of dirt each minute, submerging me deeper and deeper underground. I was suffocating on obligation.  

I was performing what I thought I should do—for myself and everyone else. I should bring something to the dinner party. I shouldn’t wear these clothes to the event. I should be able to breastfeed instead of bottle feed. I should let the dog out. I should go to the softball game. I should send out those thank you cards. I should do more to motivate my employee who’s struggling to get the job done. I really should clean the inside of the kitchen cabinets with a toothbrush next time. And so on. Should, should, should running through my head, always more I should be doing. Never quite hitting the mark (spoiler: the mark is impossible to hit).

I was suffocating on obligation.

It dawned on me in the first Authenticity year that I had no idea what I wanted anymore. Our desires get so distorted as women in a patriarchal society. We are told that tidying up should spark joy, for fuck’s sake (yes, bold means I’m yelling. Well, screaming/crying from my primal center). We’re bombarded with smiling women gleefully cleaning their man’s urine off the toilet. The overwhelming lesson we’re taught is to be people pleasers, to be nurturing of others, to be helpful, to look nice, to sacrifice as Mother Mary did. We’re told modern women “Have it all,” and should be fortunate, but what they don’t say through the gritted teeth of a fake smile not a whisker in sight is that we don’t want all this (gestures wildly at everything).

To be a woman who desires is radical. It is an act of defiance to pick up your shovel and start digging, removing the shoulds one load at a time until all that remains are wants. That’s Authenticity. And, that’s why Authenticity is so fucking hard—particularly for women, particularly for mothers.

Authenticity = when all that remains are wants

I have been a mother since I was twenty years old. I missed my so-called “formative years,” the time when many folks forge their desires free from these mounting obligations. This makes sense for why Authenticity might have been more difficult for me. Nonetheless, I hope there’s something universal here, something helpful for you, too.

Ah, fuck. I’m doing it again. It’s hard to do things simply because you want to.

For year two of Authenticity, I’ll try to say more about desire from a philosophical point of view and how doing what you want to do is not selfish, which is a worry that my people will have already felt. In the meantime, do whatever you want to do loves.

Tarot Time: Queen of Fucking Wands

Tarot has given me such hope, as I pulled the Queen of Wands. Holy smokes! That’s so exciting to me. Here’s the guidebook description:

“The Queen is bursting with life and infectious energy, and you can’t help feeling like you could take on the world when you’re around her. Her confidence and get-to-it-ness is so powerful, she motivates you to DO shit. If you’re the Queen, life is giving it all to you right now: good luck, ideas, friends, promotions, so channel this bounty into confidence. You know your strengths and weaknesses and how to utilize all your skills to get what you want. So get it, girl.”

The power of the Queen is palpable, all because she knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Four years after beginning my Authenticity journey, I finally feel like I’m turning a corner. I’m discovering what I want, separate from what I should want. I am becoming the Queen.

Year 2: Boundaries

Boundaries are like guardrails that teach others how to treat us, reinforcing our own worth and encouraging self-love.

I won’t let you…

…a simple, yet powerful phrase I first learned in a parenting context. I follow a parenting philosophy that centers relationships with our children built on trust, connection, and mutual respect rather than authority, power, and punishment. The philosophy is not the same as attachment parenting, nor permissive parenting. We set firm boundaries and have high expectations for children based on what is developmentally appropriate, we honor the needs of parents and children living in community together, and we value modeling who we want our children to become over explicit lessons and teachings. Excellent sources for anyone interested in this parenting philosophy can be found through Visible Child, Aha Parenting, Teacher Tom, and Janet Lansbury.

Before I adopted “Boundaries” as my word of the year, my attempt to set boundaries looked more like begging and pleading only to eventually give in. When my oldest was a toddler, she was always trying to go into the street, even though it was “against the rules.” I would sit—15 feet away—on the stoop of our student family housing apartment, repeating over and over again “don’t go in the street.” She’d stare back at me with that knowing look, testing me. She’d put a toe in, then a foot, and I’d repeat, “if you go in the street, then we have to go inside.” Then she’d dart into the street like a bat out of hell! I’d chase her down, and we’d go inside for a bit, but then we’d eventually be right back in the same power struggle a few hours later.

She knew the rule. What she was trying to figure out was me. And I was so confusing! I kept telling her that going into the street was against the rules, but I also kept letting her go into the street. The pattern formed in her brain was a constant repeating of the word “street,” the thrill of running into the street, the attention of me scooping her up out of the street, and then the task of convincing me, yet again, we could go back outside and she wouldn’t go into the street again—all to see how I would respond at each phase of the “street game” we played for years.

As my son became a toddler during my “Boundaries” year, I decided to get serious about setting appropriate boundaries and making the effort to hold them. To set an appropriate boundary, I learned, requires three things: (1) it should be stated in the positive (what to do) rather than the negative (what not to do), (2) it should be developmentally possible for the child to do it, and (3) it should be motivated by keeping the child safe rather than exerting control over the child.

(1) One reason the street game with my daughter was so frustrating for both of us was the way the rule was stated. When I would sit, repeating “don’t go in the street,” my daughter’s brain latched onto the word ‘street’ instead of ‘don’t,’ as most of our brains would. She would repeat the word ‘street’ over and over until she felt compelled to step in. A more effective boundary would be “stay on the sidewalk.” That focuses the brain on where to stay—the sidewalk—rather than becoming obsessed with the street. It’s simply easier to follow.

(2) Ought implies can. If we expect that our children should do something, it must be developmentally possible that they can do it. Or as my Grandmama Teague used to say, “If I keep a child up past their bedtime, then any difficult behavior that results is my fault.” As parents, we have a responsibility to learn about child development at different stages so we can match our expectations to their capabilities.

(3) Boundaries are powerful tools, and so they should be used sparingly. Setting too many boundaries around things that maybe you don’t like, or grate on your nerves, or make messes you have to clean up, or trigger shame from your childhood, or protect your partner’s feelings, can create a stifling environment for your child. I would often ask myself, what’s the worst that could happen if I let him jump in this puddle/climb on this structure/scream in the store/refuse to hug Grandpa/sleep on the bathroom floor/put his finger in his nose/and so on to all the creative and disgusting things kids do. Like most things in life, it’s all about discovering your priorities and finding balance, then intentionally setting only those boundaries that are highest on the list and that you can manage to hold. Then let the rest go.

It’s one thing to set a boundary and quite another to hold it. Holding boundaries requires so much work! It often requires being right there to block the action before it happens. If I could go back to that stoop in Auburn, Alabama, I would have gotten up from my Adirondack chair. I would have placed my body in front of my daughter’s, and I would have physically prevented her from ever stepping foot in the street. I would instead repeat, “let me help you stay on the sidewalk.” If the street game continued, I would know I was expecting more than what she was developmentally capable of, and so we wouldn’t hang out in the front yard anymore until she was older. We’d only hang out in the back to avoid the game altogether. To hold boundaries always requires us to get up, to be present, and often to rearrange our lives.

Setting and holding boundaries with other adults is much more complicated, and it’s a journey I’m definitely still on. Figuring out which boundaries to set is difficult because our expectations of other adults are often unreasonable. In some sense, being an adult just means being “fully developed,” and yet childhood experiences, trauma, personality differences, disabilities, mental illness, privilege, support systems, and so many other factors distinguish our actual capabilities. If I expect that my partner or parent should respect my boundary, and they don’t, does that mean they couldn’t or just chose not to? If they just chose not to, what should I do next? If they literally can’t, should I be the one to change my expectations and set different boundaries? Messy business indeed.

Holding boundaries means sometimes being willing to rearrange our lives. With children, this means playing out back instead of out front or eating in for a few years as they develop the capability to eat at a restaurant. With the other adults in our lives, however, holding a boundary might be more expensive. It could even mean going no contact with someone, quitting a job, or ending relationships with romantic partners, friends, or family. Saying “I won’t let you,” might mean losing a person who continues to cross the boundary you’ve set for yourself. And that’s really hard to do.

My hope for you, dear reader, is that you realize your worth, which reveals the boundaries you must set and unleashes the courage to hold them, even when it means upheaval. In my own experience, the things we give up in order to prioritize ourselves and our values will, eventually, strengthen us and bring lasting joy.

Tarot Card: Four of Wands

I queried, “what am I missing about boundaries? What am I not considering?” Tarot answered with the celebratory, uplifting card, the Four of Wands. My tarot deck guidebook describes the card as:

“The garden is growing luxuriously, and these two have wandered away from their stress and planning to have a little fun. It might be a surprise, but you’ve got some good times on the horizon! Take a break from your hard work and put all your energy into treating yourself.”

Listen, I’m all for having fun, and I’m looking forward to these good times in the future, for sure. But I wasn’t quite sure how this card fit with Boundaries, explicitly. So I looked up the Four of Wands on Biddy Tarot as well, and this is when it hit me, with a sentence: “the Four of Wands represents the personal gratification of a job well done, a goal attained, and a vision beginning to be realised. You should be proud!”

Ah, I see! What I’m missing is pride in my accomplishments. I’m so focused—too focused—on moving onward and upward in this journey that I rarely, if ever, stop to see how far I’ve come. Yeah, that’s right, tarot, I’ve come a long way, and I’ve grown so much, and my relationships with others and myself are so much better now than they were before my Yearly Meditations. I’ve learned to set some mother fucking boundaries, and I’m really, really proud of that. I’m grateful for the reminder to take time to celebrate the wonderful progress I’ve made.

And always, hit me up if you want to have a little fun! It is my future, I suppose 😉

Year 1: Narratives

The stories we tell about ourselves come true.

We can change ourselves by changing the stories we tell. We are in control of our narrative. I began my Narrative “word of the year” journey by simply noticing the stories I most often repeated—ones where I was always the little sister, or a hopeless procrastinator, or an ignored middle child, or a heavy drinker, or a victim, sometimes a martyr. I would notice and think, “this is a story I tell about myself.” Change must begin with calling attention to the thoughts and behavior we think might need a tune-up.

Me – to – We

After I spent some time noticing and identifying the most common—and therefore most powerful—narratives ruling my life, I began slowly to re-write some stories to take the focus off myself. Instead of “I’m always the one to do the dishes,” (poor me) I would re-frame to “I do the dishes regularly to help my family function well in the kitchen” (family is important). Another common example for me in the year my baby was born were complaints about how my parents might’ve treated me as a child (poor me), which I spent much time re-writing with compassion, “they were doing the best they could with what they had” (parents are humans too). When you become a parent, your views on your own parents’ parenting often becomes quite complicated! I think I’ll stick to the narrative that we’re all doing our best with the resources we have.

The big surprise was that when I re-framed these narratives in my mind, I found I was much more capable of letting go and forgiving others in real life. The oft repeated stories took up precious space in my mind and sucked so much emotional energy out of me. When I decided to re-write them, it freed up more space for acceptance. That acceptance allowed me to let go of the past and move into the future as a different person. While terrifying, it’s essential for transformation. It’s shedding the identities, patterns, and narratives we’ve outgrown.

Toxic – to – Trying

Narratives can also be toxic to others and ourselves. The relatively common “I’m an asshole” self-proclamation just makes you more of an asshole. You’re giving yourself permission to be an asshole because you, what, think it’s cool? Do you think it excuses your behavior? You get to say whatever you want, hurt people’s feelings, and then just proclaim “I’m an asshole,” and it’s suddenly better? I call bullshit.

The even more common refrain, “I’m anxious,” can also be toxic to ourselves as spending so much time thinking about, talking about, and focusing on our own anxiety often makes us even more anxious. Let me be clear: I am not talking about someone with diagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder or any other severe mental illness. I’m talking about the much more commonplace “I avoid this-or-that because it makes me anxious,” when we know (from science) that the more we avoid and make this-or-that a big deal in our minds, the more we reinforce our anxiety. I think this is similar as when we “lean into” other toxic traits and accept them because there have been so many funny memes. Examples here might include being a procrastinator, being messy, being a “wine mom,” being a yeller, being an over-sharer, being a bitch, being a player, or just generally being “problematic” in some other culturally acceptable way.

Noticing our own stories that hurt us rather than heal us is not easy. It’s even harder to let go of them, flip the script, and try a different narrative that focuses on how we’re trying—key word—to change. It’s not about succeeding in no longer being an asshole or a wine mom. It’s not about simply stopping all anxiety because you notice and acknowledge the anxiety. It’s about trying and telling the story of your efforts: I’m trying to do things even though it makes me anxious; I’m trying to tidy just a bit every day; I’m trying to be on time. Telling the story of yourself as someone who is trying—surprise!—really helps you become that new person in real life. It gets rid of the excuse we so often cling to because, honestly, we’re afraid to try—to really try. Because, ultimately, we’re afraid to fail.

Past – to – Future

Speaking of failure…here’s the story I told about failing to become/giving up on/breaking free from/what other narrative might I tell about transitioning out of academic philosophy, which had been my dream for a long time. For those who might not know, I received my Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Auburn University in 2005, and then I earned my Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Ohio State University in 2013. Currently, I am the Director of Faculty Services at a university, an administrative role, and I teach one Philosophy course a semester in addition to running our online program. Follow me on LinkedIn!

Part of me was devastated when I transitioned out of academia. Sometimes what we’re really doing when we re-write a story is grieving a past identity that doesn’t fit anymore, an identity forged by a million small stories we told ourselves and others. In the year of “Narratives,” I knew I was working full-time as a philosopher for the last time of my life. I knew I’d be looking for a non-teaching job soon that could offer stability and benefits for my growing family. I was shedding the narrative identity of Philosophy Professor, which had been with me for twelve long years. I was confronting the loss of a part of myself, and it felt like grief. I was grieving the loss of a storyline—not the whole of me, but a significant arc.

In confronting my grief, it helped to know I could control the narrative. I am the narrator, after all! I wasn’t going to let it be that I failed at becoming a tenure-track professor or even that I failed at the job market or that I failed to publish while teaching a million undergraduate students. Instead, I wrote the story I wanted to tell, which was that being an adjunct at three different universities, teaching seven classes a semester, traveling all over central Ohio, and spending every weekend grading was not what I wanted to do anymore. I was not willing (nor able) to uproot my family, move across the country (or globe) for a one-year position, just to do it again for another one-year position, just to maybe, hopefully work my way up to a tenure-track position even further away from extended family and friends. This massive disruption is exceedingly common for Ph.D.’s as they seek a job as a professor—particularly in the humanities. And we often end up in remote, nightmare towns. None of this felt like a reward anymore.

I cannot underestimate how much the stability of a nine-to-five job with free time on the weekends, paid sick/vacation, and benefits has improved my physical and mental health! I let go of the Philosophy Professor identity without creating a bitter, self-loathing narrative of failure and blame in its place, which opened up space to find the joy in structure and mundane work—something I fought hard against previously. I firmly believe that leaving philosophy enabled me to provide a much more stable home for my daughter to finish out high school in one place, which led her to a full ride at Duke University, something I doubt could have happened if she was switching schools and states every year.

If I had clung to the past, failure narrative—thinking that just because I stopped doing something that meant I failed to achieve my dreams—I would not have ended up quitting. I would have continued the hustle because I cannot stand to fail (another narrative of “high achiever” I should probably work on). Re-writing my story as one that looks toward the future instead of wallowing in past failures laid the foundation for where I am today—I have a very rewarding job making the lives of adjunct faculty better, improving equitable access to higher education, and designing a new logic class that starts Monday. I’ve found the best of both worlds using the power of storytelling.

Narratives Tarot Card: Knight of Cups

It has been a challenge to return to my thinking from 6+ years ago. I am not the person today that I was when I first undertook the “word of the year” project and adopted “Narratives” as my inaugural word. I’m also very interested in Tarot these days, and I’ve had some significant insights. So, for each of these yearly entries, when I think I’m done, I will pull one Tarot card and ask what I’ve missed, misunderstood, or what still needs further clarification. I’m committed to life-long learning and introspection, after all.

I pulled the Knight of Cups. The thing that struck me as most poignant about the Knight of Cups was that she is focused entirely on the cup. She may be a charming, confident storyteller, but this serves as a nice reminder to me that the goal is to change ourselves by changing the stories we tell about ourselves. We cannot lose sight of that ultimate goal by focusing too much of our energy and time on crafting the perfect, Instagram-worthy story, and thinking that’s all we need. The stories serve us, not the other way around. Thank you for this lesson, Tarot.

Again, feel free to share how your own narratives have shaped your lives and how you’ve been able to re-write them to construct a brighter future. If you’re pursuing a different word of the year, share it in the comments! I’d love to hear about it.