The Paradox of Authenticity
Coaching, like life, is full of paradoxes. Indeed, the core tenant of coaching – that it must be driven by the autonomously generated goals of the coachee – is itself paradoxical. It assumes that a client’s goals are not going to be grounded in the desire to be less autonomous, and that if they are, they are somehow wrong and need to be redirected; thus negating the purported autonomy of the coachee.
Similarly, the mantra “be yourself” is essentially a paradoxical imperative; I am being ordered by someone external to ‘be’ something not of my own choosing, and thus not for myself. In the same vein, when coaching someone to be ‘more authentic’, a paradoxical process of socialisation occurs. In learning how to become more authentically myself, I am guided by external forces, helping to uncover my true nature. Perhaps I find myself following the principles of such humanistic psychologists as Erich Fromm in order to be more ‘truly alive’ (through acts of spontaneity, playfulness, or creativity), thus rejecting the broader socialising forces that have, until this moment, prevented such behaviour. However, the paradox here is blinding; I am now socialised by the principles of humanistic psychology. I have simply replaced one form of socialisation for another.
Nevertheless, the search for the ‘authentic self’ has become something of a modern priority, one that is particularly prominent in the fields of life coaching and the self-help movement. Indeed, authenticity is today (paradoxically) viewed as a superlative human value. Often we are told that we cannot be truly happy until we are truly ourselves.
The idea of a stable, intransient identity perhaps feels more important than ever in a post-truth era. Increasingly, the stories we tell about things are more important than the reality of the things themselves. Of course, this has always been true to an extent; telling stories about our reality is a fundamental part of being human. As Yuval Noah Harari suggests, it may well be the primary reason for our global dominance as a species. However, this human tendency has undoubtedly reached its apotheosis in the age of social media. Just consider the ‘flexing’ we constantly engage in so that we might project an image of a self/ family/ partnership/ social life which is far glossier than the one we feel we are living. Ironically, it is perhaps this continuous projection of a superficial ‘socialised’ self that makes the idea of an immutable ‘authentic’ self all the more appealing.
What does this mean for coaching? The fact that the concept of an authentic self is paradoxical does not mean we cannot work with it, or with people’s desire to locate it. Good coaching embraces paradox. In order to do this, however, we first need to acknowledge its existence. Only then can we sit with the discomfort it creates, and perhaps even play with the absurdity. As physicist Niels Bohr asserted, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”