The light and shadow of authenticity

October 20th, 2021

Last month we explored the topic of AUTHENTICITY in 4 cities around the world.

We see this “buzzword” everywhere. “Be authentic!” or “Live your most authentic life!”. But as we sat with this topic, many of us were left wondering: what does being authentic mean? And more importantly, how can we tell if we are being 100% authentic?

At the end of the night, we realized that most of us (perhaps all of us?) have disconnected from our core essence, and therefore being authentic all the time is simply not possible. We realized that authenticity is not something that comes naturally, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, embracing this idea can lead us on a profound inner exploration, a process of self-discovery through which we can meet all that we are.

Here are our key takeaways…

Introducing the “authenticity spectrum”

Authenticity is often perceived as a binary quality: we are either being real or not. There seems to be no space for anything in between. But in our dinners we learned that authenticity actually lives on a continuum, with our purest essence (the core of who we are) sitting on one end; and our “shadow” sitting on the other.

Our essence is the part of us that is most open, present, and connected to our values. While the “shadow” is the aspect of our human psyche that is most disconnected from its true essence, the space where all of our neurosis, deepest wounds, and unconscious “programing” and “conditionings” exist.

When we are connected to our essence, it’s easier for our authenticity to flow. For example, the moments when we allow ourselves to feel our emotions (even the difficult ones); or when we are immersed in nature, dancing with friends, or being playful with kids. From this place, we are less concerned about what other people might think of us, we have more trust in ourselves and feel free to just be. Instead, when our “shadow” takes over, we can be reactive, hurtful, or completely withdrawn.

We move across this spectrum depending on the day, our mood, background, circumstances, environments, and/or the people that we are with. Perhaps being authentic starts with becoming aware of where we stand along this spectrum, and then noticing, without judgement, who we are depending on where we stand.

Important note: Some of us confuse authenticity with assertiveness or having “no filters.” But across our tables, we noticed that the moments in which we are most authentic are often the moments when we are most vulnerable and open. That is, when we are able to set our boundaries, share our emotions, or stand up for what we believe in from a “grounded” place, rather than from a defensive or combative standpoint.

Culture and upbringing add layers on top of our authentic essence

We are born as our most authentic selves. But then, little by little, we start to separate from our essence and often disconnect to the point we may no longer even know who our true “authentic” self really is.

As children, many of us have had to tame our emotions and opinions. We’ve had to sacrifice our authentic expression in order to be “good kids.” Gabor Maté — renowned speaker and trauma expert — talks about “authenticity and attachment” as the two core human needs. He mentions how babies and young kids learn to unconsciously prioritize attachment in order to feel safe and connected in their homes.

In school this tension can become even stronger, as we get driven by our genuine desire to belong and be accepted by our peers. Some of us start to “please” our friends to fit in. Some of us start to “act out” and become rebels to gain respect — either way, we continue to move away from our most genuine self.

Culture and the oppressive systems we all live in also take a toll. As a society, we are not equipped to be with — or express — strong emotions, such as anger, grief, or joy. As a result, we tend to suppress those emotions or experience them in isolation. In our workspaces, we have to compartmentalize parts of ourselves too, so that we can match a certain expectation (for example, some women can be seen as “emotional” if they disclose their feelings or — god forbid — shed a tear).

Social media also plays a huge role in shaping how we relate to authenticity. On one hand, we see more people opening up about their real challenges e.g., breakups, miscarriages, or past traumas. These stories can be very relatable and inspiring, but they can also generate a lot of pressure if we equate authenticity with sharing our deepest truths with the world. On the other hand, we know that a lot of what we see online is not true — not the full picture, at least. This combination makes it very confusing to decipher what’s authentic from what’s not, and it leaves many of us wondering (starting with teenage kids) if we are enough.

From “being authentic” to “facilitating moments of authenticity”

We learned in our dinners that while we can’t manufacture authenticity, there are three things that can help us lay the ground for authenticity to flow:

  • Safe (enough) Spaces — being in spaces that welcome differences without judgment. Spaces that encourage people to show up as themselves without having to put on too many masks. Places where perhaps there are agreements around non-judgement, confidentiality, and respect. Places that foster curiosity, where all people can feel heard and seen. Our dinners were mentioned as examples of such places, as well as AA, sisterhood/brotherhood circles, and group therapy. Traveling or moving to a new place can also be a “safe place” for some of us, as it can give us an opportunity to play new roles in our lives.

  • People we trust — being with people we trust and whom we feel safe. This can be our family, close friends, a therapist, and even strangers that we know won’t actively judge us! These relationships can show more vulnerable aspects of ourselves. Sometimes our shadow can come through strongly in these relationships, and that’s ok. The more we know our shadow, the more we can embrace our full selves.

  • Connection with our body — being curious about the wisdom of our bodies. Trusting that, while we may not know what our “most authentic self” really is, our body can give us the answer if we really listen to it. Creating more moments of stillness and introspection so we can listen to our emotions and deepest longings, and then see what opens up when we are present with ourselves.

Ultimately, authenticity is not a quality, but a life’s journey, an ongoing practice, and process of discovery

Creating authenticity and #livingauthentically is not a stagnant experience, but something that continues to shift the more we explore both our “essence” and our “shadow.”

So, what if rather than “seeking” authenticity, we chose to “discover” authenticity by paying attention to who we are (and have been) when we are guided by our values; when we are in places and/or with people who “spark” the light that already exists within us.

As with most of our learnings over the last (almost) four years, it all comes down to presence. Trusting that our authentic expressions are latent inside our bodies, awaiting to flow through us. They do so when we are open, when we are breathing, when we are deeply attuned and connected with the present moment.


  • Reflect back on some recent interactions you’ve had, and notice where you were within the “authenticity spectrum.” How much “essence” and “shadow” was coming through? Were you connected to your values? Was your deepest intention aligned with your actions? (e.g. if your deepest intention was to let someone know you love them even though you are saying no to their invitation, perhaps your response wouldn’t have been a straightforward “no”, but a “no” that was also filled with deep appreciation for the invitation).

  • Journal exercise: It can be hard to realize “in the moment” if we are being authentic or not, sometimes it’s easier to notice in hindsight. So, look back into your life and reflect on the moments where you felt most authentic. What qualities were present for you? How can you bring more of that into your life today?

  • Notice who you are when you are in the spaces or relationships where you feel safe enough to open up and be yourself. What parts of your personality come across in those situations?

Written by Veronica in Miami, Julie in Rome, Alana in Lisbon, and Roxanne in Edinburgh with contributions from Dinner Confidential hosts, Laura in Perth, and Caroline in Nairobi.

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