Think back through your day today and how many sources of information have come your way.

You probably looked at your phone…and probably more than once. You might have read the news, checked your email, looked at social media, talked to colleagues, family, or friends, or watched tv. And that’s just to name a few.

We are faced with a lot of information coming at us each day. It’s literally constant.

Even when you stand alone in front of the mirror, there are probably messages in your mind about what you see there and whether it’s adequate. It’s hard to escape from the constant input of outside voices.

But how much does this information overload impact us?

In some ways, input and information from others is great. It helps us learn about the world and about ourselves.[1]

When you were little, you learned a lot about yourself by watching people and how they reacted to you. When a parent smiled after you did something, you learned that you’d made a good choice.

When another kid got angry because you took his crayons, you learned it was a bad choice. This is a normal process of development.[2]

But when we become adults, the sources of outside information increase and if we continue to take feedback from every source of input, it gets confusing and frustrating…especially if these sources define who we are.

Authenticity is described as being true to who you really are, but when you’ve got so much input coming from all of these sources, it can be easy to lose track of who you are.

Allowing others (media, friends, societal expectations, etc.) to define who you are can really weaken your ability to be authentic, which can in turn make it hard to connect with others.

Here are some 6 common challenges you might face in trying to remain authentic in spite of all of this input from others.

#1: Comparing Yourself to Others

Do you ever find that you are comparing yourself with others? A quick scroll through social media will give you ample opportunity for this, right?

Maybe your friend posted about the half marathon she just ran, and you can’t even seem to get yourself to the gym. That might lead you to compare your body, your ambition, your lifestyle choices, or any number of things with hers.

Inevitably someone on social media is going to have posted pictures of their beach or Disney vacation while you’re slogging through your week of work or laundry or whatever it is and now you’re comparing your experience with theirs. Maybe they have more money, more time, more friends, or you’re just jealous that they are having fun while you are home. How to stop comparing

Here’s a dumb one I have fallen for.

I’ve spent the last several years in school and these days, grades on assignments are all posted online in a private portal. You can log in to see your grade and your professor’s feedback. But you can also see what the high score in the class was, the low score, the average, and…how you compared.

Even when I’ve gotten a great grade on an assignment, I still find myself tempted to see how I measured up in comparison with others. Do you ever do things like that? Comparison happens so frequently in our lives that we often don’t even realize we are doing it.[3]

But every time we compare ourselves with another person, we give away a little piece of who we really are because we are trying to measure up to someone else. (And often it’s not even a realistic portrayal of that someone else.)

Read more about comparison here.

#2: “Shoulds” and Supposed Tos

Sometimes the comparison we do isn’t even directly with another person, but with the expectations of others or the things we think we “should” be doing. We worry more about what other people might think or expect of us than about doing what we feel is right.

I’m a mom, so I “should” be a good cook and I “shouldn’t” ever get mad at my kids. My house “should” be clean and well-decorated, and I “shouldn’t” ever want to just binge watch Netflix instead of playing with my kids. I “should” look good while I do all of these things, take care of my neighbor, love my husband and see to his needs, and do all of this while being pleasant and polite.

For my husband, it’s a feeling that he “should” be strong and confident, hardworking and wise. He “should” know what he’s doing and where he’s going in his career, love sports (he doesn’t), and always have the time and energy to come home and play with and care for the kids after work.

Somehow, we’ve all got these ideas in our mind about what we “should” be doing…and we inevitably fall short.

We might even hide who we are from others for fear that we don’t measure up.

It’s impossible to try to be everything that all of these voices are telling us to be and when we try, it can be confusing and frustrating. Rather than being clear and consistent in our identity, we waffle back and forth in our opinions or our likes as we try to figure out how to meet all of these demands and still be authentic. (We can’t.)

Read more about shoulds and supposed tos here.

#3: Body Image

Body image is such a big one (especially for women, but also for men), that it’s hard to even know where to begin to talk about this.

overcoming struggles with body imageWomen are taught from a young age that their worth lies in how they look—their hair, their eyelashes, their breast size, their clothes, their skin, their nails, and especially…their weight.

The pressure to look a certain way is building for men too.[4] By society’s standards, men are supposed to be toned and muscular, yet slender.

The problem with this (well, one of many), is that we begin to try to see ourselves from another person’s point of view rather than experiencing life from inside our own body.[5] This is called self-objectification and it’s like we are watching ourselves do things, rather than just doing them. It’s probably no surprise that this doesn’t work out very well. Things like sexual arousal, happiness, self-esteem, satisfying relationships, and enjoying the moment all decline when we self-objectify.

Allowing society to dictate what you should look like gives away your power—power to love yourself, to take care of yourself, and to let others see who you truly are. It puts your focus on things outside of who you are and limits your desire or ability to truly connect with others.

Read more about body image here.

#4: Being Defined by Relationships

Another way we sometimes weaken our own sense of who we are is when we define ourselves by our relationships with others.[6]

It’s wonderful to be a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister, a daughter, an uncle, or a friend. But there are times when a relationship becomes so defining in our lives that it boxes us in. Sometimes a relationship can feel like a limitation if you don’t feel free to have an identity outside that relationship.

Or, if it feels like there are certain rules or roles that you are required to keep in order to preserve the relationship, you can start to lose sight of who you are (not to mention building up a lot of resentment). Overcoming Codependency

I was in a relationship once that was filled with a lot of unspoken rules—ways I was supposed to act, things I was or was not supposed to do. When I broke one of these “rules,” I was punished with things like the silent treatment or a scolding.

I’d never had a relationship like that before and I never would have imagined that I’d be the type to put up with being treated that way. And yet, there I was, being treated badly, but not ending the relationship.

The problem was that I had tied my identity so closely to this relationship, that I felt like I would lose a large piece of myself if I ended it, so I put up with it for years.

During that time, I could feel who I was slipping away. I was so worried about meeting all of the expectations of this relationship that I stopped feeling like I could be myself for fear that I might get in trouble. It took a lot of courage to move on from that place, but looking back now, I can see how badly I needed to be able to define myself rather than feeling locked into this relationship.

Relationships need to be places that we can be ourselves. Never allow someone to stifle that in you.

Read more about being defined by your relationships.

#5: Gendered Expectations

This technically fits under the “shoulds” and supposed to category but deserves a mention of its own.

There are a lot of expectations placed on us about how we “should” be living based on whether we are a man or a woman (and that’s without all the complications for people who don’t fit nicely into one of those categories). There are many that could be mentioned, but here are two of my least favorite gendered expectations that we put on each other—one for men and one for women.Overcoming gendered expectations

For men, it’s considered weak or unmasculine to show emotion or to be gentle, compassionate, and loving. We send a message to boys from a young age that crying is weak and that they should brush themselves off when they are hurt and buck up.

Think of the little boy who falls down and scrapes his knee or the young man who gets hurt on the soccer field. Often our first response is to say, “you’re ok!” rather than to acknowledge the hurt.

Along these lines, men aren’t as encouraged to share how they are feeling about things (unless it’s assertive or competitive) and they aren’t persuaded to engage in emotionally intimate relationships with others in the same way that women are. This socialization of men is unfortunate because showing emotion and being real about how you’re feeling are so crucial to building connection with others.

For women, it’s almost the opposite. They are often taught to give and to give and to give—their whole focus is often on other people. Selflessness is encouraged and women often form their identity based on their relationship to others.[7] (This relates to the example of being defined by relationships above.)

Think of a mom who is so busy doing the laundry, cleaning, shopping,  driving kids to practices, staying up late to make sure everyone is home and taken care of, making dinner, serving her neighbor, and on and on, that she is exhausted and overwhelmed and feels like she has no time to care for herself.

Serving and caring for others is a wonderful gift that we offer to the world and helps build strong relationships. But when it’s overdone at the expense of her own needs, resentment builds, relationships struggle, and mental health suffers. Shedding the defining expectations of being a man or being a woman and instead, living the way that feels natural and best to you, is healthier and happier for everyone involved.

Read more about gender expectations here.

#6: Seeking Validation or Approval from Others

How much of what you do is motivated by a desire for approval from others or in order to please the people around you? It’s probably happening almost constantly…but you might not always notice it.

We are trained from a young age to seek approval from the people around us. Children are praised when they do something well and punished when they mess up.

In much the same way, as adults, we sometimes do things hoping that others will acknowledge our efforts.

When I bake a batch of cookies and take it to my neighbor, can I really say that I’m doing that out of a genuine desire to make someone happy? I hope so—I love baking cookies and I love making people happy.

How to stop Seeking others approval But I can’t entirely detach the situation from the validation that I might receive when my neighbor tells me how wonderful I am for bringing the cookies or how great I am at baking cookies. Even subconsciously you may be motivated to do things because you know it will please others. You’re hoping for validation even if you don’t acknowledge that as the motivation.

Seeking validation happens when we worry about how we appear to others. It’s the “what will others think” mentality or the need to be seen in a positive light by anyone and everyone in order to function.

But it’s also giving someone else power to determine how you live and what’s important to you. And just like all of the other obstacles to authenticity we’ve talked about, it puts the focus of your identity and your worth outside yourself.

Read more about seeking approval here.

What Happens When Others Define Us?

Those are just 6 ways that we sometimes allow others to define who we are. There are more and it’s different for all of us, but those are some of the big ones.

When these comparisons or expectations are in our minds (as they so often are—it happens to all of us), our focus is on what others might think instead of on being our best self…and our authenticity declines.

But having a strong sense of self or a consistent idea of who you are is important in building connection and intimacy with others.

Being clear and consistent in who you are without allowing others to define that for you is true authenticity.[8]

Authenticity matters. It’s vital to our connection with others and an important part of our overall mental and physical well-being.[9] But allowing others to define who we are for us is one of the most powerful ways to lose our authenticity.

How Do I Stop Being Defined by Others?

Learning to shut out some of the sources of information and instead, being who you want to be, can increase your intimacy and satisfaction in relationships and help you build connection in life each day.

But at this point, it’s probably so natural to you to look to outside sources to define who you are (we all do it) that it can be a hard habit to break. So, what can you do?

This week try this:
  • Now that you’re aware of some of the sources outside yourself that might be defining who you are, pay attention. See what other things you notice. Watch what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, what you’re saying and how much of that might be influenced by others’ opinions or expectations rather than your own. Write them down. As you watch, you’re going to start to notice them more and more. And as you notice them, you can begin to challenge them and consider instead who you want to be.

Here is a worksheet you can print out and refer to as you work on this assignment if you’d like:

Defined by Others Printable Worksheet

It can also be helpful to talk to a trusted friend or family member about what you’re noticing. As you begin to write or verbalize it, it will crystalize better in your mind.

As you do this, know that it takes time to shift your mindset, but each step you take will help you grow more and more authentic…and the benefits are worth the effort.

Next, let’s talk about what it looks like to define yourself instead and how you can figure out who you really are.

Challenges to Authenticity

Obstacles to Authenticity

References:

[1] Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. Scribner’s.

[2] Stryker, Sheldon and Richard T. Serpe. 1994. “Identity Salience and Psychological Centrality: Equivalent, Overlapping, or Complementary Concepts?” Social Psychology Quarterly 57:16–35.

[3] Buunk, A. P., & Gibbons, F. X. (2007). Social comparison: The end of a theory and the emergence of a field. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(1), 3-21. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.09.007

[4] Grogan, S., & Richards, H. (2002). Body image: Focus groups with boys and men. Men and Masculinities, 4, 219–232.

[5] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly, 21(2), 173-206.

[6] Schnarch, D. M. (2009). Intimacy and Desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship. Beaufort Books.

[7] Miller, J. B. (1991). The development of women’s sense of self. Guilford, New York.

[8] Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology55(3), 385.

[9] Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology55(3), 385.

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