To Thine Own Self Be True

The Importance of Authenticity in Acting and in Life

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In many ways, “performing” and “authenticity” are two opposite and often contradictory terms. A good performer is well-trained in the art of wearing different masks, whereas authenticity entails the removal of masks to discover who you are deep inside. Performing is discovering and taking on the truth of another person or situation, while authenticity involves being honest with yourself and living in your own truth. It’s my belief that cultivating authenticity in one’s life is a necessary pre-requisite not only for being a stellar performer, but also for living a fulfilled life. Perhaps the comparison to be made is “performer” verses “authentic artist”. One approach is surface level while the latter is an evolved expression of the self and art.

As a psychiatrist with a private practice in New York City’s Upper East Side, I spend a great deal of time with my patients exploring their core beliefs about authenticity: how honest and in touch are they with themselves? Do they feel authentic in their day-to-day interactions with the people in their lives? Are they comfortable in their own skin? How aligned do they feel with their life choices?

In his 1972 book, Sincerity and Authenticity, literary critic Lionel Trilling described authenticity as, “to stay true to oneself.” Polonius’ famous advice to Hamlet was, “To thine self be true.” The Ancient Greeks inscribed the aphorism, “Know thyself,” at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Throughout modern and ancient history, self-knowledge and authenticity have been highlighted as powerful virtues by authors, artists and philosophers alike.

What I’ve learned in my own personal life and in my work with patients is that living an authentic life is not easy. Authenticity means having the courage and taking the risks to be the person you truly are, as opposed to the person others expect and want you to be. On stage and off, there are myriad pressures that can compel us to wear masks. As e.e. cummings said, “To be nobody but myself, in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else, means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting.” Aligning with authenticity in your daily life is a choice you make minute-by-minute, day-by-day.

The better you are as a performer, the less we as the audience are able to perceive your mask. The identity of a performer is by definition fluid, dynamic and always changing. The best performers are the ones who themselves forget they are performing – they become their performance. They enter their character or role so fully and completely that we as the audience cannot tell where they end and where their mask, character or role begins.

But masks do not only exist on-stage. A common mask worn off-stage in New York City is the mask of perfection. We put on a “good” face when interacting with others, pretending we have everything under control – our careers, our love lives, our friendships, everything. Removing these masks of perfection to reveal the vulnerability within is not always an easy process, as so much of the world we have created for ourselves is often predicated upon this mask.

When do we first start wearing these masks? To one degree or another, many of us wore various masks in early childhood to be accepted by and to please others such as our parents, siblings, friends and teachers. In doing so, we hid our precious, but vulnerable, true selves. Gradually, we found ways to use these same masks to ward off anxiety, to help the family deny its problems, or even to keep ourselves safe from harm. As time went on, the mask brought us so much acceptance and sense of belonging, that we lost track of who we once were. We’d hidden our authentic self so well that even we couldn’t find it!

Author and researcher Brené Brown describes the dangers of not living authentically: “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” These symptoms, and many others, are the price of living out of sync with your soul.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” In this way, the hallmark of authenticity is aligning with your soul. Your soul is the deepest essence of who you are underneath all your masks. The soul speaks to you through the still and quiet voice within, also known as intuition. This voice can only be heard when we learn to temporarily silence and tune out our thoughts and emotions. That being said, being deeply in touch your emotions is key to a good performance, so I’m certainly not suggesting that any performer should seek to live a stoic, emotionless life. Quite the contrary. The key is being able to temporarily distance yourself from your emotions long enough to hear the still, quiet voice of intuition. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the voice of intuition from two other inner voices we all possess: the voice of instinct and the voice of reason. While each of these voices serve a different function in our lives, they all must be heard and acknowledged to live a balanced, fulfilled and healthy life.

While authenticity is a key component of mental health and wellness, it is also an essential ingredient of becoming a star performer. Meryl Streep said that “acting is not about being someone different. It is about finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” Performance, therefore, entails first being grounded and secure within your own identity and then temporarily expanding your identity and consciousness to feel and encompass another. In this way, the best performances are outward expressions of an inner truth. They are the external manifestations of a living an authentic life. When done well, the performer cannot help but be personally transformed through the process.

In my work with patients who are performers, I help them to get in touch with their soul and begin to live from a space of authenticity, both on-stage and off. They are the external manifestations of a living an authentic life. When done well, the performer cannot help but be personally transformed through the process.

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