July 3, 2018

As humans, we crave connection. Nothing makes us feel better than that sweet, heart-warming sense of feeling seen and understood. Science backs this up: Studies have found that feeling understood activates the areas of your brain associated with reward, while feeling unseen, or misunderstood, triggers negative feelings.

We also know that the key to feeling seen is living authentically—and that’s shown to make you feel good, too. A 2006 study found that authenticity, or having self-awareness and acting in a way that reflects what you believe about yourself, is tied to a whole slew of benefits. Those who scored highly for authenticity were more likely to have healthy relationships, respond better to stressful situations, higher confidence, and a stronger ability to follow through on goals than those who have less functioning authenticity.

So why, then, do we ignore the warm, feel-good benefits of authenticity, and hide our true selves?

So many of us put on a mask—one that covers up our faults and insecurities, along with those quirks and strengths that make us unique. And after a while, that mask starts to chafe. You might hear yourself answer a question and think, but wait, that’s not what I meant. Maybe you look around at your friends and wonder why you don’t seem to share the same interests. And most of all, you might wonder why it’s so hard to take the mask off.

So many of us put on a mask—one that covers up our faults and insecurities, along with those quirks and strengths that make us unique.
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One reason, suggests Psychology Today, is that authenticity—and thereby being “seen”—can be painful. Understanding yourself can mean recognizing your shortcomings, and putting them on display for others to judge. It takes work, too: Checking in with yourself before every decision can be exhausting, and it requires real concentration and introspection.

And even then, getting authentic might not always pay off. Being “seen” is a two-way street. Sure, you play the largest part by putting yourself out there. But whoever is seeing you plays a role, too—and you have no control over it. You could be as authentic as you can possibly be, speaking your truth loudly and eloquently, but the receiving party might only hear what they’re expecting or want to hear. Some listeners might have a confirmation bias—they only look for what agrees with their worldview. Others might only react to what they expect to hear, no matter what you say.

Understanding yourself can mean recognizing your shortcomings, and putting them on display for others to judge.
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What you can control is how you see yourself and how you represent that self-understanding to others. This week, try getting real about how you feel, what you believe, and who you want to spend time with.

There’s no need to overhaul your life—just start by noticing how you act, then make small, easy changes to inch closer to what feels most authentic to you. Here’s how to begin.

1. Try Something New

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We sometimes think that there’s a set “you,” and that expressing it is as easy as tapping into your real self. But the truth is, we’re constantly changing, evolving, and uncovering new truths. What feels “authentic” one day may not feel so real after a loss, or move, or new relationship.

What feels “authentic” one day may not feel so real after a loss, or move, or new relationship.
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One good way to uncover more of your personality: Get out of your comfort zone. Go white water rafting. Try stand-up comedy. Go out to a meal alone—or cook up something entirely new. Test a new activity out yourself, then invite others to join in. Sharing a new side of yourself can help you feel more seen, and you just might see your friend in a new way, too.

2. Find a Buddy

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Open up to a few close friends about your plans to be more, well, open. Tell them about your pattern of hiding yourself, and ask them to call it out if they see it— say, if you keep deferring to others to make decisions, or serve up platitudes instead of honest answers.

There’s payoff for them, too. Some small studies have shown that authenticity can lead to closer relationships and better self-esteem.

3. Banish 'I'm Fine' From Your Vocab

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I get it: Sometimes, you do feel fine. And sometimes, it’s not worth getting into the nitty gritty of your true emotions. But if you hear yourself telling everyone who asks that you’re fine, it’s probably masking your true feelings. That means that friends can’t see what you’re really dealing with, and by repeating a false narrative, soon you might not be able to, either.

Take it from Shine writer Kara Cutruzzula, who recently put an end to “I’m great!”: “The neverending “I’m great”-offs keep us from more meaningful conversations, which could actually help us feel truly great,” she writes. “Research shows that people who have more substantive conversations—ones that push beyond 'great weather we’re having!'—are happier than people who fill their days with small talk.”

The neverending “I’m great”-offs keep us from more meaningful conversations, which could actually help us feel truly great.
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Try thinking of new ways to describe your feelings, so you’re prepared with a deeper answer the next time someone pops the question.

4. Get Comfortable With Your Flaws

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So you start opening up, only to find that what’s inside is a little cringe-worthy. Join the club. “We are all human, and by definition that means that we are often messy and raw and wrong,” writes Christine Carter, Ph.D., a fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

“When we love only the parts of ourselves we deem to be good or strong or smart, we reject the parts that make us real," Carter writes. "This sets us up for inauthenticity. We start hiding what is real and showing off what is sparkly; but our seeming perfection is fake. The only thing to do with all our imperfections is to accept them with forgiveness and compassion.”

"When we love only the parts of ourselves we deem to be good or strong or smart, we reject the parts that make us real."
- Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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To avoid hiding the next time you feel self-conscious about your imperfections, get proactive. Make a list of everything that others might see as “wrong” with you, and thank yourself for it. And, in the moment, if you feel yourself start to shrink down to hide your vulnerabilities, take a moment and forgive yourself. Then, keep on being you.


Read next: 5 Ways to Put Self-Love Into Action