By Daniel Silliman
Imagine two men who are pushed by their mothers to become doctors. Both of them go to medical school, pass with good grades and get good jobs as physicians.
The one man, though, becomes a doctor because he decides he really wants to be a doctor, while the other one is just trying to please his mom.
Which one will be well adjusted and, psychologically speaking, healthier?
"In terms of actions," said Brian Goldman, a psychology professor at Clayton State University, "these two people are indistinguishable. But we should be considering the meaning of the behavior in light of attitude."
That's the subject of Goldman's research: Authenticity.
His work, done with Michael Kernis at the University of Georgia in Athens, and continued at Clayton State with professor Samuel Maddox, was recently featured in a popular psychological journa.
And, it could change the way we think about things like self-esteem.
"When I first got involved in research in grad school, I was interested in the self-esteem angle, and there were these confusing findings in self-esteem research," Goldman said. "There were people who had really high self-esteem, but they would get really defensive. It seemed like, if you really like your self and accept yourself, you wouldn't really get defensive and worry so much about what other people thought of you.
"When people are more authentic, they're less inclined to base their actions simply on meeting other's expectations. They don't default to other's interpretations of themselves. Authenticity involves our attitudes toward ourselves, and it seemed to be an important piece in understanding the findings in the self-esteem work."
The idea of "authenticity," though, of "being true to one's self," had previously been more suited to discussions in European philosophy and Eastern religions. It wasn't seen as something scientific and quantifiable, in the way it needed to be for psychology studies.
The professors came up with a 45-question questionnaire, asking people to rate themselves on subject self-awareness.
"That's sort of the best we could do," Goldman said, "to try and quantify it some way."
Using the questionnaire study, Goldman and Kernis wrote a series of papers on self-esteem and authenticity, making the claim that authenticity is an important link between self-esteem and life satisfaction.
A review of Goldman's work, along with other efforts in the study of authenticity, was published last month in Psychology Today. The article, written by Karen Wright, describes the possible pain of the process of pursuing authenticity. One of the questions, in Goldman's and Kernis' questionnaire asks, "Do I prefer to ignore my darkest thoughts and feelings?"
Authenticity, unlike self-esteem, isn't just about how you feel about yourself, but "gets at people's willingness to explore and discover things about themselves," Goldman said, and people's willingness to be honest about who they are.
Goldman believes that, though painful, self-discovery is critically important to psychological health.
"Authentic functioning may have short-term costs, like acknowledging weakness, but long-term benefits, such as being true to one's self, or being comfortable in your own skin," Goldman said. "It's hard to be yourself, but it's even harder to be someone else."