Authenticity is a lifelong process, not something innate. It’s a process of bridging one’s mental and social personas. For everyone, there is some disconnect between the two which makes us feel insecure. However, that insecurity often takes on new meaning for those dealing with mental health issues.
With their burden, trying to be authentic presents a dilemma. One the one hand, mental illness is an essential part of one’s lived experience; the struggle is personally formative. On the other hand, it can seem an unwanted part of the self because it leads to suffering and affects one’s social image.
Sadly, the latter influence often wins out. There is a pervasive fear that one’s mental reality will bleed into their social persona. While of course some things should be kept private, this fear goes much further. It incites a deep repression of suffering, consciously guiding one’s everyday social presentation. Brooding over each day, this fear can leave a person with a deep sense of incompleteness and authenticity.
It’s made worse by the fact that the struggle for (or against) authenticity takes place while the authentic self is in flux. The process of individuation — deciding who we are and/or ought to be — is not separate from social presentation. Instead, self-repressive efforts at social acceptance are internalized. The external self becomes a model, fully realizable only by covering up what’s inside.
Fast forward through a lifetime of head games and a person may have erased from their identity something with which they grapple everyday. That leaves much unhealed, and, as I’ve recently learned, relationships unfulfilled.
Two weeks ago, one of my closest, long-term friends and I became mutual confidants. They called me late one night, needing help. As is the natural response, I was more than ready to listen and console. Yet, it wasn’t long into our conversation that I realized I was no stranger to their suffering.
Within minutes, sympathy gave way to a rich, immediate empathy. I was emotionally overcome. A lifetime of shared experience was reframed and so I felt deeply known. Suddenly, our odd humor, awkward moments, and similar struggles made a little more sense.
Although I’d written publicly about mental health issues, this total relationality was something new. During and after I felt that I could be an entirely different, more authentic person with this friend.
And yet, grateful as I am, this incident has left me conflicted. Looking back over time spent together has revealed an intimate silence. How could it have been that, all this time, we never knew our own burden in the other?
It cannot be a lack of engagement. This is one of the closest people in my admittedly small social web. If suffering was to be seen in proximity, I couldn’t have missed it in our thousands of hours together. Still, this explanation is not far from the solemn truth.
As already elaborated, the fear of exposure causes two-way repression of mental suffering. Formative experiences are withheld from the social persona. Simultaneously, that persona becomes a formative ideal. To say this another way: We are drawn to whittle the mental ‘imperfections’ out of our social persona. Each time, we become even more infatuated with the product and further loathe its flaws.
While I cannot speak for my friend, this was my issue. I couldn’t have noticed my burden in another person because I’d spent so much mental energy denying its influence on myself. I was forcefully incomplete, and so became our relationship.
Although, I am eternally blessed that the realization was cathartic, I worry about how that incompleteness might manifest with no outlet. What happens when repression continues unchallenged?
The answer is obvious. Its scope is not.
We know that self-repression and the woes of mental solitude are dangerous. They take a toll on one’s vitality which often culminates in what some have called ‘self-medication.’ That is, ultimately destructive outlets for pain kept inwards without the hope of social support.
And yet, the complexity of this phrase is much broader than we tend to think. A fellow student’s article on depression gives an expansive example: “it’s not uncommon for a car crash to be a suicide attempt. Ultimately, risky behavior … could be a manifestation of self-loathing and hopelessness.”
With this example, the author makes a crucial point. As suffering is repressed, so too is its connection to destructive behavior. In trying to hide the troubled mind, we come to present a more flawless self. Of course, this does not lessen the toll of one’s incomplete mental health. It just makes the consequences more culpable.
Seeing only secondary problems, people may then be far less sympathetic than they are of mental suffering. For example, while it’s acceptable to moralize about risk-taking — drinking, smoking, reckless driving, etc. — it would never be for the root cause. Yet, condemnable, risk-taking archetypes tend to crystallize around an incomplete self.
The difference is that the danger is far from its source. And even there, it is deeply hidden, pushed down. So we see only endpoint problems: over- or under-eating, excessive gaming, near-existential self-sacrifice for achievement. The list runs on, and we have ways of moralizing about, valorizing or pathologizing each.
Of course, these problems don’t always result from self-repression. But we don’t often think meaningfully about what does. I don’t mean in the form of jeering psychoanalysis, either. Rather, I believe that we need to approach the possibility openly and with empathy, understanding that everyone struggles with authenticity (some very greatly).
We should want to help each other bridge the inner and the outer self. Not just because it sounds nice. Instead, because the strain of inauthenticity will inevitably bubble up somewhere in life. When it does, authenticity becomes much harder to reclaim. I only hope we find ourselves before things get to that point.
Finally, I want to say that if you are struggling with something deep — whatever it is — it’s never too late to seek help. You are always worth saving. There are extremely supportive people on campus to help support you through recovery. A wonderful teacher at Vaden asked that I suggest it as a resource, and I can say that the people there are so wise and kind. There are plenty of other places to go, too.
Whatever resource you engage, please know that you will not be judged for the consequences of suffering. No matter how far you’ve wandered, you are loved.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.