Authentic Connection

Pamela J. Reed, MA, LPCC, CCTP

What does it mean to be authentic? Merriam Webster’s definition includes the following: (1) not false or imitation; (2) true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. Over the past few months, since my last blog post, I have been deeply reflecting on the theme of authenticity as it keeps presenting itself in my work. More specifically, the question of what it means to have an authentic connection with others. How do we communicate with one another in way that is not false, that is not imitation and is true to our own personality, spirit, and character?

I have come to understand that we experience authentic or inauthentic connection within the subtleties of our communications. How do we know when someone is being their authentic self? We feel it. We “know” it. Yet, it can be difficult to describe. Sometimes it is easier to describe something not by what it is, but what it isn’t. So, how do we experience someone being inauthentic?

Dissonance comes to mind. There is dissonance that can take several forms, all of which have a distinct energetic “feel” that can cause a negative reaction within the recipient of the communication. Patients of mine who are “highly sensitive” have a skilled radar for inauthenticity. And some feel heartbroken by it. We all crave authentic connection, wanting others to “see” us for who we truly are. When we are in the presence of those with more narcissistic tendencies, communication feels one-sided. We are acutely aware that the conversation is only involving one person. The dissonance is in the person’s lack of awareness of others.

Social media can promote inauthentic connection and communication. In all our communications with others, we should ask ourselves, “what does this communication serve?”. Many times, specifically with social media, the communication serves the ego. That part of our self Eckhart Tolle describes as “the external image we have of ourselves”. I am not suggesting that all communication through social media is inauthentic. Social media has united and connected us in ways that have brought positive change to our world. I am only suggesting that it can also be used to propagate inauthentic versions of ourselves because of the powerful need for external validation.

Communication through social media is greatly affected by external factors. We can lose ourselves easily due to our inherent need to belong and be accepted by others. However, when we are guided externally, we encourage suffering. When we are guided by internal forces, our “knowing” of who we are and what we value, communications become natural, easy, authentically ours.

The move from in-person sessions with clients to telehealth video therapy has opened the question of whether authenticity is reduced in our interactions with others when we are not in the same room. Asking patients about their experience with teletherapy has brought forth a conversation around which type of connection feels most “authentic”. Video, audio (i.e., phone-to-ear) or in-person. One patient who describes themselves as neurodivergent, relayed they were uncomfortable with phone conversations. They needed to see the interlocutor’s face to judge the nuances within the conversation and frame their responses and input. Some of my patients find that phone calls are more intimate than video, as the awareness of being “on camera” can be distracting. By and large, in-person communication feels the most “authentic” for my patients, and for myself. Lori Gottlieb stated in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post: “Machines of course, have their limitations. More than once I have been unsure if a pause in the conversation has meant that the screen froze, or if we were sharing a meaningful silence. When we emerge from the coronavirus, I will go back to in-person sessions. But I am grateful for these remote sessions because they’ve been both an illuminator and an equalizer, breaking down the facades we all construct and highlighting our shared humanity.” Gottlieb understands that our authentic communication finds a way through whatever the mode of transfer is.

Dr. Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Exactly. We can have authentic connection in myriad ways, including telecommunications. Once we can overcome barriers that may exist externally, our internal compass and guidance will communicate authentically. The hard part is listening to that core of ourselves.

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