In Defense of Inauthenticity

In Defense of Inauthenticity

Manu Bazzano

Any fool can turn a blind eye, but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand? [1](Samuel Beckett, Murphy)

An example from clinical work

Last year I worked with ‘Isabelle’[2], a woman in her late twenties. Born in Scotland from Sicilian parents, she came to therapy with the desire to ‘navigate more successfully’ the intensity of her emotions. Whether grief or euphoria, she had often felt they would ‘take over’, make her life ‘unmanageable’. A year into therapy, she told me, with tears in her eyes, of the death of her grandfather, whom she had been very close to. She described in vivid and moving detail episodes from her childhood. Her granddad had been for long spells like a parent to her. Her death was also the end of an era. It coincided with major changes in her life and represented in many ways the death of the old life.

Our exchange reached a deep level of feeling. I felt tears welling up in me: I know they were my tears as well as hers, as I was absorbing her sorrow. This lasted for some ten, fifteen minutes, after which she unexpectedly changed the subject and started to talk about a present she had bought for her cousin’s birthday, about her cousin lovely one-year old girl, and about an ambivalent remark made by a colleague at work. I thought she was avoiding, not wanting to feel the intensity of her grief. I also thought that she was being ‘inauthentic’ and ‘incongruent’. I went along with it anyhow: I listened, nodded, kept silent and attentive. She did eventually come back to talk of her sadness, yet I was still a little puzzled. What later emerged in supervision was a surprise. My supervisor and I both wondered whether her chit-chat was perhaps a natural way to self-regulate. I recognized something parallel in my own upbringing. Like Isabelle, I also grew up in a culture where grief is not only expressed and encouraged, but also considered a duty. This contributes to bereavement reaching the point where the pain become too much. The organism collapses, or, more often shuts down and becomes numb, with the numbness extending at times to other areas of the person’s life. This is when ‘idle talk’, the alleged superficiality of talking about recipes, clothes and the weather, provides one with a healthy counterpoint to paralysing pain and increased hopelessness. This is when ‘inauthenticity’ saves the person from drowning.

I was puzzled at first and resisted this insight. My entire training had revolved around the idea of authenticity. What was I doing now, condoning inauthenticity in the client? Surely a client who lapses into long spells of chit-chat during a session is avoiding the real issues, diverting from the welling up of painful emotions or meaningful topics, resisting therapy and so forth. Isn’t that so? I had accepted as canonical the widely-held view that one of the positive outcomes of therapy is for the client to achieve a higher degree of authenticity. Each orientation will have its own way of describing this – or something similar to it. The person-centred tradition uses the term ‘congruence’; psychodynamic practitioners may refer to greater integration of unconscious material, while a CBT therapist might emphasize increased awareness of harmful thoughts and behaviour.

One of the many things an inauthentic individual is said to be doing is idle chatter. A rather stern condemnation of idle chatter is found in Heidegger[3], the philosopher who provided the theoretical framework for the notion of authenticity – the very same that is nowadays championed by many humanistic and existential practitioners.  What is often forgotten is the rather strange fact that, as Adorno (1973) remarks, Heidegger “condemns idle chatter, but not brutality, the alliance with which is the true guilt of chatter, which is in itself far more innocent” (p. 102). What Adorno meant was that compared to Heidegger’s full endorsement of Nazism (which he never recanted), the denunciation of chit-chat sounds very odd indeed.

Counsellors or ‘Spiritual guides’?                                                                                             

An authentic life implies a resolution to live one’s life in the awareness of mortality. An inauthentic life presupposes, on the other hand, the refusal to recognise the reality of death. Only a mode of living able to embrace this reality can be called authentic. Only by living authentically as an individual (by ‘being real’), a client may adequately respond to her being ‘thrown’ into this world, as existentialists are fond of saying. All of the above sounds rather good and potentially useful to a therapist. At the same time, I feel that this view is a little too simplistic and too ‘universal’.  It claims to be applicable any time, any place. It overlooks history, social difference, as well as specificities of culture, gender, and ethnicity. It forgets that as humans we are situated, [4] as well as embodied[5]. It also concentrates too much on the individual rather than on the therapeutic relationship, forgetting in the process what the Brazilian phenomenological therapist Virginia Moreira, echoing Merleau-Ponty, calls “emergent phenomenon”.[6] For Moreira, by concentrating too much on the person (in this case her inauthenticity) the psychotherapeutic process stagnates.

Moreover, in spite of its allegedly ‘existential’ roots, the notion of authenticity is, according to Adorno, closely linked to an idea of interiority with is “in line with Protestant tradition, essentially as ... repentance”[7]. This could mean, for example, ending up condemning inauthenticity in a client in the way a clergyman condemns sin and the psychiatrist condemns abnormality. The language changes, but the subtle or not-so-subtle condemnation goes on all the same. I am reminded of what a client told me not too long ago. Working with his ex therapist he had felt that on top of his struggle with depression, he had now developed a sense of total powerlessness for his therapist had told him his depression was a form of despondency, an inability to face up to his life in an authentic manner. This is often justified in our profession as ‘challenging’ the client, even ‘guiding’ her in the way a spiritual guide would do. The problem with this stance is that it potentially robs the client of her autonomy and ends up disempowering her.

Naturally Inauthentic

There is another perspective of inauthenticity, recently advocated by some writers[8] who speak of original inauthenticity. This notion draws on the work of anthropological philosopher Helmut Plessner, for whom ‘the human position’ is seen as inherently eccentric’[9]. For Plessner, human beings find themselves in an eccentric position. We do not coincide with ourselves but inhabit a gap between a physical and a psychological dimension. Embedded in the animal kingdom, we have deliberately placed ourselves outside it. In this peculiarly human situation of “mediated immediacy”, the human being experiences herself as and within a thing, a thing differentiating itself from all other things because she is herself that thing.  She finds herself sustained and surrounded by something that keeps resisting her. To fully recognize this condition could mean accepting our inherent human ambivalence. In order to be able to say ‘I’, a human being needs to withdraw somewhat from the body and the world. In such temporary withdrawal from physical existence, the world is presented to her as a mediated immediacy, a limbo between being-in-the-world and being a cogito (a mind), between closure from or openness to what there is.

Inauthenticity and the Secret

Personally, I don’t think the notion of authenticity does justice to the multiplicity, complexity and the sheer eccentricity of being human. This is true with regard to another aspect which relates authenticity to transparency, a notion which, if poorly understood, can endanger personal freedom and dignity. This is directly related to Derrida’s controversial notion of the secret[10]. Simply put, Derrida associates the right of an individual to maintain a secret with an inalienable human need to have an interior, even sacred life. First of all, keeping a secret implies auto-affection: in order to truly have a secret, I must tell it to myself. I speak of the secret to myself. In maintaining confidentiality in counselling, I also respond in a very concrete way to the needs of my client.  I am bound to what Derrida calls singularity rather than generality. The former is more concrete and is the proper domain of ethics. To give a well-known and highly controversial example: the English novelist E. M. Forster famously said that he would rather betray his country (a generality) than his friend (a singularity).

Secondly, keeping a secret preserves oikonomia, iethe law of the private, a domain intimately linked to the realm of the sacred, against a panoptical and absolutist ‘transparency’ – the perverse democracy of CCTV that now accompanies virtually every move we make – in the name of ‘security’. But there are deeper implications here. To believe, as some do, that our everyday life is ‘inauthentic’, presupposes perhaps a ‘Garden of Eden’ notion, the belief that we can unveil, through therapy, a state of being that would reveal some sort of lost innocence. What I understand Derrida to be saying is that we are already divided from the very beginning – ie inauthenticity may well be our human dimension.

There is yet another perspective that supports this view, the source of which is found in the writings of the mathematician and Christian philosopher Pascal (1623-1661) who said: ‘We possess truth and good, but only partially and mixed with evil and falsehood’[11]. For Pascal, as human beings we are intrinsically divided, forever falling short of reaching ‘integration’ or, in religious terms, ‘salvation’. This is our mystery, as well as our contradiction – our misery, as well as the measure of our human dignity and freedom. In therapeutic terms, this can be perhaps translated as fostering active acceptance of our imperfect nature, empathic attunement to our vulnerabilities and strengths, rather than positing, explicitly or implicitly yet another ‘should’, albeit a therapeutic one, to be added to the list of ‘shoulds’ and conditions of worth the client is already struggling with. As convincingly argued by psychotherapist Devang Vaidya, incongruence (and/or inauthenticity) is an ‘existential given’, with anxiety ‘located in the phenomenological ground of being human’ .[12]

Manu Bazzano is a therapist, supervisor and visiting lecturer at Roehampton.

He edited the forthcoming After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation (Palgrave McMillan)

References and Notes

1 Beckett, S. Murphy London: Faber & Faber, 2009, p. 111

2 Name and details of client have been altered to protect confidentiality

3 Heidegger, M. Being and Time New York: Harper Perennial, 2008

4 De Beauvoir. S. The Ethics of Ambiguity New York:Citadel Press, 2000

5 Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception London: Continuum, 2010

6 Moreira, V, From person-centered to humanistic-phenomenological psychotherapy: The contribution of     Merleau-Ponty to Carl Rogers’s thought Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 2012, 11 (1), 48-63, p. 52

7 Adorno, T. The Jargon of Authenticity London: Routledge, 1973, p. 73

8 Critchley, S. Infinitely Demanding London: Verso, 2008

9 Plessner, H. Laughing and Crying: A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior Evanston, IllInois: Northwestern University Press, 1970, p 36

10 Derrida, J. The Gift of Death Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1995

11 Quoted in Blanchot, M. , The Infinite Conversation University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p 444

12 Vaidya, D. Re-visioning Rogers’ Second Condition – Anxiety as the face of ontological incongruence and basis for the principle of non-directivity in PCT therapy Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 2013  Retrieved 14 Nov. 13

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