This post is based on an email consultation, which the consultee gave permission to post so more people may benefit from the information. Thank you!
The question asked was:
What tools and techniques help with the balance between
being our authentic selves versus avoiding too much rejection?
This is a very relevant question for autistic people, because many of us have been rejected or have otherwise been hurt as a response to by being ourselves.Chapter Three – Negative Peer Experiences in Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorders (Adams, Bishop, & Lounds Taylor, 2017) In an effort to protect ourselves from that potential hurt, we develop coping mechanisms to prevent it. But as a result, we can become shielded, and too scared to show up authentically. Two main coping mechanisms we use that stand in the way of our authentic selves are:
- Avoidance — The easiest way to avoid potential rejection is by not showing up in the first place. If you are not there, what is there to reject? The flip side, of course, is that you won’t achieve a sense of belonging by avoiding things and people.
- Masking — Another option is to just show up as something you are not. For example, we might camouflage our autistic proclivities in order to fit in. The problem is that a true sense of belonging can only be achieved when your authentic self is accepted. By masking, there is still an element of avoidance. I explain more about this in the post below.
So if you want to become your authentic self, you:
- Engage — Show up rather than avoid. By avoiding, you also maintain your level of distressChronic avoidance helps explain the relationship between severity of childhood sexual abuse and psychological distress in adulthood (Rosenthal et al., 2005) (and it can maintain your PTSD if you have it),A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder (Ehlers, 2000) rather than experiencing growth.
- Stop masking — Show who you really are, rather than who you think other people need you to be in order to accept you.
This may be easier said than done, and it can be a painful process. But it’s a necessary process, because ultimately, you will only find a sustained sense of belonging and happiness by showing up authentically, and being accepted for who you really are.
Defining myself means finding what is significant in my difference from others.The Ethics of Authenticity (Charles Taylor, 1992)
If I am not [true to myself], I miss the point of my life; I miss what being human is for me.The Politics of Recognition (Charles Taylor, 1994)
One thing to keep in mind is that the coping mechanisms we developed when we were younger are not necessarily needed anymore. Not only that, but coping mechanisms that worked for us in the past often start getting in the way as we grow older. This is because as we get older, our environment and circumstances likely change, while the coping mechanisms stay the same. After all, they have always worked for us, so they become deeply ingrained. But as circumstances change, we have to get rid of old baggage. In order to be our authentic selves, we need to be able to show up in a genuine way, without masking our authentic self, or not showing up in the first place.
Given our past experiences, the idea of not masking or showing up might scare the hell out of you. What if you get rejected again? That might be devastating. But one important thing to remember is that we don’t necessarily face the same consequences. I carry with me the fears I developed as a child, but I am no longer a child. So if you are lucky, your only obstacle to being your authentic self (and avoiding social rejection) is to realize that you no longer would get rejected by being your authentic self, the way you would as a child. Ideally, you would realize that your fears are no longer justified. In that case, scary though it might be initially, I recommend testing the water by dropping your mask, seeing how people respond, and over time, consider dropping it more as you find people around you respond well.
For example, I might carry with me the rejection I felt when I was 10, when I couldn’t find a sense of belonging among my peers. But my life no longer plays out on the school grounds. I have my own life now, and although it’s not necessarily easier to find a sense of belonging as an adult, I am not necessarily dealing with the same restrictions.
Enough talk about how our past might hold us back. Let’s look at research on the benefits of being your authentic self.
Research from 2017 by Pengcheng Wang et al. shows that authentic self-presentation on social networking sites reduces depression.Can Social Networking Sites Alleviate Depression? The Relation between Authentic Online Self-Presentation and Adolescent Depression: a Mediation Model of Perceived Social Support and Rumination (Lei et al., 2017) More specifically:
- Authentic self-presentation on social networking sites significantly increases perceived social support.
- Authentic self-presentation on social networking sites decreases rumination (repetitive thoughts and behaviors on symptoms, causes, and consequences of past personal distress).
- An increase in perceived social support is associated with a decrease in depression.
- A decrease in rumination is strongly associated with a decrease in depression.
The exact relationships between these factors are shown in the diagram below.
So as you can see, being your authentic self on social websites can have significant benefits to your well-being and mental health. A different study from 2016 investigated the differences between people’s true selves and how they present on Facebook, and found that the closer the Facebook self was to the true self, the more likely you are to experience social connectedness, and less stress.The Psychological Benefits of Being Authentic on Facebook (Rachel Grieve & Jarrah Watkinson, 2016)
I’m focusing on authentic self-presentation online in particular because I suspect autistic people are more likely to find comfort in reducing the distance between the true self and the presented self online—at least as a first step.
I talked a bit about masking, which is actually a subcategory of camouflaging, along with compensation and assimilation. But while masking—and camouflaging in general—is often used to avoid social rejection, surprisingly it is often exactly what leads to it!
People often cater to their target’s interests and expectations to make a good impression, and to secure a positive outcome (for instance, being offered a job). Yet research from 2020 by Francesca Gino, Övül Sezer, and Laura Huang shows catering (which fits under masking and assimilation) doesn’t produce the benefits people expect:To be or not to be your authentic self? Catering to others’ preferences hinders performance (Gino, Sezer & Huang, 2020)
- In a field study in which entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to potential investors, catering harmed investors’ evaluations, while being authentic improved them.
- People experience greater anxiety and instrumentality (serving as an instrument or means to an end) when they cater to another person’s preferences than when they behave authentically.
- Compared to behaving authentically, catering harms performance because trying to anticipate and fulfill others’ preferences feels instrumental and increases anxiety.
That last factor also relates to compensation, which are techniques autistic people use to compensate for their social shortcomings. Compensation is fine if we’re talking about practicing social skills, but many autistic people report that trying to anticipate the needs and expectations of others (including maintaining eye contact) is not only mentally draining, but can be a great distraction and undermine focus and performance.
So this makes it pretty easy to answer the question asked at the start of this article, about how to balance being authentic with avoiding rejection. The answer is that in many cases, you avoid rejection exactly by being authentic!
And where being authentic leads to faux pas, communication is probably a good remedy. I find people can be pretty forgiving of our eccentric behaviors if you contextualize it and help them understand it. In some cases, our eccentricities are exactly what gets us a friend, a partner, a job, etc. I showed up at a job interview at a design studio once, 10 minutes late and drenched in sweat because I couldn’t find it. I told my future employers about my autism and my eye for detail, and showed them a big folder full of typographic experiments, which they explored with a sense of wonder. They must have thought of me as quite a character. Flawed as I may have presented, what I showed was the authentic me. And I must have made some kind of impression, because I got the job!
The authentic self is subject to the essentialist premise that there is an inner impulse that will blossom if it is merely given a helping hand.Authentic self-realization and depression (Petersen, 2011)