by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on July 4, 2011

When it comes to authenticity, be careful what you wish for. I say this, because being authentic is a lot more trouble than not being so. But it is also more rewarding, nurturing, freeing, and full of possibilities for emotional growth. Ultimately, authenticity is the key to life and our experience of it.

As of late, authenticity has become one of the hip words in the field of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. It is rightfully thought to be one of the major movers of the therapeutic action, based on the belief that all of us are looking for an authentic other who can respond to us and get to know us in that way. Someone who can tell us what we are like on the basis of his or her relationship to us. This is a huge departure from the original idea of being a blank slate for our patients, and of interpreting the various meanings of their personal history on the basis of what we have come to understand. Authenticity involves not only using our experience of another to understand much of their experience, it also involves translating the personal into the professional: relating our experience in an honest and real way. So that it can be known to the other person – as an experiential pivot into their relational history. Such a communication involves speaking from what we feel on the inside while in relation to another, and doing so without stripping it of emotion. In therapy it also involves what my colleague Philip Bromberg has aptly termed “stumbling along and hanging in” particularly when what we experience is not so clear and cannot be put into words, but we know that something important is going on, and it is going on in the moment and within the relationship. As analysts we are no longer relying on the blankness of our canvas but instead working deeply within its texture, feel and make up. Human to human. No longer privileging a cognitive interpretation of what might be, on the basis of history, but instead, of what is in the mutual experience of the moment. Thus the recent interest in the person of the therapist. Working in this way means that the therapist is a translator of sorts: working beyond words with intuition and emotion, and within the moment-to-moment sensorial register of the relationship.

Ultimately, being authentic requires being familiar with our own canvas and being relatively comfortable sharing this with others, or at the very least, finding a way to communicate through it, in spite of whatever discomfort this may bring us. The rub is, that while attempting to be authentic there is always some part of us that resists. Oy! The good news is, that people, particularly people that have needed to negotiate relationships by becoming sensitive readers of what is not said, can always recognize the inauthentic. They just know. This applies to both therapists and patients. And this makes a huge difference as far as what happens next. Despite the discomfort that it may cause us to be known in this way, it is our attempt to be authentic that provides an opportunity to shift old patterns and bring about change.

These ideas deeply affect the way that a psychotherapy is conducted, as well as the way that we think about symptoms and psychopathology. It embeds our response to trauma and adversity into a deeply humane experience and takes it out of the medicalization of mental health. We are living at a time when many of the theories underlying psychological functioning are being mapped out neuro-biologically by science as lived realities. Freud would be ecstatic about that, despite the fact that it monumentally alters many of his original ideas about how psychoanalysis needs to be conducted. I think he was just way ahead of his time. But I digress. The fact that neuro-scientists are now able to see what happens to our nervous system and brain when they are impacted by trauma has shifted the focus of analytic treatment to the regulation of affect within the relational matrix.

It turns out, that through our initial relationship with our caretakers we develop certain parts of our brain and nervous system, which can only be activated and turned on within a relationship. Within that interactive context we begin to experience ourselves as engaged and engageable with another. We begin to read, respond and interact with others and this relational interaction accounts for much of the structural development of our nervous system and brain. It accounts for the way that we will experience and process emotions with others. So the quality of the relationship matters. You can see the implications of this. If, our initial experiences have failed us or traumatized us in some way, this will affect not only how we feel but also how adept we become at regulating our emotional responses to others and to situations in our life. In fact, it probably accounts for how we view life. Much of this is laid down within the first year or two of life. Scientists who study brain structure and function are now able to explain and study what psychotherapists have worked with all along, and give us clues as to what is helpful and what is not. Thus authenticity – it is all about what happens in relationships and personal interactions. About how meaningful relational exchanges can help us alter and redefine our behavior and experience, and through these exchanges with an authentic other, change the workings of our brain and nervous system. A shift at the cellular level!

Lest you think this is some new age incantation, check out the reading list (Neuroscience) on this site for the scientific sources, and it is definitely not exhaustive. This is real, exciting, and it impacts all of us. Expect to hear more on this topic!

So what is the password for authenticity?

ME as experienced by YOU.

YOU as experienced by  ME.

Password: relationship. For it is only in the context of a relationship that we encounter the opportunity to be authentic. Margaret Williams said it best in her wonderful story The Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” the Rabbit asked the Skin Horse one day. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, you become Real. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and you get very shabby.”

I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit.

The boy’s uncle made me Real many years ago,” said the Skin Horse. “Once you are Real, it lasts for always.

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