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The origin of Authenticity

Today, trend magazines are filled with contributions on authenticity such as the ‘authentic self’, ‘authentic relationships’, ‘authentic living’, ‘authentic parenting’ ‘authentic cooking’ etc. Calling the current times 'the authenticity boom' wouldn't be far of. The interest in authenticity is, for sure, no longer exclusive to academics and scholars but is enmeshed in popular culture. Looking back in history, the concept of authenticity has been debated across various disciplines and traditions and discussed throughout the centuries by philosophers, writer, scholars, artists and spiritual leaders. Take Shakespeare and his famous quote in Hamlet ‘To thine own self be true’. Already then, Shakespeare saw something of create relevance in authenticity and the good, purposeful existence.

Genesis of authenticity

Looking authenticity up in a dictionary, we find that ‘authenticity’ originates from the Greek word ‘authéntes’. Here, ‘autós’ means ‘self’ and ‘hentes’ means ‘being’. Digging into the etymology of the word authenticity, we find that the authentic person describes someone who is author of him- or herself. Pretty powerful, I find. For the ones among you who are interested in digging even deeper into the genesis of authenticity, then I encourage you to check out the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century. These guys evoked a philosophical movement that brought forward relevant questions about the qualities of the individual self. For instance, the Latin words ‘Sapere aude’, loosely translated as ‘Have courage to use your own reason’, used by Immanuel Kant (1784) demonstrated a crucial shift in the understanding of human capacities that would invite deeper conversations on self-authorship in the philosophical and later in the psychological discipline to come.

Authenticity and its adoption into Psychology

Today, the discipline that has taken the responsibility to better understanding and promoting authenticity is no longer the philosophical but the psychological discipline, and to be precise, humanistic, person-centred and positive psychology. Let’s talk about this integration of authenticity into the psychological discourse a bit more. That might sound a bit boring, but hang in there – it’s actually quite a cool story, I find.

The Rise of Humanistic Psychology and it's Dedication to Authenticity

You probably are familiar with the Name Sigmund Freund. Yes? Freud was renowned for his psychoanalytical work. His theories dominated the understanding of human psychology for more than 100 years. In fact, until today, many psychology approaches have deep roots in Freud’s psychology. However, in the 1940s and 50s the psychologists Abraham H. Maslow and Carl R. Rogers challenged this Freudian dominance in the psychological field and initiated a disruptive split from it. Now, what is it that humanistic psychologists found so unattractive and bewailed about Freud’s approach?

Well, humanistic psychology claimed that the science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. “It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that, the darker, meaner half (Maslow 1954, p. 354).

So, Freud (1923), a little fan of Schopenhauer, saw the driving force behind human behaviour in the dark depth of the unconscious. Freud believed that human beings were mainly driven by sexuality and aggression, constantly seeking immediate pleasure and satisfaction, regardless of any consequences. That does not sound too good, does it? So, humanistic psychologists took another good look at human beings and concluded that Freudian personality psychology was not adequately addressing some relevant aspects of individual experience and social behaviour.

In comparison to Freud, humanistic psychologists were deeply interested in human flourishing and authenticity and with its rise, also authenticity appeared on the horizon of psychological working. In the understanding of humanistic psychology, human beings were basically “forward-moving, constructive, realistic, trustworthy” (Rogers 1957b, p. 200). When humanistic psychologist looked at humans, they saw individuals that were intrinsically pro-social and striving toward development, differentiation and cooperative relationships. Consequently, as you can probably tell, the idea that every individual has an intrinsic striving towards self-fulfilment marked a fundamental change in psychological theory.

Consequently, the today widely acknowledged concepts, such as authenticity, self-actualization, human growth as well as the idea that the authentic self or ‘true self’ is a desirable concept in personal development can be largely attributed to the efforts of humanistic psychology and the introduction of an intrinsic motivation to move towards fulfilment.

So, the if you have ever wondered why I have a thing for the humanistic, person-centred approach, then you might know a bit more now. Humanistic psychology sees in an individual someone who is capable to take self-responsibility, to be aware and to reason, to be empathic and caring, to act authentically, to flourish and to move towards own potentials.

And that’s how I experience human beings every day when working and being with them. They grow, they change, they flourish.


And what about you, do you welcome this change in psychology and the rise of humanistic psychology in the 1940s and if so, why? Why do you think that the integration of concepts such as 'authenticity' or 'human flourishing' are relevant when working with a psychotherapist?

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