Skip to main content

Authentically representing yourself

Written by: ICAEW
Published on: 15 Mar 2024

young woman

It’s crucial we feel able to be our true selves when we begin studying or working in new environments. We talk to Audit Senior Associate Taha Ayyaz and Jonathan Taylor, a Chartered Occupational Psychologist about how we can authentically represent ourselves. 

Starting a new school or college, university or apprenticeship, meeting new people, and gaining new skills and knowledge comes with nerves. High expectations from teachers, lecturers or bosses, as well as those you have for yourself, can bring a sense of trepidation. But it’s also an exciting time with new opportunities and you likely feel very enthusiastic to get started.

Whether nervous, excited, or both, people can often hide or feel unable to be their authentic selves in the face of new environments. Being yourself and demonstrating your true nature, beliefs and values without fear of external expectations – or representing yourself authentically – creates a sense of wellbeing, higher engagement and satisfaction in your work and better relationships with others, research shows. Representing yourself authentically also has a positive effect on life outside work.

The concept of being true to ourselves is not new. Nearly 2,500 years ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”, and academics from philosophy and psychology among other disciplines continue to research what this authenticity looks like. Jonathan Taylor, Managing Psychologist with the firm Pearn Kandola, says at the basic level, the concept of authentic self is about an alignment between our internal sense of who we are – our values, our identity – with our external behaviour. “At its heart, we are motivated to have a positive identity – to feel good about ourselves,” he says. “We have internalised certain values and identities as part of our sense of ‘self’.”

 

The importance of authenticity

“We are more likely to be our authentic selves at work when we feel ‘psychologically safe’, meaning we feel safe to put ourselves at risk, speak up and express ourselves, otherwise we are more likely to feel constrained in sharing ideas and be less likely to challenge bad ideas,” Taylor explains. “This is essential for a psychologically-healthy study or work environment.”

Taha Ayyaz, Audit Senior Associate at PwC UK, describes being authentic as being your true self without the imposition of external expectations or fear of judgement – a state of ‘true’ confidence. “During this state is when we can work feeling fulfilled, content and above all at peace knowing we are able to act as our true selves with no strings attached,” he adds. “The by-product of having a workforce embodying authenticity, is the range of ideas this can cultivate given the diversity in backgrounds and cognition.”

Being authentic does not mean revealing everything about yourself to your colleagues, however. “The concept of ‘bring your whole self to work’ is misleading,” Taylor adds. “Some people won’t want to share so much of themselves with colleagues – that is their authentic self.”

Yet often people join new study or workplaces and learn that they need to modify their behaviour to be accepted or seen more positively. “We’re a social species – we’re very good at doing this,” Taylor says. “But research is increasingly showing that when we feel constrained – when we can’t be ourselves, and need to spend energy monitoring our behaviour and how others see us, it has a hidden cost. This ‘performance anxiety’ reduces our cognitive capacity (working memory) to focus on our work, reducing our ability to perform.”

Ayyaz adds that not being authentic leads to a lack of confidence and creates distrust between yourself and your true identity. “When this distrust is established it leads you to doubt your competencies and capabilities, resulting in an embodiment of the imposter syndrome feeling,” he adds. Imposter syndrome is a feeling some people have that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be – that they are a ‘fraud’.

Not being yourself at school, college or work also reduces engagement within that environment. “Studies have found that feeling pressure to modify our behaviour (known as ‘code switching’) or identity at work (known as ‘identity separation’) is associated with lower job satisfaction, reduced engagement, higher intentions to quit and lower wellbeing. We can cope in these environments, but it has downstream effects,” Taylor explains.

Over time we disengage from the environment and the effort involved can have an impact on our wellbeing. Taylor highlights the two motivational systems in our brains that psychologists talk about. “The Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) focuses on avoiding harm. If we’re in an environment where we can’t be ourselves, we’ll be focusing a lot of energy on actively staying quiet, avoiding saying something that will cause a negative reaction from others.

“If we’re in a psychologically safe environment, our Behavioural Activation System (BAS) is activated and we become more goal directed. Instead of avoiding threats, we are focused on our goals – doing the task, making our point, performing to our best. Feeling psychologically safe to be our authentic selves takes the foot off the brake and shifts it onto the accelerator”, Taylor explains.

 

How to represent yourself authentically

Organisations – whether schools, colleges, universities or workplaces – need to encourage, recognise and value inclusive leaders. “If there is no visible diversity – particularly at senior levels – it will send a message to people joining that there is a preferred way of behaving, and that certain types of people are more likely to progress,” Taylor says. And it’s crucial to find an organisation with values that align to your own. “This is where ‘fit’ is important. If the values don’t align, you’ll feel inauthentic,” Taylor adds.

Ayyaz adds that the best way to “escape competition” is through authenticity. “It’s important to remember no one can compete with you at being you, and so in order to truly stand out and make an impact in your domain, authenticity can act as a key filter. Additionally it’s important to understand that the institution has granted acceptance based on the authenticity demonstrated in your initial application, so stay authentic!"

 

Tips

  1. Behave in a way that feels comfortable – you don’t need to reveal everything of yourself to your colleagues.
  2. Take some initial steps and see how people respond. Start with speaking up, sharing ideas or perspectives that are not being shared by others. Don’t be afraid to have open and honest conversations about your background and beliefs. Often communication can help diminish any information asymmetry between an individual and an organisation, facilitating a space of respect and mutual understanding.
  3. Take time out to learn about others’ authentic backgrounds, this will help create a culture in which others appreciate authenticity but also aids creation of deeper interpersonal relationships.
  4. Network with individuals sharing mutual backgrounds and interests. This can help establish a feeling of belonging, simultaneously creating relationships with individuals with similar beliefs and journeys.

 

Our article ‘Finding the right fit’ offers tips on finding an organisation with values that align with your own.