Authentic vs. Genuine: The Chasms Between Concepts

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about words that are similar or related, but fundamentally different in small, nuanced ways. Good versus experienced. Authentic versus genuine.

I know that I have a love of words and language that is a bit…unusual, but I believe that the language we use, the words we connect with and relate to impact how we interact and function in the world. Words may be abstract, nebulous things, but they are made manifest in our behaviors and actions. Language is living in our bodies, in the ways we move and think and interact. And these small differences, these nuanced divergences are margins of error in communication and interaction that, when expanded to the macrolevel of application and behavior, define who we are as people.

A few weeks ago, my partner was watching me tie someone who was going up on their first suspension. Afterward, we were sitting outside smoking a cigarette, and he looked at me with a mix of love and exasperation: “It’s just so frustrating,” he said. “If I didn’t know better, I would have thought you had been tying much longer. You’re good, that’s what’s so scary. You’re good, but you’re not experienced.”

And he’s right. I am, for whatever reasons, pretty good at rope- probably much better than I have any right to be for someone who has only been tying for about a month and a half. I’m good. But I’m definitely not experienced. And in that small difference, there is a lot of danger and a lot of harm that can be done. There is lack of knowledge that only comes with time (and trial and error, and mistakes, and learning, and practice), but if I circumvent those things, if I allow myself to be seen as experienced, rather than good, I am engaging other people at a risk level they may not have consented to.

I was at therapy the other day, and we were talking about, among other things, a sweetheart visiting, during which time we had the first direct conversation about my gender. My therapist was floored- “How on earth can you, of all people, be sleeping with someone for this long and not have gender come up?!” I tried to explain- it had never really been relevant or caused issue; it’s not like we’d never talked about it at all; it comes up peripherally because of my life and the ways that people respond to me in general; he never made it into a thing that I needed to confront or deal with because he genuinely is the kind of person who just kinda rolls with things. It’s not that he was seeing me as someone else, or erasing part of me for his own comfort, or any other myriad of things that have been problematic in the past; it’s that I absolutely believe that he sees me as a whole person and never needed the explanation or discussion to allow me to be the full complexity of who I am. That’s just…who he is and how he moves through the world.

I’m explaining all of this, and he’s pointing out different places where we might want to dive in a little deeper. Finally, he asks me, “Are you able to be as genuine with him as he is with you?” I think about it for a moment, and say, “I think so… I mean, I’m pretty authentic in who I am with him.” He shakes his head. “That’s not what I asked. Are you able to be as genuine with him as he is with you. 100% genuine?”

I couldn’t answer the question. In that moment, I felt the chasm open between what I usually strive for- authenticity- and language to name the thing that makes me feel so safe, loved, and respected- being genuine. I believe that I am authentic in that I do not pretend to be anyone other than who I am. I believe I am authentic in that I am reliable, trustworthy, steadfast, and present. But genuine? That word feels loaded with a level of sincerity, honesty, openness that makes me hesitate. A sense of being fully present in the complexities of how I feel in any given moment.

I keep thinking that there has been some kind of fundamental shift in the ways that my brain works and processes my life and the world around me, and I believe there has been. This entire year has been an exercise in peeling back layers of armor, shedding old baggage, letting go and learning to say “yes.” The past few weeks, I’ve felt the tension between these fundamental, structural shifts within myself and the instinct to fall back into old habits of self-protection and self-preservation. It’s an internal strain, but I’m glad for it. I’m glad to feel the discomfort of fighting to keep from falling back into old ways of thinking that no longer serve me. And I think, finally, I’m starting to get some language around what those things are. This whole summer, I have felt more genuine, more present, and happier than I could have imagined. And I think I have begun to revert back to a default of authenticity… not that being “authentic” is bad, but it allows me to keep my distance from the things that matter to me while still presenting myself as an open, accessible person.

This is an incredibly useful thing in many circumstances. It’s a tool, and tools are only as effective as the problems we seek to tackle. For where I am and what I am fighting against, sinking into authenticity is grabbing a hammer when what I need is a wrench.

I keep turning these words over and over in my mouth, trying to understand how they feel. Authenticity is important. I think I need to be authentic, but there is a guardedness in that. It makes me a Real Person; I think being genuine makes me a Whole Person. Authenticity is a need; being genuine is a desire, something to strive for, something I want to be more of with people I feel safe with.

Even as I say that and recognize that there is truth in there, I’m not even sure I know what that means. What that looks like. But I know that I have done it before, and it makes me believe that, perhaps, I can do that again. I lost sight of something and I need to find it again, because there is an anchor point in here somewhere that grounds me into safety when I am feeling most vulnerable.

Trust is not something that comes naturally, and I am learning, over and over again, how to live the experience of trust, the sense of closing my eyes and stepping forward, believing that the ground will hold me or the fall won’t kill me, whichever comes first. And for me, the deconstruction of my own behaviors begins with the language I use to describe them, the ways in which I seek to identify and name who I am and how I move through the world. Good or experienced? Authentic or genuine? The foundations are still shifting within me, responding to the pressure and tension in the space between these concepts. And I am learning, slowly, how to move inside the galactic expansiveness of my mind and create new maps, new pathways, new reactions and responses, new ways of being: whole, genuine, messy, complicated, present.

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