If self-esteem is fundamentally rooted in the self, what happens to our self-esteem when we are not “feeling ourselves”? From something as minor as pretending you’re interested in a movie that a new date suggests; to hiding a previous life (a la Don Draper); to living a life that feels inauthentic, as Caitlyn Jenner has described, we seem to be driven by the need to strive for or maintain authenticity.

But what is authenticity? Philosopher Charles Guignon describes it as “the constellation of feelings, needs, desires, capacities, aptitudes, dispositions, and creative abilities that make the person a unique individual.” On the other hand, when we say, “I’m not feeling myself,” we are experiencing alienation. According to Dutch professor Felicitas Kraemer, “authenticity and alienation are opposites: ‘alienation’ means ‘inauthenticity.’”

Wash it away

And how does feeling alienated, or inauthentic, affect our self-esteem? An interesting study was recently published that suggests that our drive for authenticity may be so fundamental that we actually feel dirty and immoral when we violate our true sense of self. What’s more, this feeling of impurity drives us to redeem ourselves, so to speak, by cleansing ourselves or doing charitable acts. The expressions “wash your sins away” and “it will come out in the wash” might make a little more sense now.

A growing body of research shows that there’s a relationship between physical and ethical cleanliness, whereby we feel dirty when we’ve done something that impacts our morality, guilt or authenticity. In a 2006 study, researchers asked participants to rate the desirability of household products like cleaning solutions and office supplies after having written a story of ethical or unethical behavior in the first person. Those who wrote about an unethical act were more likely to rate the cleaning products higher than those who wrote about an ethical act. Another study showed that reflecting on an ethical or unethical deed that participants had committed in the past affected how they filled in the missing letters to words such as S_ _ P. (Quick – fill in the letters!) It turns out that reflecting on immoral acts makes us more likely to think of the word SOAP rather than STEP. Subconsciously, we seem to be looking for ways to cleanse our conscience.

The concept that our authentic self is given by nature and unchanged by time is rather outdated.

A Psychological Science study suggests that not only immoral behavior, but also feelings of inauthenticity, drive us to feel impure and seek out ways to redeem ourselves. Just like immoral behaviors (like lying or cheating), inauthenticity violates our sense of being true to others or ourselves. A similar fill-in-the-word experiment was conducted, this time with participants who wrote about either authenticity or inauthenticity. The inauthentic participants not only completed W_ _H as WASH instead of WISH, but they also engaged in more charitable acts. Interestingly, if they had to opportunity to cleanse, they no longer felt the need to be more charitable than others. In essence, one act may be enough to clear our conscience and redeem our true selves. Funny creatures, we are!

Living Authentically

So feeling inauthentic and fake makes us feel crummy. Does feeling true to ourselves give us a mood boost? Evidence points to yes – reflecting on a moment of authenticity makes us feel pretty good about ourselves , and more likely to describe ourselves as helpful and cooperative. Over time, living our truth, as they say, may be the path towards self-fulfillment and wellbeing. In this day and age, there are many shortcuts to happiness, but there is much debate as to whether these actually fulfill our need to be authentic. Whether it’s Prozac or another therapy that lifts our moods and changes our personality, these shortcuts may not be delivering our real self, but an idealized version instead.

The concept that our authentic self is given by nature and unchanged by time is rather outdated. As Brene Brown suggests: the key to living wholeheartedly is to embrace who you are, and let go of who you think you’re supposed to be.