While sincerity and authenticity are pretty similar qualities, there is also a major difference.
On a technical level, authenticity means being true to oneself, while sincerity means being true to oneself with an eye to others. On a more practical level, someone could be authentic and also be a total jerk, while it’s very difficult to imagine a sincere person being a jerk.
In this two-part post, I’ll share a bit of my life story, though above all, I hope to paint a very human picture of a path that blossoms from surface-level authenticity into a deeper sincerity.
Part I: The Blessings and Shadows of Authenticity
I grew up in a strong evangelical christian household, not really knowing about other belief systems or ways of living. Following Jesus was my reality. And, so, when at age 12 I started to have a deep intuitive sense that the christian story was not actually true, I had no real outlet for that, no outside information or mentor to guide me. Instead, I suppressed my inner voice.
From ages 12-17, I pretended I was a good christian and played by the rules, while internally, I numbed and distracted myself from the basic reality that I did not believe the christian myth.
My first wake up call came at age 16 when I got caught smoking marijuana (my first time trying it!). After an intense and tear-filled conversation with my parents, I resolved to change my ways and never smoke again.
While I didn’t smoke again for a while, I will still living the same “double life” I had been since I was 12. Eventually, something had to give. About a year after that first conversation, I started smoking again.
After a couple months of not-so-covert usage, my parents sat me down in the living room one evening and said, “we know you’ve been smoking pot again.”
This time, I smirked and nodded with acknowledgement. I listened to their concerns, quite relaxed, and accepted their punishment with a curious indifference.
Something big was happening inside me.
When we had just about finished, I looked them right in the eyes and said decisively, “by the way, I’m not going to church anymore.”
That moment was without a doubt one of the most important of my life—it was the first time that I dared to be truly authentic.
In the years that followed, I went from shy, soft-spoken and self-conscious to brazen, gregarious and outspoken. Interestingly, this shift took me from social misfit to someone people actually seemed to like. In turn, I went more deeply into this mode, becoming a bit rough around the edges.
Halfway through my four years working at a natural foods co-op, I approached a friendly co-worker and said, “don’t you think it’s pretty rude that you always leave your register and dilly-dally around the store while the rest of us are taking care of customers?”
Even though there may have been a kernel of truth to my words, I was neither empathetic nor her supervisor, and the conversation that followed led to a year where we didn’t speak to one another.
This was the sort of thing I had become accustomed to doing—saying exactly what I felt with no filter; or, being unapologetically authentic.
Around the time I graduated college, I was feeling a deep existential unrest. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but I knew my life situation wasn’t helping—working as a bartender, socializing and drinking most nights, and, in general, not really challenging myself very much.
Slowly slowly, I was hearing a deep inner voice go from a whisper to a talk to a shout, simply saying something must change—and, so, I bought a one-way ticket to Southern Mexico to start a new life.
Like the conversation with my parents, this one-way ticket was one of the most important and beneficial things I’ve ever done—it was me stepping out of my comfort zone and into what my most authentic self knew to be best.
A few months after re-locating, I went to a baseball game with a new friend. About midway through, I was feeling a growing boredom, irritability and desire for some solo time.
Without any discussion or even making an effort to relax and let go into the shared experience, I simply stood up and said, “I’m going to leave. I’ll see you later.” As I walked away, he looked at me with a sort of bewilderment; again, my way of living was still brazenly authentic.
In daring to follow some of these inner voices, like with my parents and my one-way ticket, and even with the little day-to-day choices like leaving a baseball game when I didn’t want to be there anymore, I was experiencing one of the great blessings of authenticity—deepening alignment between my inner truth and my outer reality.
I want to pause here a moment.
When we are used to living our whole life according to what other people want or our own voices of fear, we never get to this point. In one ancient story, the Buddha talks about four types of happiness—and the first three revolve around doing what we want.
Those five years I spent from age 12 to 17 were incredibly painful. On the surface, everything seemed fine, but I was dead inside.
Basically, I’m pausing for a moment to really validate brazen authenticity. Being true to ourselves is so incredibly important and life-affirming that if we need some brazenness to get there, then my two cents are that it’s absolutely worth it.
And yet, and yet, how much deeper the rabbit hole goes!
As I analyze a bit in The Three Levels of Truth, my authenticity around that stage of my life was pretty shallow, colored with self-centeredness and absent of any deeper understanding of what it means to be an integrated person.
Western culture tends to say that “doing whatever you want” is happiness. While my brazen authenticity was certainly better than the lie, it still left me with a somewhat hollow happiness.
We are a social species, and when our so-called authenticity erects barriers between us and the outside world, it tends to limit our happiness in a very real way.
In that three levels of truth essay (and in that ancient Buddha story), the missing link is dropping into spiritual truth. This allows us to integrate our personal authenticity with those deeper layers of love, wisdom and connection—something that I call “sincerity,” or being true to oneself with an eye to others.