I named “reciprocal authenticity” to one of my closest friends, Leona, on December 11, 2021. I’ve thought about and referenced it a lot since then, in a number of contexts. I knew a blog was percolating in my mind, body, and soul, but the Just Right start to it hadn’t arrived yet. Then I received these messages from another close friend:
If I had to pick three words to describe you, they might include
I have regularly described you as unabashed and I admire your commitment to the bit that is being yourself
I give zero fucks, yet somehow I aspire to the level of unabashedly you that you manage
And as a bonus, now I have an answer to the question “What are three words others would use to describe you?”
One definition of reciprocal is “bearing on or binding each of two parties equally.” One definition of authentic is “relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.”
Reciprocal authenticity is two or more people explicitly committing to practice being their authentic selves with one another.
Reciprocal authenticity is exchanging with others the space for:
Showing up as you are
Being exactly who is Right for you
Curiosity and non-judgment
We can practice being authentic and living our lives in a way that is most aligned with who we Are as a person. One can do this without reciprocation happening from another person. Reciprocal authenticity requires communication and agreements to be made about things like when trauma responses happen, what their boundaries are, and the limits on their capacity.
Having security in several friendships allowed me to be myself authentically and I found that the more authentically I showed up around people, the more they did with me, too. I’d be silly with someone and receive comments like “I don’t know why I can be like this with you,” accompanying nervous laughter and a sense of uncertainty.
Reciprocal authenticity requires unlearning the beliefs we’ve internalized that we aren’t inherently Enough, exactly as we are. There is healing, kindness, and gentleness we can extend internally as much as we do externally. It requires shedding the layers we’ve put on to hide ourselves and be smaller. Without a safe place to practice these things within, reciprocal authenticity can be even harder to start engaging in. Reciprocal authenticity also means developing our own self-reflection and self-awareness practices. We have to be tuned into when we are operating from a narrative we’ve been taught that may be in conflict with how we really feel or how we want to show up in the world as the most authentic version of ourselves.
I most often reference reciprocal authenticity in the context of relationships, but not necessarily romantic. I describe my expectations of others in my life as nothing more than them being their authentic selves with me, because that is all that I am able to extend. I certainly have dealbreakers that prompt me to conclude being in a relationship with someone, but outside of those things, I don’t want to have expectations of others beyond authenticity reciprocated.
My reason for holding reciprocal authenticity as my only expectation of others is threefold: one, I don’t want to be anything other than myself; I don’t want to spend time and energy being someone or something that I’m not. Two, having expectations of others is Difficult, it is Complex, and it is Exhausting. Third, I can only expect of others what I want them to expect of me. If we shed our expectations beyond authenticity, then there is little energy being spent on making assumptions or reading between the lines. “Say what you mean and mean what you say,” so to speak.
I don’t want other people’s expectations of me to be based on the assumptions they’ve made or conclusions they’ve drawn from their perception of me. I want the expectation that I be my authentic self to be Enough for them. I have often been on the receiving end of being seen as the manic pixie dream girl trope, and then expected to perform or behave a certain way by people who perceive me that way. Another way that I experience this is that people perceive me as having a high capacity to Do Things and then have higher expectations of me than I can meet. People will continue to have perceptions of me, but my hope is that others will notice how these inform their expectations and return to an expectation of authenticity rather than me being someone I am not.
When expectations are based on perceptions, we can begin to expect more or differently from people than what they can genuinely, authentically deliver. And that misalignment serves no one. This shift from making assumptions based on perceptions to experiencing someone else’s authenticity requires time, energy, effort, and more.
Reciprocal authenticity isn’t something that comes naturally to most people, particularly those of us who are in the US where we are socialized to perform norms that maintain others’ comfort, even at the expense of our own (particularly people who were assigned female at birth). When named, reciprocal authenticity can be an agreement between two or more people for how they will show up towards one another. I have found that when I express my expectation to be none other than that of reciprocal authenticity, it frees others from the masks we’ve learned to put on.
In many ways, being our authentic selves can be unsafe. Emotionally, physically. We live in a world where many people’s reality is one of risk just because of how their existence is perceived and treated by others. Practicing reciprocal authenticity with people is not something you can simply choose to do or is effortless. Navigating the risk of harm with vulnerability of being authentic can be a difficult thing to balance. There may be times when being our authentic selves feels shameful or we feel guilt about it, especially when expressing ourselves authentically means it may hurt someone else. And in many ways, that is an agreement being made when committing to reciprocal authenticity: I do not expect either of us to be perfect, and I recognize the risk to myself in exchanging authenticity with you. People extending their authentic selves means we must hold space for times when trauma is triggered and welcoming when there are contracting, uncomfortable emotions like anger.
The more I’ve practiced reciprocal authenticity and expressed it in this language to others, the more I’ve heard from others how meaningful it is to them. They feel released from the usual societal norms and expectations and express gratitude of such. There is often a playfulness that comes with it, an invitation to be silly if that is an authentic experience for someone. There are also challenges, times of hurt or pain, and having to work through fear.
Reciprocal authenticity helps us to find deeper connection with those around us, to be purposeful and communicative, and expanding our own understanding of our Selves.