Authenticity’s Role in Mental Well-being

April, 2024

By Vikram Maraj
Head of Design and Delivery and co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

Important note: This article does not address clinically diagnosable mental health disorders including major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In this article, I am focused on the kind of mental health issues that employee assistance programs, stress leaves, and other corporate mechanisms are designed to address: stress, anxiety, overwhelm, burnout, and disconnection. 

Mental well-being is an issue that affects every corporation, every professional leader, and every worker today. Employee burnout alone costs the economy nearly $2 trillion annually and approximately 1 million Americans miss work each day because of workplace stress.

These staggering numbers mean workplace mental health has long been a topic of corporate discussion — one I’ve been privy to for more than 20 years consulting with front-line workers, middle managers, and C-suite executives across six continents. And yet, the conversation has often overlooked what I deem an essential feature of the mental health landscape. My assertion is the majority of the 70-plus percent of non-clinical mental health issues experienced in the workplace are due to humans doing what they do best: being inauthentic.


What do I mean by inauthentic? I mean that in most interactions throughout the workday, people pretend, suppress what they really want to say, and then defend and justify their pretending and suppression to themselves and others. Pretending, suppressing, defending, and justifying have always been and still are at the heart of ineffective teams, low morale, tanked performance, and reduced mental well-being.

It all begins with pretending. Pretending what? Pretending to like things you don’t actually like. Pretending to agree when you don’t. Pretending it’s funny when it isn’t. The boss, a colleague, or a potential customer says, “What do you think?” You think, “This will never work,” but instead you say, “Let’s give it a try.” 

You’ve suppressed what you believe. Ten minutes later your colleague, who was there, says to you, “Why didn’t you tell her the truth?” You defend yourself and say, “She caught me off guard.” Then you justify yourself, “I’m not going to risk my career on something so small — I ‘pick my battles’.” You experience yourself as a victim. 

If you add up the dozens of moments in a day where we sell out on what we value, on what we stand for, on what we really think — the sum of our inauthentic interactions is enormous.  

— Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

For most of us, some version of this resonates. And if you look around, you’ll see everyone else is playing some version of this inauthentic game, too. Some are better than others at being fake. Nonetheless, you’ll see your colleagues trying to fit in and get approval by pretending to be something they are not. You’ll see them being scared and suppressing what they desperately need to say, blaming others for failures rather than being responsible, holding on to and replaying past slights in their head, avoiding critical business and life conversations, and saying yes when they need to say no. And if the shoe fits, feel free to wear it.

We have become a culture of victims in an echo chamber of mutual agreement, reinforcing how hard-done-by we all are. Lastly, each of us then rationalizes our behavior.





         1. attempt to explain or justify (one’s own or another’s) behavior or attitude with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.
“she couldn’t rationalize why she said nothing when it came time to speak up”.

Here are a few of the rationalizations that garner sympathetic pats on our backs – “the timing isn’t right,” “what if I get fired,” “you’ve got to pick your battles,” “I’ve tried everything,” “it’s not worth it,” “there’s only so much you can do,” “that’s not my job,” “some things take time.” Our colleagues nod in earnest approval. After all, if you don’t call me out on my rationalizations, I won’t call you out on yours. The game of portraying ourselves as well-intended martyrs continues, the self-pity mounts with each empathetic look we get, and our mental health inches that much closer to the breaking point. If you add up the dozens of moments in a day where we sell out on what we value, on what we stand for, on what we really think — the sum of our inauthentic interactions is enormous.

In late November 2023, Merriam-Webster anointed “authentic” as the official Word of the Year. It beat out other worthy competitors such as “deepfake” and “dystopian,” reports Lillian Stone of the BBC. And although authenticity is thrown around in casual corporate conversation as if everyone is an expert on it, very few get it. 

Authenticity is not a synonym for honesty. Honesty is simply giving yourself permission to tell someone what you really feel and what you really think, something that you have been hiding. At its best, honesty is having the courage to say, “I took the last slice of pizza,” or “I left work early,” or “I billed an extra hour.” At its worst, honesty is simply a license to vomit an opinion on someone, “I never really liked you anyway,” or “I always thought that was a dumb idea,” or “honestly, I can stand her.” 

Authenticity, on the other hand, takes way more courage and way more self-awareness and is an indictment of oneself, not another. Authenticity is revealing where you have been pretending, suppressing, defending, and justifying yourself. “I said I agreed at the meeting, but I didn’t. I only said that to fit in. Everyone else seemed to be on board, and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was being fake just to ‘make it’ with you and the rest of the team. It left me hollow after. And I apologize to you — I know you hired me for my expertise and at that moment I sold out.” That is authenticity. It is a calling-oneself-out. It takes a giant of a human being. It is a light in the dark and stands in stark contrast to the BS everyone else is peddling. Being Authentic is an existential choice — who will I choose to be in this moment?

Discover your innate courage to be true to your own convictions and values.   

— Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations 

As Shakespeare said, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Easier said than done. Being consistently authentic will be one of the most challenging endeavors of your life. But every time we make the choice to live true to who we are, to live true to our fundamental values and commitments, we recover a part of ourselves. Ultimately, what I am pointing to in this article is the opportunity to recover our mental health by acknowledging where we have sold out on ourselves and in doing so restoring our sense of Self. 

There is almost no better way to express the possibility of having integrity with oneself than this excerpt from Profound Personal Integrity, from the curriculum of the Maliwada Human Development Training School in Maliwada, India, 1975:

Thus the basis of integrity is a destinal resolve — a resolve that chooses and sets your destiny and out of which your whole life is ordered. The object of that resolve is the ultimate decision of each person, and each person makes that choice, consciously or unconsciously. To do so with awareness is the height of man’s responsibility. It is incarnate freedom. It is what real freedom looks like. When man has thus exercised his freedom he realizes that to be true to himself ever thereafter he has a unique position to look at the values of his society. He is no longer bound by the opinions and codes of his fellow man but reevaluates them on the basis of their impact on his destinal resolve.

What’s the point? We have a profound say in the quality of our mental health. Stop pretending, suppressing, defending, and justifying yourself. It may be what is accepted and normal, but it is costing you your mental well-being. Discover your innate courage to be true to your own convictions and values. Fight to live a life where being yourself is the risk you are willing to pay for complete well-being. This is what we are committed to delivering at Unstoppable.

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