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The Counterfeit Self

When I was sixteen, I went to work as a telemarketer for a company that sold photo sessions. The job lasted two days.

I did no selling whatsoever during those two very long days. Not only was I terrible at the sales process, I was reluctant to talk on the phone for any reason. I was afraid to punch in the numbers and wait for the call to go through. I was terrified someone would answer and I’d have to begin the spiel about how great the photo sessions were.

At the end of my second day, the call center boss suggested that I might be better suited for another form of employment. I said that I would understand if he wanted to replace me with someone else. “That’s good,” he told me. “Because we already have.”

That job, as brief as it was, has remained in my mind because of how ill-suited I was for it. It wasn’t just that the job sucked—it did, but so do lots of jobs. It wasn’t only that I didn’t enjoy it—that was a given.

Thinking back on it years later, the biggest question I have is not “Why did my sixteen-year-old self think this job would be good for me?” … but rather “Why in the world did I go back on the second day?”

It was an extreme example of inauthenticity and trying to be someone I wasn’t. The only possible way I could have survived in such a position would be to approach it as a character actor—a person who inhabits a role so fully that they push their own sense of self aside to portray someone else’s.

Fortunately, I failed to internalize this strategy, perhaps saving myself from a life of boiler room call centers.

Taking on a role in a film or stage performance is one thing; forcing yourself to behave that way in ordinary life is quite another. While I hope that you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid working even two days in a job as ridiculous as telemarketing, perhaps you can think of a time in which you’ve been expected to play a role that is fundamentally opposed to who you really are.

Free life advice: when you find yourself in such a situation … get out immediately.

I worked at plenty of other jobs that sucked (sometimes for two days before being asked to leave…), but I’m not sure any of them ever required such an extreme, counterfeit performance.

Telemarketing is an easy career to spot the counterfeit self. The far greater challenge comes from everything on the margins of inauthenticity—all of those roles, experiences, and plans that are not quite right. By being “not as bad” as the worst thing in the world, every alternative becomes more attractive.

“It’s a start,” you might tell yourself. And you’d be right: it’s a start on the road to hell.

Counterfeiting 101: Signs and Symptoms

How do you silence your counterfeit self and embrace the authentic one? It begins by understanding the signs and characteristics of each.

At first, you may not always realize when you’re putting forward a false version of yourself. The signs of counterfeiting tend to show up slowly and stealthily. Once you undertake a self-exam, however, they’re not hard to spot.

Characteristics of the Counterfeit Self

  • Accepts unsatisfactory and uncomfortable options. When someone asks, “Would you like A or B?” and neither option is attractive, the inauthentic self tries to decide which option is the “least bad.” It fails to consider what other, unspoken options are available. It doesn’t question the authority of the person or entity offering the unsatisfactory options. Reflecting this belief, the inauthentic self tells you: “It could be worse.” And, surely, things can always be worse. But is the least bad really the best you can do?
  • Agrees to requests without considering them. “Sure, I’ll do that.” … “Here’s my opinion on that.” … “Happy to help.” Your counterfeit self stacks up commitments without considering the costs they incur. Only later do you realize that you shouldn’t have made them, or that you actually had a different opinion than the one you offered before thinking it through.
  • Is codependent and defines its wellbeing based on what someone else says or does. Because the counterfeit self operates from insecurity, it wants to be loved and validated. If necessary, it will sacrifice your emotional and physical health to pursue it. Yet because we can never be fully in control of another person’s behavior, acting this way will always place you at risk.
  • Runs or hides from fear. The evolutionary instinct to protect yourself at all costs is powerful. When you’re running from a lion in the jungle, this instinct is helpful. In modern life, however, we tend to miscategorize every fear as a threat. Not everyone is out to get you. Some of your biggest and boldest ideas will be scary. If you always run from them, you’ll never find the true self.
  • Neglects personal development, physical activity, and growth. The counterfeit self is an excellent procrastinator.  It chooses passive activities that numb the senses. It learns what it has to learn, and no more. When it has a choice between challenge and complacency … it sits down on the couch.
  • Fails to advocate or negotiate for you. When encountering a situation of unfairness or inequality, the inauthentic self warns you against speaking up. “Don’t rock the boat,” it says. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.”

Overall, your inauthentic self operates from a place of insecurity and smallness. It seeks protection within the comforts of what is familiar, even when much better alternatives are freely available.

By contrast, your authentic self operates from a place of security and confidence.

Characteristics of the Authentic Self

  • Rejects unsatisfactory options and looks for better ones. Your authentic self knows “There is another way.” It is always looking for options, especially those that aren’t being presented or that few other people are thinking of. It questions the rule makers—not necessarily opposing every rule, but always seeking to understand the hidden agenda behind them. (“What’s really at stake here? Who enforces these rules, and who benefits from them?”)
  • Thinks before answering. Before you commit, your true self weighs the commitment against your value system and priorities. Is it aligned? Great! Commit away. If it isn’t, decline the request. The authentic self also doesn’t blindly agree with popular opinions. Instead, it thinks things over. It seeks truth over consensus.
  • Gives and loves freely, without seeking to control, and without basing wellbeing on what other people say or do. Your true self wants to love others, just not at the expense of causing you harm. Similarly, it doesn’t seek to control others—it just doesn’t want to be controlled either.
  • Interprets fear as an emotion that offers an opportunity for growth. By turning towards something we fear instead of running or hiding from it, we take away its power. Sometimes you need to do the thing you fear, and other times you just need to accept its presence without fighting. Either way, when you live by the values of your true self, you win.
  • Invests in personal development, physical activity, and growth. Recovery is important: when you’re tired, sometimes you need to crash and do nothing. Other times, though, you need to get out and move your body. You also need to learn new things every day, because learning leads you to level-up. The authentic self embraces the habits of self-care, being active, and constantly learning.
  • Advocates and negotiates for itself. When you accept that no one else will ever care for your wellbeing more than you, you begin to look out for yourself more. The authentic self advocates for your position and negotiates for advantage. It doesn’t allow any person or entity to step on you.

The counterfeit version of yourself is ineffective. When you’re counterfeiting, something feels off. It’s like driving a car with a flat tire. Sure, you can drive it for a while, but the performance will be significantly worse. And if you keep doing it, you’ll damage the car.

Another way to think of it is like a pair of shoes that doesn’t quite fit. They looked great in the store or online! You really want to like them more than you actually do.  It isn’t merely a matter of breaking them in, however—they just don’t fit.

And so they end up sitting in your closet indefinitely. Often, you think about wearing them, but then you remember how they feel and end up choosing something else.

It’s usually a mistake to pretend that you’ll wear them again. Might as well cut your losses and move on, trusting that the universe will provide a better pair of shoes.

Similarly, resist the temptation to put your counterfeit self in charge. This can be difficult—there is constant pressure to act in a way that makes other people happy at your expense—but ultimately you’ll be much better off if you live your authentic self.


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