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What Does It Mean to Live Authentically?

My only child turned 18 last week, and I’ve been in my feelings about it. Not only does it seem impossible that so much time has passed since that wide-eyed 10-pound newborn entered the world, but reflecting on the 31-year-old version of me who first held him to my chest has been equal parts painful and gratifying.


My son’s early childhood and my early 30s were a season of misalignment in my life. To grossly oversimplify a complex set of circumstances in the interest of brevity, I wasn’t happy. I was playacting at hetero marriage and motherhood—shaping myself by force into the notion of adult woman imposed on me by an Evangelical Christian upbringing in the 1980s American Midwest.


It wasn’t a fit, and I knew it.


Let’s be honest, I’d known it (and been trying desperately to un-know it) since I was 12.


Three months into stay-at-home-motherhood, I was already desperate for the kind of creative and intellectual outlets my previous leadership role had afforded me. I craved specific sensory experiences and novelty. I craved meaningful contribution to a shared cause and my own income. I felt trapped and alone in ways that felt as permanent as tattoos. Over the next 10 years I would try to re-align through consulting work and mommy groups, but none of it would work. All I saw when I looked in the mirror was my mother: talented, unfulfilled, regretful, and resentful as all hell.


The problem wasn’t my son or my role as his mom. There has never been and never will be any human who can delight and inspire me more. We bonded quickly and deeply, and he became the only thing that rang true in my life.


The problem was that I had forgotten myself. I had lost my voice. I had sacrificed not just some of my deepest needs, but virtually all of them in order to fit into the Barbie box. I couldn’t imagine even expressing a desire for more than what I had (which I firmly believed I was supposed to want as a woman), much less attempting to identify what I wanted instead and pursuing it.


How can you live authentically, after all, if you don’t even know yourself anymore?


In my client work, I find that many women struggle to identify their needs, particularly as they prepare to exit seasons of self-sacrifice. And what is early motherhood but a season of extreme—and necessary—self-sacrifice? If you were raised in a high-control religious environment or family in which attending to individual needs is actively discouraged, it may be even harder for you to identify your own.


A toxic job can also rob you of your clarity and sense of self. Spend enough time being told what you need and who you are, and you’ll come to believe it, even as your body screams for re-alignment through headaches, insomnia, stomach problems and more.


Regardless of whether you fully understand your needs, you know when they are not properly being attended to. You feel invisible, find yourself angry and resentful, and wonder how it is that you’ve arrived here—firmly rooted in a life that was clearly not built or meant for you.


There is much discussion of authenticity in therapy and personal development work, but the concept is poorly understood. When you’ve lost touch with yourself as an individual, you may notice a sense of misalignment, but you rarely see that sense as a signal that you’re living inauthentically.


But that’s exactly what it is.


Authenticity is often understood to mean honesty in the face of challenge or criticism. That’s part of it, but not all. Certainly the ability to express yourself authentically is a foundational skill for an authentic life. But actually living authentically is about much more.


Authentic living is about aligning your choices and actions with your needs, your beliefs, and your values.


It’s about embodying your core self—aligning your outside with your inside and finally claiming what you want and need.


It’s about acknowledging your worth and taking action to honor it.


The concept didn’t click for me until shortly after my 40th birthday. I’d love to say that there was a single defining moment, but instead it was slow, nonlinear progress across multiple therapists and modalities, followed by a 9-year mission to right the ship.


In that time, I:


  • Left a marriage that I had come to realize was not only loveless, but abusive.

  • Defied societal norms and married someone 15 years my junior, who happens to be my soul mate.

  • Shed layer upon layer of conditioning to discover and embrace my queerness.

  • Sought answers about my lifetime of feeling “different” and discovered my neurodivergence and how to care for myself.

  • Decided that I deserved to be happy in my career and went to grad school.

  • Unapologetically left two lucrative, but toxic leadership roles in which I was not respected or valued.

  • Went no-contact with my dysfunctional family of origin.

  • Let go of the financial security I thought I needed to feel safe in order to launch my private practice.

  • Moved my family 2000 miles to find a better lifestyle, more supportive culture, and proximity to the ocean, which I’ve come to realize is a major source of inspiration and peace for me.


None of these things have been easy. Certainly eggs have been broken in the making of this cake, and I routinely have to pinch myself to ensure the reality of the space I’m in now. But I recognize myself here. I hear my voice. I can breathe and run and sing at the top of my lungs. And so the eggs and the stress of the interpersonal earthquakes along the way were small sacrifices.


When I describe my journey these days, I don’t talk about it as a journey away from people and situations not meant for me.


I describe it as a long journey home.


Need some support mapping your journey? A 30-minute free consultation is a great way to explore some ideas and see if I might be the right coach for you.


 


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.



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