Cooperative Inquiry into the Experience of the Authentic Self

This article presents the process and findings of a cooperative inquiry exploring the experience of the authentic self—a prominent theoretical construct in humanistic psychology and diverse spiritual traditions. Despite theoretical prominence and emergent psychological research interest, there has been little qualitative research into the authentic self as it is experientially encountered and lived. The present study addresses this gap in the literature using an experiential and participatory research approach. Seven co-inquirers joined in nine cycles of action and reflection over the course of 6 months to inquire, “What is my (the) experience of my (the) authentic self?” In collaboration with the co-inquirers, the initiating coresearcher generated six themes using thematic analysis in response to this primary research question: (a) presence and flow, (b) somatic awareness and vitality, (c) expression of truth, (d) multidimensionality and integration, (e) values and impulses, and (f) dynamism and relationality. In addition, the transformative and practical outcomes of the inquiry are discussed. Finally, several implications of these outcomes and suggestions for future research are outlined.

Sohmer, O. R. (2020). The Experience of the Authentic Self: A Cooperative Inquiry. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0022167820952339.

Seeking, cultivating, and expressing the authentic self [i] is a major concern of many psychological and spiritual traditions. Humanistic psychology, perhaps most notably, popularized the value of authenticity and self-actualization through the work of Rogers (1951, 1961), Perls (1968; Perls et al., 1951), and Maslow (1954/1970). Strands of psychoanalytic thought (e.g., Miller, 1979; Winnicott, 1960) similarly postulated that the primary task of psychotherapy is recovering the authentic self, which can be repressed in childhood when the child’s natural desires, tendencies, and impulses conflict with the expectations of the caregivers and community on whom the child depends. The contention is that in adulthood the “real person,” in Rogers’ (1961) terms, may remain concealed or underdeveloped because of early relational and cultural conditioning, while liberating this authentic self is critical for well-being and vitality. Additional theories that intimate the necessity of cultivating one’s authentic self in the process of psychospiritual growth abound in the literature, including Jung’s individuation (Von Franz, 1964), Hillman’s (1996) acorn theory, Assagioli’s (1993) self-realization, Daniels’ (2005) transpersonal self, and Rowan’s (1993) Deep Self. This line of inquiry, of course, has deep historical roots in modern Western psychology (James, 1890) and beyond—visible in, for example, the ancient Greek maxim “know thyself” and the abundant philosophical discourse surrounding this teaching (e.g., Plato, 1892/2018). Related sentiments can be found in Eastern philosophies and spiritualities as well. Important trends in various Yoga traditions emphasize the discovery and fulfillment of one’s dharma, or unique purpose in life, suggesting that there is an authentic self from which one’s purpose unfolds (Feurstein, 2001). As the often-quoted Bhagavad Gita dictum states, “It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of another” (Cope, 2012, p. 69). Thus, albeit variously expressed,[ii] the idea of an authentic self is persistent in the literature and reflected in widespread endorsement in popular culture (evidenced by hundreds of books featuring “authentic self” in the title; e.g., Brown, 2010; Joseph, 2016; Rosenberg, 2019).  

Despite theoretical prevalence and popular endorsement, psychological research on the authentic self has been described as still emergent (Hicks, Newman, & Schlegel, 2019; Joseph, 2017), with qualitative and experiential investigations particularly limited. That said, there has been an influx of contemporary research that supports the significance of authenticity (notably documented in the special issue of the General Psychology Review dedicated to the topic; Hicks, Schlegel, & Newman, 2019). This emerging research has demonstrated correlations between alignment with the authentic self and psychological well-being (e.g., Kernis & Goldman, 2006; Lenton, Slabu et al., 2013; Murphy et al., 2017; Rivera et al., 2019; Schlegel & Hicks, 2011; Wood et al., 2008), resilience (e.g., Bryan et al., 2017; Wickham et al., 2016; Zhang et al., 2018), and relationship satisfaction (e.g., English & John, 2013; Lopez & Rice, 2006; Neff & Suzio, 2006; Stevens, 2017). Understandably, attempts to conceptualize and define authenticity (e.g., Jongman-Sereno & Leary, 2019; Newman, 2019) determine the ontological status[iii] of the authentic self (e.g., Baumeister, 2019; Rivera et al., 2019), and comprehend paradoxical research findings (e.g., participant reports of feeling more authentic when acting in accordance with external social expectations than with personal feelings and characteristics; Fleeson & Wilt, 2010; Lenton et al., 2016) are still in process. However, the subjective experience of feeling alignment with one’s authentic self (e.g., Baumeister, 2019; Chen, 2019; Rivera et al., 2019; Strohminger et al., 2017) and the corresponding psychospiritual benefits are well substantiated (see above).

The present study contributes to this conversation and the cooperative inquiry literature through the accounts of seven co-inquirers who engaged in a dynamic participatory research process to explore their authentic selves experientially. Bracketing ontological claims, the focus of this research is phenomenological (i.e., focused on the subjective, lived experience of co-inquirers’ encounters with what they identify as their authentic selves), participatory (i.e., contextual and relational), and transformative (i.e., concerned with the impact of the research process on co-inquirers with regard to the domain of inquiry). As discussed below, this process offered a meaningful opportunity for co-researchers to engage, reflect, and share about their experiences of their authentic selves, while generating insights to contribute to the theoretical and empirical literature on this subject, as well as illuminating opportunities for further research.

Cooperative Inquiry Methodology and Study Overview

This study uses Cooperative Inquiry (CI; Heron, 1996)—an experiential and participatory approach to qualitative research and learning about the human condition. In this method, a small group of co-inquirers (typically 6-12) engage in a series of collaboratively determined action and reflection cycles (usually a minimum of 8) to elucidate an inquiry domain of mutual interest. Immediate experience during the action phases (i.e., periods of intentional group or individual activity or experimentation conducted with heightened reflective awareness) is at the heart of the research data, which is later reflected upon to gather insights and inform subsequent inquiry cycles (i.e., a complete period of action and group reflection on that action). In the full form, co-inquirers join as co-researchers and co-subjects, including the initiating researcher(s) who may educate others about the method at early stages. CI can be conceived of as an intersubjective, or relational, phenomenology comprised of recursive group experiments and reflections.

Throughout the process, attention is paid to the rigor of the inquiry through specific validity procedures, the quality of collaboration, as well as the emotional and interpersonal dynamics that may arise within the group (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 2006). For example, efforts are made to foster genuine collaboration by supporting individual self-awareness and autonomy, making mutual decisions consciously, and inviting balanced participation among co-inquirers. Multiple ways of knowing (e.g., embodied, creative expressive, relational, intuitive) are intentionally cultivated in the context of an extended epistemology including conceptual/propositional, imaginal/presentational, experiential, and practical knowledge (Heron & Reason, 1997, 2008). Within this basic structure and holistic orientation, the specific actions undertaken by an inquiry group are open-ended (e.g., interpersonal, creative-expressive, and contemplative practices) and collaboratively selected to support the inquiry. Intersubjective knowledge is leveraged by fostering collaboration at all stages, which invites refinement of inquiry outcomes through discussion of divergent and shared perspectives. Finally, outcomes of CI are expected to be twofold (Anderson & Braud, 2011; Heron, 1996), with transformative outcomes (i.e., the ways in which engagement with the inquiry impacts co-inquirers) valued at least as highly as informative outcomes (i.e., conceptual responses to the inquiry question).

Inquiry Focus 

The CI methodology was well suited for the experiential focus of the present study, which explored the experience of the authentic self. More specifically, I invited co-inquirers into the following primary research question: “How does a person on a path of psychospiritual growth experience his/her/their authentic self?” This question was refined through group discussion into: “What is my (the) experience of my (the) authentic self?” As highlighted in this variation, the group chose to foreground personal, subjective experiences of the authentic self, while staying open to general or shared understandings. Although we discussed our conceptualizations of the authentic self openly, we did not seek a common or predetermined definition of the term, instead leaving the meaning open to be personalized and evolving. 

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[i] In this article, the term authentic self refers to the general psychospiritual and popular notion that individuals can experience and express a sense—or essence—of self that feels more subjectively “real” or “true,” in contrast with false or externally influenced self representations, expressions, or behaviors. Authentic self is used here synonymously with the related concept of the “true self,” which appears to be more prominent in contemporary psychological research and Eastern traditions.

[ii]  Importantly, connecting these diverse theories and traditions does not meant to suggest that they understand the authentic self in the same way or even refer to the same ontological referent. Rather, this research recognizes that there are innumerable perspectives on the self, with nearly all spiritual and psychological traditions positing a stance on the issue giving rise to volumes of discussion and debate on the self (e.g., Baumeister, 1999; Siderits et al., 2011; Zahavi, 2014). Perspectives range from a rejection of an enduring authentic self—as in certain forms of Buddhism (e.g., Albahari, 2006; Thubten, 2013; Loy, 2019), social constructivism (e.g., Gergen, 1991; Mead, 1934/2015), and strains of analytical philosophy (e.g., Metzinger, 2009)—to claims that the discovery and cultivation of one’s authentic self is the ultimate attainment of psychospiritual growth (e.g., Joseph, 2016; Miller, 1979; Rogers, 1961; Winnicott, 1960). In some perspectives, the Self points to a shared spiritual or transpersonal dimension (e.g., Assagioli, 1993; Bache, 2000; Daniels, 2005) or a process (e.g., Thomson, 2015), while in others the notion of authentic self suggests that each individual possesses a unique kernel of potential that is essential to his or her fulfillment in life (e.g., Cope, 2012; Hillman, 1996). And still in others, the self is considered to be forged largely by the environmental and sociocultural context (e.g., Gergen, 1991; Mead, 1934/2015). From these vastly diverging—and yet, not mutually exclusive (see, e.g., Zhavi, 2014)—views, one is left to wonder whether this idea of an authentic self is a social construct, a psychological concept, or a spiritual reality. While important, this line of questioning is bracketed within this research.   

[iii] Although beyond the scope of this study, it is important to acknowledge the active debate in the historical and contemporary psychological literature regarding the ontological status of the authentic self (and the self in general). In short, perspectives diverge between claims that posit a real authentic self that actually exists (i.e., veridical; e.g., Kernis & Goldman, 2006; Rogers, 1951, 1961; Sheldon, 2014) to perspectives that hold the construct as a, perhaps, psychosocially useful falsehood (i.e., nonveridical; e.g., Baumeister, 2019), respectively (see Rivera et al., 2019 for a discussion of these divergent stances). The present inquiry brackets ontological claims regarding the authentic self—neither assuming the reality of a unified authentic self nor denying the possibility—to focus on the phenomenological experience of the authentic self as explored by seven co-inquirers. In this sense, this study emphasized the subjective experience of authenticity or the emerging construct of “state authenticity” (Lenton et al., 2016; Lenton, Bruder et al., 2013; Sedikides et al., 2017).