In the early phase of any evolving relationship, we humans present a certain persona or enact a certain role, depending on what we want or are seeking. The ability to use different personas differentiates us from other species. With some exceptions, other species know only one mode—authenticity. In people who have come to value authenticity, the persona is actually who they really are. Sometimes that authenticity can be irritable to others. The other may personalize their partner’s authentic expression, and not understand, accept, or appreciate them for their honesty. Nonetheless, depending on the situation, the persona usually varies in degree from being authentic, and differs from who we actually are.
Most of us begin a relationship with a certain “face,” or how we want the other to view us. This may be motivated by our anxiety from lack of confidence. This “face,” reinforced by the other’s positive reaction to us, endures over time as intimacy develops, to a point. It generally takes a few years of living the “face” or persona, before cracks begin to occur. We are constantly interacting with each other, expressing behaviors that others react to that are based on their own character structures and history. Depending on the nature of the structure of each individual partner, negative issues and behaviors can emerge. The more intimate we become, the more likely it is for the initial positive “face” to recede into the background. Following some years, individuals in a relationship begin to experience who the other person actually is, with all their foibles and shortcomings. In other words, we shed personas as we become more comfortable in the relationship. That we intended to initially put on a “face” may not have been in conscious awareness.
We may or may not identify with our personas. Identification with the persona means it is unconscious. We believe we are the part we are attempting to play to influence the other. People who identify with their personas are oftentimes practicing what the existential philosophers and psychologists refer to as bad faith. Bad faith has nothing to do with religion. Bad faith is not conscious lying. Bad faith is a form of self-deception. Self-deception necessarily leads to other-deception. Simply put, we deceive ourselves with intellectual arguments. During interactions, we consequently deceive others. Sartre (1969) said that bad faith is the opposite of sincerity. Illustrating how bad faith translates into life experience will be clear after reviewing the following examples.
Bad faith can manifest when a partner, weary from dealing with obstinate children all day, presents himself or herself as cheerful as their paramour arrives home from work. The partner returning home may also have had a horrible day at work but puts his or her own feelings aside. He or she knows, from past experience, that his or her counterpart does not want to hear this on the first contact following work. Both may believe it is their role in the relationship to be cheerful. They suppress or repress their actual feeling because of the belief. Both partners are rarely congruent or authentic with their feelings based on personal beliefs or mood. This leads to anxiety in anticipation of the arrival of the partner. When chronic, a depression may develop. The bad faith from both partners is the suppression of their true feelings and the presentation of the persona of cheerfulness when they meet after work, when neither really feels cheerful. If conscious, resolution may be as simple as an honest discussion of the issue and development of a plan when they meet at the end of the day.
In this first example, consistent expressions of bad faith over time become a foundation for anxiety in anticipation of the partner’s arrival, or depression as a result of believing one has to hide or suppress one’s true feelings to maintain a positive relationship. Bad faith is not restricted to denying the qualities that one has or denying the person they are. The bad faith is making oneself into something or behaving in some way that is not congruent with one’s internal state. The central ethical concept of existentialism—authenticity—is at play here.
In the humanistic psychology movement of the 1960’s to the present time, authenticity came to be an ideal to strive for—e.g., representing oneself to the world as we are. If sad, be sad. If mad, be mad. If irritated, be irritated. If happy, be happy. If not wanting to share a thought, say so. Authenticity has come to be a benchmark in assessing how successful and healthy interpersonal relationships are (Neff & Harter, 2002). The downside of striving for authenticity is the lack of understanding expressed with a partner who reacts negatively and becomes dissatisfied with or ends the relationship because of the other partner’s commitment to authenticity. I personally experienced this in a few relationships. Every movement or position in life has its price. My emotional accounting department, however, prefers to continue to strive for authenticity. Given my life experience, while it may be construed as magical thinking, I continue to believe if I remain open to relationships, I may even meet an understanding soul with an equivalent belief and similar striving. Even magical thinking has some scientific support (Valdesolo, 2010). I’ve come to accept that authenticity makes me feel better about myself than if I were being patronizing or unconscious of my true nature. I believe that in the long run, being authentic is a major step to an enduring, tender relationship. I know couples who have proven this for many decades.
Sartre provides an illuminating example of bad faith. A woman agrees to go out with a man whom she admires for his respectful attitude towards her, but has no thought about other characteristics he presents. She is aware of his amorous intentions from previous contacts. She knows she will be compelled to make a decision, at some point. However, she focuses only on the present, respectful attitudes of the man. She does not want to understand this behavior as a “first approach,” leading to a relationship, even though that is what the man communicates through his behavior. She does not want to realize the urgency of the situation. She does not want to read signs of what he directs to her as anything other than momentary verbal contact and respect which she focuses on.
When he says to her, “I find you very attractive,” she defuses the expression of its sexuality by focusing only on the objective realization, that she knows she is attractive to most men. The qualities she attributes to the man are only the present expressions of respect and sincerity, which she “fixes in permanence,” in her mind. She is not aware of what she wants. She does not project into the future regarding anything the man says or does. She is aware of the desire she is arousing in the man, but the naked desire would horrify her so she reframes the interpretation of his desire as only an expression of respect. She refuses to acknowledge his desire for what it is.
The man then takes her hand. To leave it there and respond would indicate she is receptive to his desire, and is flirting. To withdraw it would risk ending the tenderness and charm of the moment. The object is to postpone the moment for as long as possible. Therefore, she decides to leave it there, but is not aware of doing so. She engages in a highly intellectual dialog, divorced from the body, but showing her personality and what she is intellectually capable of, with her hand remaining inert in his warm hands. This is the expression of bad faith. She has disarmed his intentions for what they are, transforming the interaction into an interesting, but intellectual dialogue. But she permits herself to continue to enjoy his desire to the extent that she perceives it as not being what it is. Sartre concludes the example by saying that “…while sensing, profoundly, the presence of her own body—to the degree of being disturbed, perhaps—she realizes herself as not being her own body and she contemplates it as if from above as a passive object.” The bad faith is the fact that she is denying what is, and denying her own feelings, perhaps to cover for her own ambivalence. Good faith in such a situation would be to tell the man that she realizes his attraction to her, but she is confused about what she wants and does not know how to respond without putting him off, even though she does enjoy their interaction and his expression of authentic feeling (Sartre, 1969). Once the contact is ended, if the sincere man realizes he was played along with rather than being related to with honesty, it is not difficult to discern what his mood will be.
Bad faith often exists in the context of a family. For example, a father wanted to delay having a child. He had fantasies of having a female child. A male child is born. Over the course of the male child’s life, the father related to him with physical, psychological, and/or verbal abuse when he either had difficulty learning what the father wanted to teach him or did not comply with the father’s demands. The mother saw this occurring, but said nothing because she did not want to disturb the relationship with her husband. Both parents were practicing bad faith. The child, though resilient, came to be an adult with a mild depression and extensive difficulty in selecting a partner. Most of his selections were people who were abusive, deceptive, or ambivalent. The selected partners generally practiced a significant amount of their own bad faith, in many interactions.
Bad faith frequently occurs in work situations. For example, an employer is uncomfortable around a specific employee, for unknown reasons. The employer is generally negative with the employee, regardless of how effective he is. The employee believes their supervisor is relating to them in an unreasonable fashion. Other employees have also noticed the unreasonable actions of the supervisor and commented to the employee. The employer exploits any actions of the employee to criticize him, reasonable or not. The bad faith is in the employer never stating the reasons for their dislike, if aware, or if unaware, never exploring their relationship or personal discomfort with the employee, or doing some introspection and exploring it within themselves. Bad faith always includes elements of personal responsibility.
In another potential source for bad faith relationships—the classroom—a professor is aware of a student’s impoverished upbringing and has sympathy for her deficiency in grammar. The professor, without mentioning it, consistently gives the student a grade higher than was indicated by their performance. The bad faith is in not discussing the sympathetic reasons for the higher grade or a request that the student undertake some remedial grammar instruction. In this situation, the student may likely develop an inflated opinion of their abilities without ever making an effort to correct the deficiency.
Authenticity is a relevant factor affecting feeling and mood in many different relationships. In an intimate relationship, lack of authenticity can lead one or both partners to manifest chronic anxiety and/or depression with time. If one feels he or she must consistently relate in ways other than what he or she feels with partners, the likelihood of anxiety arising is high, whenever the individual anticipates the presence of the other partner or, is in contact with the other partner or, whenever the partner questions the authenticity of the individual practicing bad faith. As years go by, a despair may overtake the feeling tone in the relationship, or a mild depression may set in outside of awareness. There is something about consistent relating to an intimate other, in an inauthentic fashion that can lead to a dull depressing atmosphere with both partners.
Sartre, J. P. (1969). Being and nothingness. Northampton, U.K.:University Paperback. Retrieved from
Neff, K and Harter, S. (2002). The role of power and authenticity in relationship styles emphasizing autonomy, connectedness and mutuality among adult couples. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 19(6) 835-857. Retrieved from https://webspace.utexas.edu/neffk/pubs/Power%20and%20Authenticity.pdf
Valdesolo, P. (2010). Why “magical thinking” works for some people. Scientific American. New York, NY: Scientific American, Mind & Brain, October. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=superstitions-can-make…
— Jasenn Zaejian
Today’s guest contributor, Jasenn Zaejian, PhD, who studied with Rollo May and Viktor Frankl for his clinical psychology doctorate, recently decided to retire as a clinician, consultant, hospital executive, supervisor, and neuropsychologist/researcher, following a 35-year-career of public service in psychiatric hospitals, clinics, private practice, and university graduate teaching to pursue his substantial critique of the profession in publishing venues. This blog is adapted from his e-book, Healing Personal Depression and Anxiety for Good.