“If we allow people to unfold and give them the freedom to be who they really are, we engender health. And if we try and constrict it, or bend the twig, we engender poor mental health.” -- Dr. Diane Ehrensaft
I'm sympathetic to this as a developmental approach. But there's something deeply puzzling about the central concept of the authentic self, or "who they really are". It seems intuitive at first, but when you stop and think about it, what does this really mean?
(1) One thing it might mean is that we are all born with a particular Platonic 'form', template, or image of the specific adult we ought to become. We might call this form our "soul", or "true self". Environmental influences which bring our earthly bodies to more closely resemble the ideal form of our souls thereby enhance our "authenticity". We are then "inauthentic" insofar as we come to diverge from the soul's template.
(2) Here's a more sensible, naturalistic alternative: at any given time, we have certain dispositions concerning our future development. We may define the most "natural" developmental path as that which is most supported by our current dispositions. It is, in this respect, the "path of least resistance". You may be able to eventually reprogram those dispositions, in which case the end result will no longer be 'inauthentic' (because you will now have new dispositions which support your new character and lifestyle). But there is some sense to the idea that at the start of the reprogramming process, you were "going against the grain", and not developing in the way that would have been most natural for you at the time.
Does this matter? It's hard to see why it should have any intrinsic import, if things turn out just as well either way. But Ehrensaft's suggestion is, I take it, more pragmatic. She thinks things turn out better when we help people to develop in line with their existing dispositions, rather than trying to shape them against the grain ("bend the twig").
(3) A third view would be to understand 'authenticity' in more extrinsic terms, as a matter of "nourishing one's individuality" in the relational sense of being different from other people. To be authentic, on this view, is to be quirky, eccentric, and unique (perhaps in a way that's in line with your natural dispositions, as per #2 above). Normality is inauthentic.
I feel a little bit of a pull towards this just because the "normal" life in our society is so base. But it's not the normality itself that's the problem. It's what normality here happens to consist in. (Even if everyone else was more nerdy and interesting, I can't really see the newfound "oddity" of being a drunken frat boy as any kind of virtue.) Though perhaps we need to look at this in a more fine-grained way, since there's arguably something about the little quirks in each person that we think expresses their distinctive individuality, and that we value accordingly.