Exploring Bad Faith In Existentialism and The Path to Authenticity

Reading about what is existentialism allows you to taste the illusory tonic of “being free” and “living authentically”.

I’m saying that’s illusory because…

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, we have the full capacity to change the trajectory of our lives – i.e., the core idea of existentialism, that we are free to create our own meaning. However, we constantly lie to ourselves about the opposite – that we don’t.

That we don’t have other options, and we are not free to change our lives.

In the philosophy of existentialism, this is what Sartre calls bad faith (in French, mauvaise foi).

The primary mode of bad faith is this subtle denial of our own freedom.

We realize that we are capable of changing our reality. But do little to change it.

Of course, a question that naturally arises based on this statement is…

Why?

Why would someone who is capable of changing his life toward what he finds fancy will refuse to use this power?

The simple answer is… it’s easier.

When we feel our own freedom, we find ourselves caught in anxiety. Anxiety that forces us to take full responsibility for our lives. Full ownership over our actions. But since this requires a lot of work – delaying gratification, changing bad habits with good ones, possibly having bizarre morning routines

Commonly, we choose the easier path. The path where we deny our freedom. We confidently state that we don’t have any control over a given unfavorable situation and no power to change our condition.

In existentialism, bad faith casts a discerning light on the complicated relationship between human freedom, self-deception, and authenticity.

And in this post, we’re going to perform a deep dive in what is the meaning of bad faith, what is bad faith in existentialism, and how to overcome inauthenticity.

What Is Bad Faith in The Realm of Existentialism?

In the philosophy of existentialism, bad faith refers to a state of self-deception. We deceive ourselves about our freedom and about our capacity to change our condition in the world.

Someone is living in a state of “bad faith” when he becomes aware of a trait or aspect of his life that falls short of his desired ideal. Despite acknowledging the possibility for change and recognizing his freedom to transform this aspect. He prefers to immerse himself in the belief that his condition is fixed and unchangeable. The person will actively deny his own agency, suppressing the realization that he has the power to shape his existence according to his authentic aspirations.

bad-faith-vs-authenticity
When someone realizes that they are in an unfavorable situation – e.g., working a job they don’t quite enjoy. They have two options: 1) Bad faith: They can consciously choose to deny or ignore their freedom to change their job; 2) Authenticity: Take full ownership over their life and proactive steps towards making a change.

Plainly, the state of bad faith occurs mainly when people choose to ignore or completely deny their ability to decide how their lives should unfold. Thus, they adopt false beliefs about their condition. With this, conform to societal expectations – which results in inauthenticity and bad faith.

What is Bad Faith According to Sartre?

To elaborate on the above. Let me give you an even further analysis of what bad faith is in the realm of philosophy.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the human condition is composed of two sides.

Imagine this as the two sides of a coin.

The first one is called facticity.

1. Facticity

One side of a coin representing facticity.

For the French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the facticity of a person is composed of a long list of details that describe affairs which one has no control over.1 For example, these can include time and place of birth, parents, the surrounding environment, cultural background, an individual’s previous choices, and more.

In simple terms, facticity is everything that made you who you currently are. And, also, the constraints we encounter and have to deal with.

And while the philosophy of existentialists emphasizes that facticity imposes certain limitations. It does not define or determine our ultimate meaning or future path – i.e., it doesn’t remove our freedom of choice.

To explain this better, imagine a person who was born in a financially challenged family. While the economic hardship and the limited opportunities surely impacted his life choices and options. This doesn’t and shouldn’t define his future state. This is where transcendence enters the scene.

2. Transcendence

The other side of a same coin as above, representing transcendence.

The other side of the coin is called transcendence – or freedom.

If we call facticity the cards we are dealt with. Transcendence is how we play with these cards.

In relation to bad faith and the concept of existentialism. Transcendence refers to our capacity to go beyond our immediate circumstances and limitations – i.e., transcend our facticity.2

We have the power to invent something new, change our condition, and overcome our limitations.

Transcendence doesn’t characterize the person by his given or current condition. It gives the person the option to out surpass his limitations.

In the above example, while the person can surely experience difficulties due to the early financial limitations. This doesn’t remove his ability to transcend his reality. He still can act in a way to surpass – what a lot of people will call a predefined path – and eventually reach financial stability.

Or in short, transcendence suggests that despite the constraints and limitations imposed by facticity. People are capable – and free – to transcend those limitations through their choices, actions, and the meaning they attribute to their lives.

Of course, none of this wants to suggest that the change will be easy – not at all. It simply means that it is possible.

What Is An Example Of Bad Faith In Philosophy?

A popular example describing bad faith is of a waiter in a café.

In his masterpiece, Being and Nothingness, Sartre points out the movement of the waiter as “quick and forward”. His actions as “a little too precise, a little too rapid”.

As Sartre beautifully describes, the exaggerated behavior of the waiter is like he is playing a role the same way an actor plays a role in a performance. And even more importantly, the person is fully aware that he is acting as a waiter, his whole existence revolves around fulfilling the expectations of being a “perfect” waiter. Because, as the waiter himself will say to himself, “I have no choice, I need the money.” Or, “That’s my lot of life, I am just a waiter!”

However, the philosophy of existentialism – and optimistic nihilism for that matter – will argue that you do have a choice. You always have a choice.

And even more importantly, our being in the world can’t be pinned down to one particular job or relationship. We are never just a waiter or just a husband.

Our identity is much bigger.

Bad faith occurs in these sophisticated moments.

In situations where we conceptualize that our job is not something we do by choice, but by necessity. When we discuss the possibilities that we can become something more. That we are not defined by our office location and we have the option to leave our bullshit job and stop hurting our lives with self-sabotaging habits, despite the absurdity of the universe.

Yet, even if these insights feel hopeful and optimistic. Typically, we wake up the next day suppressing the last-night desire for change. We force ourselves to believe, again, that what we are doing is our destiny and that there is no alternative future for us.

That’s what philosophy refers to as bad faith. You realize that you have freedom in the world. And yet, you suppress this realization and choose to live in denial of your capacity to change your circumstances.

Why is Bad Faith in Philosophy Important to Understand?

Commonly, we become so deeply immersed in our role as a mechanic, or accountant, or whatever. That we lost touch with our own identity.

Rather than accepting the truth – that we are free creatures who can be something totally different from what we are now. We convince ourselves that we are nothing more than a mechanic, or accountant, etc. We define our entire being based on our current role.

The importance of the bad faith philosophy lies in making us aware of this self-deception.

You shouldn’t deny your freedom and conclude that your circumstances are unchangeable.

Yes, your present situation might be caused by unfavorable circumstances as you were born. But no, you don’t have to stay in your current situation forever.

Understanding the importance of bad faith might motivate us to make things a bit better for ourselves.

And while I was reading about bad faith and exploring the different components of the philosophy. A question came up that piqued my curiosity…

What causes bad faith?

What Leads To Living in Bad Faith?

The most common component that leads us to a state of bad faith is what I mentioned above – denial of freedom.

We convince ourselves that we don’t have any control over a given situation.

The already-mentioned examples work here again:

  • You keep a job you hate because the “economy is unstable”.
  • You keep a list of bad habits because of the comfort and the immediate pleasure they unlock.
  • Your finances are always unstable because they were always unstable.

But if we dig deeper, we can conclude that people enter a state of bad faith and stay there for one simple reason… avoidance of responsibility.

It’s far easier to blame outside circumstances for our state of being than to take ownership and make a change.

This doesn’t deny the fact that some people are indeed starting life with far from normal conditions. But to say that you don’t have any control over your circumstances is just a form of self-deception.

As Viktor Frankl wrote in his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankl

What Frankl observed – which correlates a lot with the theory of existentialism – is that even in the most dehumanizing and oppressive circumstances. Individuals possess the freedom to choose their attitude and response to the current situation. (And I am fully on board with what he says. After all, he survived the horrors of concentration camps during the Holocaust.)

While we have no control over most external events – nor our facticity. We have the capacity to exercise control over our internal world – our thoughts, and our perspectives.

All of this leads to the following…

How Do You Overcome Bad Faith?

Providing a step-by-step list for overcoming bad faith sounds a bit outrageous. There can hardly be an all-inclusive manual for tackling such a profound concept – seeking freedom in a meaningless world, as stated by existential nihilism.

Yet again, I hope that the points below will give you action items that can spark motivation. Plus, instill hope to pursue the things you want to pursue – even if you still don’t quite know what these things are.

So, here are some directions in relation to overcoming bad faith:

1. Self-Reflection

If you are indeed living in bad faith – you hold a job you don’t like, are tired of “wearing” fake smiles, etc. Figure out why is that. What led to this unfortunate state?

  • Is it because you are trying to please social expectations?
  • Is it because of unfavorable previous choices in life?

Or, the harder question, is it because you are not sure what you want to do with your life?

The answers to these questions will at least narrow the problem to a particular area. From there, you can continue with…

2. Cultivate Self-Acceptance

Accept your current reality. And… try to avoid feeling depressed by what your life is now. Rather, think about what your life can become.

Embracing your flaws, limitations, and unique qualities will prevent despair from sabotaging any attempt for a positive change.

After all, part of the continued state of bad faith is feeling bad about your state.

People cling to their situations and that’s the only thing they do – they complain about their circumstances but do little to change them.

Fostering self-acceptance will help you recognize the repeating dynamics in your world. The awful stories you tell yourself about your life. For example, that you are essentially, necessarily your job title. Unable to be happy. Rather than a free being who can do work that is closer to your creative side and with this secure happiness.

3. Challenge Societal Expectations

One main source of motivation for humanity is acceptance from others. We adopted the desire to belong to a tribe from our ancestors.

A long time ago, your sole survival was tightly related to your ability to cope with others. Not that has changed that much to this date. But these days, we bend to the other side of the spectrum – where external validation becomes our guiding light.

It’s totally normal to want others to like and approve of you. But this tendency becomes toxic if your whole self-worth depends on the comments of other people.

How you handle social expectations has a lot to do with the concept of bad faith.

If you willingly embrace the masks and roles assigned to you by others – your parents, teachers, surroundings, etc. If your actions are closer to the core values of what others say is worthy, not what you consider important. Social expectation will become the arbiter of your worth – i.e., you surrender your autonomy to external sources.

Escaping the clutches of bad faith and external validation demands a leap of faith. Realizing the importance of values – then forming your own values. And being OK with not everybody liking you – i.e., relying more on internal validation.

4. Pursue Authenticity

The opposite of bad faith in existentialism is authenticity.

Authenticity is the state of being true to yourself. Realizing that you are a free creature and that you should take full responsibility for your actions.

But authenticity is not a place you reach, it’s an ongoing process. A process that starts with stepping out of your comfort zone. Then, repeatedly doing things that might initially feel weird.

I am saying weird because if you have lived long enough inauthentically – due to outside pressure to appear a certain kind of person. When you finally voice the emotions locked deep inside. It can feel strange.

For example, when I started this site – durmonski.com. What I published – and still publish – is quite different from what I usually discourse with other people in real life. Yet, the more I present my inner thoughts, the better I feel about myself.

5. Open Mindedness

The primary mode of bad faith – denial of freedom. It’s caused by our internal thought processes.

Our thinking is flawed. That’s why our life is also flawed.

Thus, to change your condition from bad faith to good faith. Something in your brain needs to happen.

You need to conceptualize that change is possible. That transformation is allowed. And for this to happen, you need to have a growth mindset.

In short, having a growth mindset is all about believing that you have the power to change your condition. That even if you struggle currently. Through work and commitment, forming new habits, your skills and situation can improve.

Consciousness of Bad Faith

While deciphering the writings of the great philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. I found that we, humans, are usually aware that we are capable of more than what we are now.

An example is required to unpack this train of thought.

Say that a person is currently studying to become a lawyer. Since he is still not a lawyer, his current reality is not of such a person. He simply wishes to “transcend” to become a lawyer.

But say that this person eventually becomes a lawyer. Will he reach ultimate freedom and thus unlock the highest level of joy?

Not really.

Once this person reaches his desired destination. A new desire will soon replace the awe of reaching his initial goal. And not only that. Since “lawyer” is simply a title one reaches. One is a lawyer only when he’s doing lawyer stuff – which is not all the time.

Thus, as Sartre was often caught repeating, “Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is.”3

In the example of the person studying to become a lawyer. He perceives himself as someone he is not: a lawyer, not who he is, a student.

Except absolutely confusing. To me, this statement wants to represent an ongoing state of transcendence – at least, if a person chooses to embrace his freedom of choice.

Your current situation might not be that favorable. But if you are aware of the possibility to change your current condition – you are aware of your current bad faith. You can do the needful and change it.

Some Closing Thoughts

To summarize, bad faith refers to our tendency to neglect our inherent freedom in the world.

And in relation to overcoming bad faith. This requires going beyond the limitations of our current circumstances.

But for the above to happen, quite a lot of other things need to happen, first.

We often decide, ourselves, that we should do this instead of that. We follow the crowd and adopt societal expectations and external markers as the sole basis for our identity.

We believe that our worth is determined by our job title, income, or material possessions. Thereby, we absolutely neglect our true essence and potential for self-discovery.

The teaching of bad faith wants to bring to the forefront of our consciousness the following:

Our true identity should transcend these external trappings.

Bad faith in existentialism wants to encourage us to seek a deeper understanding of our unique personality – beyond societal roles and possessions.

This philosophy created by the genius Sartre wants to give us the ability to act sincerely and embrace our freedom. Setting the standard with our own life on how we think a person ought to be.

“Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.” Jean-Paul Sartre

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Footnotes:

  1. Facticity. Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facticity
  2. Guignon, Charles B. Existentialism – Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/existentialism/v-1/sections/freedom-and-responsibility
  3. Reynolds, J. and Renaudie, P.-J. Jean-Paul Sartre, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/
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