A friend told me about an exhibition she went to recently where the artist had created an installation by weaving together the responses of people to questions about their fears.
Freed by anonymity to express what they truly felt, the work was a poignant tale about a fragile species, compensating for its vulnerability with defenses and masks.
Not surprisingly old and young, women and men, corporates, labourers, poor, rich echoed the same moving narrative: we are afraid of being real.
Although we are all imperfect we live in a world that demands it be reigned in, tempered, hidden away.
Ironic that others ask us for perfection, which they cannot provide.
There are many reasons why we hide feelings.
Social belonging is key. Sometimes we veil our excitement for fear of disappointment, or manage any strong emotion from anger to sadness, or deliberately try to deceive. But mostly we try to avoid our pain.
We all have emotional needs. These are not always met and rather than dealing with the real issue of- pain -we distort the world until it appears to give us what we want instead.
A lack of acceptance might drive us to try to control others or exclude them through, for example, sexism or bigotry. What we are doing is to replicate the same dynamic of ‘not accepting’ what hurt us, by putting ourselves in the driver’s seat and rejecting someone else. The surge of power we experience provides temporary relief but it does not heal the original wound and so we remain stuck. Worse, there is at least one more damaged person now in line.
As long as we are acting from this unconscious, unresolved pain, we behave in ways that take us further and further away from supporting each other; instead creating an ‘other’ who we say is: not like me. That makes it easy to point the finger.
Society reinforces self-avoidance by recasting mask-making in a positive light.
Think of the ‘hard guy’ on the football field who spends more time thumping others than going after the ball, where the real skill lies.
Or the cunning business wo/man named ‘tough as nails’ not out of genuine resilience (which is rare and I know a few people who have it) but because s/he lets nothing get in the way of the deal, including integrity or others’ well being.
Two-timers said to be ‘playing big boys/girls games’ and who look at their otherwise-minded peers as ‘amateurs’.
I am at a loss to understand why these choices are cast as more worldly or grown up. Since when has care-less-ness become a skill? Why is duplicity worthy of reward? It takes far more courage to play the ball. Empathy can be downright difficult. Living by values is a harder path although let’s face it, who does not at times wish it were easier?
We all mess up and if you’re anything like me, it can feel like constantly.
Sometimes we do the wrong thing because we think we have good reasons at the time although in retrospect, we may regret what we have done. But can’t we call the behaviour for what it is? Isn’t this the first step to getting it right?
- Being super-cool is not sophistication, it’s detachment.
- My-way-or-the-highway is not power, it’s fear of negotiating differences.
- Vulnerability is not shameful, it’s human.
Does this mean we should let it all hang out and never discipline ourselves emotionally or show a restrained self to the world? Of course not.
We’ve all had days we’d like to cry at the desk or tell a friend what we really think, no-holds-barred, but it’s not always helpful. A boss is not a shrink. Colleagues may be supportive but are not always mates and the wisdom of sharing personal details varies depending on context. Trust is important. You don’t just give away what for you is sacred – pearls before swine – I believe the saying goes.
But having boundaries does not mean we are inauthentic. They are not the same thing.
There’s a big difference between not agreeing with a decision, for example, and managing your deep-seated anger while stating it calmly; and pretending that you agree because you want to fit it or it will make everyone around you happier.
Just as we save our bathers for the beach and not the boardroom, it’s appropriate to be discerning about how we behave: where and why.
There are ways to be whole and human and vulnerable, while respecting the unwritten social and professional rules that keep our institutions functioning. And they start by acknowledging what is really going on, in and around us: if only to ourselves.
For starters know that despite all the strutting, most people are really just hobbling along, readjusting to the splinters we’ve acquired along the way.
Don’t be fooled. While the extent of our insecurities does vary and those who’ve been fortunate enough to have healthy modeling or done the difficult work of waking up might know or like themselves more, we are all insecure. And frail. And flawed.