Hallowe’en gives many of us the opportunity to be someone else for a night—to try a different perspective or point of view. Through costume and make-up we can be outrageous or scary and play up the parts of ourselves that don’t often see the light of day. Sometimes it’s just a costume, but Hallowe’en gets me thinking about who we are under the masks and zombie paint.
I think of identity as an amalgamation of our values, beliefs, behaviours, thoughts and feelings. When these are in concert, we tend to feel pretty good. Everything is aligned, and there’s no sense of inner conflict. If there’s some disagreement between these five factors, however, we can feel uncomfortable, pretty quickly. Sometimes we may choose to act in ways that aren`t aligned with our values or beliefs, thinking that we can manage the discomfort that this will produce. Other times we may experience life events that shake our belief systems and force us to re-evaluate our values, thoughts and feelings. Typically, these processes are emotionally difficult, and until we get ourselves back into alignment, we walk around with some kind of anxiety or internal discomfort.
When it comes to identity, there’s also a question as to whether there`s a discrepancy from what others see, and what we feel is inside us. Are we who we are inside, or are we really only what others perceive us to be? Deep questions for a costume party, but I have found that this sense of knowing ourselves and allowing others to know us is the best antidote for loneliness. Many people spend a fair amount of time constructing a socially acceptable identity so they can manage the impression they leave on others. While part of this may be a matter of having good social skills, I often see people in therapy who have taken this one step too far—they’ve become so good at projecting a specific image that the people they interact with have no idea that there is something below the surface to attach to. As a result, you can feel well received by others and feel successful at reaching a goal of projecting a good image, but you are left with the sense that others only enjoy your company because they don’t know who you “really are.” When people craft this skill, others in their lives often have no idea that there’s a problem afoot, or that the person is lonely and hurting.
There are many reasons why we might choose to focus on projecting an image or putting on a mask. Many of these reasons, however, come down to our desires to protect our vulnerabilities. If people really know us, they know not only the great things about us, but also the less than great things we might wish weren’t there, and then we are open to the risk of being judged. The mask protects us, as if we’re judged negatively, we can shrug it off and think, “well, that wasn’t me, anyway.” And herein lies the rub—we may protect ourselves from harm, but we also insulate ourselves from the benefit of being seen or recognized by someone else, thereby reducing our loneliness. We all want to be valued for who we are, rather than valued in spite of who we see ourselves to be.
I’m not suggesting that the healthiest thing is to move in the world without thought to how we come across. I mean really, who wants to walk around like an open wound all the time when they’re down? What I am suggesting, however, is that we pay careful attention to our values, beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions, so that as we move in the world, we move with authenticity. We feel better that way. And there’s less to keep track of. And we get the benefit of social support from the people that really know us and choose to be around us.
This is about integrity and integration. Think for a minute about the meanings of those words. Having integrity means to be “whole and undivided.” Being integrated means that our various parts—our values, beliefs, etc.—are working in concert. Sometimes it’s hard to make all the parts fit together, but I can tell you that as hard as it is to make the parts fit, it’s a lot easier than trying to do the emotional gymnastics that ensue when parts of our identity are out of alignment.
Think about the last time you had an emotionally difficult decision to make and you chose to do something that you knew wasn’t in alignment with your identity, but was “strategic,” so as to stack the odds that you would get want you wanted in the situation. This often happens in workplace settings, but sadly it happens in personal relationships as well where we decide to take actions to get our needs met on the basis of how we think others will react. These kinds of strategic decisions may produce some of the desired outcomes—you get the project at work finished, or you end up getting your way in the dispute in your relationship—but the process through which it was achieved often leads us to question our own integrity, and diminishes our enjoyment of the outcome. And that’s if the strategy is “effective.”
When the strategic-but-causes-me-discomfort-in-my-sense-of-myself-decision is ineffective or doesn’t bring about the desired outcome, we often can feel doubly disappointed. Not only did we not meet our goals, but we also sold ourselves out. This can be harder to forgive than any wrongs that others do to us.
Life is easier when we tune in to our own values, beliefs, thoughts and feelings to guide our observable actions. By being authentic, we save ourselves a great deal of emotional energy which we can then use on both enjoying life AND tackling whatever adversity may come down the road. And by accepting ourselves enough to take the risk to be authentic, we get the benefit of being really seen and accepted by the people in our lives. I promise I’m not trying to get all Stuart Smalley up in this piece. The self-acceptance that our authentic self is good enough—not perfect—has to come first so that we can take those emotional risks that ultimately lead to our own sense of inner peace.