It is that time of year that people dress up and have fun being someone else for the night. Some people like to live out, even if just for a night, the idea of being that thing they have always wanted to be. Others dress up to make a statement, such as mocking popular cultural figures, religion, or politics. I think this sort of escapism and freedom is pretty healthy. I might be biased though, since my mom owned a costume shop as I was growing up I benefitted from people’s desire to dress up and play out an alternative role.
Some people, however, play out an alternative role throughout the year, without letting others see their true self. This is perhaps most frequently done out of fear that their true self is unacceptable. A number of psychologists have written about this phenomenon across the years. Carl Rogers referred the idea of the “authentic self,” in which he meant living as one is naturally, rather than to please the people around you or as one thinks he or she should be. Karen Horney described the conflict between the “real self” and the “ideal self” as a “tyranny of the shoulds.” In this she referred to the rules that we put upon our own thoughts and behaviors that lead us toward a perceived perfection: the things we should do. She considered this a root cause of neurosis.
In existential theory, which I tend to follow, the term for the neurosis that occurs is called existential guilt. This is different from what I call “catholic guilt,” which is the guilt for having engaged in behavior that is against one’s own moral code. I use the term “catholic guilt” because it easily expresses the idea that one feels he or she has violated a sacred rule—the pangs of moral consciousness that we all experience from time to time. Catholic guilt is a guilt that we can apologize for. Existential guilt is the guilt (anxiety) we feel for living in ways that are not what we know to be true of ourselves. Existential guilt cannot be apologized for, because the person being offended is oneself. Existential guilt often leads us to engage in specific behavior that generate catholic guilt—we do things that we feel or know violate our own moral code in order to appear to be the person we want to be (seen as), rather than the person we know ourselves to be.
I have consistently found that my clients engage in behaviors that are not in their best interest and violate their own moral code in order to appear more like their “ideal self.” They will lie or cheat in order to not destroy the image they have created for the world to see—the person they think they are supposed to be. They do things that do not feel right to them in order to appear as they “should” appear: I should have been able to get that project completed so I will tell everyone that I did and just wing it. The engage in immoral behavior in order to appear as moral.
In reality, people know that others are flawed. We all recognize that no one lives up to their ideal self. When I have been able to convince my clients to be more honest about their errors, explain the reasons for them, and take responsibility for them, they have found that the people around them have been very understanding and accepting. In being honest about the ways in which we are not perfect we experience less existential guilt and subsequently engage in fewer behaviors that cause “catholic guilt.” Pretending to be someone else on Halloween is fun, but doing it throughout the year usually causes more problems than it solves.
The movie that I reference in my practice more than any other is Run Lola Run. It is a German film that it seems very few people have seen. The gist of the story is that Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to get 100,000 German Marks to save her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) and her interactions with people along the way—often through flash forward. The movie consists of three tellings of the story, each with a different outcome. It operates off of the “butterfly effect” (which according to Wikipedia, is the idea “that small differences in the initial condition of a dynamical system may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system”). The whole movie is a bit of an adrenaline rush. It also is a great reference to Karen’s Horney’s theory of personality. As such, I think it also contains a great life lesson.
Without giving away the details of the movie, Lola’s encounter with a mean dog in the opening of each version of her saga affects the outcome of both her and Manni’s lives, but also the people whom she encounters along with way. The thing I like about the movie is that of her three encounters with the dog (fear, hostility, and confidence or indifference) determines the rest of the story.. I think this is a great metaphor for the idea that how we approach our world determines the quality of it. Each of these approaches that Lola takes is similar to an aspect of Horney’s theory. Horney described three interpersonal approaches: moving away from people, moving against people, and moving toward people. Horney was German born and developed her theory in Germany, before moving to the US—I wonder how aware the film makers were that they were referencing one of the great German Psychiatrists.
Moving away from people is marked by detachment and withdrawal (Lola’s fear of the dog). In the sequence in which Lola responds to fear of the dog she demonstrates withdrawal—an unwillingness to encounter. If we approach our world with fear or hesitation we miss out on life. Inaction deprives us of experiences and things that we want, and can have terrible consequences. Most people who live their lives anxious are actually aware of the cost, but have not mustered the courage to change.
Moving against people is marked by aggression (Lola’s hostility toward the dog). People who approach the world with hostility and antagonism tend to be less aware of the impact of their approach, but suffer no less for it. I think all of us can recognize how we have deprived aggressive people. They do not engender feelings of cooperation—nor do they seek cooperation. Instead of working with others they simply take what they want, and end up with less. They fear changing and trusting the world.
Moving toward people is marked by pro-social behaviors, a loving, respectful response (Lola’s confidence or indifference in the face of a mean dog). Horney wrote that this approach can be pathological when it achieves a level of dependence. But I think that if we take a loving approach toward others, in which we do not succumb to the fears and hostility of others, we will have a more enjoyable life. This engenders an attitude of understanding, tolerance, and compassion. People who work toward the benefit of others usually benefit in return. People who are concentrated on relationships and trust in them, without becoming anxious about them, tend to be the most rewarded. I think there is also an element of not allowing oneself to be intimidated or angered by the people (or objects or events) in the world that are hostile. Reach out to those that welcome you and you improve your chances of having rewarding relationships. Be aware of those that exploit the relationship either for their own purposes or for their own security. And check out the movie Run Lola Run for your own lesson.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself riding my bike home from work angry, looking for a fight. I had just heard of yet another suicide related to anti-gay bullying. I was angry that my community was under attack and wanted revenge. I was revisited by the disgust that I felt in 1989 when the Bush (senior) administration tried to suppress its own Health and Human Service Department’s findings that approximately 30% of teen suicides were related to sexual orientation—the feeling that my government would rather have dead teenagers than have to implement programs to help gay teens. The idea that our government or our culture would seemingly prefer that gay teens kill themselves than that they be allowed to grow up to be gay adults makes me cry, and makes me angry. I recognize that this is not the prevailing attitude of America, but it seems to still be a prominent enough of one to frighten me.
I was not bullied growing up; I was “the strange kid” not “the gay kid.” However, I had created a story for my life that involved me never being accepted or happy and I considered suicide many times. I used to slice my fingers in an attempt to condition myself for the pain of when I finally did the cut that would matter. I never actually attempted suicide, but I put myself at risk frequently—because it did not matter whether I lived or died. I recently received a message from a friend from H.S. who remembers my suicidal thoughts and thanked me for still being here. He reminded me that I once crossed a highway by climbing along the outside of the fencing on the overpass—after all, what sort of life could a gay guy have anyway?
My partner was bullied. He was tormented and driven into the closet around the age of 12 when kids threw stones and shot BB guns at him upon finding out that he and another neighbor boy were engaging in sex together. I see the damage that period did to him still. The damage those kids did to him back then is a part of my life today.
All of this was welling up in me the night I was riding home from the office. My partner was in Florida visiting friends and family and I went home to an empty house with these feelings. I went out to the bar that night, but I didn’t talk to anyone about what I was feeling; the bar did not feel like the right place. When my partner got back to Houston we talked about the suicides and the “It Gets Better Project.” This was the first time that I was able to express my feelings. I realized that the pain of growing up gay in what felt like a hostile world (I came out during the Regan administration) came rushing back to me. It was as if I was being re-traumatized by these kids’ suicides. I doubt I am the only one who felt that way.
I suspect that many gay and lesbian (and bi and transgendered) adults who have been hearing about the recent publicized spate of gay-related suicides have been re-experiencing that sensation of living in a hostile world that we were able to (at least partially) escape in adulthood. Even those of us for whom it has gotten better can still feel the pain of when we were younger. We may not feel justified in our own pain—after all, our lives did get better—instead we focus our feelings on the kids who killed themselves and the kids that continue to suffer. I certainly think that the kids today deserve our concern and attention, but I think we may need to remember to take care of ourselves as well when these memories rise.
I think doing an “It Gets Better” video is a great way to engage in the catharsis of this pain. It can help remind us that our lives have and do get better. But simply sharing your story with loved ones can also be helpful. I think it is important that we tell each other of our experiences—either of the past or of our current reactions to what is going on—and validate each other. Parallel to these suicides the courts appear to be dealing DOMA and DADT fatal blows; we may need to remind ourselves as adults, that, yes, things do get better.
I have a couple of clients that are struggling with the question of who am I. The idea of finding oneself has been the subject of jokes for years, but it can be a real problem. Both of the clients I have experience anxiety as a result of not having a clear identity. They both have been stuck in their lives, unsure as to what they want to achieve or the path that they want to choose for themselves. When questioned about their interests and ideas they feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the less obvious one’s interests and ideas are to others, the more they are asked about them, so my clients are frequently “attacked” (as they experience) around their lack of a clear identity. Ever ask yourself “who am I?”
When I asked each of them tell me about themselves they practically froze, they had no idea where to begin. Eventually each was able to tell me about some of their personal traits. In western or individualistic cultures we tend to think of ourselves as a collection of our personality traits. These are usually the first things that come to mind when asked about ourselves. In time, people in western or individualistic cultures will begin mentioning their involvement in hobbies, social roles, and group affiliations. In eastern or collectivist cultures a person’s social roles or group affiliations tend to be the first things that come to mind, followed by more personal traits.
Social roles refers to your relationships to others—brother, mother, friend, lover, boss, employee, membership or position in an organization, and occupation. Group identification can be as basic as gender, race/ethnicity and religious affiliation or personal as a hobby or an association with a group that involves a less formal involvement in an organization or club (Democrat vs. Precinct Chair, Alcoholic). Social and group traits tend to be in the form of “I am a…” Neither of these clients eventually offered any social roles or group affiliations. Neither of them felt that they were part of something. Both of my clients have difficulty or feel awkward in social situations—they have no social context in which to situate their behavior.
Thinking of oneself in terms of personal traits is healthy, but not in the absence of any socially-based identifiers. A sense of belongingness is a fundamental need. It is where we acquire a sense of protection, and frequently purpose. According to former American Psychological Association president Abraham Maslow, it is also foundational for self-esteem. Specifically, we value our personal traits because we experience them being accepted and valued by others. We are unsure if intelligence is valued until others express appreciation for it. Without a sense of association we fail to value our own personal traits and we fail to move forward.
If you are finding yourself stuck or if you are reassessing your goals it may be worth asking yourself “who am I?” Reflect upon what your answers tell you. It may be worth reflecting on how you would have answered before you got stuck to see how your identity has changed—usually our personal traits don’t change much, but our social aspects have.
I am a gay white male
I am a psychotherapist
I am well educated
I am intelligent
I am simultaneously a student and a professional
I am caring and generous
I am a son
I am a good partner
I am a cyclist
I am a democratic socialist
I am clever and witty
I am silly
I am a community leader