Getting real about who we really are and the ratio that honesty has with our overall happiness is something I’ve been wrangling over the past few months. An honest reality check affects the choices we make in life and our ability to change. There is such a wide spectrum of willingness to change in individuals, ranging from complete obstinacy (or denial of present circumstances) to optimistic embrace. Where one stands on this flexibility spectrum depends not only upon knowing oneself, but in recognizing the level of honesty one is using to assess current circumstances.
When Eliza Fayle, of Silver and Grace, asked me to contribute a guest post on one of her community’s four guiding principles, I didn’t hesitate to select “real” as my topic. The process of writing for Silver and Grace was illuminating, as it helped me grapple with an ongoing personal challenge. The post that resulted, What is Real, harkens back to a post written almost exactly three years ago in this space: REAL, and they both served as a catalyst to this one.
Philosophers have ruminated on “What is Real?” for centuries. Thinkers throughout the history of our world have held forth on the relationship between knowing oneself and one’s ability to accomplish, thereby leading a meaningful life. With such abundant attention to this universal topic, you might think as individuals we’d find ourselves in a constant state of reality check. But more often than not, we aren’t getting real, and this is affecting not only what we say and do, but what we literally and figuratively hang onto, how we physically feel, and who we are in the deep recesses of our soul.
Often, we dare not share our true reality with anyone, even ourselves. Why?
The human spirit is vulnerable. Its strength and resilience can be adversely affected by rejection, repetitive anxiety, feeling unworthy or unnoticed, and other emotional or physical deprivation. At the root of all of these adverse conditions affecting the human spirit is the absence of love. When we feel unloved, we sense our vulnerability and employ protective behaviors, such as false bravado or stoicism. These are attempts at invincibility. We’ll retreat behind barriers that we hope are impenetrable, and defend our fragile psyche with whatever arsenal we can summon.
Eventually and inevitably, most of us must go out into the world, and we do so without getting real with ourselves. Knowing oneself can be uncomfortable. In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal wrote, “We are not satisfied with real life; we want to live some imaginary life in the eyes of other people and to seem different from what we actually are.” A half-hearted reality check will reveal those things we especially dislike about ourselves. We can’t begin to imagine that others would find us interesting or valuable just as we are, so we reinvent.
When Lori Hoeck and I wrote The Narcissist: A User’s Guide, we described a personality type so invested in a false self that pathological behavior results. While malignant narcissism is popularly understood as loving oneself to an extreme, an honest reality check (something this individual is probably not capable of) would reveal the narcissist is actually fighting feelings of insignificance and trying to re-establish eroded self esteem. (For more on this, see: Personality Disorders in Modern Life, by Theodore Millon, 2004)
Fortunately, most of us appear to be significantly less unhappy with ourselves, but getting real can still be difficult. Sydney J. Harris writes, “Ninety percent of the world’s woe comes from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties, and even their real virtues. Most of us go almost all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves.”
This contemporary observation echoes those by Oscar Wilde (“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.” – L’Envoi to Rose-leaf and Apple-leaf, 1882, and “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” – De Profundis, 1905) and the 17th century nobleman François Duc de La Rochefoucauld (“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”), whose maxims Frederick Nietzsche cited as profound influences.
Okay, so we get that we’re not getting real with ourselves, and we haven’t been throughout history. But before we leap into a reality check, is not knowing oneself honestly all that bad? On a variety of fronts ranging from physical health to career progress, in addition to the more obvious emotional aspects, there is ample evidence to support the premise that knowing oneself and getting real with the knowledge is more beneficial to the human spirit than not. An authentic life is a healthy life.
The legendary Boris Pasternak, writing in the context of political oppression and disillusionment, lamented, “The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike, and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune.” What happens when we repeatedly tell ourselves the opposite of what we feel is true or if we submit to those whose interests are not our best? A lack of honesty not only diminishes the human spirit, but has measurable adverse effects on our physical well-being.
It is exhausting to suppress sincerity. If you’re plagued by an unreliable memory or other circumstances that render you unable to keep your falsehoods consistent, you’ll soon be exposed as someone who cannot be trusted. Those who choose to reframe a situation out of a misplaced sense of kindness (“She can’t handle the truth, so we’ll keep it from her”) are in reality condescending or patronizing. Downplaying the potential for conflict (“Can’t we just all get along?”) because we’re fearful or uncomfortable with confrontation can actually inflame what we’re desperately trying to suppress.
If we resort to more passive aggressive communication tactics, we reduce the level of honesty in our dealings by signaling rather than stating resistance to the situation. The ambiguity inherent in passive aggressive behavior is actually an attempt to create a similar feeling of insecurity in the other person, leveling the emotional playing field. Because in past experience (usually from early childhood) it wasn’t safe to express frustration or anger, a passive aggressive person chooses to continue the learned pattern of denial.
The authors of Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness write that the driving force behind passive aggressive behavior is hidden anger. If anger is unacceptable or unsafe, the compulsion to conceal true beliefs and emotions will overtake one into behaving in ways that don’t match up with what one thinks. Paradoxically, the passive aggressive person truly does have a desire to emotionally connect, but the reality is that repression of this sort morphs into a form of covert abuse of the other. When the passive aggressive tactic is recognized by the one it is being used against, trust is broken, which makes true intimacy (knowing oneself and the other) impossible.
On the flip side, many of us signal we’re not prepared to accept the truth when it comes calling. We may find ourselves in circumstances we didn’t select, and rather than taking action, we choose inaction, choosing instead to pine for what was or might have been, instead of what is. A reality check would expose our fear of what we imagine might happen as opposed to a more probable outcome, should we actually do something.
For the fearful, it feels safer to choose wishful thinking, even at the expense of real progress, and ultimately, true happiness. Christine Kane, in 5 Tips for How to Reinvent Yourself, knows a reality check is imperative: “I’ve been through two major reinventions. And I’m telling you from personal experience, it’s not only possible – it’s imperative to your happiness. . . Usually, reinvention starts when someone looks around at her life and says, ‘Wow. This is NOT working. I am not happy.’ ”
Napoleon Hill regularly examined the power of personal beliefs and their relationship to success. He tells us, “Action is the real measure of intelligence.” Progress in our careers and relationships depends upon performing a regular reality check and taking action based upon an honest assessment. Tony Robbins writes, “A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” Recently, we explored The Consequences of Perpetual Indecision and Uncertainty and how fear keeps us from conquering our inertia by taking action in more depth, as well. Without fear, there is no opportunity to strengthen our character with courageous action. Why not look upon fear as a motivator, instead of letting it stop us in our tracks?
Years ago, a dear friend gave me a framed inspirational quote which reminded that courage is most often just getting up in the morning to try again. The kind of everyday bravery we access with only ourselves in ordinary circumstances can be the hardest to summon, but getting real and knowing oneself requires it. As Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project advises, choosing a path without pretense will result in greater fulfillment.
There’s more to this. In our next installment, we’re going to take a look at the relationship self-knowledge has with consumer behavior and career choices, both timely topics as the holiday season arrives and New Year’s resolutions loom.
Have you ever performed a reality check in the face of a decision or pending change? How do you define getting real? To what degree do you think knowing oneself honestly is associated with happiness? We’d love it if you’d share in the comments.