Are you becoming a caricature of yourself?

Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 17.50.56How truthful do you allow yourself to be?

And does it matter?

Maybe more than you think it does …

 

We’re in a coach driving past a particularly lovely country mansion on our way to Stratford-upon-Avon. I’m the tour guide. It’s the ‘80s. A woman from Texas asks, “Who lives there?”

“Oh,” I reply. “I don’t know. It’s grand, isn’t it?”

My answer goes down like a lead balloon. The questioner pouts, shrugs and turns to look out of the window.

A month later, a man from Wyoming asks exactly the same question as we pass the very same house.

“Oh,” I reply, put on my guard by my previous experience and getting creative on the hoof. “Great question! It’s the country residence of the Earl of Wigshire. He used to come down from London by horse and carriage for country weekends. Quite an eccentric character by all accounts, pretty wild parties … and he bred potbellied pigs!”

“Wow!” responds the questioner, looking pleased.

That’s one kind of untruth. And if I’d cared enough about creating that happy response, I might have made a career of it.

That’s not what I think!

But what’s much more common is distorting the truth without meaning to. Have you ever had the experience of saying something in conversation and then thinking after you’ve said it, “That wasn’t really true – that’s not really what I think at all”? It happened to me last week, when I felt under pressure to say something. Some words came out of my mouth, and I realised that I didn’t really think that at all – I was just saying what people say in such circumstances.

In this way, we parcel bits of our lives, our thoughts, beliefs and feelings, into bite-size pieces, so that we can speak them. They’re not exactly untrue; but they’re not true either. Most of the time we don’t notice such lapses, we just assume that what we speak is what we think. But then, if we don’t notice, what we speak becomes by creeping stealth a substitute for truth.

The author Tim Gallwey – always a rewarding thinker to listen to – talks about the images we cultivate, and how the job of a coach is to see through veils to the person underneath all the acts and posturing. The hardest acts, he says, are not the bad self-images that mask a worthwhile person, but the good self-images people assume to make people believe they are wonderful, which actually cover up their real wonderfulness. “An image is an image,” he says. “What about the thing being imaged – you?”

Story-time

When we converse with people and don’t feel entirely comfortable, most of us tend to put a gloss on our words to preserve our self-image. With ‘glossing’ our stories take on a life of their own, and they grow and change with each telling. Our first stab at expressing an uncomfortable truth may come out as:

I’ve just lost my job – a new cut-throat boss was appointed…

For the next occasion this develops into:

Oh, my company were downsizing the workforce by a third – I took the chance and grabbed redundancy.

which later becomes:

Oh, I decided to start my own business – corporate life had got a bit stifling.

which arrives at:

I run a business consultancy. Working for yourself is the only way I think.

What’s wrong with this? There are times when words are expected of us, and it isn’t always easy to find the best words for the moment, particularly when we feel vulnerable. However, what can happen, I think, is that bit-by-bit we buy into our own edited stories, and as a result lose a layer of self-knowing and live a little less authentically. Eventually, we become caricatures – ‘spitting images’ – of ourselves. Watch it happen with politicians!

Funnily enough, the truth almost always offers a much better story than any anodised version and demonstrates a more powerful version of ourselves. For example, maybe I lost my job as in the example above, and was shocked, angry and defeated for a while. Maybe I struggled for years to find anything to take its place. Yet somehow, out of despair I dragged myself together, discovered resilience and courage, became innovative and created purpose for myself. In so doing, I learned about myself, and found qualities and strengths I didn’t know I had. Now that’s a much more interesting and human story and more worthy of respect than recounting that I’ve always been unfailingly wonderful and am endlessly wonderful now.

There was never a better opportunity to get real than in our own times. Most of us are getting pretty fed up with word-manipulation and spin, and there’s a new wave of dissatisfaction creeping into media headlines.

Call me naive, politicians, but how about saying what you really think?” challenges journalist Sophie Heawood.

By God, believe in something,” actor Michael Sheen tells politicians, describing today’s political climate, “where politicians are careful, tentative, scared of saying what they feel for fear.”

Successful entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox expresses shock as an MP at the artificiality of the Westminster world, “this suffocating implausibility, where nobody except mavericks will say what they mean.”

Why the fuss about driverless cars,” says journalist Marina Hyde? “We already have robot politicians.”

If you want to get real, start with speaking truth to yourself. How to tell if you’re doing that? Pay attention not just to your brain, but to your visceral awareness too.

For example, let’s imagine that at a party someone asks what I do, and I reply, “Oh, I’m at home with a baby; I’m planning to start my own business as soon as he sleeps through the night.”

What am I aware of? A feeling of awkwardness, of defensiveness, lack of congruence, a sense that what I’ve just said is not authentic. I’ve blurted it out because I’m feeling inadequate in this company as a still-at-home parent.

So I ask myself, what is the truth here – for me? Maybe that I’d love to be able to talk about business success and the world out there, but that in actual fact – even as I worry that others won’t see it that way – I’m currently doing the job I’ve wanted to do all my life, and it’s tough and rewarding in equal measure.

Much better story. And without doubt much more likely to build human connection the next time we dare say it as it is.

 

NEWS

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