My father was head of the Psychology Clinic at Michigan State University in the 1970s, before he left to go into private practice. He taught Ph.D. students how to do therapy. At our dinner table, he would demonstrate psychology techniques he’d created. He showed us little things about how the unconscious mind is at work simultaneously with the conscious mind.
I just took these conversations for granted, but I think most people are not made aware of this in childhood. It was good training to be a therapist!
When I got older and became a therapist, one of the things he taught me is that people are socially conditioned as they grow up to not tell the truth in order to be polite. The “truth” becomes something that is controlled by our thinking instead of our intuition. This has its advantages, as it allows for the smooth functioning of society. If the grocery store checker asks how you’re doing, and instead of answering “fine,” you tell her that your wife left you, the basement flooded, and your blood pressure is too high, imagine how long it would take to get through the line!
Being honest has become almost a forgotten art for some of us. Marlon Brando, when he appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in the 1970s, talked about how everyone is a great actor—that we’re constantly acting to keep up social appearances.
But too much social pretense can create a certain kind of deadness. We can forget what it feels like to be authentic with another person. This can lead to feelings of isolation and a sense of meaninglessness. We’ve become so good at social appearances that honesty has to be negotiated. If you’re too honest and open with the people around you, they may become frightened and upset.
If you’re feeling cut off from others, I suggest that you take a look at how honest you’re being—with others, but especially with yourself. What’s the truth about what’s really going on in your life? What do you want to say to people around you? What really matters to you? What would you say if there were no consequences?
It takes courage to be honest, especially when it comes to being honest with yourself. Trusting that things will ultimately work out can sometimes take tremendous fortitude. And it can be risky to be authentic. When doing so, we leave the comfort of predictability and enter the realm of the unexpected.
Playing it safe and staying in the comfort zone can work against trusting our own intuition and telling the truth about what is really going on. But each time we trust ourselves, we take a step toward being our true, authentic selves.
The following story illustrates one of these triumphs of trust over conditioning.
Once upon a time there was a man named Henry. It was evening, and as he walked slowly home from work through his small village, he was smiling to himself, thinking of his wife Sarah, at home waiting for him.
He whistled softly, wondering about the treat his wife would probably have for him when he returned. Maybe a small glass of wine.
As he walked, his eye caught a piece of paper lying the ground. He stopped to look at it and saw it was a fortune from a fortune cookie. His mother’s voice flashed through his head: “It’s not good to pick up things from the ground. They’re dirty.” He was going to walk on by, but a small feeling inside urged him to pick it up and read it.
For some reason that day, he listened to that feeling and trusted it. He picked up the paper off the ground.
The fortune read: “It’s okay for you to be just as you are.”
Being honest and trusting our authenticity can be both risky and rewarding. Everyone finds a balance that works for them. Sometimes it’s just good to know that you can choose to express yourself in whatever way is best for you.
If you’d like to give me any feedback, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t want your email published, please let me know in the email. Also, please know I cannot provide any kind of psychological help or advice through email.
David Seagull, LISW, is a therapist in Fairfield. Visit DavidSeagullTherapy.com.