By David Bott, Masters Candidate, intern at Yale Therapy Group
One of the main theories that I train in is called Gestalt. Gestalt theory says that, all things being equal, people tend towards growth and development. As time moves along, we move towards learning new skills, gathering new wisdom, and having better relationships. Of course, many things can get in the way of our development, and many things can block us. One of the ways that we sometimes block ourselves is by trying to be something that we are not. We often act as if we are more relationally adept than we are, more mature, more sensible, more wise, etc. We feel that we really ought to be further ahead in life than we are, and that it would be kind of embarrassing if other people knew we weren’t as grown up as we like to pretend we are.
I was recently involved in a discussion with a few other therapists about the difference between “being” and “seeming.” If you have ever had a therapy session, you may have heard about the importance of being yourself. Therapists often talk to their clients about being authentic, genuine, or real, and about learning to accept and like ourselves. Of course, it is often much easier to be inauthentic, to pretend, or to hide. It is very common to feel a need to “seem” to be someone or something other than one is. Not even therapists are immune to this kind of pressure. Sometimes in a session, I will catch myself saying things that reflect a wish to “seem” to be a good therapist, a good listener, or a good person. What is that about? Perhaps it reflects a personal concern that the real me might be inadequate to the situation. After all, I am a beginning therapist, and perhaps I think the person in front of me needs “a real therapist.” Rather than giving myself permission to be real, honest, and to make mistakes, I might wish to feel more adequate by playing the role of some imaginary “all-knowing” therapist. Of course, I am reminded over and over again that my clients find it more helpful to be with me as a real person, flaws and all, than they do to be with my best “perfect-therapist” impression.
Social connection is imperative for our survival and growth. This is especially obvious when we are children. We must maintain a bond with our parents in order to ensure that we are fed and clothed, and that we receive at least a minimal level of human interaction. As children, we learn very quickly what kind of behaviours reinforce good social connection, and what kind of behaviours enforce isolation. For example, a child, in order to maximize her connection to her parents, might learn to be polite, to be clean, and to not ask too many questions. Following this set of rules, and others besides, ensures that she can have the necessary social interaction. While rules may be a useful and important part of social connection, it is perhaps unfortunate that we can be very rigid in applying our rules, or that we can overgeneralize at times. For example, it is good to be polite, but it is perhaps not good if my social acceptance hinges on “always” being polite. I am not always polite – I am sometimes very assertive, or even rude – but if my connection to my parents depends upon being polite, then I must be as careful as I can to be polite, even if it means devaluing my own opinions, ideas, and freedom to act. I must always “seem” to be polite. It must become my own shameful secret that I am sometimes rude. I must hide it from the world. If others knew that I sometimes have such terribly rude thoughts, they couldn’t possibly love me or look after me.
As adults, we may find the thoughts of the child a little silly – of course people will still love you and care for you even if you have rude thoughts, and even if you occasionally act them out! But these ideas are persistent and sticky, and many of us carry them into adulthood. Some of us may be very concerned that our bosses and co-workers always see us as “competent.” Others may lay great stress on seeming always to be in control, calm, intelligent, fun, beautiful, or witty. We may become ashamed or embarrassed in moments when we realize we have missed something important, given the wrong answer, or lost our cool. We may feel that our social value has been compromised, that others may no longer like us, or that they will think we are dumb, or perhaps less valuable than other people.
Often, it becomes very exhausting to always carry on seeming. Many of us secretly wish that the real, authentic self, along with all of its flaws could be seen, recognized, and accepted by others. What a relief it would be to not always have to be competent, polite, and beautiful. But this is not the work of a moment. It takes time to build the necessary trust to show others the aspects of ourselves that seem to us “incompetent, rude, and ugly.” But it has always been my experience that if I can patiently, painfully, begin to show my real self to a trustworthy other, I begin to find the kind of deep acceptance that allows me to more and more fully become myself, and to more and more release the burden of needing to “seem.” We may perhaps encounter a freeing relationship like this with a trusted friend, a family member, or a therapist.
When I don’t need to seem, a whole world of exciting, creative opportunities opens up for me. My behaviour no longer needs to follow very rigid rules. Instead, I can be flexible, allowing myself the freedom to respond to each situation differently. I may choose to be very accommodating and polite in many circumstances, while in others I may be more assertive, mischievous, or even act in ways that some others may perceive as rude. I can be free to grow, explore, develop, and try out new ideas or behaviours, willingly making mistakes along the way. I can know that my full humanity, including all that is best about myself and all that I maybe do not like as much, is acceptable and loveable, both by myself, and by others. What a wonderful feeling it is to be free from the pressure of needing to “seem.”