The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not know the world will tell you. C.G. Jung
The idea of authentic living, as opposed to false living, has a long history. The idea of an inner nature that can become corrupted, resulting in an inauthentic life, is a philosophical concept that has come a long way. It is an idea (if not a practice) that is strong in cultures with an individual focus. From calling for sexual revolutions and an end to traditional family structures to concepts such as the true self (as opposed to the false self) and gender fluidity, there is the underlying assumption that if you can find your own right format, you will be able to “be yourself”. And then you will be happy.
This is a call that has as its aim the liberation of the individual from inauthenticity – a state that is regarded in much of the Western world as a major cause of unhappiness. Yet there is a shadow side to this ‘liberation’ from one’s existing realities, and within it lies the potential of spreading much unhappiness all around. Ironically, searching for ‘the truth’, may result in more false living, exactly as we struggle to rid ourselves of the noxious unhappiness dwelling inside of us. And is inauthentic living really a root cause of unhappiness?
False living, as I know it from inside the therapy room, has to do with not knowing who you are or what you want.
- Or knowing who you are and what you want, but being too afraid to live that.
- Or having a true false sense of self
Not knowing who you are, nor what you really want is tough. This state of being usually has its origins in a problematic family history, where your spontaneous responses were nipped in the bud already early on and had to go underground in the face of attack, whether physical or emotional. Intrusive, critical parenting is a typical example. This is a style of parenting characterised by an adult continuously admonishing you, finding fault, directing you away from your spontaneous actions, interfering with your natural flow. For a child and an adolescent, the threat of rejection can quickly lead to identity compromises, as the innate need to belong (and the inherent threat of not-belonging) is very strong at these stages. This can be true of adults too, of course.
Children who have experienced rejection and intrusion, once they become adults, tend to do unto others as done unto them, or choose others who will repeat this history for them. You can get a terrified and traumatized person who acts out as if a threat remains ever-present. Such a person may be sexually permissive, self-harming, or violent. Self-aggrandizement or self-abasement are common features. The impression that they create to others is of being FAKE.
Here we have a highly vulnerable person combined with a very destructive one. Great despair exists because the real loss that this person is experiencing is the loss of a felt self that is grounded in reality. With the traumatized person, the advice to “do whatever makes you happy”, can only end up in empty pursuits as they strive to strengthen the defensive mask that they have put on. They can work hard to achieve fame and financial success, gain adoration from others, or to serve others, and yet an overwhelming emptiness is always waiting on the sidelines.
Despair is really what they are experiencing at the core of their very being. Denial plays a huge role. This is why drug abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, and partner violence often occur: The sense of annihilation of the self is combined with a deep despair that becomes overwhelming. The depression that they feel is bipolar, sometimes they are on top of the world (but also this feels fake), and then they drop down into the deepest abyss. But even here they are not at home. So you can understand their despair. Everywhere is fake – not true, not solid ground.
Self-help books: A double-edged sword
Self–help books often advise listening to your inner voice and cultivating positive thinking. This can be good advice, except for the fact that it is based on the assumption that we have a clear inner voice, and that the exchange of negativity for positivity must in itself be a force for good. Here’s the thing for traumatized people: They have to be able to think the negative. They have to be able to bring into mind sad, bad, scary things. And to be able to bear it.
It is exactly the running away from these thoughts that have brought them into so much trouble. Because we can become overwhelmed when we think about the bad, sad, mad things that have happened to us in our lives, and that we ourselves may have perpetuated, we spend our lives fleeing into false positives in order to escape from our own realities. But we can’t. None of us can. So here is what happens in such cases- your inner voice (I assume what is meant by this is internal, private thinking), has followed suit. So that the internal thoughts are; “this is way too scary to think about” and “just don’t think about it.”
To be real is to be able to think and speak about the bad things that have happened to you, as well as about the bad things that you have done, without becoming ungrounded. This is why you need a therapist or someone who can listen without becoming overwhelmed themselves, or wanting to run into “solving your problem”. Only once you have named the worst of what has happened, will you be able to move forward, and only then when will the good things that you have also done, feel true. It has to be both.
Sometimes I ask a person to draw up a dual alphabet: One containing the A-Z of all the negatives that have happened to them, another with all the positives. And then the second: Of all the bad things that they have done to others, and only then an A-Z of gratitudes.
The person who knows what they are not living, but fears to do so, comes in despite their best efforts to pretend that it does not matter (“I do not matter’”). They live with pervasive grief that they cannot shake off. These are the people who, generally speaking, have averted their spontaneous responses in the service of another.
Two different examples
A young student comes to see me. She was adopted as an infant by a single mother. Her mother, who comes from a close-knit family who lives in the same town, has never had a serious boyfriend. Her mother has worked for the same corporation ever since she left university. Since her daughter’s adoption, they have stayed in the same house in the same town where the daughter now goes to the same university that her mother had attended. This young girl is her mother’s best friend, her companion to the theatre and to family dinners.
Two things were clear to her from an early age: a) She had to be grateful for the life that she had. Every evening she and her mother would share what they were grateful for on that day. “Thank you for our house”, “Thank you that we have each other”. Being grateful became a strong counter-measure to the unspoken ‘being ungrateful’ (you could have ended up being aborted or in an orphanage, for example). b) The young woman understood that she provided the central meaning in her mother’s life. She was a talented young woman, sociable and musical, it was easy to feel welcomed within the extended family and for her to be her “mother’s pride and joy.”
It is not difficult to understand why she became depressed, and why her mother became so acutely distressed by the depression. The mother, by the way, looked very depressed to me. This is why one cannot pretend to be happy. And when no amount of gratitude statements can make you happy. Neither can good manners and nor wanting to hurt the other. This is not to say that the young woman had to reject her mother. But she had submitted herself to serving her mother’s needs; to love and be loved by another, to be submerged into another. She was afraid of hurting her mother, who was already depressed (read sad), to say no to her, never mind challenging her.
I have often seen how families get into trouble when they are unable to take the next necessary developmental step. In family therapy, it is well known that in families where the psychological needs of one member dominate, depression is a predictable outcome.
This young woman knew that she was much more adventurous than their lifestyle allowed for. She also knew that she wanted to be free of her mother’s cloying need for her. She knew what she needed. What she did not know how to do, was how to set her mother free too.
A retired man comes to see me. He was a successful professional man and a dedicated family man, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression. He always got himself out of the depression, sometimes with the help of medication. He has been in and out of hospitals lately, he is on heavy medication, and tells me pleadingly, “All I want is to be able to feel joy again.”
Over time it becomes clear that the marriage has been a huge compromise. He soon realised that he had made a mistake. He was more intelligent than his wife and longed for more intellectual conversation. He found her conversation boring, and petty. But she was more practical than him, and in times when he felt depressed, his wife took over the practical arrangements of their life, to his great relief. Now that he was retired, he felt her presence smothering, her interests bored him, and waking up next to her every morning was “depressing”. Here is a man who had for all his married life pretended to be happy in his marriage for the sake of his good wife. He could escape into work, except occasionally when it somehow caught up with him, this grief for what was untrue. In a way, his depression served their marriage as it kept him from moving out, and gave her the role of supporter and the provider of vitality in times of need.
In such a case, listening to an inner voice, and following one’s dreams requires a creative solution. Should he move out, should he stay but find more challenging pursuits? They are no longer young, they have grandchildren, and divorce is expensive…There is no “happy ever after” answer. Sitting with me, week after week, he shifts. He takes a holiday without her, he mentors struggling students, he moves out of the communal bedroom, until one day when he says, “I can’t stand it any longer”, and moves out.
Authentic living, as we can see from the examples above, has to do with being honest about one’s own life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The realities that we have denied as well as the longings that have been suppressed.
Some hard truths:
- Often the deepest longing that we have is to have been adored and cherished by a parent. It is surprising how long this can survive. This is not an unreasonable desire, all children have this need. It seems to be a natural, instinctive desire. If you have/had a parent who could not give this to you (who probably inherited this incapacity from their parents), that is really unlucky, but you have to let it go. To keep on pining for this impossibility is plain stubbornness combined with fantasy.
To put it harshly: It is part of a refusal to grow up and accept responsibility for your life. I have a really hard argument with any therapeutic process that overemphasizes this loss. It is a real loss, and should always be part of your therapy, and never be denied. At the same time, it should never become the primary focus of your therapy, for to do that, is to keep yourself trapped in infancy.
- A deep, deep longing does not go away. The best is to accommodate it. This rarely means divorce or emigration, it is best to find a way from where you are and to start from there. With depression comes that old-fashioned ally laziness. A very unpsychological word! But yes!
Authentic living simply means taking your deepest desires seriously and putting in the required efforts to honour them. I would like to argue that depression is more about the unlived life than it is about fate.
Aristotle might have been right:
First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.
Man is a goal-seeking animal. His life only has meaning if he is reaching out and striving for his goals.