Dec 11, 2018
Me…. Family…. Clan…. Tribe…. Nation
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I am me, but I am also us. I am a part of a larger whole, consisting of my community and its values. There are many levels of community and people generally tend to increase the overlapping waves of community in predictable ways. The ripples of my sense-of-self impact and are impacted upon by my family and my clan, which usually includes the people in my immediate environs such as work and church and neighborhood, my club affiliations, my groups, my BFFs. It is virtually impossible to claim an individual sense of who I am without considering the others in my life. I don’t know that I have any “beliefs” that are not communal in some sense.
My sense of “right-ness” about things is created by my culture and the people in the pond where I swim. Sociologists call this Ethnocentrism. This refers to my innate, visceral certainty that the things I know are right are truly right, and the way that others think and play are completely, innately and fundamentally wrong!
I am reminded of this whenever I have clients that are what we call “should-istic.” These clients are full of the way that things should be. They are emotionally invested in their definition of what should be and they are constantly distraught about how “unfair” life is when things do not go the way they “should” go.
I constantly tell clients that fair is not real and does not exist. I talk them through the idea that their “shoulds” limit and restrict them in terms of finding ways forward and in terms of finding satisfaction and happiness. What I find is that people get stuck by their sense of imbalance and impropriety and then they freeze in that place. At the point where they have frozen, they become victims and life just happens to them. This life that they are now living is consummately unfair! These people are in pain, which sometimes looks like anger or rage, but is real pain. People work very hard to be what they are supposed to be and to do the things they “should” do. They resist temptation and don’t think bad thoughts because they are not the “right” or “good” things to do or feel. Yet, they are not happy.
When you are not happy because you feel trapped you really feel like a victim of circumstances beyond your control. Your parents tell you to study hard, do well in school, don’t break any laws and play nice with others. If you do all those things, then life will be good for you and you will be “happily ever aftering” as King Arthur sang in Camelot. But, life does not work that way. Life is random. Bad things happen to good people. Love hurts. If you love someone it is an absolute dead certainty that you will get hurt. The point is not that you can build a fence against bad luck by being “good,” the point is that being good is supposed to be its own reward! So why aren’t all the good people happy?
Teachers talk all the time about how to motivate students to learn. The general consensus from my years in faculty settings is that students who learn to learn for the sake and satisfaction of mastery are those who have the most success. Self- esteem does not come from grades, from praise or from possessions. Self-esteem comes from mastery and the knowledge that you have accomplished something and done it well. Nevertheless, even validly earned self-esteem from success well achieved, does not protect you from failure or people failing you.
When you commit to someone that you love and will partner with them, you are taking a gamble. You may feel safe by their “promises” but it is not their “promise” that makes you safe. Garth Brooks says in one of his songs, “the going up was worth the coming down” and in another, “I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.” In other words, the joy in a relationship and in life seems to come from taking the chance and making the run, not from acquiring safety points of title, promise and position. Life is about the journey and what you experience along the way, not about the destination. This is a major piece of reality to be learned.
In American culture, we are marketed constantly for the destinations. All our advertising and many of our parental messages to children are about destinations. “Make good grades and get a good job.” “Get this promotion and buy a new expensive car.” “Just have a baby and you will be fulfilled and have someone who will never leave you.” “Make a million dollars and you will have everything you want.” We constantly invest ourselves in some goal that we set (more often, others set for us) and we work hard to achieve that goal. We are convinced that if we can just reach that goal, we will have won. But the problem with that is that when we have “won” most of us don’t feel any better. The satisfaction and energy seems to have come from the effort and not from the winning. What a cheat! We are supposed to be happy because we won, but we are not happy. After the goal has been accomplished, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We do not know how to be “satisfied” when we reach the goal. We are not internally happy. For those of us who are co-dependent, as we walk across the stage to receive our “award” we are already thinking about the next challenge, the next goal, the next “should.” For those who are not co-dependent, we are soon thinking about the next thing we can “do” or “get” to make us feel better. We are like addicts looking for another fix. Our fix is in the eternal chase of the next goal and we are driven by our need to satisfy these “shoulds” that others have written or established for us.
We seldom ask ourselves what we want. We almost never learn how to just “be.” We learn instead to “do” so that we can “become.” What about now? Are you happy, fulfilled? Are you exhausted, empty or angry because life is not fair and you have not gotten what you should have? Or, it is not fair because others have not done what they “should” have done?
How do we learn how to stop doing and start being? One of the ways to consider is to begin to listen to our internal voice and ask it what we enjoy, what we want, and how we really feel instead of what we should enjoy, feel or want. Do not just put on the clothes your mother laid out for you. Do not just do/be what your parents told you would be best for you. Do not just live the way that makes your partner or friends happy. Ask yourself what do you want or need to be happy. Ask yourself how to go about getting it. Enjoy the chase for its own sake! Enjoy the ride! Know that without effort and failure there can be no self- esteem and no success. Know that life is not fair and you will get hurt. You will lose and you will not ever be totally safe. Perhaps, there is something to learn from this hurt. Maybe something is better that what you already know. There is something to learn today, something to do today, and someone to love today. Embrace it, enjoy it, play with it, but do not demand that it be fair!
Brett Newcomb, MA, LPC