Everything can look good on the surface, but what lies beneath can be the key to improvement. I grew up in a small town. Everyone knew everyone’s business. At least everyone knew how to keep up appearances. It was clear then, and is clear now, keeping up appearances can interfere with building healthier lives.
More and more of us are getting caught in this trap because social media functions much like a small town. You can put your best face forward, control the narrative, and avoid the need to make any substantial change to your real life.
We all want to present ourselves in the best possible light. That’s human nature and good marketing. And there’s nothing wrong with that…to a point. But the temptation is to become so married to a particular narrative that we stop telling ourselves the truth. This is especially true when the warped version of the truth is gaining us positive attention or accolades.
The opposite can also be true. If we are accustomed to being treated as though our accomplishments don’t matter, we may become married to a story that doesn’t allow us to recognize and celebrate real achievement. Or we may repeatedly take on the role of the victim or downtrodden.
I know from years of interviewing job candidates, most of us are either terrible self-assessors or remarkable fibbers. And it seems like we’ve become more thin-skinned. Knowing this, it’s difficult to get reliable, balanced feedback. This in turn feeds our skewed vision of ourselves.
So what, you may ask. If I want to see myself as perfect, isn’t that a reflection of good self-esteem? Uh no, no one is perfect. If I don’t take credit, isn’t that a reflection of my humility? Uh, maybe. But it could also be that you don’t take credit because you might be asked to perform at a higher level next time and you don’t want to put out any more effort.
Honest assessment of ourselves and our environment, situation, values, limits, and abilities are key to maximizing health. Without it, improvement programs will not work other than for a short period of time. Or we’ll never embark on a journey toward betterment because we simply won’t see the need.
What can we do to support honest evaluation of what lies beneath?
Learn about our relationship to shame. If shame is getting in the way, learn techniques for bypassing this obstacle. Dr. Brené Brown is a great resource for this exploration.
Flip the script. Challenge yourself to answer questions with answers opposite to your normal response then sit with the reverse answer and see how it feels. We know the truth deep down. If the opposite feels like there’s some truth to it, begin further investigation. You don’t have to do this in an environment that would threaten your job or family. Use online personality assessments, interest surveys, dating sites, etc. for this purpose (read privacy policies carefully).
Listen to friends who aren’t afraid to deliver bad news. The friend who tells you your shoes don’t smell bad when you know you just stepped in dog poop is not a reliable resource. They can still be your friends, just don’t include them when you need reliable feedback. Skips the opinion of friends who specialize in bad news as well. Their bias is unhelpful as well.
Practice self-care. Hearing the truth will sometimes be hard and temporarily painful. Regular self-care practices will create some insulation that makes be pain feel less intense.
Remember the benefit. Like GI Joe said, “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. Once we clearly understand who we are and where we are in our journey, we can move forward efficiently and effectively. Think of honest assessment as removing half the obstacles. Whew! Who wouldn’t want to do that?
I know that realistic self-assessment is easier said than done when we dig deep into those things we’ve never spoken out loud. At one point, I just stood in the mirror and asked myself to name the worst thing I’d ever done. Once I did that, I asked myself whether I could forgive a friend who had done the same thing. The answer felt freeing.
I followed that by asking myself if there was any way I could begin to view the moment in which I experienced the worst thing ever done to me as one in which the universe was as it was meant to be. This one is really hard. But when bad things happen to other people, we often take this view. Why not try on how it might feel from the inside? Again, the answer felt freeing. It didn’t immediately change anything, but it did take away some of the feeling of being personally targeted.
The success of many projects is determined by the preparation that precedes it. Exploring what lies beneath the appearance we project can be the key to achieving better health.