The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)

Part III. MEDITATIONS

Chapter 16. Ninth Meditation: The Great Deception

We sense that we are impostors. Keeping our feelings a secret, we assume no one on earth is as neurotic, no one as uniquely flawed.

Diane Acker man

There has been much change, and some progress, since the nineteenth century and the reign of Queen Victoria. Revolutions, like tidal waves, created a new world order, not just politically but in our everyday mores—in the way we dress and talk, in the way we approach sex and art. The shift over the past century or two, broadly speaking, has been from excessive prudishness to what many might argue is excessive openness. On closer scrutiny, though, we see that much of this change seems more significant than it actually is.

We pride ourselves on having become less restrained and inhibited than our ancestors, but progress has only been skin deep, at best. While we have learned to expose our bodies, our hearts remain buried, and while discourse of rough sex is permitted, talk of tender love is taboo. New York streets may sizzle with bare flesh in summer, but we bare our souls only in the privacy of the therapist’s office. We have become—or, perhaps, have remained—emotional prudes.

In nineteenth-century England, New England, and beyond, the mark of a true lady was her ability to mask her feelings and suppress her desires; the mark of a true gentleman was his ability to transcend his emotions. Today many of us—and perfectionists in particular—feel that we must suppress our emotional discomfort and be—or at the very least seem—happy.

This perfectionist expectation, to display an unbroken chain of positive emotions, leads to much unhappiness. We are taught to hide our pain, fake a smile, put on a brave face. And when most of what we see are perfect smiles displayed on other people’s perfectly tanned faces, we begin to believe that we are the odd ones out—because we are sometimes sad or lonely or we don’t feel as happy or as put together as everyone else appears to be. Not wanting to be the odd one out, to ruin the festive circus and reveal our shameful feelings, we hide our unhappiness with our own clown mask, and when asked how we are, we respond, with a wink and a smile, “Just great.” And then we run to the psychiatrist’s office and command her, though she needs no commanding, to make our sadness go away. We join the march of folly, become accomplices in the great deception that denies humanity’s humanity.

In his book Radical Honesty, Brad Blanton writes, “We all lie like hell. It wears us out. It is the major source of all human stress. Lying kills people.”1 For most people (the psychopath being an exception), lying is stressful, which is why lie detectors generally work. When we hide part of ourselves, when we lie about how we feel, the normal stress associated with lying is compounded by the stress of suppressing emotions. Conversely, when we acknowledge how we feel, to ourselves and to those close to us, we are more likely to experience the calm that comes with honesty, the release and relief that come with giving ourselves the permission to be human.

In a recent report published in Germany, people who have to smile for a living (such as sales assistants and flight attendants) were found to be more prone to depression, stress, cardiovascular problems, and high blood pressure.2Most people need to put on a mask for at least part of the day; basic human courtesy requires that we sometimes curb our emotions, whether they be anger or frustration or passion. The solution to this problem—whether one is required to pretend for much of the day working in the service industry or for only some of the day, as anyone interacting with other people has to do—is to find what Brian Little calls a “restorative niche.” The niche can include sharing our feelings with a trusted friend, writing whatever comes to mind in a personal journal, or simply spending time alone in our room. Depending on our constitution, some of us may need ten minutes to recover from the emotional deception, and others may need hours. The key during the recovery period is to do away with pretense, to be real, and to allow ourselves to feel any emotion that arises.

Much has been written and said about positive self-talk—for example, repeating to ourselves “I am wonderful” when we feel down, “I am strong” when going through a rough patch, or “I am getting better every day in every way” each morning in front of the mirror. The evidence that this sort of pep talk works is weak, and there are psychologists who suggest that it can actually hurt more than it can help. Little, unfortunately, has been written about real self-talk, acknowledging honestly what we are feeling at a given point. When feeling down, saying “I am really sad” or “I feel so torn”—to ourselves or to someone we trust—is much more helpful than declaring “I am tough” or “I am happy.”

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Where in your life are you required to put on an emotional mask? Where and with whom in your life can you create restorative niches?

Not only do we make ourselves unhappy when we suppress emotions, when we pretend, but we make others unhappy as well. In this way, the great deception (pretending that we are really happy when we are not) contributes to the great depression (to the rising levels of unhappiness in the world). In putting on the facade, we communicate to others that everyone is doing just great, except for them, which makes them feel worse and even more determined to hide their pain. By perpetually hiding our emotions, we don’t give others permission to share their own. And in turn, their brave faces communicate to us that everyone else is doing great, and we consequently feel even worse. And so we all continue, smiling our way through the insincere dance of words and gestures, engaged in a downward spiral of deception and depression.

There are those who believe that the common tendency to feel better when others reveal their pain exposes our dark side. The Germans have a word for it, Schadenfreude, which Gary Coleman of Avenue Q defines as “happiness at the misfortune of others.” But there is another, more generous interpretation of why others’ sharing of their pain can lead to our gain: we feel better because we recognize that we are normal and we are not alone.

The call for more emotional openness is not a call to wear our hearts on our sleeves, which is not always fitting or helpful. But there is a healthy middle-ground between full disclosure and total concealment. An occasional honest answer, like “a bit sad” or “slightly anxious,” in response to a genuine “How are you?” can help us, and those around us, feel a little less sad and slightly more hopeful. While we should leave full disclosures to pillow talk, the therapist’s couch, or our password-protected computer screen, we would do well to restrict the use of our perfect mask, perhaps wearing it to a stuffy board meeting or a Halloween party.

There are those who argue that, emotionally speaking, we have actually regressed since the Victorian era. Psychiatrist Julius Heuscher, lamenting the modern disparagement of revealing emotions, quotes the legendary French entertainer Maurice Chevalier: “Girls used to blush when they were ashamed, now they are ashamed when they blush.” So rather than pretending to have made progress, as we do when passing judgment on Victorian mores, we need to make real progress—and that requires being real.

EXERCISE

Image Sentence Completion

Generate at least sixendings to each of thefollowing sentence stems, as quickly as you can, without analyzing or thinking too much. After you have completed them, look at your responses, reflect on them, and, in writing, commit to action.

To be 5 percent more open about my feelings . . .

If I am more open about my feelings . . .

If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my fears . . .

When I hide my emotions . . .

To become 5 percent more real . . .