Epictetus once said, “It is impossible for man to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” This quotation sums up why so many of us are not experiencing contentment or serenity in our lives. We think we possess knowledge that we actually haven’t yet acquired. And where our ignorance has the most devastating impact on our ultimate outcome is when it pertains directly to ourselves.
If we think we know ourselves, yet we have never taken the time to understand ourselves, then it will never be possible for us to live an authentic life. What is an authentic life? It is a life in which we are making the decisions that are in keeping with what is best for is. It is a life where the opinion of those around us matters a great deal less than the opinions we have about ourselves.
To live authentically, you have to strip yourself of everything that is not genuine. You have to let go of learned behavior that does not match up with who you really are. And you have to get to the point where you would rather disappoint everyone else in your life than to disappoint you.
Some people would say that such a philosophy promotes selfishness. But what it really does is enable you to give others the freedom to be authentic, too. Once you cease meeting or trying to meet the expectations of others at the expense of your own needs, they will be forced to gain clarity about themselves and what their needs may be.
I have spoken about the potency of habits in a previous blog post. And I want to delve more deeply into the way that habits can negatively impact both your life and the lives of those around you. When William James wrote his chapter on “Habit” in his Principles of Psychology, there were many things about human behavior that had not yet been discovered or analyzed. James encouraged people to allow certain actions to become habitual, such as eating a meal or taking a bath.
The problem is, even these seemingly innocuous activities should actually be engaged in while we are thinking about them. Why? Well, the more we get into the pattern of doing things without engaging our mental faculties, the more inclined we are to not use those faculties at times that it is essential for us to do so. Now, there obviously are habits that have a positive influence on our lives. But sometimes we need to make sure that the habits we think are positive actually are.
For example, if we have a habit of repressing our true thoughts and opinions in order to be accepted by others, is that really a good habit? Or does it simply appear to be good on the surface? And, even if we do win this much sought-after acceptance, is it really worth very much if we had to pretend to be someone other than ourselves in order to gain it?
Let me ask you something. If someone told you that he or she would write a book under your name and that it would be a best-seller, would you think that was a tempting idea? Even if you did, would the accolades that you received when the book was published mean nearly as much to you as if you had written the book yourself? Or would a certain part of you feel like a fraud?
When people told you what a wonderful writer you were, would that mean that you would actually believe them? Or is it possible that you could get to the point where you actually believed that you had written the book? If you answer no, I challenge you to reconsider your reply. Although you may think that I’m taking things too far by using this example to illustrate my point, you probably at least concede that it would be possible for some people to buy into their own fraudulent identity.
Sometimes it is easier to get trapped in a life that is compromised of learned behavior patterns and assumed opinions than it is to explore our own authenticity as an individual. To conform to what others think we should be does not require courage or conviction. What it does take is a self-image that is not clearly defined. I am often told by people who cross my path that they would finally have happiness or contentment in their lives if they could just find the right career or if the man or woman of their dreams would miraculously come into their lives. Although I empathize with such thought patterns, I think that they are both unrealistic and dangerous.
For one thing, such beliefs prevent us from taking the time to work on ourselves. They remove the necessity of personal growth because we are looking at something outside of ourselves to make us complete. And, when that person or that career fails to live up to our idyllic fantasies, we are left feeling even more dissatisfied than we were before. In a way, it’s like someone with an eating disorder attempting to “cure” the problem without getting to the root of what is causing it.
When I was thirteen, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. The illness itself harmed me far less than the way the doctor I was seeing at the time treated the illness. Rather than taking the time to analyze and examine what was causing me to deprive myself of nourishment, she blamed me for not eating and seemed to subscribe to the erroneous assumption that I was making a conscious choice not to eat. If you know anything about anorexia, you understand that it is not a choice. Even though those who are anorexic often use starvation as a coping mechanism to handle the fact that certain aspects of their lives seem to be beyond their control, they are not consciously engaging in this behavior.
Similarly, if you are unfulfilled or unhappy and you are seeking a relationship or a career to escape from the emptiness within yourself, you may not be doing this intentionally. When we feel a void within us, it is only natural that we might have a frantic need to fill that emptiness. It’s interesting how quick we are to talk about connecting or reconnecting with our bliss. But is there still not the assumption that we have discovered our “bliss”? Emptiness and bliss are not compatible. Thus, as long as we have a nagging sense of dissatisfaction within ourselves, we are not only not connecting with our bliss–we have not found our “bliss”.
Of course, like the word happiness, bliss is also a word that can be defined in many different ways. However, I have the sense that it conveys the essence of elation or exuberance. If we use that definition of bliss or even partially subscribe to that definition, then we must also admit that there are not many people whom we have ever known who have seemed very exuberant or elated. Does this mean that it is unrealistic to expect to ever feel bliss? No. But it does mean that we may have to redefine the word. The other option is that we will have to accept the fact that, even though we want to believe we are connected to our bliss, we are actually still pursuing it.
One assumption that prevents us from living authentically is the idea that happiness or bliss is a destination that we will someday reach. Perhaps, some of us even think that if we feel loved and appreciated enough, contentment will be ours. But what sort of contentment are we seeking? If you are honest with yourself, I think you’ll admit that you are not looking for the temporary feeling of rapture that comes from devouring a piece of chocolate cake.
Chocolate cake is wonderful, but once you’ve eaten it, it’s gone. If you pursue the wrong type of bliss or if you are not clear about the type of bliss that you won’t, you may end up with a lot of what I would call “chocolate cake” moments but no lasting feeling of fulfillment or significance. Is that what you want? Even if you could exist on a diet of nothing but candy, cake, and cookies, would that ultimately satisfy you?
To me, the satisfaction that comes from lots of “chocolate cake moments” is a bit like the happiness that is derived from buying clothes and jewelry or taking a trip to some country you’ve never traveled to before. Sure, there is enjoyment–but how long does it last, and how profound is it? Your soul is never going to be content if the only nourishment it gets are from things that have no lasting value.
At the end of your life, knowing that you have lived authentically and honestly is going to mean a great deal more to you than how many pairs of shoes you have in the closet or how many trips to Europe or exotic locales you have taken. And unless you are living authentically at the time that you enter into a relationship or marriage, you will not find happiness in that partnership, either. For no matter how much love, admiration, and acceptance you get, if it isn’t the authentic you who is being accepted or loved or admired, how can it make you happy?
An actor I once knew told me that he believed that nearly all people are wearing masks and that only when we get to the point in our lives where we are willing to take off our masks will we be at peace with ourselves. It is somewhat uncomfortable to accept this concept. For, if we do, we have to wonder how much of the behavior we are witnessing on the part of those around us is sincere. But when we understand the reason why we wear masks, we can embrace the idea without it making us feel overwhelmed, confused, or uneasy.
Usually, we put on these masks at a very young age. Why? Because when we are children, we start being told what behavior is “acceptable” and what behavior is “unacceptable”. Our hands are slapped when we touch the hot stove, and we get a spanking when we decide to stick our finger in an electrical outlet. We hear so many “thou shalt nots” that, merely for the sake of ease, we repress our needs and desires and modify our words and actions in order to please those around us.
The problem is that we carry this repressed behavior into our adult life, and, instead of the masks getting more transparent, they oftentimes get more opaque. Eventually, separating our real faces from the masks that have been covering them for so long becomes almost impossible. For one thing, the masks have become our security blankets. As long as we are wearing them, we are able to face the world without having to constantly worry about being rejected. Even though we may get rejected when we wear our masks, the real persons being rejected are the persons we’re pretending to be.
In a way, wearing a mask not only protects us from being hurt but it also means that many of the negative judgements that are made about us can be disregarded. We can tell ourselves, “Well, that person didn’t really know me. If he had, he wouldn’t have rejected me.” Yes, this may be the case, but is it not better to be rejected for ourselves than to be accepted for someone we’re not?
If we do not give other people the chance to see and get to know the true individuals that we are, we are inadvertently forcing them into the role of unwitting conspirators in our elaborate attempts to weave a life built upon half-truths and lies. So, we are both failing to connect with our own authenticity and encouraging others to be inauthentic as well.
As I learn more and more about human behavior and examine with growing clarity the role that our mental conditioning and our learned patterns of behavior play in our success and happiness, I realize that as much as an artist works to perfect his paintings or a pianist works to polish his or her technique, we must work at mastering the art of living. Once again, I turn to Epictetus, who said, “For as carpenter’s material is wood, and that of the statuary is copper, so the matter of the art of living is each man’s life.” In the end, each of our lives if what we have made of it, and we can either choose to master the art of living or we can always be stuck in a never-ending cycle of lies, destructive patterns, deception, emotional pain, and learned behaviors. Which choice will you make?
Alexis, the SuccessDiva
This page and all written material at the SuccessDiva pages is written by Alexis Wingate. All rights are reserved. (C) Copyright by Alexis Wingate, the SuccessDiva