Authenticity and congruence

This a continuation of my last post, “How to be more like you,” in which I wrote about phoniness vs. authenticity. Most of us come by the inauthenticity that Fritz Perls described as phoniness quite  honestly, via the process of socialization. As children, we learn from the adult role models in our lives, and we’re often taught to be inauthentic. The template for prescribed phony behavior might be “politeness,” or religion, or social expectations about “correct  behavior” or even “correct feelings.” I’ve known people who were abused and/or  neglected by their parents who still, as adults, felt guilty about not loving them the way they “should.” Many children are taught who they are “supposed to” love, from grandpa to God. Genuine love can’t be forced.

A kiss that is anything other than an expression of affection or love or sexual passion is a phony kiss. Jane may not have even liked Aunt Sadie, but her parents taught her to give her a kiss anyway, whenever she visited. Children are often given admonitions such as: “Don’t cry! You’re a boy!” and “Don’t you get angry at me, young lady!” and “Of course you love him; he’s your grandfather!”

Some people have jobs that require them to act cheerful, no matter what they’re really feeling. Behavior arising from authentic feelings might be judged by others as impolite or inappropriate in certain situations. We’ve all been in circumstances where we felt the need to hide our true feelings; but some people go through life feeling that way every day. They have their reasons.

Con men, sociopaths and bullshitters are purposefully inauthentic. Others have learned to habitually cover up their true feelings; it’s their default mode. One of the ways I would confront a client who was putting on an act in therapy was, “You’re always on stage, aren’t you?” The look in their eyes (busted!) told me that I was on target, and that this was something they needed to know that other people could see through. People whose default mode is authenticity know themselves better than people who constantly put on an act to win approval. They are also more secure and self-accepting. I know this from personal experience, as I used to be a people pleaser, myself. My phoniness arose from feelings of insecurity.

A related concept that was important to me as a therapist was congruence. There are two kinds of congruence. One has to do with they way you come across when communicating. If someone being threatened says to his antagonist, “You don’t scare me” in a soft, tremulous voice, with body language that indicates fear, his verbal message won’t be believed. It’s incongruent with his other modes of communication. If someone says “I’M NOT ANGRY!” loudly, with fists clenched and an aggressive posture, he’s giving incongruent messages. When a person’s words are matched by her vocal tone, facial expression and body language, her message is congruent. People who are seen as charismatic are highly congruent communicators.

As a therapist with training in gestalt theory, I became very good at spotting subtle incongruities in therapy. In gestalt therapy, incongruent messages get challenged by the therapist. If a client claims (incongruently) that it really doesn’t bother her when her husband calls her stupid, the therapist might ask her to say the opposite: “It really bothers me when my husband calls me stupid!” (“But it really doesn’t bother me!” “Try saying it anyway.”) This technique is very effective in getting clients to recognize their true feelings, which often rise to the surface as the client repeats the opposite of their initial rationalized statement.

The other kind of congruence is role congruence. Do you act like a different person in your different life roles, or would family members and close friends recognize you as the same person they know, if they saw you at work? Obviously, some jobs – like a drill sergeant at a military boot camp – require you to take on a badass role that is (one hopes) incongruent with how he behaves in other situations. But under most circumstances a congruent person is recognizably the same person as a worker, a spouse, a parent and a friend. Incongruent persons are role-bound, and might be a tyrant at home and a reasonable person at work – or the other way around. Congruent people are authentically themselves in all the roles in their lives.

The intrinsic reward for being yourself – warts and all – is that when people who know you give you messages (feedback) about who you are, they’re revealing the things you need to hear, to be self-aware. I’ve written before about the paradox of identity. You can’t have self-knowledge in a social vacuum. We need other people who know us, in order to know who we “really are.” They’ll tell us, and if there’s some disagreement, it’s all grist for the mill. A consensus will emerge over time about who you are.

If you were living alone on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly know what kind of person you are? How could you know if you’re generous or stingy, witty or dull? We depend on other people in our lives to have an accurate sense of our own identity. Being authentic and congruent helps us to know who we really are, and what we might like to change about who we are.

Your “self” is either a rigid construct – “that’s just who I am!” – or a work in progress. Whatever your age.


The paradox of identity, Part 1

This post begins with my approximation of one of my “standard raps” (talks) as a leader of psycho-educational therapy groups – my examination of the concept of identity: “We think of identity as that which is unique to us, that which characterizes us as the singular person we are, But there’s a riddle embedded in the concept. How do we know who we really are? Think of Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away,” alone on an island for a long time. As time goes on without human contact, how can he know who he is? How can he know if he’s kind or sensitive, or if he’s kept his sense of humor? Only when he meets Friday can Robinson Crusoe begin to reconstruct an identity.

The paradox of identity is that it relies on relationships with others to define it, and doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. No one person is the absolute authority on your identity – but neither are you, because you can’t be objective about yourself. The person your intimates know you as might not always validate your Cherished Self Image. (We all have one.) I remember one of the first times I was with my divorced first wife, Doris, in the company of my then-girlfriend Maria – my wife of twenty-seven years. (We all remain close friends.) When I made some reference to myself as a laid-back person, they both laughed loud and long.

I’m not a laid-back person by nature; that was just part of my Cherished Self Image. People who know me well know that I’m an intense person, with lots of energy. That doesn’t mean I can’t ever be laid back, just that it’s not my default mode.”

In my career as a psychotherapist I came across a number of folks who were people pleasers. I was good at spotting the insecurities that go along with being a people pleaser, because I used to be one, myself. People pleasers want to be liked by everyone – even people they don’t like. Some people in therapy with me had, or developed, insight into their compulsion to please others, even at their own expense, and made it a goal of therapy to get over their “phony” people pleasing ways. The opposite of phony-ness is “authenticity,” which can be learned with attention and practice.

As a young man, just out of four years in the Army, I felt like everybody  in the psychology program knew more than me. I hadn’t developed a secure sense of who I was. I’d gotten over some bad habits of my youth, but I had a lot of self-doubt about my fitness to be a psychotherapist. What I recognized was that when I met new people – especially if I liked or respected them – I tried to come across as the person I thought they might want me to be. I sought their approval by trying to please them. I said things I didn’t really mean, and did favors it wasn’t in my heart to do. I monitored others for signs of disapproval, so I could improve my act.

I knew I couldn’t be an effective therapist unless I stopped being phony with others. Providence supplied my mentor in this process, in the form of my gestalt therapy professor. Dr. Fred Axelberd was known for a frankness in personal encounters that some saw as brutal, but he became my primary role model for being authentic. As an example: If a grad student asked him after class, “Hey, do you want to go have a beer and finish this conversation?” and he didn’t want to , he’d simply say, “No.” and walk away. No context, no explanation, no excuse. If the student felt hurt or rejected, that was on him. Fred didn’t feel like he had to justify his social decisions to others. One day Fred looked me in the eye and asked me, “You want everyone to like you, don’t you?” I couldn’t deny it, and resolved to change.

People pleasers are excessively “polite” and have to justify any “no” they might express. They say polite/phony things rather than simply expressing their wishes. “Sorry, I’d like to stay but I can’t. I’ve got to ______.” Recognizing my own need to seek approval from everyone, I set about emulating Fred and not making excuses for my decisions about what I wanted to do with whom, when. It’s a cognitive behavioral therapy technique called “exposure,” where you confront your fear of drowning by getting in the water. I taught myself over time that if I said or did something authentic, and someone didn’t like me or disapproved as a result, it wasn’t the end of the world. I could survive someone’s disapproval.

Fred Axelberd’s “Gestalt Man” course provided fertile ground for my personal growth, as well as experiences that trained me to do therapy in the gestalt mode. One of the course requirements was being videotaped in front of the class, both as the client in a gestalt session, and as the therapist. I spent time in what gestalt therapists call “the hot seat,” and got a taste of the vulnerability that psychotherapy clients can feel. After each session, we’d all watch the videotape, which could be stopped at any point if Fred or a classmate had an observation or suggestion. It felt like being examined naked in public, but I learned a lot about myself in the process. There’ll be more about identity – and gestalt therapy – in my next post.