He wants to be nothing except what he is.That is home.That is happiness. Herman Hesse, pp.53
This essay is inspired by my own uneasy road to be more authentic, and my encounters with my clients and with people who are longing to be who they are. More inspiration comes from often seen basic tension between perfection and authenticity when I make compositions(1) with my clients. This tension sometimes divides the self, and is visible as a pattern in these composition. In my practice and privately I wish to encourage people to be more who they are (self-realization) and discover the beauty of being authentic despite not necessarily being perfect. Imperfection is a part of the self, there can be no authenticity without imperfection. The beauty of imperfection has been celebrated by Japanese value of Wabi. On the road to becoming authentic we can be inspired by celebrating imperfection.
To must and to want
‘Ought’ or ‘must-self’ and ‘authentic self’ can be seen as two forces sometimes pulling us into different directions in life, work and relations. The first force is often connected with the position (2) “I as perfectionist”, the other force with “I as authentic” or “deep down inside”. This opposition can be a tension for life, an inner struggle between social, cultural expectation and our fragile but potentially most powerful sense of authentic existence.
On the one hand, an ‘ought self’ can be judgmental and pushing into a direction of social conformism, it makes people live their lives for things and for tasks, and it does not connect with their feelings, but rather connects with rules, social standards and institutional practices of power. It gives people certainty though by making the world more understandable in categories of good and bad or should and shouldn’t.
The authentic sense of self is, on the other hand, fragile because has no direction prescribed apart of its own. It has to deal with uncertainty before finding its own answers. It is vulnerable because gives us no protection via social conformism. It is adventurous because it is rooted in spontaneity of feelings. The authentic self needs to be rooted in the present moment, because feelings happen now. Being in touch with our feelings is a basis for knowing what we want. When we do not have contact with momentary feelings, we lose contact with our sense of personal values, and risk replacing it by a must-compass of social/cultural expectations related to institutional practices of power.
In my practice I meet people who live their whole lives by ought self and not being in touch with the beauty and fragility of the sense of real wanting and being who they are rather than striving for who they are not. I see this as losing one’s unique potential and freedom, and so do they as they come and explore their inner tensions.
Two types of strength
I see the tensions between authentic self and ought self in my clients while working with composition methods in coaching sessions. This can be sometimes be seen as a clash between I as perfect and I as authentic, between want and must.
“When I allowed my inferior feelings, my anxiety, my pain I could be a more complete human being” said my client, a regional director in an organization which has a strong orientation on power, hierarchy, and control. When in the process of coaching he got in touch with his anxiety and let it be, he became more present, he built up a strength which could be more encompassing: a courage to feel weak, letting the anxiety be. He became stronger while allowing a feeling of weakness, stronger in a different paradoxical but natural way. He took more space and rested into his body. He expressed some relief which came from stopping to avoid and fight against these feelings, a strength of allowing them.
I learned from my clients how strength can be built up by allowing weakness. When they can allow their weaknesses, they became stronger in a natural way and authentic way.
Based on these observations there seem to be two kinds of strength: one which is based on feelings of power, self-esteem, energy while excluding sadness, weakness, anxiety, and another type of strength: this type allows to encompass them. This strength comes from being with one’s anxieties, sadness, weakness, without running away from them. This strength is to accept one’s shadow sides, accepting one’s uncertainties, accepting one’s imperfection. This is a strength which is based on becoming a more complete human being rather than promoting oneself and showing only powerful sides of yourself and being successful. How does one get there?
Through the mouth of a monster…
In Tibetan Mandalas used in initiations, a person travels in a circle which is drawn on the floor. The person walks from the periphery to the center. In this symbolic travel this person meets monsters, or even goes through their mouths. Meeting these demons is inevitable part of the journey, and the way to the center leads through them. Mandalas symbolize the human psyche, and its different aspects are represented by deities, demons, monsters and other beings.
This process of meeting your shadow side is also relevant in work with dialogical self in coaching or counseling, as this too is aimed at reaching your true potential, your authentic self. In these sessions, therefore, clients sometimes need to go through the rejected scary shadow positions, the monsters in oneself, the unwanted feelings in order to move deeper into our themselves, more to their center, to find deeper dimensions, to become more complete, by allowing more parts of ourselves to be. But this road is not smooth, it is rather rocky, and raw.
In this journey we can become more complete human beings. We discover many sides, and some of them may not be smooth, may not be perfect according to the cultural or social expectations. Traveling in this way we can stand in front of important life choices: ‘Do I want to strive for perfection?’ Or ‘do I want to take risk to be more complete, more authentic human being?’ ‘Do I want to strive for strength which I exclude my anxieties and weaknesses or do I want to build strength which encompasses them?’, ‘ Do I take courage of not following expectations of others and breaking sometimes harmony of cultural prescriptions?’
Such seem to be a basic choice in taking a developmental direction in life, and this choice we can make every day over and over again.
Leaving yourself for whom you ought to be
Hesse presents an intriguing definition of happiness: “He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness”. When I work with people who strive endlessly for more and more, they often do not only strive for more in terms of achievements, but also to be more, to be more perfect, to be who they are not.
In reversing the Hesse’s definition of happiness we can also say: “He wants to be everything except what he is. That is unhappiness.” Wanting be better, more perfect, we can then abandon who we are and lost connection with the authentic potential we have.
The ‘Ought’ or ‘ideal self’ described by Higgins (1987) can potentially become a threat to the contact with the source in ‘your self’. Higgings defined the relation between various selves (actual, ideal and ought) in his self-discrepancy theory. The ideal and ought selves are standards that that people use to organize their lives and themselves.
Discrepancies between these versions of the self evoke specific emotions. The discrepancy between the actual self and ideal self, evokes typically feelings of disappointment or sadness. The discrepancy between actual self and ought self, evokes feelings of agitation, guilt, distress, and anxiety.
Already Freud pointed that the desire for being perfect is opposite to being authentic. Karen Horney (1939) describes the impossibility of being authentic and spontaneous and being dominated by superego facade. If one’s safety has been built up on the ambition for perfection, it can be deeply scary to discover an authentic self behind this façade that is different. Moving towards expectations of the other or towards our own we can move away from who we are and from our potential which is in authentic self. Our authentic self becomes an abandoned place. Striving for being perfect and being close to the ought self we can lose the opportunity of discovery of the beauty which is in our own authentic self, which can include both strength and weaknesses, anxieties, joy, and all what the ought self is likely to rejects. Such discoveries are usually the key to successful relation therapy.
Authenticity is like a picture of you with its colors, unique and beautiful in its uniqueness, like honest, raw tree with its all scars, and broken pieces. All what is yours is there and that is why it is so beautiful. So when you can make a composition of yourself which includes all these parts, and you look at it with openness and presence you may see the beauty of the composition, which includes your imperfections, but which is complete, unique and authentic.
You can then meet your self and meet others at a deeper level, as you stop trying to be who you are not and now celebrate being who you are, including your imperfections. But as Karen Horney pointed, it can be a scary process, so it requires much courage and guidance.
“What I am is good enough if I would only be it openly”
A number of tools helps on road towards authenticity. While one is under an influence of ought self and perfectionism, learning to celebrate one’s imperfection is liberating. Inspiration can be found in Japanese aesthetics, in a notion of Wabi.
Wabi art find the beauty in imperfection, asymmetry, forms which dissolve in the space, broken pieces, incomplete elements and in lack. The authenticity of the object reveals its impermanence and fragility. This is raw and authentic beauty which can be seen in broken pieces of wood, smoke dissolving in a space, rawness of a stone, brokenness of a branch
This beauty is known as evoking in some people some magic fascination.
Wabi art presents objects which are far from utilitarian perfection, which expose their authentic uniqueness and beauty which has nothing to do with the ideal of what the object should look like. The value is in the uniqueness and in the way things ‘are’ rather than they ‘should be’.
Wabi also encloses spiritual values showing impermanence of forms, and of going beyond judgmental perspective of “good” and “bad”, “perfect” and “imperfect”, “should” and “have to”. Going beyond this dimension in ourselves we can find some unconditional appreciation of the uniqueness of life and feelings.
This unconditional appreciation, not based on positive evaluation, can be directed furthermore not only towards objects, but also toward our own self and other people’s selves. Wabi can teach us that being human being is also being imperfect and in celebrating this imperfection we can discover another dimension: it is authenticity and connection with beauty of being human, which needs to include weak parts and imperfections if it wants be complete.
In an artist eye
Art is a medium which has potential to see the beauty in a way things are. Good and bad categorizations, and judgmental attitude can subside. It goes beyond a split created by categorization and evaluation (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010). When art is applied on one’s feelings and identity it invites non-judgmental attitudes and inspires to express the “suchness” of experience, it’s “isness” (being), its authentic existence rather than striving for positive and perfection. Working with the tool of composition therapists invite people to make artistic compositions of themselves and allow all aspects of themselves as parts of these compositions. Together with clients we search for patterns in their lives and learn just to look at these patterns being present. Being able to witness and fully being with one’s experience is a basis for growth, for development. Carl Rogers already observed: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
When one looks at your oneself at one’s own emotions from an artistic perspective one sees that shadows are important arts of a composition, its authenticity, depth and richness can become of a greater value than including only positive and acceptable elements. Working with artistic composition can prove a training in non-judgmental attitude, which is the door to a deeper contact with your self, contact with who you are rather than you should be.
In my coaching work I would like to inspire people to celebrate who they are and base their development on their authenticity or at least to recognize the struggle between must and to want in themselves. Every person has something unique to offer to the world and when this person tries to be who he or she is not, this person can lose the contact with this unique treasure, talent he or she has. People often abandon themselves in their struggle for being who they are expected to be by the culture or others. Sometimes there is a long journey to come back to your self, but as Hesse said: Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all. When Buber was writing about the main question posed by God as “where are you in your life?” Hesse could probably ask “did you come back home in your life? Are you on your way back home?”
This essay presents two developmental lines, two life styles and directions. First is trying to be more positive, to follow an outside example, cultural roles, expectations, or striving to be perfect. The value is in being better and positive, being driven by “have to” or must beliefs.
There is another line: discovering the uniqueness and beauty of who we are now, at this moment of life. The value is in being more complete and in encompassing both the dark and light sides of ourselves. A beauty of the composition is in an interplay between shadows and the lights , the authenticity cannot exist without both sides. The core of the second line is to become more who we really are not trying to become who we are now, but think we should be. Learning to celebrate imperfection as a part of authenticity can inspire us to be more who we are realizing potential of the self in more free, enjoyable and fulfilling way.
- 1.Composition method is an artistic method of work in coaching, counseling and training which belongs to the dialogical self approach
- 2.I positions in Dialogical Self Theory (Hermans, 2001) are parts, characters or aspects of the self and they are factors of multiplicity of the self
Agnieszka Hermans Konopka