The scene is a 7th-grade girls’ sleepover, circa 1985. We stay up all night giggling and playing games of interest to 13-year-old girls. One game was hypnotizing each other. One girl would lie down while another one would swing a pendant on a chain back and forth and tell her she was getting sleepy. When she was safely “under the spell” the hypnotizer would inform the hypnotizee that when she wakes up she will not know how to walk, so she will crawl around. Sure enough, the hypnotizer snaps her fingers, the hypnotizee wakes up, and starts crawling. The other girls start laughing hysterically and the hypnotizee wonders what’s so funny and continues crawling. This goes on for a long time, different hypnotizees, different hypnotizers and different spells.
It is so much fun and I desperately want to be hypnotized too. But every time I lie down and they swing the pendant, my rational mind remains intact and I am not hypnotized. I let them know, “Sorry, no, I’m not hypnotized yet. Keep trying.” They try again. And again. But no luck. Defeated, I wonder what’s wrong with me and I resign myself to be an audience member, watching all the fun.
The following morning we are eating breakfast. One girl shyly confesses that when we were playing the hypnotizing game she was acting. She never got hypnotized, she was faking it and just playing along. I’m dumbfounded. Her act looked so real to me! Then another girl confesses. And another. Finally, it becomes clear to me that the only thing “wrong with me” was just that I didn’t want to act like I was being hypnotized. I wanted to be really hypnotized.
We are all wearing masks
This story has popped into my mind over and over again recently. It seems so metaphoric for day to day life. Many of us walk around in public acting like we are confident, happy, in love with how our life is going. Inside most of us doubt ourselves, criticize ourselves and are very confused. We see everyone else wearing their mask of confidence and assume it is their real face. “What’s wrong with me?” we wonder. “Everyone else knows what they are doing, where they are going. Everyone else is: in a happy committed long-term relationship, has retirement savings, feeds starving children, knows what they want to be when they grow up (and are either on track to becoming it, or are already there), has 2.5 kids, saves the whales, owns a gorgeous house in the suburbs, has a cute puppy, has financial security, exercises daily, eats healthy food (and NEVER binges), meditates regularly, is negotiating world peace, has a ton of amazingly wonderful close friends that go out together often and laugh deep belly laughs constantly, travels to amazing places…..” you get the idea. What’s wrong with me? Why am I so screwed up?
When my 13-year-old friends pretended to be hypnotized, we got to play a fun game that wouldn’t have happened if we all insisted on full authenticity. I remember having a good time, but also deeply wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t be hypnotized. I am very grateful that they all eventually decided to confess their act. I finally understood that there was nothing wrong with me at all. It was me comparing my internal experience to other’s exterior performance that was wrong.
Since we can never really see what anyone else’s internal experience is, imagine if those of us who are adulting said, “Let’s end this silly game. It was fun for a while, but I’m actually incredibly insecure. I’m living off of my credit cards. My relationship is on the rocks. I’m unsure about every major life choice I have made and I feel like a phony at work, just waiting to be called out as being unqualified – even though I am technically qualified, my heart races every time I am asked to do something demonstrating responsibility. I’m not being called upon to negotiate world peace and I haven’t a clue what to do about global hunger or the whales.” Imagine the impact that all of us opening up about our insecurities, becoming vulnerable, and admitting our confusions, would have on others with the same insecurities. Suddenly we would stop asking, “What’s wrong with me as an individual?” and start asking, “What’s wrong on a societal level that so many of us feel like this? How can we change society so that we all feel more supported, valued and connected?”
Your insecurities are societal, not personal
While there is plenty of literature out there about how to deal with one’s inner critics, much of it still focuses on the individual as the site of the problem. “You are insecure, self-critical, etc because you have screwed up thinking, experienced trauma, had a difficult childhood, are wired incorrectly, whatever.” The cause of the problem is individualized. This can put even more shame on someone who is already very self-critical. “Oh great! I’m super self-critical, self-doubting, and now you are telling me that the cause of my self-doubt is my crappy childhood or my stinking thinking!” Let’s admit that its a societal malfunction. All of us pretending to have our $&1^ together, reinforced by an advertising industry which proposes a very narrow idea of what it means to “have it all”, creating a vicious cycle of self-judgment, insecurities, societal definitions of who we are, etc.
But the game is fun! We had lots of fun playing the hypnotizing game, even though it wasn’t real. Isn’t it still lots of fun when you hang out with friends and you only talk about happy things and you spend the evening laughing? Wouldn’t it be a drag to go out with our friends and talk about our insecurities, our questions, our doubts, and concerns? I just want to have fun! Besides, doesn’t talking about our limiting beliefs just perpetuate them? If I walk around like a happy confident person, doesn’t that mean that I will eventually become one?
Yes, laughter is fun when it is real. But, no, admitting our challenges and doubts does not perpetuate them, it lets us own them and gives us space to heal them. We are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of stigmatized insecurity, which invites us to hide our insecurity, which makes us think no one else feels insecure/inferior, which further stigmatizes it, etc. Add to this an advertising industry that offers us purchasable solutions to all of our problems, so that they make money off of our insecurities. They are incentivized to keep us feeling bad about ourselves so that we continue to purchase things which they claim will make us feel better. (And this definitely includes the self-help, personal development, coaching industries!!!) But what actually will make us feel better is to be fully seen, appreciated and accepted by our community as we are now – not as we aspire to be someday. Our insecurities cannot be healed in isolation at an individual level. They need to be healed at BOTH a societal and individual level. If you repeat affirmations to yourself to build up your self-confidence, but whenever you walk out of your home you are bombarded with messages of not-enoughness, it will be nearly impossible to remain confident. If we transform our society into one which builds us up and reinforces our awesomeness this will lead to much more sustainable long-term healing.
“But”, you may be saying, “Linda, the only place I can make change is me. The reason the books focus on me, is because I can’t change other people. Please don’t try to give me the responsibility to change society too! Changing me is difficult enough!” Yes, I get it. It is true. But society is composed of us. As we change, it changes. We do have the power to change it. And it is essential that we see that the origin of many of our “individual challenges” lies in an unhealthy society. This understanding gives us space to be more compassionate with ourselves and others in the process of healing. And it allows us to do our individual healing work with an awareness of the need for collective liberation.
As long as we believe that our self-doubt is a personal problem, we will continue to put a band-aid on a large gaping wound. When we admit our insecurities we create space for others to admit theirs, leading to collective liberation. So, yes, go out and have fun and be happy with your friends, but also be honest and open about your doubts. How much more fun would it be to play the hypnotizing game if we all knew that we were all playing? How much more do I admire your happiness when I know all the pain underneath it and that you still have the courage to feel joy?
Let’s interrupt this cycle by seeing it and naming it. Let us destigmatize admitting our vulnerabilities, doubts, and questions. How much more healing would it be for all of us to live in a society where we are accepted and loved in all of our complexities, contradictions, and nuances than to spend a lifetime working towards the unattainable goal of healing all of our inner critics so that we feel more confident in a society that only accepts a very narrow version of us?