One of the reasons I started writing this blog is to make me talk about things that make me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. The vulnerability topic for today has to do with the need to be seen in a certain way. Like most unconscious drivers, most of us at one point or another, feel we Must Be Seen As something – a terrific parent, sibling, son/daughter, husband/wife, employee, or attractive, smart, creative, sexy, competent, athletic, macho, responsible, logical, ethical, right, or perfect. You name it. Nothing wrong with this need, per se. It’s very normal and can drive us to achieve. Of course, problems may occur when someone or something threatens our self-perception.
How does this work? So I have a need to be seen as a good mother and employee. If someone criticizes my work performance or my kids, then my self-identity is threatened. I have a choice to either cope constructively (see below) with my feelings of inadequacy, shame, embarrassment, or to go into denial and blame. If my self-image as a great mom is being threatened, I might blame or attack my kids or the messenger himself (you are stupid/unfair/unreasonable/bad), or maybe defend my kids (the other kid started it, she got what she deserved, he was just tired, there is an unreasonable amount of homework). Conversely, I might just take it out on myself: I’m a terrible person, I’m unworthy, no one will respect/love me, I’m a helpless victim, and so on. If at work, I may use the same sort of self-justifications to protect my sacred self-image of the good employee, or merely indulge myself with a good round of self-hate and self pity.
So, does this behavior make me a better mom and employee? Or worse? Again, my fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What Must You Be Seen As? What happens when someone threatens to unravel your carefully protected self-image? Do you go into self-hating mode or go into attack/blame mode? How does it feel? How do you act?
This awareness of our usual emotional and behavioral response is the first important step to managing our Must Be Seen As needs. The Arbinger Institute refers to this dysfunctional reaction as going into, or being in, The Box. Arbinger recommends we find out of Box space: a safe, calming person, place or thing that allows us to feel heard yet open to other perspectives and inputs. I have friends/loved ones that I go to who are supportive, honest and impartial, and who do not encourage my self-justifying behavior. Even the memory of an aunt who showed me a great kindness when she didn’t have to is soothing. I also treasure the time in my bathtub or at the river, or perhaps even just a quiet space where I can stop the chatter in my head as a means to restore me to my saner self.
Making a mistake does not make me a bad mom or employee. It makes me human. It makes me want to grow and improve. It makes me realize that I used to make many more mistakes in the past and that I have improved over time. It humbles me to realize that I have so much more to learn. Reaching out to those I have mistreated because I’m in the Box is healing to us both.
I’m not saying it’s now easy to feel like a screw-up or failure. I’m just saying that I’m less likely to go into or stay in that space for long if I own my need that I Must Be Seen As. And that, my friends, is freeing.