“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” — Rumi
First a note to my readers. I’ve decided to not write about the coronavirus (COVID-19). There is already so much written about this topic, often for very good reasons. These are times when following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a very good idea. However, we also need to listen to ourselves and be connected to others. For now, I just don’t want to give this disease more air-time than it deserves. In time we will overcome this malady. It’s the rest of our lives that concerns me. Let us focus instead on having a strong and resilient identity no matter what other people think or what is going on around us. We are all capable of that. Let us balance relying on others and listening to our own heart. This is what will keep us safe.
There is such a thing as healthy mimetics. We humans, like all mammals, are fundamentally imitative beings. We both need and like to learn from each other, especially in our early childhood. Our brains are wired through evolution with mirror neurons. This means that our brains light up the same way as another human being doing a certain task when we watch them doing that task. This is the beginning of our independence, especially seen in the years of our “terrible two’s” and adolescence. Our genetically endowed talents and practicing also affects our learning. Essentially, we learn from each other and we learn from ourselves. There is no escaping this learning. If we don’t have mothers and fathers teaching us about life the best we can do is wing it. And we often do that badly. In fact, this imitating of each other goes beyond just learning tasks, it affects our whole identity, sense of self and relational capacity. Most of us learn who we are through others and from an internal sense of self.
It is no wonder that Facebook and other forms of social media are so popular. We are wired from evolution for these types of media sources, especially when they are so instantaneous. We like to compare how we relate or don’t relate to others. These experiences can be affirming or devaluing depending on how we compare to others. If we have a reasonably strong sense of self, we can differentiate ourselves from others and allow others to be different from ourselves. We may say, “Well to each his own.” We all can learn from other people’s experiences. This is the healthy version of mimicry.
However, there is a less healthy version of imitating others that is called “Living through others.” It involves not just learning from others but also being what other people expect of us and gaining success through conformity and people pleasing. When we live through others, we disown our own judgments about ourselves, we lack self-reflection and we make decisions primarily to please others. Often this pattern of vicarious living is mostly unconscious and strongly driven by social pressures in an attempt to belong to a group. People who live through others rarely examine the cost of losing their identity to others and focus instead on their social standing. They opt for the short-term benefit of stardom and conformity instead of the long-term gain of authentic self-confidence.
I was married for twenty years to a good man, the kind that most women would die for. I and my children were well provided for. I was never abused. I conformed to what all my friends expected of me. I was so popular with my own family and the women in my social circle. Many of them wished they had my life. I was doing exactly what my family expected of me. But, in fact, I was terribly miserable and couldn’t understand why. For years I told myself to just ignore my misery and count myself lucky. Then one day out of the blue I met Adie at the local food co-op. She and I connected like magic. We met many times and giggled like two schoolgirls together. Something came alive in me that had almost died. She was an amazing listener who really cared about me. For once I could be finally be myself. My cloud of misery lifted like sunshine after a rainy day. It took me two years to finally realize that I needed to be more than just successful in other people’s eyes. I really needed to be myself even if it meant losing the benefits of my “good life.” For the first time ever I had a self, not just a self for somebody else. I went through many losses and struggles. I didn’t just make this change to be in another relationship. I did it for myself. Sadly, I had to say goodbye to my perfect husband. At the end of it all, my girls and I have never been happier. We didn’t need to bear the burden of other people’s expectations. And yes, Adie and I still giggle a lot together. Through her and some new friends I finally got a life.
The difference between “living through others” and “relying on others”
When you live through others you conform to the way of others and disown your own identity for some external reward. You may not even be aware of your own feelings and thinking. You just try to do what your idol does.
When you rely on others you ask for advice and information from others and welcome their support, but you mainly make your own independent decisions about your life. Healthy dependency is where you ask for consultation from others, but you also ask yourself “Now what do I think and feel about this subject?” You own complete responsibility for what you have decided, more so when you are wrong. Living through others makes us eternally insecure and immature. Relying on others, while getting feedback from them, enables us to be a secure adult.
Why do some of us become chameleons?
Most of us have learned to be overly conforming and people-pleasing due to massive insecurity in our childhood. If our parents were either absent or frightening to us, then we would learn to be what they wanted us to be or tell them what they wanted to hear for our survival needs. We essentially learned to manipulate others at the expense of our own identities. Or else we would have fantasy relationships with heroic others and live in a pretend world. Many of us may mistakenly deny that our childhood years were insecure and blame ourselves for being master manipulators. Chameleons are often the “good kids” in the family whom people generally like. They are also the people with the most anger and enjoy passive defiance. Whether we are being successful “yes men” to others or underperforming “rebels without a cause” we are still lacking our own identity and lack real independence. The roles we get into are learned behaviors which can be unlearned. They are not inherent parts of our identity, and can be changed.
Resisting mindless conformity and having more of a real self
Being your own person does not happen overnight. It is a process that requires courage, persistence and emotional support. It is ironic but true to say, “You cannot do this on your own.” We need empowering relationships to loosen the grip of our past disabling relationships. Here are some possible guidelines to a more confident self:
- Reflect on the costs of you living through others. Are you often insecure no matter how much you achieve or how much you know? Do you often feel like a fraud in social interactions? Do you feel your primary value is sacrificing for others? Do you have persistent feelings of low self-esteem despite your successes? Are you constantly underachieving in life? Are your friendships primarily utilitarian?
- Read some books on personal empowerment. Melody Beattie’s book Codependent No More (Hazelden Press, 1992) is a good one. Michelle Obama’s book Becoming (Crown Press, 2018) is another good one. Can you imagine being independent while also being the wife of the US President, constantly in the public spotlight? A good book for men is The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit written in the conformist era of the 1950’s by Sloan Wilson.
- Notice and face the fears you are avoiding by living through another person. Take notice of your body reactions if you imagine not conforming to what your hero tells you to do. Do you cringe at the idea of making decisions all on your own no matter how much trouble you anticipate? Can you imagine standing up to someone who you allow to run your life? What are the real and imagined dangers you face? What would it be like if you gave up your current comforts and social supports for the unknown challenges of being independent? Most of us choose known dangers we mistakenly believe we can control over the unknown perils of being happy and on our own. Is that true for you? Do a cost/benefit analysis for which path you are choosing in life.
- Be open for surprises. Most of the time the dangers we fear are like paper tigers. They only exist in our imagination. Particularly when we also realize just how much strength and wisdom we have already to make independent decisions. An example of this is how a friend of mine handled his paper tiger:I was like a slave to my wife for decades. There was no pleasing her and I got more and more depressed. Nothing I did made a difference. Counseling never worked with us. My whole identity was built on not getting her mad at me. Finally, I left a note on the table and took a long trip to New Orleans all on my own. The note said, “I need to find what makes me happy.” I was panicked most of the way on that long car trip down South and thought about turning back. But I had a great time in the French Quarter and listened to a lot of jazz. I was actually quite happy and found no danger there. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to do the whole trip all on my own. I knew then that I could be on my own forever and be OK.
- Get support for your facing your fears. You aren’t a lesser person for not facing your fears. Some of us are in too dangerous a position or are just not ready to do so. But if you decide to go for it, don’t do it alone. Get involved in a good Al-Anon group, find a sponsor who can have personal regular contact with you and find a trusted helper as needed to face your unknown fears. You can take small steps or big leaps to be your own person. There is no one way to do it. Be in charge of your life rather than having life be in charge of you. To be fully human it is absolutely normal and necessary to have your own identity. You will also get to have more real friends that way.
- Get inspiration and grace from others. If you think you have it so bad, imagine being a talented gay, black man in the 1950’s who could express his soul to the world. His name was James Baldwin. All of his works are worth reading. He said: “I was not born to be what someone else said I was.”
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.