Updated: Jan 22, 2022
© Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., 2022
All Rights Reserved
During the 1960’s there was a popular television game show called “To Tell the Truth.” During the show four celebrity panelists such as Betty White and Kitty Carlisle were presented with three contestants that all claimed to be the same person who had accomplished some amazing feat such inventing the ball point pen, escaping from concentration camps, receiving singing awards, being crowned “Miss America,“ etc. The real person was considered the “central character” and the other two the “imposters.” The goal of the game was for the panelists to correctly identify the authentic central character and in order to do so, the panelists would ask the contestants questions about their lives. The “imposter” contestants would pretend to be the real character and so they could lie as much as they wanted when asked a question (and some were amazingly creative with the answers they provided), but according to the rules of the game, the central character could only tell the truth. At the end of the game the panelists would cast their votes, guessing which one of the contestants was the “real” person. After votes were entered, the game show host would ask the “real” contestant to “please stand up.” In many ways, we are all playing a similar game throughout our lives. There is so much pressure for us to meet the approval of others (parents as well as society), we act as “imposters” attempting to pass as a someone other than our authentic selves.
If leading a fulfilling life is contingent upon following goals and activities that align with our “true” selves, how do we recognize our authentic self when the world is so bent on telling us who we ”really” are or who we ”should” be? The answer may be found in examining the Phoenix archetype: in order to reveal the real you it is necessary to let some things go…to incinerate the old (false) self in order to emerge from the ashes as someone new (your authentic self). Death can be a painful process and the demise of the ”old you” is no exception. In fact, the process can be so uncomfortable that we often resist the process. However, like the mythological phoenix, to reincarnate one must first die. The problem is, identifying which aspects of the old self to sacrifice can be a difficult process. Especially after being told throughout our lives by well intentioned parents, friends, teachers, partners, religious organizations, governments, and society what is “worth” valuing and which goals and activities are “worth” pursuing. If a caterpillar clung to the false idea that their true identity was a worm, destined to crawl around in the dirt hiding from hungry birds, it might not ever believe flight was possible. We too, must be willing to sacrifice our false identities in order to truly experience the freedom and joy of living authentically. Why Do We Get Off Course?
From the moment that we are born we receive many confusing and often times conflicting messages concerning the value of behaviors, traits, and pursuits. In the United States there is a high emphasis placed on extrinsic goals including physical beauty, youthfulness, wealth, material objects, power and prestige. We also receive messages concerning the perceived values of institutions such as marriage, education and religion, as well as the value that our culture and community places on relationships, nature and the environment. These stem from a variety of sources including social media, advertising, family members, peers, our immediate community, as well as educational, religious, and government institutions. As a result of this social programming, it often becomes difficult to distinguish between the things that we truly value vs. those that we pursue in our attempt to meet the approval and acceptance of others. The behaviors and values we fully internalize into our sense of self are said to be self determined, but those pursued in attempts to fit in or receive the approval and love of others are based on introjected motivation. This type of motivation is unhealthy because it is based on conditional love and acceptance, and essentially involves sacrificing our need for autonomy (i.e., our need for volition or choice) to satisfy needs of relatedness (i.e., the need to feel like we belong and are accepted). Introjected motivation is ego based and is associated with doing something out of a sense of “should” or guilt. At some level it feels somewhat pressured or coerced, and as a result, in spite of the fact that someone might actually achieve these pursuits and perform at a very high level, they are accompanied with high anxiety and/or depression. For example, someone may create a social media profile and post certain types of pictures and posts about activities because they believe these types of images and posts are more likely to receive higher numbers of “likes” and “followers.” And, although such posts may indeed result in a large number of followers, the individual may soon begin to feel a sense of dread when it comes time to post videos, pictures or posts each day. The activity takes on a sense of “duty” rather than from a sense of play and creativity. The sense of pressure to perpetuate a highly edited representation of themselves in order to grow and maintain a large following may feel inauthentic and thus, the individual may feel underlying anxiety and find the task laborious rather than motivating.
How Goal Pursuits Impact Our Psychological Well-Being
On a daily basis we are inundated with messages from social media, advertising, music, reality television, family members, peers, and social institutions about what we should value. The types of behaviors or goals we should be pursuing, how we should dress and behave in order to be viewed as “successful, beautiful, valued, or worthy of acceptance.” As stated earlier, the majority of the goals emphasized through the media and marketing are extrinsic in nature, and place value in material objects, beauty, power, fame, or prestige. However, many psychologists (Kasser & Ryan, 1993;1996) have warned us that the “American Dream” has a very “dark side” because it emphasizes the pursuit of extrinsic goals that ultimately lead to the reduction in psychological well being because they interfere with the pursuit of intrinsic needs.
If we feel that our interests, abilities, or goals are not valued by parents, peers, or society, then our perceptions of self-worth are jeopardized. In attempts to be accepted by others we often sacrifice our inherent talents and passions to pursue those valued by others. In other words, we sacrifice our authentic selves to pursue a false self. Festinger (1957) described the psychological discomfort that results from behaving in ways that are inconsistent with our beliefs, convictions, or sense of selves as cognitive dissonance, often including anxiety and depression. In attempts to reduce this psychological tension and achieve mental consistency, Festinger (1957) noted that people often try to justify their behaviors, change their beliefs or cognitions, add new beliefs, or simply adjust their behaviors so that they become consistent with their beliefs and values. For example, a child may inherently love art and want to pursue a career as an artist. However, she may receive feedback from her parents or others around her that “art is fine as a hobby but not something that can ever sustain someone as a career.” If she continues to hear people scoff at her goals, and is repeatedly told by parents and others that she needs to put aside such a “foolish” idea and instead, pursue something “practical” such as a career in business, she may change her beliefs (that it is possible to make a good living as an artist) and behaviors (goal of becoming an artist) and pursue a career in business. She may not enjoy it, but all the while, she may be justifying her behaviors by telling herself that by pursuing a career in business she can pay for her art classes and art supplies that she can pursue on the side.
Other researchers have noted that when we pursue, or even achieve extrinsic, materialistic goals, the enjoyment is short lived and our psychological well being is reduced because the pursuit of such goals often requires sacrificing our innate psychological needs including the need for relatedness. Climbing the corporate ladder and making a lot of money often requires working overtime and sacrificing time with family and friends. This ultimately undermines our psychological well being, and although we may be somewhat like the ”imposter contestants” on the popular game show, we won’t walk away with several hundred dollars and a carton of cigarettes as our prizes (yes, these were actual prizes). Instead, we may walk away with a successful career but inside we may be riddled with stress, anxiety, and depression. For example, although the United States is considered to be one of the most prosperous nations in the world, we also have the highest rate of anti-depressant use per 1,000 people in the world. According to an article published in Scientific American (Miller, 2016), 1 in 6 Americans takes a psychiatric drug. Antidepressants are the most common, followed by anti-anxiety medication and antipsychotics.
Thus, in order to experience the “best” prize of a joyful and purposeful life, it is imperative that we pursue the development of our authentic selves. In other words, we must distinguish between the values and activities that are consistent with our truest selves versus those that are pursued in attempts to meet the approval and acceptance of others (parents, peers, society).
So the question is, “WILL THE REAL YOU, PLEASE STAND UP?”
Festinger, L. (1957). The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.
Kasser, T. & Ryan, R.M. (1993). A dark side of the American Dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65 (2), 410-422.
Kasser, T. & Ryan, R.M. (1996). Further examining the American dream: Differential correlates of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22 (3), 280-287.
Miller, S. (December, 2016). 1 in 6 Americans takes a psychiatric drug. Scientific American. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/1- in-6-americans-takes-a-psychiatric-drug/
Park, L. E., Ward, D. E., & Naragon-Gainey, K. (2017). It’s all about the money (for some): Consequences of financially contingent self- worth. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(5), 1-12. doi: 10.1177/0146167216689080