We all want to feel genuinely happy, healthy and loved. We all want our loved ones to feel happy, healthy and loved.
And then life happens and challenges those simple longings. Relationships don’t turn out as we hoped. Maybe our finances suffer. Our looks fade. We face illness and loss. It happens to all of us in one way or another. It is our common humanity.
Ideally, we use these challenges as a point of connection with each other, a way of recognizing and honoring our common humanity. Ideally, we support and uplift each other so that we can grow together, so that we can see the silver lining in each difficulty without sweeping pain under the rug.
In reality, we live in a keeping up with the Joneses world. This can take different forms, depending on our particular community.
Perhaps there is pressure to look attractive all the time or to be financially successful at all costs. Maybe we are supposed to have perfect children, a perfect home, or be exceptionally thrifty. Maybe we feel we have to get As all the time or be an amazing athlete. Maybe we feel our worth depends on being a perfect church member, denying our personal needs in order to serve others, or on never being angry. Perhaps we feel compelled to buy perfect Christmas gifts or roast the perfect turkey. Some cultures expect newer generations to surpass their forebears in achievement while in others to do so is seen as “putting on airs.” Sometimes it’s a confusing mixture. It can be hard to get it right.
We will all fail at meeting these expectations at some point. We will all fail. This is our common humanity. And yet we typically respond with judgment, both of others and ourselves. Perhaps we outwardly respond to another’s misfortune with empathy while inwardly gloating in a way that is palpable to the other. Maybe we judge ourselves to the point of feeling self-hatred.
Judgment feels bad, and so, understandably, we try to squirm away from it in strange ways. Maybe we convince ourselves that if only we work harder we can be okay, can atone for our failings. Maybe we put up a facade that only reinforces our inner pain and creates loneliness. Maybe we blame our loved ones for spoiling things. Maybe we find ways to numb ourselves. We all do this from time to time. It is our common humanity. And we can all learn and grow.
In his book “On Love and Loneliness” Jiddu Krishnamurti suggests that conformity ultimately brings disorder to our relationships. Interacting with another in a way that is scripted by the expectations of culture or creed swallowed whole or even by our past experiences with that individual, whether pleasant or painful, thwarts true connection. Christine Carter, of the Greater Good Science Center, notes that “When we love only the parts of ourselves we deem to be good or strong or smart, we reject the parts that make us real. This sets us up for inauthenticity. We start hiding what is real and showing off what is sparkly; but our seeming perfection is fake.”
Self-compassion practice, articulated by Kristen Neff, PhD, encourages us to acknowledge our moments of struggle with self-kindness and to remember that whatever we are feeling has also been experienced by someone else. In fact, most likely someone else is feeling it in this very moment. It is our common humanity. We are never alone. Can we begin to give voice to our struggles and have the courage to share them with one another?
Try this little practice: Notice how your body feels when you speak or act from your heart. Now, how does it feel when acting from a sense of social expectation? Can you begin to put words to the sensations? Imagine sharing those feelings with others and taking appropriate action, such as “I feel knots in my stomach when I think about that party. I don’t want to be rude, but I really can’t afford to go. I will find another way to let the hosts know I value their friendship.”
The most precious gift we can give is the courage to be our honest self, to speak our truth with as much grace as we can muster. Not only is that a gift in itself, it also gives others permission to do the same.
Laurie Edwards, PsyD, is a psychologist on the faculty at Yale University and has a private practice in Branford, CT. Connect with her at lauriemedwardspsyd.com