The latest "sex and power" scandals flashing across the media in the last few weeks underscore just how commonplace, even repetitive, they've become. Some are new, like the sexual assault charges against former IMF President Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's revelation that he had fathered a child with a former member of the household staff. Some are recycling, like John Edwards' indictment or Newt Gingrich's presidential aspirations, which revive memories about his lying about an affair while impeaching President Clinton for lying about an affair. The list goes on. The Washington Post recently compiled them into a nice summary, for those who are interested in keeping track.
But I think this steady stream of sex-related scandals is just the most titillating and graphic part of something more widespread and troublesome in the lives of many men and women today: the gap between people's public lies and private truths.
That is, many people live with contradictions between their inner lives (the truths about their desires, emotional experience, self-image and ideals) and what they do with those truths behind the scenes, hidden from view (their private selves), and the lives they conduct publically, in their career paths, their relationships with their families or others they deal with and the positions they espouse or advocate (their public selves).
Public lies that contradict private truths have been part of our culture for some time. But in my work with people over the last few decades, I've seen it grow more rapidly since 9/11 and the economic/political events of the last few years. As I reflected on the reasons for this gap, how it damages people and our society, I was reminded of the Egyptian myth of Osiris. He was killed and dismembered, and each of the 14 pieces of his body parts was buried in different places. But then Isis, the wife of Osiris, collected the body parts and was able to put them back together. At that point, Osiris came back to life.
There's a relevant message for today contained in the symbolism of the Osiris myth, which I'll explain later. But first, take a look at the usual explanations of the most flagrant examples of the public-private gap, and what they suggest about power, success and social conditioning. The most common reasons offered by both media pundits and mental health professionals include the possibility that the power lust of people -- most often men -- and the enabling of sycophants around them loosen their control of impulses. Then, the opportunity to act on impulses for sex and domination may increase. Some research even suggests that, as people rise in power, they're more likely to commit adultery.
In this view, as men rise in power, they have more opportunity to act on their impulses, and will do so. However, it's not clear whether such people had shaky impulse control to begin with. Perhaps the atmosphere and adulation around power and recognition fuels and reinforces nascent narcissism, like pouring gasoline onto a fire. But it's hard to say whether such people were narcissistic to begin with, or had tendencies that became strengthened and intensified by the perks and rewards of their situation.
Psychologically, high levels of success and power in business, politics, sports or entertainment can strengthen and fuel self-centeredness, at least. Environments in which you're often under public scrutiny can also feed heightened aggressiveness and a sense of entitlement, an attitude of "taking what I want, because I can," coupled with a belief that you can get away with it. Interestingly, research shows that a higher level of testosterone, typical in aggressive, narcissistic, "Type-A" personalities, stifles the natural capacity for empathy. That's visible in people with power who use others for their own self-centered ends.
These are plausible explanations, per se, but the lives of a broader range of people who aren't politicians or celebrities also contain private truths and public lies, though less visible and less dramatic. In my view, a major source for those within that larger mainstream is found in how men and women become conditioned into what they think an adult life is supposed to be, or should be. And much of that originates in parental imperatives, whether overt or implied. The filmmaker Spike Lee described that in a recent interview. He remarked on parents who "kill more dreams than anybody," those who push their children to opt for career security at the cost of pursuing their passions.
Life In A Parallel Universe
The heart of the deception many enter into is that you present yourself in one way in your public role, but feel or behave a different way, in private. Life in your parallel universes often grows gradually, as you adapt to and embrace behavior that you see rewarded, even as it clashes with your own values or beliefs. Over time, that generates increasing discomfort, especially if whom you're morphing into publically doesn't mesh so well with the person you are inside.
This can occur when people follow pathways to "success" that are easily available or acceptable to parents. Those pathways might connect with innate abilities, whether they reflect real interests or not. The end result for them is becoming entrapped in their lives. They feel caught between elusive longings for something different and more purposeful, as opposed to settling for what they have acquired in their relationship, their lifestyleor their work.
For example, they may feel vaguely or even acutely at odds with their chosen career path, like the man who said, "I never wanted a business career," or the woman who said, "I really wanted to be come a research scientist." Or the feeling of being out of synch may occur in the person they created a long-term relationship with, as in the lyrics of "Once in a Lifetime," a Talking Heads song: "You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife/You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"
This feeling of vague emotional discomfort is often the product of having embraced the "acceptable" or "practical" view of adulthood that's put in front of you. That may include "acceptable" ways to relate, or what kinds of people to relate to, based on what the parents or extended family wants to maintain; and following one acceptable path that the parents desire and encourage or is part of a family tradition.
Private truths in conflict with public lies often erupt as overt psychiatric symptoms. Self-absorbed, narcissistic behavior may reflect a deformed effort to secure recognition and affirmation of the person's inherent value and self-worth, an attempt to secure love for who one is inside. That may become visible in unconsciously seeking a state of infantile bliss through the hoped-for love and full attention from the partner. Some are more driven to overt hypocrisy, exploitation and dominance, and they may be fueled by deep feelings of resentment or shame.
Whether the gaps are more benign or malignant, they are the root of much of the depression and anxiety rampant in today's culture.
The Macular Degeneration Of The Soul
In today's interconnected, highly exposed and networked world, the contradiction between public lies and private truths is harder to maintain. That's good, actually, because it opens the possibility for learning how to create a more integrated life. And that's healthy and necessary for both individuals and society. While people's lives are highly fragmented, the need for interconnection and interdependence is greater than ever, for building security, success and well-being in today's globalized environment.
It's in the present moments, not in regrets about what happened in the past, nor in fantasizing about the future, that people have the opportunity to create a life of "no more lies!" as a woman shouted at her husband one day. The old ways don't work so well anymore, and that's a major reason why the older baby boomer generation struggles with these conflicts. On the other hand, younger people are showing a different kind of orientation. They act more openly to create a more integrated life, one that serves something larger than just their own ego. They do so with energy and commitment. And they're more likely to reject the "careerism" mentality that's fueled much of the public-private gap within the older generations.
But revamping how you work and live to serve the social good as well as oneself requires an expanded vision of what you're working and living for. Doing that is part of building psychological health today in all sectors of life. In your personal life you need an integrated vision of what you're living and working for, a larger purpose that pulls you toward something beyond your own narrow self-interest. Such a broadened perspective is also visible in forward thinking about business, such as described by management strategist Umair Haque in his emphasis on the need for leaders to build and create value in today's companies. And the absence of a larger vision in our political and social policies is undermining our country, as some commentators, such as E.J. Dionne, have been pointing out.
Returning to the symbolic meaning of the Osiris myth, "re-membering" the buried "parts" of yourself, those private truths, putting them back together and integrating them with your public life, is the path toward becoming "alive" again. Bringing together your private self and your public self into one person may require healing of emotional damage. And it requires some courage to shift course in your life as you assert who you are and how that impacts the person you will become as you go forward.
Here are some suggestions for beginning to live a life of "no more lies!":
- Make a list of what you believe are your private truths, including your values or ideals. Look at all parts of your life: as a worker, parent or friend; your creative desires and abilities; your marriage or partnership; your spiritual beliefs or values; your ambitions.
- Next, make a parallel entry for each item on your list that describes your public behavior relative to each of the items. To what extent does your public behavior embody contradictions or outright denial of your private truths? Assign a number from one to five, showing the gap between each of your private truths and public lies.
- What would you need to do to reduce the lies? What can you commit yourself to doing? What kind of help do you need?
- Set a reasonable time-frame for reducing your gaps.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, D.C. You may reach him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org.
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