Some years ago, I was helping my 5-year-old niece, Christin, plant a summer garden in her backyard in Michigan. We started with the marigolds, tucking their porcupine quill-like seeds into the fresh-dug soil down a nice, long row. When we finished, I put the seed packet with its picture of the orange flowers onto the end of a popsicle stick and stuck it in the ground next to the row we'd sown. She turned it so the picture faced inwards towards the row of marigolds. "Turn it back around so we can see the picture of what's growing there, Christin," I said. "But how will the marigolds know what they're supposed to be?" she asked innocently. "How they're supposed to look?"
Wouldn't that be funny if that's how it worked? And it got me thinking: Ironically, that's how it is for too many people -- they look outside of themselves for instructions on who to be, how to look good and be appropriate. After all, it's important to behave so they'll be accepted and liked, know how to say the right things to get ahead and be popular and become what is wanted and expected in the community. All annals of power and virtually every measure of success are dominated by this mandatory Looking Good and Getting It Right. It's about dressing for success, brown-nosing the right people and calculating a low-risk life so you don't embarrass yourself or end up rejected or homeless.
Photo credit: Gill Holgate
I am going on record with something right now: Of all the things people do to get in their own way of living a deeply fulfilling life, Looking Good and Getting It Right is the worst tyranny I know. It keeps us locked up and separate from ourselves with no chance to really feel alive. It's self-abandoning -- a spiritual death. It is the great lie that we somehow have to earn our right to be worthy.
Looking Good and Getting It Right is about prostituting ourselves, folks.
As a result, the world is full of walking dead people. We're trained from the get-go to follow this program. While parenting has improved, children are still largely seen and (not really) heard. Schools do a remarkably effective job of conditioning the uniqueness and authenticity out of us. I started school on a military base and I can remember we 6-year-olds had to stand on this checkerboard floor to wait our turn for the restroom. Girls in one line and boys in the other, each person inside a block of white or black. We all had to stand perfectly still, arms at our sides, silent and not touching each other before anyone was allowed to go to the toilet. Really? I wet my pants once waiting on that checkerboard.
We are systematically taught, just like that little marigold, to look outside ourselves for what is appropriate, what is Right, what Looks Good. Once we do this, we can't find our own compass and we don't know who we are. We are separated from our oneness with Spirit and the absolute fact that we belong to life, that we have value just because we draw breath. We jump onto the track of trying, proving, earning our worth.
People tend to focus their Looking Good and Getting It Right in particular areas. For instance, over my life, I've been wildly self-expressed and bold in many ways, but I've been bound by my body image. This isn't just about spiritual death or aliveness -- it's quite literal for me in this case. I was a bulimic from ages 18 to 32. Breaking free from that and from all the distorted body images that I had ingested was one of the hardest things I've ever done. To this day, I still struggle with body image.
For me, it was about my body and about being good enough and right enough to deserve love. For others, it is about being smart enough or avoiding failure at all costs. We each get wounded in a different way. There is so much pain, shame and fear around this issue -- it goes very, very deep. If I had a magic wand, the one thing I would do to help people change is remove their urge for Looking Good and Getting It Right.
So why do we go along with this program? We're so afraid of failure. Somehow, there's this idea that information is knowledge. But guess what? Information is just data. Knowledge comes from experience and being connected to your own internal compass -- by failing and learning from it. You can't become wise without failing along the way. The problem is that the educational system and business world makes it impossible to fail. It's somewhere between highly discouraged and forbidden.
The alternative is scary and risky. People can't play fast and loose. Imagine a guy who has three kids and a mortgage. He can't afford to take risks, so he learns to follow the rules. Stepping out into the untried territory can be dangerous. The world is not kind to pioneers -- they get a lot of arrows in their backs, believe me. I get it: You're vulnerable. Nobody wants to look stupid. Looking Good and Getting It Right keeps you safe.
It also separates you from real growth and self-knowledge.
There are almost seven billion people on the planet. If I'm trying to get everyone to like me or approve of me, I'll wind up exhausted and empty. I have to celebrate myself first, foremost and always, and be truly connected to myself. I need to know that some people just won't like me. Some will. So what? They don't all have to sit next to me on the Group W bench. And I need to have my own values and standards -- it's my responsibility to determine what those are. I know if I am being true to myself or not.
So, while I wish I had a magic wand to remove that urge for others to Look Good and Get It Right, that journey of reclaiming myself has made me who I am today. Healing that wound is a profound action, the work of a lifetime. I wouldn't really want to rob anyone of that. What I most want is for people to see the lie of separation so that they may begin that powerful and life-giving journey for themselves.
Karen Kimsey-House, MFA, CPCC, MCC, is the Co-founder and CEO of The Coaches Training Institute (CTI), the oldest and largest in-person coach training school in the world, and the co-author of the best-selling Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. Karen was one of four pioneers of the coaching profession, and in honor of its 20th birthday this year, she is sharing her insights about human transformation in a ten-part HuffPost series,"Disrupt Your Life in a Good Way".