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What if we all had a secret… and it was the same one?

October 1, 2014
Impostor syndrome

What if we all had a secret…?

Dr Anthony Grant posed this question to our class in 2003 when I was a student in his Masters of Coaching Psychology program at Sydney University. Tony was discussing the things that cause us to feel ashamed or afraid of rejection (at least I think he was – it was a long time ago now!) He mentioned the prevalence of ‘imposter syndrome’ among some of the most successful leaders in the business world, and just how common it is at every level of society and every stage of life, to feel like we are somehow inferior.

I was young at the time and had just left a job in an organisation where I’d been one of the youngest members of the management team (by about two decades!) Instead of feeling proud of that position, I’d mostly felt like a kid playing at the grown up’s table.

And so, what I recall most vividly about Tony’s seminar, was how struck I was by this idea that no matter what kind of job someone has or how much money they make, no matter how much posturing and pretending we might do, underneath we’re all the same; we’re all vulnerable. We all struggle.

In the decade or so since that classroom discussion, this idea of universal suffering, that we are all swimming in the same sea of self-doubt and that we all have a version of the ‘not enough’ story playing on repeat in our minds has been presented to me over and over again. In many ways it has been liberating and life-changing.

I’ve also learned that it isn’t enough to grasp this idea with your intellect alone. The reason Brené Brown’s 2010 TED talk on vulnerability went viral is not just because people related to the idea of imperfection, but because we were touched by her authenticity. What has ensured her books became bestsellers was not her explanation of the theory of shame, but her willingness to display her own vulnerability in a very public way.

To be able to move from understanding and relating to an idea of common humanity (i.e., that we are all struggling together) to having that understanding change how you live your life is where the real challenge lies, and where the greatest personal rewards are to be found. In his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry referred to 

the distance between the mask of security, ease, confidence and assurance I wear… and the real condition of anxiety, self-doubt, self-disgust and fear in which much of my life then and now is lived.”

Apparently, he’s not the only one. If we all had the same secret, it would be that we each believe to fit in and be accepted we need to be someone other than who we truly are, because if anyone knew us properly… I mean the real, imperfect, flawed version of ourselves, they would judge and reject us.

Our universal suffering looks a lot like shame. It might show up when you lose your temper with a child; or when you are still single while everyone else is coupled up; when you feel stuck in a dead-end job while everyone around you is pursuing a worthy career. This is the pain of comparing yourself to others and coming up short every time. It also manifests in the form of private battles with food, alcohol, perfectionism, or depression.

Rather than own up about our flaws, or talk about the shame of feeling not good enough (or smart enough, or thin enough, or wealthy or successful enough), we set about using a bunch of strategies to protect us from being rejected. Brené Brown calls this ‘hustling for worthiness’. She says that:

If we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and have to hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving.

If it’s true that we all have the same secret, then we have all hustled for worthiness at one time or another. In fact, I think every day we’re hustling, and there is a real danger that we’re becoming more and more disconnected and isolated in the process. Every now and again, we might get a glimpse into someone else’s private world and we’re fascinated to compare ourselves and see how we measure up. When someone willingly opens up and admits to their feelings of inadequacy, our relief is palpable. And in that moment of shared vulnerability, there is real connection.

But how many of us are willing to be the first to share? It’s a bizarre paradox that all of our pretence is designed to keep us from being judged and rejected when in fact the greatest opportunity for real connection is to reveal our inadequate, human selves.

When you know and own your imperfections, there is less to fear and less to defend. And even better, you have the opportunity to offer others a remarkable life-changing gift when you own up to your struggles and thereby give them permission to do the same.  

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Is your TV making you miserable?

September 30, 2014
Downsides of television

I could happily live without a television and yet we have two televisions in our home. I admit there are some programs on commercial telly that I really enjoy, but my tendency to get hooked on a cooking or home improvement show is, for me, another reason to not have the TV in the house because much like wine and hot chips – while I may well enjoy those things, I also know they’re not very good for me.

For now, I’m stuck with a TV due to fierce opposition from my husband and daughter, but I’m not anywhere close to giving up on my anti-TV crusade, and here are all the reasons why:

1. Commercial TV advertising

Research confirms that television advertising increases our desire to buy stuff. Suddenly we want stuff we never even knew existed and our levels of life satisfaction decrease. Of course the TV is not singularly responsible for our increased consumerism but there’s a reason TV advertising is so expensive and that’s because it’s powerful. Children are particularly susceptible to this effect if we aren’t actively educating them about advertising in the media. A Dutch study confirmed that 8-11yr old children who watched more television were more materialistic. I use my 8yo daughter as my litmus test for this. After she’s watched commercial TV for any length of time, the list of stuff she wants grows longer… every time.

2. The News

Don’t even start me on the news. Is there anything more depressing? Of course we all know that there is a lot more going on in the world than the 30 minutes of depressing highlights you’re fed via a (probably biased) television news program each weeknight. I think it’s important to be aware of what’s happening in the world around us – that makes us responsible citizens. And the older I get, the more effort I make to know who I’m voting for and what they stand for and how this affects my family and broader community. But I do not believe it’s vital to my existence to know of every violent death that’s occurred locally and internationally in the preceding 24hrs and I do not need that negativity in my lounge room and within earshot of my daughter. So I turn off the news.

3. Television kills conversation

I know it from experience and I hear it all the time from my clients. Time spent sitting in front of the box with your partner is not quality time. If there are particular programs you enjoy watching together and which prompt you to engage in conversation, that can be fun for sure. But coming home at the end of the day and veging in front of the telly for a few hours before crawling into bed (or worse still, falling asleep on the couch) creates disconnection and dissatisfaction in relationships.

4. Television is often mindless

And I’m much more about being mindful in my daily life because the benefits of mindfulness are immense and proven. When you sit down to ‘relax’ in front of the television, you’re more likely to eat (or drink) more than you intend to, because you’re not paying attention. More importantly, escaping into television prevents you from dealing with whatever unpleasantness you are seeking to escape. In this way, mindless television viewing is a form of avoidance, whereas living a whole, happy, vital life requires us to increase our capacity to turn towards and tolerate discomfort, not find more ways to escape it.

5. Television shortens your lifespan

That on its own is surely enough to make anyone miserable. It’s been estimated that every hour of TV viewing reduces your lifespan by 20 minutes. Exact reasons aren’t clear but presumably it’s a combination of all those things already mentioned. TV watching is a sedentary activity so unless you’re watching TV while pounding out a few k’s on the treadmill or climbing Kilimanjaro on the stairmaster, the more hours spent television viewing, the less you spend moving your body, breathing fresh air and engaging in physical activities. Our bodies are designed to move, not sit at a desk all day and then come home and sit in front a television all night.

So what’s the answer?

If like me, you can’t have your way in getting rid of the TV, or if you’re not ready to make that change, I offer the following tips to minimise your exposure to its harmful effects.

1. Limit your viewing

Instead of turning on the TV and channel surfing until you find something appealing to watch, check the TV guide online and only turn the television on when there is something you really want to see. Each week, try to have one or two TV-Free days (or even better, no screens at all).

2. Skip the ads

Set your timer to record your favourite program so you can watch it at your leisure some other time and fast-forward the advertisements. The program without the ads will take a whole lot less of your precious time and you won’t be exposed to those enticing advertisements convincing you of all the new things you need to buy to be happier.

3. Do something while watching TV

Lie on the floor and do some pilates exercises or stretches, or if you have a treadmill – position it in front of the telly and get on it during your favourite program. The distraction of the TV should make working out seem less painful and if you’re going to do something mindlessly, it might as well be good for you.

4. Create a TV-free zone

If you’re fortunate enough to have space for a couple of living areas in your home – say a family room as well as a lounge room – make one of them television-free. Keep that space for reading, music, playing board games or talking without the noise and distraction of the TV. If possible, make this space the one that’s more accessible to you and your family, nearer to the kitchen and the major hub of activity in your home. Put the television in the room that’s further away and harder to reach so it’s less intrusive.

5. Consider the possibility of getting rid of it entirely

Rather than immediately shutting down the idea, start to play around with the possibility of what life would be like without it. Be curious and open minded about where your hesitation comes from. What would you be missing out on? What else might you do with your time instead? If staring down a whole evening with your own company seems intolerable, perhaps this is something to work on.

Who’s with me in the No-TV camp? What strategies do you use to minimise it, and if you’ve already gone TV-free, how is that changed your life (for better or worse)?

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
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