And yet we do. Starting with ourselves. We are driven ever more to do so by marketing and media. But we are so immersed in our culture that it’s hard to see this happening…and even harder to see the price we are paying in increased stress and lack of happiness.
I believe there is a better way. It is a way we can find by slowing down and paying attention. It is a way that allows us to better identify what we should take seriously and in doing so to increase our level of happiness. I’d like to explore the phenomenon of taking ourselves too seriously and to draw out some lessons you can apply to help find better balance and more happiness.
Places Where We Take Ourselves Too Seriously
There Are Many Examples of Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
Again, this is not to suggest that you shouldn’t take life seriously: absolutely you should. You only travel this journey once, and it is incredibly important that you do so as well as you possibly can. And there are events along the way that should be taken very seriously indeed – the births, deaths, and weddings of loved ones spring to mind. No, life is certainly a serious business. The question is not whether to take it seriously but rather HOW to take it seriously, and to recognize the difference between taking life seriously and taking ourselves too seriously.
So let’s look at some ways that our culture encourages us to take ourselves too seriously.
One place is the emphasis on achieving the very best for our kids. This can reach its greatest intensity when it comes to sports, where there is a continuing list of horrible, even violent stories, including:
- Wanda Holloway, the Texas mother who asked her ex-brother-in-law to hire a hit man to kill the fourteen-year-old girl who beat her daughter out of a spot on the school cheerleading team;
- Parents attacking each other as well as coaches at their children’s sporting events when decisions or outcomes go against their kids. Recent examples include a mother going into the locker room at a Minnesota ice hockey game (http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2014/02/11/fight-breaks-out-at-west-fargo-youth-hockey-tournament/); the beating of a Georgia football coach in the locker room by parents; and an Atlanta dad reaching across another dad at a high school ice hockey game to punch the mother of one of the players on the opposing team.
At a more mundane and every day level, the growth of plastic surgery and of elective surgery give some insight into a quest for longevity, perfect health and preservation of youth. Sure, these have been aspirations of humankind forever, and there is something very natural about them, but the extent to which we are caught up both in the aspiration, and beyond that in the image we project, seems to be expanding.
And then there is the selfie stick – a metaphor for the whole social media phenomenon. We memorialize our lives for others and create a story, an identity, which we share on facebook for others to see. Again there is a balance here: people have been taking photos of themselves for generations, and before the camera those who could afford to had portraits painted and hung on their mansion walls. The facebook phenomenon of self-documentation and of investing so much of ourselves in growing and sustaining these online extensions of ourselves is taking this to new levels.
The Cultural Environment
We are living in a culture not just driven by the media, but driven by a media that we soak up and invite in with welcoming hearts that encourage us to take ourselves too seriously.
We are drowning in advertising messages of products that are packaged as being synonymous with happiness. The facebook persona we work so hard to create and manage reflects this in its artificial and superficial happiness.
It is so easy to let our barriers down and be sucked in, to think that that new pair of shoes, that fashionable jacket or phone or children’s toy will make us happy – whether directly because it is for us, or vicariously because we are living through our children. It is easy to think that if you can just pass this class, afford this car, join that club, you’ll be finding happiness. It’s so alluring to take ourselves seriously and think these things matter.
And our culture amplifies this tendency with its competitive drive: competition for a job or a promotion, for a place at college, for the number of likes on a facebook post or number of Twitter followers. It has never been easier to quantify the attributes of “success” or to see how you are falling short. To define ourselves by the fundamental fiction of our facebook profile or our online friends.
The Consequences Of Taking Ourselves Too Seriously
Moving in the direction of taking yourself seriously, whether that is manifested in terms of your career progression, your physical appearance, your kids’ futures, your car or home, or a myriad other forms it can take, has profound and negative consequences for your happiness.
Think about it this way: being caught up in yourself creates a separation between you and those around you. If you are focused on your accomplishments or your success or your appearance, by definition you are not focused on creating real, meaningful connections with other people, or even how you live in the world around you. You are actually just caught up in a world of ideas. And even if your focus is on the accomplishments of others – and oh, how alluring it is to believe we are acting selflessly when we are promoting others, especially our kids – we are still caught up in a world of self-lienation.
I remember a conversation I had with my children ten years ago that changed my life. It came a couple of months after I took a package and left BellSouth and goofed off at home for a while, trying to decide what I wanted to do when I grew up. I did not want to go back to the corporate world, but I was nervous of the reduced income I expected if I were to pursue independent livelihood. I didn’t know what to do. So one morning I sat down with my kids, who at that time were eight and ten years old. “I have a decision to make and I need your advice,” I said. “There are two ways I could earn a living. If I get another corporate job we could have nice vacations and live in a big house, but we might need to move, and you wouldn’t see as much of me. Alternatively if I work for myself we wouldn’t have such nice stuff, but you’d see a lot more of me. What would you like me to do?”
My daughter answered straight away that she wanted the option which meant I spent more time at home. My son didn’t answer clearly, but a couple of days later he came up to me and said, “Dad, you know that thing you asked us the other day?” Once I’d clarified what he was talking about, he said, “I want you to do the second thing.”
The lesson here is the extent to which we hold distorted views of ourselves. My kids did not value the fruits of my sacrifice of long hours at the office, any more than Wanda Holloway’s cheerleading daughter valued the sacrifice her mother made of risking and receiving prison. Until that conversation with my children I took way too seriously my identity as breadwinner, my responsibilities to fund extravagant Christmases and private school fees. What do you take too seriously? What misunderstood responsibilities or self-identifications are driving that behavior?
A Better Way To Live
The key to happier living is mindful living.
There is another way, a better way. If you can slow things down and start to look at where you take yourself seriously, you can begin to see where it’s too much, where it’s inappropriate, and maybe start to shift your focus.
The best place to start this is to intentionally look out at other people. If, instead of focusing on yourself and your needs, self-identity, etc., you look – REALLY look – at those around you, your world will start to change.
It begins with eye contact and a question. It begins by seeing another person as a human being with the same hopes and fears as yourself, and really caring about what those are. It might be your lover or your child, a friend or a parent. It might be someone you sit next to on an airplane. It can begin with anyone – you might find it easier with strangers or with family. You just have to begin.
Really listen, really care. And if you do, you’ll find you start to see yourself differently. You’ll start to see that your “big deal” is no bigger than anyone else’s and is actually not really a big deal after all. You’ll start where the things you currently take seriously and the things you should take seriously line up, and where there are gaps. You’ll start to see that when you take yourself too seriously, you are setting yourself up for separation from others and for unhappiness. And you’ll start to experience that by paying deep attention to “the other” a natural shift away from taking yourself to seriously happens.
If you decide to be more mindful, to pay more REAL attention to others and really care, really listen, it won’t be long before you start discriminating better between the things that really should be taken seriously and those that should not. There will be short-term rewards, but the long term reward is the journey itself, and this requires patience, kindness to yourself, and a little bit of humor. A friend told me a lovely story just the other day:
She had been shopping and purchased a package of toilet paper rolls. Rather than grab the package or tuck it under her arm, she pointed her index finger and jabbed at it to puncture the plastic – something you’ve probably done many times as well. Only this time she wasn’t looking: her finger hit the paper roll and snapped backwards, ripping a tendon. Her immediate reaction was not to admonish herself by snapping, “You fool, what were you thinking!”, but rather to say, “Oh you poor dear. You were trying so hard.” If we could cultivate this lightness of being, then I’m convinced taking ourselves too seriously would be less of a problem.
(My friend’s finger, by the way, has made a full recovery!)