Like most cliches, there is truth behind the lazy language that tells us ‘honesty is the best policy’. Telling the truth is a good thing: telling lies, not so much. But that black and white view on life is seldom enough – something I realise the older I get. There are too many grey areas for that mono pallet to work.
I write that as someone who has styled himself as an ‘authentic’ person, who tries to be direct and honest with people. Of course, I acknowledge that there are exceptions. The necessary diplomacy of the white lie should never be lost in my view: the capacity to smooth the ground, unruffle feathers or stroke bruised egos or hurt feelings. I make no apology for the occasional bit of sensitivity spin that goes out of its way to avoid injuring someone’s feelings unnecessarily, or omitting to say the thing that may be on the tip of my tongue but helps no-one by saying it out loud and has the power to cut deep or damage.
But like so many of my interactions and ways of relating to people, my counselling and psychotherapy course has prompted me to do a lot of thinking over recent months, in particular about my authenticity, my levels of honesty, or as Carl Rogers would call it, my congruence.
As I finished the first year of my masters course, I was asked, along with my fellow students, to reflect on what we had learnt over the year and what things remained works in progress. It was fascinating to reflect personally – and to hear others reflect – on the challenge of being truly yourself and being congruent. Here I make no distinction between what happens in the counselling room/in the therapeutic relationship and in the rest of our daily interactions.
I was left questioning myself, how honest am I? How true am I to myself each day? How authentic am I?
There is no doubt that I am the most authentic, congruent version of myself when at home, in my place of safety, with my wife and daughter. I feel held, loved and totally accepted in those moments. Never judged. Never disappointing. Never not enough. As a result, they are seeing me. All of me. Unvarnished. Unspun. Unhidden.
I reflected too on my day to day interactions in my work, studies and general life. The report card here is pretty good too. I reset my approach to life following my breakdown in 2014/15 and embraced self care and some healthy selfishness, which means I say no to stuff, only do what I really want to (unless there is an exceptional reason) and don’t make excuses when presented with an option I don’t want to take.
I have learnt this year that listening to your feelings is so important, even if you decide not to voice them but are guided by them. This comfort with my feelings and the choices that I make as a result – not going out with people I don’t want to see; not being part of the WhatsApp groups that invade my personal space or cross my boundaries, not just agreeing with people because it is easier – has reduced my stress and anxiety levels. It’s not always easy but I feel it is something that gets easier with practice. The more I listen to myself and do what feels right for me, the more natural it is to do.
The trickiest area – for me and I understand for others – is in interactions with some close family members and friends. Here we all have lots of roles we play, years of baggage and engrained behaviours and expectations that may have started in childhood and are likely to have continued in some form into later life. Here I am often caught in the guilt trap of wanting to be that perfect son, brother, friend etc and at the same time listening to my own needs and feelings. Where these two sets of feelings meet – or more accurately, don’t meet – is where it gets difficult. This is where the post-breakdown me, is different from the younger version of me. Today, I do suit myself much more – even writing that jarred a bit as it sounds so selfish (something most of us learn as a child is not a good thing to be) – and listen to my needs. I avoid stressful situations, events, occasions and conversations. I do this because it helps me. I do this for my own mental health and wellbeing. I do this for me.
It isn’t always easy but the alternative is to live needing the approval and consent of others – living for their needs and not your own or worrying about what others think of you instead of what you think matters. This year has shown me that so many of the emotional challenges that we face are linked in some way to that imbalance: that focus of the approval of others and not listening to your inner voice.
I end this year of studying a long way from the finished article as a therapist but enjoying all that have learnt and experienced. I end it too feeling like the changes I made five or so years ago have really helped me in this current phase of my life – being there for me, not putting others first.
It has its downsides – not just the guilt. It can be isolating at times, lonely and requires bouts of bravery, but it is how I want to live. For me. For my needs. For my approval.
I am embracing all the colours available – accepting there is black, white and grey – but choosing for myself which colours to paint with. That is my policy.