In today’s world there is a lot of emphasis on finding our strengths, affirming who we are, self-empowerment and self-esteem. This has a lot of benefits, and I take no issue with that. But there is a narcissistic side to our self-affirming culture. It happens through filters on Instagram, perpetual Tinder swiping, body-hacking or subway selfies. We burnish our images day and night. That burnishment may come at the expense of realism, and more importantly, at the expense of growth.
I remember confronting something unattractive about myself. In some university class I launched a dispute with a professor about an inaccuracy in his lecture. It was a laborious exchange, taking so long because I insisted that he “correct the record”. The professor asked me to stay after class where he asked me why I wouldn’t “let it go”. I mumbled something about accuracy. He suggested that proving I was right seemed more important to me than your classmates, the class, or its content.
I didn’t immediately take this to heart, so preoccupied was I with my own point and what I saw as his stubborness. Days later, that exchange began echoing in my brain just like when you buy a red car, and suddenly, there are red cars everywhere. I began to notice that I had lots of similar conversations: Me, arguing to correct something with someone who clearly considered that item to be irrelevant and a distraction from whatever point they were making. It was even worse than that. Once the trend was clear, I began to suspect that it wasn’t happenstance. I seemed to be on a quest to find inaccuracies and errors. Could I have become the bloodhound of listeners… intently sniffing for any chance to correct?
Imagine yourself speaking to me during that time frame. It must have been like trying to cross a river with a lurking alligator. Any misstatement or fudged fact would bring on a relentless assault of the “accuracy police”. If you were trying to present a reasoned argument or share an experience your point would be lost in the detour. My correction radar was ever-vigilant and talking to me a gauntlet. People were too kind to tell me what an ass I was. So, I continued – thinking I was just obsessed about truth and accuracy.
It took me a long time to figure all this out and to confront myself with the question that matters most, and the one that professor framed:
What do I value more, being right or being in a relationship with this person?
Many times, being right won out. Unsurprisingly, the binary choice I posed to myself turned to be a real one. It only takes once or twice for someone to confront the probing and uninvited fact-check before they began avoiding it. Learning that lesson felt awful. I was ashamed at how often my own drive to be right ran the show and how much it cost me. It was a form of hostility masquerading as a quest for truth. At its root, it was a power play. My real and sub-conscious goal was not to “correct the record”, but to win and to prove I was smart. Even now I feel ashamed and yet, I still catch myself doing it. The difference? I catch myself. Our ugliness doesn’t vanish, but we are better stewards of it.
Growth requires humility — not just about what we do but about who we are.
Achieving that growth takes doing what all of us have spent a lifetime avoiding: Finding and facing our ugliest qualities. Oddly, those who know us best and love us already know these things we try so hard to hide – even from ourselves. They have made peace with those traits and love us with them.
Did you watch The Good Place? (If you haven’t, I recommend streaming it. It just wrapped up its finale). It’s a satire posing a surprisingly interesting question: If someone ended up in hell, could they eventually evolve themselves into heaven?
Asking that of ourselves, what we find is that there is only one way to evolve. We must ferret out those aspects of ourselves that we have been hiding our entire lives. It’s daunting work. Are you game? The point is not to end up hating yourself, but to fully know yourself so that you can own it and catch yourself.
These traits are usually driven by some specific motives: Being right. Winning. Looking good (smart, wealthy, whatever). Getting attention. They’re infantile motives. But we are forever infants in some respects. These aren’t reasons to hate yourself, but to feel compassion. Being human includes everything beautiful and ugly about us.
How do you start this project? Here’s one approach:
Interview your closest family – a parent or spouse (you could start with your employees or friends if you want). Promise and deliver an absolute amnesty for anything said —No retribution and no grudge-holding. Then, act like a rabidly curious journalist and ask:
- What would you want me to know if you weren’t worried about hurting my feelings?
- What are my very worst traits?
- What is one way I act that, if changed, would make the biggest difference to your experience of being with me.
- What is one way I sabotage myself in life (and business, love, etc.).
Assume what you are hearing is true. Don’t defend yourself. Ask for detail as to how and why doing that makes them feel badly. As you listen, be compassionate toward whoever you ask. It’s hard to say critical things to a loved one. Thank your mom or brother profusely for helping you by being so uncomfortably brutal and for sharing how this trait hurts them. And be compassionate to yourself. These discoveries don’t make you bad, just human.
With this new data, you have something profound to work on. Catching yourself in moments of trading love and connection for being right or winning –and choosing a different way— is hard work. But the rewards are immense!