The message in personal development, self-help, and the wider Western culture is clear—“be yourself.” We are told that being a conformist is bad. The marketplace demands creativity and innovation from passionate employees, consumers are bored of last year’s model, and many workers are tired of working meaningless jobs. But here’s the thing: if you obey this cultural demand, you are being a conformist—but if you don’t obey the demand to be yourself, you are also being a conformist!
The cultural demand for authenticity sets up a double bind. On the one hand, if you conform to social norms you are not being yourself and thus not acting authentically. “If you don’t have a plan for your life, someone else will” we are told. But yet advertisers selling “authentic” pre-ripped jeans (to help you be your laid-back self) and personal-development-marketing-lifestyle-gurus selling $197/month courses (to help you find your authentically wealthy self) both have a plan for our lives—to have us as their customers.
On the other hand, if you simply “be yourself” then you are obeying the cultural dictate, and thus not being yourself! Authenticity is said to be throwing off cultural conditioning and doing what is right for you. But this itself has become a social norm—hence the paradox.
Reactive rebellion doesn’t work either. The serial non-conformist and self-proclaimed rebel is completely controlled by social norms—he must do the opposite of whatever he believes the norm to be. In NLP this kind of person is called a “polarity responder” and is perhaps the easiest person to manipulate. Simply tell the polarity responder what you don’t want them to do or what they “can’t” do. For example tell a rebellious teenager “I don’t think you are capable of cleaning your room right now” with a sly smile and watch how fast that room gets picked up!
What is the way out of this double-bind? I propose that it is the same for every double-bind, or “be spontaneous paradox”—one must act absurdly, violating both poles. Family therapist Paul Watzlawick gives a classic example of the be spontaneous paradox from “two unhappiness experts” in his book The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious:
“Do you love me?”
“If you really loved me, you’d say so without my asking you.”
Insomniacs tend to tell themselves something over and over in an anxious inner voice like “I’ve got to get some sleep!” Sleep is not something consciously controlled so this attempt to consciously sleep fails. One effective therapeutic intervention is for the therapist to require the insomniac to try to stay awake (while lying in bed, eyes closed) for as long as possible. When it works, this absurd intervention cuts through the double-bind by allowing the client to consciously “fail” at his task and thus succeed at unconsciously falling asleep.
One absurd option in the case of the authenticity paradox would be for the individual to decide after some reflection that obeying some social norm is authentic for them. For instance, a man might wear a suit and tie to express his authentic self in a business context, feeling no incongruence. He may choose to do this even on “Casual Friday’s” despite the peer pressure to conform to casual attire (thus conforming to one social norm while simultaneously disobeying another).
Another possibility would be to choose to be part of a rebellious counterculture, but rebel from some of the norms of the counterculture itself that do not fit the considered beliefs of the individual. Another would be to disavow the cultural ideal of authenticity entirely, choosing one’s own values which may or may not include authenticity, and perhaps are even context dependent. Another still is to examine the social nature of the self, coming to realize that no individual is separate from the culture, nor is culture separate from the individual, but there is a complex interaction between the two—thus the demand to be free from cultural conditioning is seen as absurd.
Of course if you just take my advice here, are you really being yourself or just following my suggestions? 🙂
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