What if we lived in a world in which the following scenario was a normal one: You walk into work Monday morning, your boss walks by and says “Good morning, how are you?” and you casually answer the question with a completely straightforward yet nonchalant, “Not so good actually; I cried myself to sleep last night,” or a “You know, I’m really not so sure; sometimes I just don’t know how I’m doing, or what I’m even feeling, or how to articulate those feelings.”
Imagine what the reaction to such a response would be in the real world – likely intense discomfort on the part of the person who asked, or just pure bafflement at how to respond or what to make of it. And yet, in some ways, I think there is more irony and strangeness in the normal, more common answers we give, of ‘fine, thanks’ and ‘good, how are you?’ – the answers we unconsciously produce as part of a deeply ingrained social script. A script so deeply ingrained, in fact, that when learning a foreign language, we’re always taught a set of short, simple phrases to use in response to the ‘how are you?’ equivalents of the other languages – quickly dismantling any notion that the question was ever really meant as a question.
And this is not to say that there is anything inherently strange or unnatural about the existence of rhetorical questions used as greetings in many cultures’ social scripts, but the seeming irony of it all is this: We ask each other this question every day – the casual add-on to a ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’, an extended greeting with seemingly more substance and depth than just a word of hello. And while we ask the question by way of habit, politeness, respect, friendliness, etc., and not with any intent of digging deeper into the psyche of the person we’re asking it from, at the same time, most of us – on some level at least – truly do care to know about the wellbeing of the people around us. Even those we barely know. Just think of Humans of New York for example – a page that generates hundreds of thousands of genuinely supportive comments – and in some cases, actions – each day in response to brief glimpses into the lives of complete strangers: responses to nothing more than a few sentences about someone’s fears, struggles, hopes, etc.
I know a lot of people are of the opinion that humans are inherently selfish and no one really cares about anything but themselves, but I think this opinion in some ways becomes validated purely by the fact that it is believed. When you live in a culture shaped around the concept of self-interest – including on a macro level when thinking about the basis on which businesses thrive or how the economy is structured – then little room is given to allow people to act otherwise. And rather than allowing space to change these expectations, our language and social norms in many ways deepen our limitations by setting up walls to separate each person’s multiple selves – their professional self, their personal self, their vulnerable self, their fun self, their spiritual self, etc. As a result, we come to these unspoken agreements, reflected in our social norms of interaction, that our lowest and most vulnerable moments and thoughts are just too much information for most people and in most settings. In this, we limit our opportunities to fully know people in the totality of their highs and lows, to offer our empathy, to connect in a greater understanding of each others’ humanness even with those we deem not close enough for such interactions.
That common expression of advice “just be yourself” always struck me as the most unhelpful thing to say to someone – implying that we all have some innate, static, true ‘self’ that’s somehow the real essence of who we are. I don’t know anyone who displays the exact same version of themselves at work, at home, with friends, etc., nor anyone who doesn’t in some way regulate the self that they display in various settings, whether consciously or unconsciously. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably for the best in many cases. But at the same time, each of those versions of self constitute a true and real facet of the greater self, the totality of who someone really is, and I think we all begin to forget this reality when interacting with others…just as we come to feel the need to hide parts of ourselves in certain settings and with certain people. Again – something that is normal and necessary in many instances (for instance, you probably wouldn’t want to bring out your crazy party self at your office if you wanted to maintain the respect of your colleagues) – but something I think we often take too far.
One potentially problematic result of this I think can be seen in the way we generally present our ‘best’ selves in professional settings or with people we don’t know very well, or even in social media, until we all start to fall under the skewed impression that everyone around us has their stuff together. Even whilst cognizant on some level that everyone has their own disjointed, troubling, perplexing things going on in their lives – simply by nature of being human – it becomes difficult to truly appreciate the depth of that fact when only seeing the side of people that we are allowed to see: the side that societal expectations have deemed appropriate for the public. How much harder does it then become to reconcile our own human weaknesses – our irrational fears, our self-doubt – with the images of put-togetherness we see around us each day?
Perhaps it is this phenomenon that manifests itself into the ‘imposter syndrome’: that nagging feeling of disconnect from the image we assume on the outside and of how people see us in our current situation with the reality of how we’re actually feeling and how we see ourselves. I’ve had several people tell me that they too have felt this imposter-ness, and that it is probably common to most. Ironically though, even in hearing this and acknowledging the reality of it, I often can’t help but think of the people saying it to me and wondering why they would ever think such a thing – these people with their incredible personalities, their kindness, their talent, their ambitions; people who clearly belong in the thing they are doing; people who in no way seem like imposters. At the same time, I always feel guilt for letting a thought pass through my mind – as it inevitably implies that the imposter-ness felt in my own circumstances is in fact more legitimate, more grounded in truth, than that felt by others.
Maybe this difficulty to fully reconcile the evident fact of everyone’s imposter-ness remains challenging with the walls that continue to block us from truly seeing into the multiple selves that make up each individual. But maybe these walls serve a purpose that should not be underestimated….would we really be better off in a society in which we were more aware of each other’s fears and challenges? At a surface level, more openness and empathy sounds like a positive thing for a society, but on a practical level, TMI is real – and as much as people have empathy and are capable of being supportive in the face of others’ complex issues or self-doubts, such issues might quickly come to dominate people’s views of each other.
So I am not proposing that anything should necessarily change in how we interact with other people and regulate our multiple selves. A simple “How are you?” does not impose any societal harm as a rhetorical greeting rather than a platform for facilitating exchanges of empathy and humanness. If nothing else, though, perhaps it is useful at times to simply remind ourselves that the casual “I’m good” or “Not bad” we receive when we pose the greeting to others is coming from another human being who may be struggling with something at that moment, or feeling things contrary to the collected image they display. Whether reminding ourselves of this serves as an impetus to exercise more compassion and empathy just in general life – even when the people around us appear completely fine – or a means of recognizing the source of unrealistic expectations we sometimes have for ourselves when unconsciously forming comparisons with the people around us – striving to always be more cognizant of the deeply multi-dimensional nature of each individual seems an overall useful mindset to have.