“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
ies. There are those we tell to spare others and ourselves the discomfort of hearing the unpleasant truth, and then there are that other kind: The lies others tell about us and we tell about ourselves.
In this, the first installment of his special series for Combustus magazine, New Jersey psychotherapist, Andrew Nargolwala explores the effect lies can have on our lives and how we can begin to extricate ourselves from their suffocating hold.
ANDREW NARGOLWALA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, MSW, LCSW, MA:
As a psychotherapist, I know the key to greater self-awareness and contentment with oneself and one’s life is to start shedding those myths that we are all exposed to from an early age: the lies that our culture—and sometimes even our family and friends—tell us. The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves; these cognitive distortions can become ingrained and then distort our self-perception and our perception of others.
Believing We Caused the Abuse
Such lies can take the form of blaming ourselves for others treatment of us: the employee who learns that a colleague has been bad-mouthing him to clients or his superior; the lover who discovers her partner has been carrying on another relationship behind her back; the child who thinks he must have encouraged the advances of a sexual predator; or the wife who is certain she brought on her husband’s rage.
In a video clip that is currently circulating, the actor Patrick Stewart talks about his mother as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of his father:
The audience member who reveals her own victimization to Stewart says how ashamed she used to feel and how she had to learn it was not her fault. Stewart then mentions how many people, including professionals, had reinforced to his mother the idea that victims bring on their own abuse. Even those who have been victimized as young children can carry this self-blame for years.
Abusers Are Opportunists
The truth is that most victims are abused by people known to them—people whom they trust and care about.
I’ve worked not only with victims of domestic violence and sexual, emotional and physical abuse, but with abusers themselves. And to them, it’s about opportunity, not selectivity. [quote]While victims desperately search their own behavior for what they might have done wrong to have triggered the abuse, the victimizers are already on to their next prey. [/quote]
For the abuser, it’s about the process, not the person: gaining access to indulge his or her drives.
Don’t Put Yourself in the Center of Their Addiction: It’s Not About You
The same is true for those who take responsibility for other’s addictions:[quote] If only I had parented differently, if only I had been a better child, if only I had been more desirable, then the addict would never have chosen their addiction over me. The truth is that addiction is a complicated process that no other person can be responsible for, only the addict. To believe otherwise is at the heart of codependency. [/quote]
One is responsible for removing oneself and one’s children from abuse—to get away, using a support system—but that is very different from being the cause.
[quote]The hopeful truth is that if victimizers take one hundred percent responsibility for their negative actions, they can change, in most cases. And, when survivors put the responsibility where it belongs, on the abuser, they can stop blaming themselves and see all they have to offer.[/quote]
A Common Belief: Other People Have Special Gifts, I’m just Me
One of the common lies we start telling ourselves at a very early age is what we believe we’re talented in and what we think we’re not. Being artistic or creative is a perfect example. We look at the work created by others and tell ourselves that they must have been born with that “natural talent.” Whereas for ourselves we know that creating something pleasing takes work. It’s easy to conclude then that we just weren’t meant to be ___ (fill in the blank).
But in this culture we don’t give nearly enough attention to nurturing creativity in everyone. Whether in school or in the workplace, we seldom provide sufficient opportunities for each of us to tap into our full creative potential.
When I taught writing, I often encountered people who felt they did not have interesting stories to share, when actually their ideas and experiences were often quite rich.
Living itself must be seen as a creative activity. This means that whatever that person values in terms of expression should be acknowledged, whether it be cooking, parenting, performing, playing sports, teaching, or something else deeply satisfying.
Relationships also can become so much more rewarding if we allow creativity into the equation. Rather than viewing the act of getting married as an end point ~ now we are married, so we must assume the patterns expected of us ~ we can see partnering with another as an opportunity to create and express ourselves in new ways, emotionally, physically, sexuality, and so on. Seeing our lives, relationships and our work as creative, opens them up as dynamic and interactive, not static and regressive.
The False Belief That Happiness Comes from How Others Regard Me And What I Achieve
We live in a culture that reinforces this myth every day. Television’s popular “Mad Men” character, Don Draper, is a case study in living an external life: he has career success and recognition, a beautiful wife and children, is physically gorgeous—yet he is desperately unhappy. He self-medicates the gaping hole inside with alcohol and sex, but this just makes him more emotionally unavailable. He works in an industry that specializes in playing on people’s insecurity with externals: beauty, status, material success…
[quote]The lack of a stable, core identity is at the root for so many people with issues such as depression, anxiety and poor relationships. [/quote]
This is not to say that there is no value in externals; they just aren’t enough. [quote]Each person needs to develop a core of positive self-regard that is not dependent on achievement; without it, we are hostage to the ups and downs of daily life. [/quote]Certainly one reason high status professionals such as doctors and dentists have high suicide rates is that we are told that gaining a certain status will bring us happiness. But it’s not enough. If you believe that your life has meaning and purpose, and you direct your actions in that way, then both internal belief and external reinforcement can work together towards greater satisfaction with life.
Want Happiness? Diversify.
Putting all your self-worth in any one thing, no matter how worthy—parenting, work, marriage, relationships, financial success—puts far too much pressure on that aspect. It would be like investing all your money in one stock. Having core beliefs about yourself and the world you have gained through study and observation, faith and reason that you then act upon with a good external support system of healthy relationships provides a better balance than externals alone.
I’d love to know what myths you encounter, as well as any suggestions for topics or questions I could try to engage here. You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
~ © 2013 Andrew Nargolwala
Andrew Nargolwala, MSW, LCSW, MA, is a practicing psychotherapist in Bergen County, New Jersey. He also has taught writing and literature at schools including Queens College. For more about Mr. Nargolwala and his philosophy on an intentional life, read the Combustus piece, “The Life Imagined.“
Fotini Hamidieli paints and teaches art in Veria, Imathia, Greece. Enjoy my personal interview with her here or by entering through the special Combustus piece, “Why Create Art? Wrestling the Muse.” We invite you to also connect with her here.