Compliments, the idea of them, the concept of hearing them for what they are, harks back to our discussion of impostor syndrome. It's a subset of our issues surrounding our self-image and self-esteem. When we hear from someone—someone who ought to know—that we've done a good job (and that someone can be ourselves if we’re honest), or that we’re on the right track, or even that we’re a good person (or a good-enough person), it can sometimes be confusing. It can be more than confusing, it can be downright disorienting; that is, if our orientation is based on false beliefs, false assumptions, or on a false self.
After our meeting, as I struggled with these struggles and worked at defusing the confusion, I was reminded of a quote from Søren Kierkegaard. He was the 19th Century Danish philosopher who helped invent existentialism. Our therapy group is an existential group. That is, we don’t use workbooks or follow a curriculum. Instead, as we support and nurture each other, we try and figure out all the worlds we bring together and what our places in them might be. Simple, right? All we need is each other and our experiences and we've got all the questions we need to make our journey together an enlightening one. “What about our symptoms,” you ask? An existential philosopher might contend that these are the signals that steer us. They steer us away from the obstacles that hinder our journey, and toward the obstacles that enrich it.
Here is that Kierkegaard quote: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn't true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
We often talk about fooling ourselves in group. We even call it “lying” sometimes, or the softer version, “dishonesty.” Many of us have gotten so much practice at fooling ourselves, at believing things about ourselves and the world that just aren't true, that our self-impression, our very identity, is so grossly distorted as to be unrecognizable by others. I see you as a competent, profession, intelligent, creative, kind, nurturing, man; you see yourself as a boy with crippling social anxiety. How can my subjective truth about you be so different than yours? Because of old habits, cruelly programmed into your thinking and feeling by ignorant and damaged caregivers. You combine both forms of the self-fooling Kierkegaard cites. You believe what isn't true (that you deserve to be afraid of people who respect you) and you don’t believe what is true (that you are an amazing wonder).
One group member actually does believe she’s amazing. She calls herself the most positive depressed person she knows. And we're all happy to see she's taking this belief and imposing it onto her self-defeating behaviors. First we believe, then we act, then we grow.
In "Don Quixote," Cervantes asks, “Which will you have: wise madness or foolish sanity?” Foolish sanity, has been around a long time. And there will always be a lot of people who prefer to fool themselves into thinking life doesn't get any better. We can call it anxiety or depression or addiction or infidelity, but it’s all about the same self-delusions. Untrue beliefs, and false denials. This is what passes for sanity nowadays. And so our ideas about madness take on new dimension. Don Quixote believes what he wants to believe. If only we could be so mad as to control our thoughts and see in us what other see!
At the end of his story, our exhausted, scarred, bedraggled Spanish hero never gives up hope in the impossible. He sums all of his struggles up by saying, "Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all—to see life as it is and not as it should be." Let's remind each other to see ourselves as we appear to the subjective gaze of those who really know us. And to see ourselves as the heroes of our own journeys. We are good enough at the very least, worthy of high praise, commendation, and abundant, sincere compliments!