Every professional field has its iconic pedestal-dwelling legends. While they may vary from year to year, there seems to be a handful of names that always rise to the top and are synonymous with a discipline, sport, or cause. Some of these occur organically; their research and natural talent propel them into the spotlight, and they become the de facto benchmark that others in the same area strive to meet. As a therapist, the iconic names that immediately come to my mind are Erikson, Frankl, Jung, Adler, and Shapiro. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without any of them and their pioneering, trailblazing spirit and passion for easing human suffering. Whether I agree with all of their theories or not, I can appreciate that they endeavored, to varying degrees, towards a collective greater goal. There’s a dark side to notoriety as well, and I think we can agree that there are names that conjure immediate repulsion-Hitler and Mussolini are at the top of that infamous list. The difference between the uplifting of humanity and the devastation of nations comes down to a wardrobe malfunction. I know how bizarre that sounds, but I love a good metaphor, so hold on while I explain.
You may have heard that “clothes make the (hu)man”. Our everyday outfits are our values and beliefs, and we accessorize with boundaries. All of our choices, from our career to the people we surround ourselves with, spiritual beliefs we align with, even the foods we eat tell people who we are-our “style”. We check our words and actions against those core beliefs, and our gut lets us know when they aren’t aligned-our mirror check. Ideally, we also have a support system of people around us that lovingly checks us when we have toilet paper on our shoe or spinach in our teeth. They call us on our crap by telling us our “clothes” aren’t a good look.
There is a slippery slope when our values and beliefs become rooted in being seen only for the sake of recognition and pedestal climbing. We start to relish the notoriety of our name being linked to bigger and better things and our core values migrate to a more sinister platform of power and control. Humility is abandoned in favor of hero-worship, and we might find ourselves using justification and manipulation to convince people that we haven’t changed our outfit at all! We’re the same compassionate, evolved human we’ve always been, and we become oblivious to the fact that not only are we no longer wearing clothes that don’t fit, but now we’re naked.
When those around us stop giving us constructive criticism about our metaphorical outfit, it is crucial that we take notice of it. Looking around we may realize those people aren’t providing any commentary anymore and we don’t even know when that stopped, but there’s a pretty good bet why it stopped-we became so insistent that we looked good in whatever we were wearing, we no longer bothered with a mirror. Our conviction that our name on a marquee, door or book cover was the best look for us completely overwhelmed our ability to be reflective, self-aware people. Our belief that we don’t need a double check leaves room for us to not put on anything at all and not be aware of it. While it is essential that we do not base who we are on what other people think and that we navigate with an internal sense of self, external input helps us keep that gauge calibrated. Maintaining awareness of how you present to the world never goes out of style and keeps your morals and ethics fresh. After all, it is much easier to have gratitude for knowing you need to change your outfit instead of walking down the street bare assed naked.