As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I was lucky enough to have made a living listening to the stories of those in existential crisis. The “not enough,” the “less than,” the “should have been,” and the “what have I done” of the world, hoping that a soft chair and receptive ear would offer some understanding, even some relief, from the dirges of self criticism that continue to infuse their thinking.
I was reminded of a man that came to me just before his fiftieth birthday. At the time, I was new to the whole counseling thing, and a wonderful psychologist friend told me that counseling is essentially “kindness wrapped in attention.” This was good, because it was really low on knowing what to actually say when somebody, you know, might have an actual problem that needed fixing. I could be kind, I could listen. I just hoped like hell that this would be enough. I kind of faked being a diagnostically sound clinician. I figured that would come in time.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any time. Instead, I had a man sitting in front of me with an expression of dread on his face. His eyebrows were arched in a,“you’ve got to help me” expression of pain, and I really wanted to give him an idea that, yes, I could be a decent listener and, maybe, I could help him feel better. At the very least, I wanted him to know he was OK.
So, here he is, ready to share his problems with me, and I had nothing. I wanted to offer him something that he could believe in right off the bat. So, I sat up straighter. I listened to how I spoke, and chose a tone that was kind of avuncular, something a little Spencer Tracy-ish. I folded my left arm over my chest and placed by right hand under my chin, with my finger against my face.
In short, I was faking it. Completely. Placing a total facade on the encounter. I figured if I could pretend I knew what I was doing, I could be composed enough to offer an atmosphere of “cool” and, if he bought it, it could set the tone of the encounter.
“Cool.” It’s kind of a guy thing, having a sense that you’re around somebody that possesses a certain “je ne sais quoi.” You want to, at least, project the idea that you have some handle on things. Giving the other person the idea that you know a little about what you’re doing helps, particularly when this person is about to disembowel himself on your couch.
I adjusted my posture, checked my expression, and asked how he was doing.
The man told me the following:
“When I was a sophomore in college, I fell head over heels in love with a girl. Came from a small town. She spoke softly, and her entire affect generated kindness. She looked a lot like Julia Roberts, but prettier.”
“She was an artist, and majored in Graphic Design. A gentle soul, and it was reflected in her work. But the most distinct part of her personality was that she was absent of any pretense. She was as genuine a person I’d ever met. Sincerity was a part of every syllable. There was no sexual attraction, which for an nineteen year old teenager, was amazing. I knew, in part, that I wanted to be with her all the time. From that sensation alone, I knew that if I could love anybody, I could love her.”
“Time moves slowly in college. You fill fourteen hours a day with classes, studying, working, eating, and a fair amount of down time. The down time, that’s when you get to know somebody. She was in the dorm next to mine, and I had to pass her dorm on the way to the dining hall. So, I would stop by and see if she would want to eat with me.”
“I wanted her to like me. I was pretty sure that, being as insecure as I was, nobody as beautiful and kind as her would ever like a guy like me. I wasn’t that smart, never had a girlfriend, and figured the whole “be yourself” thing was not only elusive, it was a sure way to be ignored. It happened in high school with the girls, and I didn’t feel all that different from the guy I was back then.”
So, I tried to be as cool as I could be, and the only person I knew that was confident was my older brother. He swore like a sailor, had a huge ego, and presented with a bravado that you could feel a block away. He was a talker, and could take over a room with his energy.”
“The next time I saw her, I thought I’d throw a little bit of my brother’s energy into the mix. You know, bring out a little of the “confidence” that I lacked. I couldn’t be confident as myself, but I could be confident as hell pretending I was somebody else.”
The man looked out my window and shook his head. “I failed miserably. She didn’t say a word through the time we had together, and decided that she had “something” she had to do afterward, so I didn’t walk her back to the dorm.”
“I found out later that we had so much in common. She prayed every day, and so did I-but I never told anybody that. She listened to soft rock, singer-songwriter stuff from the seventies, and so did I, but we never got around to talking about music. She loved going for walks around the farms in her hometown, and I loved to sit for hours in the middle of nature near the campus, just thinking and reading, breathing in those moments of peace. But she never found that out.”
“Now,” he said, looking back at me, “I’ve been searching for the same kind of love all these years. And, a couple of times I’ve found it, and I haven’t been able to hold on. Invariably, my ego comes up, shutting off my essence, yielding to the fear that shields me from exposing the heart of who I am.”
“I am,” he said, quietly, “a slave to my persona. And in the process, my spirit is drowning. The person I truly am-the gentle one, the quiet one, the one that wears all his fragilities, his vulnerabilities like an apron on his chest-never comes out.”
“I’m too frightened, even today,” he said, “to be criticized, to be rejected for the person I really am. And, in the process, I will never be loved for the person I’m supposed to be.”
He cried. Just a couple of tears, a deep breath, a staccato exhale, and another breath. Then he looked at the clock. The session was over. He stood up, stuck out his hand, thanked me, and said, “I feel better.” He looked around my office, took another deep breath, said, “Thank you,” and left.”
From that day, i took to heart his message. Within the walls of that office, I stopped trying to be somebody I wasn’t. I wanted to be unafraid, without pretense, and as genuine to the person I was supposed to be as I could. No more posturing. No more adjustments in my demeanor.
I stopped trying to be cool.
I never saw him again. I don’t know what happened to him. But I hope that he found the essence within him that he searched for throughout his life. I hope that his spirit is free, and his genuine self comes forward.
I hope the same for all of you.
By entrusting us with your feelings, we help you take steps that you see necessary to begin and put forth the energy to make the needed change.
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