People have taken issue with my claim that happiness comes when we live with total integrity—when we stop trying to please people and start living more authentically.
I understand why a lot of people fear the sort of transparency and honesty I’m advocating: We are clannish beings, with nervous systems that evolved to profoundly fear being rejected by our tribe. For some of us, acceptance can be a matter of survival. But for most, it is far better to be ourselves and risk having people not like us than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone we’re not.
Does this mean that we always express what we’re feeling, or that we always say what we’re thinking? That we never act in a way that doesn’t resonate with our mood? As one commenter mused:
"Is there anyone reading this who has not had an interaction with a law-enforcement officer for at least a minor traffic issue? A tail light out? A parking ticket? And during such an interaction, telling that officer that you resent being stopped because you believe s/he hasn’t met their quota of fines for the month a wise idea? Or if taking a ticket to court, is it wise to tell the judge you think s/he is a fool? You might think that, but saying so may lead to a need for a good attorney."
Indeed, there is an enormous difference between living your truth and always saying what’s on your mind. I don’t think that it’s necessary, or even a good idea, in instances like the one mentioned, above to “speak your truth.” Nor do you need to pretend to be happy about the situation. Being pulled over can be extremely stressful—even life-threatening—and pretending that it isn’t will simply ratchet up your fear response, which is not a good thing, unless you are actually being chased by a wild animal.
But it’s entirely possible to internally acknowledge your feelings, while remaining quiet or emotionally unexpressive to those around you. This is where it gets tricky (again): Say you are feeling afraid; is it best to indulge your fear? Even if you don’t tell the officer how frightened you are—or even if you don’t pretend to be happy about the situation—how does one behave authentically in the situation? If you are resentful, is it best to be transparent about your resentment? Should resentment dictate your behavior?
This is often the way it works: Something happens, or we have a thought or memory, that triggers an emotion. In turn, that emotion triggers behavior. Sometimes the behavior is repression—the act of pretending that we aren’t feeling what we actually are feeling. Or an emotion triggers a numbing behavior so that we don’t really feel something, such as when we start to feel bored or anxious and we immediately check our phone. (This doesn’t work, by the way—physiologically our emotions get bigger when we stuff them down. But let’s leave that for another post.)
Emotions trigger many behaviors. They may cause us to hug someone we love, or lash out when we feel angry. So if we are trying to live with total integrity, if we are attempting to “live our truth,” does that mean always acting on our feelings?
I don’t think so, because sometimes acting on our feelings simply isn’t effective. It won’t necessarily make us feel less stressed or more honest. In the same way that we don’t always need to say out loud everything that is on our mind, we don’t need to act on our every emotional impulse. We need to be aware of what we’re feeling, but we don’t always need to act in the ways that our emotions would dictate.
It can be even more effective to act as if we are already feeling something else. Before you write me off as contradicting myself entirely, hear me out.
Just as emotions tend to trigger behaviors, behavior can also trigger emotion. We know, for example, that facial expression alone—without first feeling a corresponding emotion—is often enough to create discernible changes in your nervous system. When you lift the corners of your lips and crinkle your eyes, for example, after a couple of minutes your body releases the feel-good brain chemicals associated with smiling. Or think about the advice to take deep breaths when you feel stressed. In each of these cases, a particular behavior can help create a different emotional state than the one you initially felt. We often think of this as the “fake it ‘til you make it” path to happiness.
There is a catch: “Faking it” only works when we aren’t pretending or performing. Consciously faking a smile, for example, to cover negative emotions (what researchers call “surface acting”) tends to increase our distress. This kind of toxic inauthenticity is corrosive to our health, especially that of our cardiovascular system, and it damages our relationships with others. It also makes it hard for us to access our intuitive or visceral intelligence.
Suppressing or numbing our emotions doesn’t work the way we often want it to, unless—and here is the trick—we consciously foster the emotions that we want to feel in our lives. This is what researchers call “deep acting.”
"Deep acting is when we genuinely work to foster specific feelings. When we make an effort to cultivate real happiness, gratitude, hope, and other positive emotions in our lives, we can dramatically increase our well-being—authentically."
And deep acting is precisely what the commenter below is asking about:
"I’m wondering…if you would suggest that the idea of 'acting as if' for treatment would never work? I suggest the use of breathing, self-imagery, posture…to feel better and improve relationships."
When we talk about the types of research-tested behaviors this commenter suggests, “acting as-if” can be quite different than pretending to feel something that we don’t. Here’s the difference: Pretending is about hiding or denying our emotions, while deep acting, or acting as-if, is about proactively fostering emotions, starting with an action or behavior.
It’s a fine line, to be sure. Here’s a method I teach my clients to help them remain high true to themselves when they have the impulse to pretend.
Ask yourself what you are feeling. Are you afraid of what someone else might be thinking about you? Are you avoiding an inconvenient truth or difficult emotion?
Allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. All emotions are OK; they are a key part of our intelligence and the human experience.
Assess the situation. Can you safely share your feelings with others? Would it make you feel better to do so? If yes, go ahead and share. This might feel risky, but authenticity and vulnerability usually create intimacy and connection—two keys to happiness.
Decide on an appropriate behavior based on how you’d like to feel. If you are afraid, for example, you might want to choose a behavior to calm your fear, like taking deep breaths. If you are feeling low-energy, you might want to do a few jumping jacks to get your blood circulating.
- Finally, check back in with yourself to see how you feel. Allow whatever comes up for you. You may now feel both a sense of calm (from taking a bunch of deep breaths) and a little frightened. It is entirely possible to experience more than one emotion at a time. Or, your blahs might have vanished now that you’ve taken a little walk outside.