There are times when it’s almost impossible to be true to yourself.
The notion of being true to yourself is all well and good. And it certainly sounds crucial. But there are times when doing so is far easier said than done. For one of your most treasured ideals may not always jibe with another. In such instances you can find yourself, almost literally, torn in two—simultaneously trying to honor both of these seminal values when in fact they’re mutually exclusive. In this post, I’ll provide a couple of examples adapted from clients I’ve worked with who were obliged to wrestle with this dilemma. I’ll also suggest how to resolve such a quandary when two principles you’re devoted to uphold blatantly contradict one another.
I once worked with an exceptionally idealistic professional named Mark, who was unusually gifted in computer graphics. Wanting somehow to “transcend” his career, Mark chose as his overriding goal to devote himself to various humanistic causes. His dream was to earn enough income to enable him to contribute (and anonymously, at that!) no less than $100,000 yearly to six or seven of these organizations. Yet, despite his admirable idealism, he recognized that to fulfill this “secular mission” he needed to be more profit-minded (or profit motivated) than really felt comfortable to him.
That is, Mark’s idealistic principles—to help bring about what he envisioned as a more just and equitable society—were hardly compatible with his monetary ones, which he recognized as approaching the mercenary. It was as though he was required, paradoxically, to be as aggressively “self-serving” as possible to achieve his laudably non-self-serving goals. Or, to put it a little differently, if he were to be as charitable and giving as he could, he had to base all his business decisions on which position would be most lucrative. He maintained (and was happy enough with) a modest lifestyle. So his incentive for taking advantage of the most profitable professional opportunity could definitely be viewed as altruistic. He even affirmed that his greatest satisfactions in life related not to how much money he could make but how much he could give away.
And yet Mark’s values conflict didn’t really center on this seeming discrepancy. Rather, it was tied to his endeavoring to organize his life around one paramount principle. And that was to be forthright and honest in all his dealings with others. Even though in the past it had sometimes interfered with his own self-interests, he’d long prided himself on telling the truth even when it conflicted with other, more pragmatic considerations. Many years ago, he’d decided that nothing was more important than maintaining his integrity. And whenever he feared he might somehow have compromised this ideal, he had difficulty sleeping at night.
When I first saw Mark he’d been agonizing over the fact that he had a well-paying corporate position but still felt he ought to be sending out “feelers” and returning calls to recruiters to make absolutely sure that other companies might not pay him even more for his services. For if so, he’d be obliged to accept such an offer in order to reach his lofty donating goals sooner. That is, he felt he “owed” it to himself—or his ideals—to always be in pursuit of the highest paying position available.
But, as he expressed it to me, “I can’t imagine how I could ever explain to my boss that I’m leaving the office for 2 hours by saying to him, ‘I have an interview for a potentially better-paying job!’” The only alternative then would be to lie about the whole thing, which my client saw as an inexcusable self-violation. In his belief that to live ethically he was duty-bound to be honest and open with others, he went back and forth over the fact that he wasn’t doing anything to explore other professional alternatives that might better serve his primary goal.
As his therapist, I was able to assist Mark in getting beyond his protracted “values impasse” by suggesting he explore which of these two crucial ideals finally was more meaningful, more imperative or essential, to him. And when he pondered his priorities this way it became increasingly clear that—mercenary or not, deceitful or not—his cardinal value was to devote his life to contributing the most money possible to causes in which he deeply believed. He’d come to the conclusion that this was how he could do the most good in the world. So, however secular in nature, this endeavor was almost like a religion for him.
It’s almost a cliché to say that if you’re to make good decisions for yourself—ones you can live with indefinitely—you need to prioritize. So the only thing I can add here is that to prioritize well, you have to make transparently clear what in your life you hold the most dear. When specific situations can’t but eventuate in a values conflict (such as the one I’ve just described), it’s essential to reflect on what, ultimately, matters most to you, which ideal you choose to give “executive control” to.
Ideally, when you’re on your death bed looking back on your most pivotal decisions, you’d like to be able to confirm that your most important acts were firmly grounded in your most hallowed beliefs. Yet I should add that it’s totally possible (and certainly understandable) that as you age and evolve some of your values, and their relative priority, may well shift. So that, too, ought to be taken— and self-compassionately—into account.
And yes, given the reality you inhabit, you’ll have needed to make certain compromises. Whereas we’re all familiar with the phrase “the lesser of two evils,” here—much less commonly—we may be dealing with the “lesser of two virtues.” Moreover, any compromise you make is likely to leave you with some residue of guilt (not to mention some possible doubt, misgiving, regret or remorse). For guilt is the emotion inextricably linked to violating standards that, however implicitly, you promised yourself you’d live by. But if, whenever such guilt arises, you scrupulously explore it—reminding yourself why you chose that option in the first place—such guilt shouldn’t oblige you to negatively reevaluate it. For you can appreciate your earlier choice as having been based on a personal ideal that, back then, felt paramount to you.
At this point I’d like to mention one other client—we’ll call her Joyce—who agonized over two key values that were in “mortal conflict” with one another.
A very attractive and highly intelligent woman of 33, Joyce had been raised by two zealously religious parents. By the time she’d reached double digits, both her family and church had thoroughly indoctrinated her with the idea that if a female had sex prior to marriage it would seriously damage her, as well as others—not to say also increase the likelihood she’d end up ”sentenced” to an eternity in hell. When she first met with me, her protracted virginity had come to feel almost like a curse. As she wearily put it: “Believe me, I wear it as no badge of honor.”
Once Joyce entered college (maintaining a 4.0 average), she became increasingly agnostic. During this time many of her social and political views turned quite liberal. No longer was she immersed in church activities—around which (since she’d been home-schooled) most of her childhood social life revolved. Still, her thoroughly ingrained religious values, however skeptical she’d become about them, held considerable sway over her. She’d anguish endlessly about what she wanted to do with her life vs. what she felt she should do with it.
In consequence, at the same time her secular ideals (particularly, given her vivacious, highly extroverted nature) impelled her to adopt a lifestyle that would enable her to experience as much joy, excitement, and adventure as possible—including a full expression of her sexuality—her behavior was yet dominated by the dogmatic precepts uncritically imbibed from her past. Although it appeared that as a child she’d “swallowed” most of these beliefs whole—that they might not really reflect who, by nature, she truly was—she yet felt a keen “ownership” of this externally derived orthodoxy.
As much as Joyce thought about (or rather, agonized over) this exasperating conflict warring within her, her many efforts to resolve it had been futile. Giving herself the license to totally be herself (and she frequently admitted that she wasn’t really that sure just who that self might be) seemed frankly impossible. And it seemed fairly obvious to both of us that one of the reasons she’d yet to find a suitable partner to share her life with (though she’d had abundant suitors) related to all her self-constraints. Around men she was attracted to, she projected a certain self-conscious, almost adolescent, anxiety, which—along with her rigid boundaries—might well have discouraged them from further pursuing a relationship with her.
What Joyce identified as her “tyrannical super-ego” had become so tightly bound to her chastity that to let herself express her eroticism with a man prior to marriage seemed tantamount to abandoning not just her virginity but her virtue—and “not sinning” felt all-important to her. It was as though she was doomed, whether she wanted to or not, to be a prim and proper goody two shoes. It should also be noted that what she (disapprovingly) thought about many of her prohibitions was quite at odds with how, emotionally, she felt about them. And in her situation—vs. Mark’s—the values conflict wasn’t about one powerful ethical ideal clashing with another: rather, it was a dominant secular ideal colliding with a sovereign religious one.
As I write this, Joyce is still working hard in therapy to resolve this longstanding, and downright exasperating, discrepancy between these two incompatible ideals—or, in her case, “selves.” And, typical of such deep-seated inner turmoil, such a core conflict can only be resolved over time. It’s as though her child self (with all its devout “learnings”) must somehow be “transmuted” and become fully integrated with her adult self. For only then might she discover who she truly is, as possibly opposed to who—to feel more aligned with her fundamentalist religious family—she might originally have “constructed” herself to be.
So here, too, is a fairly dramatic example of how having conflicting ideals can create all sorts of emotional havoc in you, until—at the very root of your being—you’re able to decide how to subordinate, or subsume, one of these ideals to the other. And, as I’ve already suggested, such resolution is accomplished by choosing the alternative that, finally, more closely reflects your life goals—and thus who you are.
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[Leon F. Sletzer]