Caroline McHugh on The Art of Being Yourself (Full Transcript)

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So I want you to imagine I go into Eduardo’s class in school, and it’s a class of three-year-old boys, and I say to the boys, “Who’s the strongest boy in the class?” What’s going to happen? Every hand, right? Every single hand in the class will go up. They’ll be competitively strong.

If I go into the same class, but it’s full of seven-year-old boys, and ask the same question, they’ll say, “Him,” because they know by time they’re seven. He’s the strong one, he’s the fastest runner, he’s the funny guy, he’s the bully. Society archetype emerges round about the age of five, six, seven, eight. That’s why the Jesuits say, “Give me a boy until the age of seven, and I’ll show you the man,” because that’s the birth of consciousness. And from then on you become more self-conscious, and by default less good at being yourself.

The other place you’re fantastic at being yourself is when you’re a wrinkly, because you can’t be arsed. You get to that stage in your life where you realize there are more summers behind you than there are in front of you, and everything intensifies. You become more honest; you become less compromising. So you’re going to tell people, “I don’t want the spinach, I’m not going to eat it, I don’t like it. And I don’t like jazz, so you can shut that noise off. And while I’m at it, I don’t like you!” And we call these people eccentric. We call our oldies eccentric. In fact, what they’re doing is being authentic.

So it’s kind of like an hourglass effect. When you’re young you’re great at being yourself; when you’re old you’re great at being yourself; but the bit in the middle is sometimes the most problematic. That’s the bit where you have to socialize; you have to accommodate; you have to adapt.

So I’ve developed the “I complex,” and the “I complex” is a model to help you figure out which “I” you mean when you say “I.” You’re very familiar with the superiority complex. If you have a superiority complex, you pretty much think you’re the most important person in the room. If you’ve got an inferiority complex you suffer from an over-modest self-regard. Now these are both signs of a fragile ego. One of them is about delusions of grandeur, and the other one delusions of insignificance.

There’s a third way of being in the world, and I call it “interiority.” This is one of my made-up words. So the word “interiority” describes a particular disposition, and there’s two reasons it might be useful to you. Number one, it’s completely uncomparative. If you have a superiority complex or an inferiority complex you need other people around. For a superiority complex you need other people to be smaller. For an inferiority complex you need to suffer from the I’m-going-to-be-found-out syndrome, so somebody needs to find you out.

Interiority is entirely unrelative, so to operate from this position of interiority, it’s like a perceptual vantage point. It’s a sensibility. It’s an orientation. And it’s the only place in your life, the only place in your life, you have no competition. Try and find a comparison to yourself, and you’ll draw a blank.

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So I could talk to you about interiority till my tongue bleeds, or I could just show you what it looks like. So I want to introduce you to a woman called Jill Scott. You might have her on your iTunes playlist, but Jill’s a singer, and she’s just about to go on stage and perform, and in case you missed the question, there’s a French filmmaker who’s filming her. She’s going on stage after Erykah Badu, and he says to her, “Are you nervous going on after Erykah?” And I want you to listen to what she says. –

[Voiceover – “That chick right there has definitely led the way for me and a lot of other sisters. Now, I appreciate it”.

Interviewer: Are you nervous you’re going to perform after her?

“Have you ever seen me perform? I am the Lady Jill Scott. I am a poet, and a singer, and a lot of other things. We all have our own thing — that’s the magic– and everybody comes with their own sense of strength, and their own queendom. Mine could never compare to hers, and hers could never compare to mine”. ]  

See, you didn’t even know you had a queendom. That’s what it looks like. When you figure out how to be yourself it’s an incredibly liberating, untragic way to go through life. So you don’t develop an identity that’s predicated on being a patchwork personality. You’re not a composite, an amalgam, of all your experience and influences. You’re not just somebody’s boss, or somebody’s mum, or anybody’s anything. You’re yourself.

However, the chances are, there are at least four of you sitting in each of those chairs, so let me introduce yourselves. The most visible “you” that you represent to the outside world is what everybody else thinks of you, and there are as many opinions of you as there are people. I want you to imagine you’re like a big USB stick that you plug into the world. You show up on the desktop of the world. And that’s the power of context. If you don’t understand that bit, being yourself can be an ill-advised strategy. So of course it’s important that you understand perception, but one of the things I’ve noticed, in terms of gender, and I’m terribly, untragically woman by the way. I don’t find myself tragically woman. I describe myself as a womanist, rather than a feminist, but I’m also a card-carrying feminist.

There are very few things that I think are gender-specific, but one of them is something I call “approval addiction.” The need to be liked, the need for approbation, or recognition, or for somebody to tell you it’s okay. I find more woman suffer from that affliction than men, and I think it’s one of the most debilitating things. When it comes to being yourself needing other people’s approval, loving somebody else’s opinion, and mistaking it for your own is one of the most debilitating things you’ll do on the road to being yourself. You will never, ever be perceptionless, but it’s important to be perception free.

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One of the things that’s going to help you to be perception free is to tune into the next circle of the “I complex.” So this is your wish image. This is what you would like everybody else to think of you, and it’s not about being fake, or bad, or pretending. It’s about moving; it’s about possibility; it’s about potential; it’s about supposition.

So, whilst there’s a part of you that’s like your backbone, this part of you is like your wishbone. This one is your adaptive personality, your construct self, and even that’s unique, because nobody in the world has had the same experiences or influences that you have. But this is the you that keeps moving, that keeps changing all the time. And it helps you avoid being one of those people. You know the people that say to you they have 15 years experience when they mean one year 15 times? They literally repeat themselves year, after year, after year.

What I want you to think about is with every passing year your job is to be better and better at being who you already are. This is not a cosmetic exercise. You’re already different. Your job is to figure out how, and then to be more of that. Now, there are certain times in your life that lend themselves to change, that make change quicker, deeper. And I call them intervals of possibility.

Now, they’re not always as well sign-posted as this one, but you know those times in your life when you come to a bifurcation on the path, and you sense that the potential for change is heightened? You meet a stranger in a bar; you get to decide what you’re going to do. Your boss comes to you and offers you a new job. You know, what do you want, you want to keep doing the same thing, or do you want this job? And you know that if you make that change, the speed of your life will change.

Now, unfortunately, some of these interventions — some of these intervals of possibility — are catastrophic. In fact, most of them are catastrophic because most of us would rather sleepwalk until something happens to wake us up. And what will happen is somebody you love will get sick, or you’ll get sick, or you’ll get fired. Or maybe it’s something impersonal. Maybe 9/11 happens, or the tsunami happens, or the Kashmiri earthquake happens, but something happens that rocks you back into that inner self, and makes you ask the question I asked you at the beginning of this talk. And the problem is when it happens catastrophically is you’re vulnerable, you’re weak.