Rev. Dr. Tom Butts: The High Price of Cheap Acceptance

Last week I reminded you how exhausting it is to pretend. Pretension is a great temptation for people who feel alienated and who desperately want to belong. We never intend for this dishonest representation of ourselves to become a lifetime habit, but the longer we practice pretension, the more permanent the habit becomes. To maintain this facade, we compartmentalize feelings we are afraid to express because they are contrary to our projected image. We always intend to get back to these stuffed feelings later, but the wall we build to shut out potential rejection and hurt soon becomes a cage.

This emotional hide-and-seek seems relatively harmless as long as we are in charge of the situation - as long as we are the "keepers" of our various identities. But the real danger ultimately lies in self-deception. Few, if any of us, can pretend for very long without believing our pretense, without beginning to forget who we really are. Self-identity is a priceless possession that we need to navigate the stormy seas of life. At times we do not know WHERE we are going, just that we are moving. Identity is chart and compass for life. To lose the insight of who we truly are is a frightening experience that can produce odd and hurtful behavior.

Several years ago I received a letter from a young friend whose life had been laced with multiple painful experiences. She wrote to me after a divorce from an agonizing and unsuccessful marriage. One sentence from the letter sums up her dilema. "Now that it is all over", she wrote, "I can finally get back to being myself, if I can remember who that is." Losing a sense of who we are is easier and more subtle than we think. Of all the various kinds of alienation, the most painful and the most dangerous is alienation from parts of our own life.

There is a school of psychotherapy that maintains that we experience healing from our hurts by the process of self-disclosure. This approach says that we tend to get individual and social acceptance when we are willing to open up closeted areas of our lives and share our hurts with others. This idea is frightening to most people, because there are inherent dangers even when we are discrete. I am not, of course, suggesting we should strip ourselves naked emotionally in front of everyone we meet. We do not need to become emotional exhibitiionists. But self-disclosure of our wounds and true feelings is important in our relationships with those we trust and know to be caring. Not everyone cares about where we hurt and how we feel, but those who care cannot help us until they know where we hurt and how we feel. There does seem to be something redemptive and healing in the process of self-disclosure, when we find safe places in wich we can be open and truthful about the historical and festering hurts in our lives.

In our world of fast foods and quick fixes, pretending to be someone other yourself may appear to be a shortcut to achieving the acceptance of someone who is emotionally important, but in the end the person who is pretending finds he has paid a high price for cheap acceptance.

During the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, there was a gold medal that sold for forty dollars. Somebody took the time to measure the gold content of the medal and found that it contained about twelve dollars worth of gold. There are people who have made that kind of emotional transaction in the hope of buying belonging. Eventually they will discover that they are operating on an emotional deficit.

Maintaining a relationship that leaves you with an emotional deficit has a predictable negative effect. If you put it to music, the words of the first verse would be something like this: "I want you to love and accept me so I begin to do all the things I think you expect of me no matter how contrary they are to my true feelings. I sacrifice who I am and what I really feel so that you will love and accept me. You may not expect this sort of behavior of me at all. You might accept me just as I am, but I am unwilling to take that chance. So I pretend."

Eventually such feigned behavior creates an image that others accept as real. The mask becomes a cage. If you let down your guard and express the feelings of your true self, all who have accepted your pretended image will begin to say, "What is wrong with him today? He is acting so unlike himself." And this leads you into the second verse of the song: "If I hurt, I dare not show it. If I am sad, I must not cry. If I am angry, I cannot let you know it. If I show how I really feel and who I really am, you may not accept me. I live in a lonely world behind a mask I dare not remove. What I have pretended to be is accepted, but behind the facade is the real me - isolated, alienated and farther from acceptance than before this transaction started."

Have you ever been caught in that trap? I hope you have not, but I 'll bet you know someone who has. The trap of deception destroys important relationships. It is the source of frustration and is often a major factor in depression. How can we avoid this trap? How can we free ourselves if we are already trapped?

To live as who you are, rather than living the image others have of you requires the risk of faith in yourself and in other people. It is scary to think about what will happen to relationships we have formed on the basis of pretension. If you are young and innocent enough not to have been caught in this trap, don't go there, no matter how tempting it may be. If you are already trapped, and you are miserable enough to take some risks, then find someone you trust who cares enough help you regain and begin to live your true identity.