We all wake up in the morning, and then have to face a day in contact with other people. We wash and dress ourselves, in order to make ourselves presentable, and then leave the house. Once we are outside our own front door, we adopt facial expressions and body movements that are acceptable to the people we will meet.
This is our ‘presentable self’. We humans are evolved with a natural tendency to modify our behaviour to make sure that no one will find us too controversial or dislikeable. We may be thinking all sorts of unacceptable thoughts, but we don’t let them out into the open air, where they could be heard by others. We hold inside, or suppress, the difficult or unattractive thoughts, and instead release a learned, safe script, our PR.
For a while, we can do it. We can talk politely, sit up straight, and be decent and considerate. But, sooner or later, this ‘presentable self’ starts to feel unsustainable. We begin to feel: ‘I can’t keep on being polite. I am feeling tired and irritable.’ Other behaviours leak out. Perhaps we let our face shape itself into a scowl or grimace. Perhaps we sigh at someone, or show our impatience.
This is evidence that our presentable self is too restrictive. In order to be acceptable to others, we have narrowed our behaviour to a caricature of ourselves, kind, polite and sociable. Because of the over-restriction, our inner irritability has nowhere to go.
Various symptoms may emerge. We may develop a bit of a temper with our loved ones. It’s a reaction to keeping it all together for so long in the outside world. We can’t be ourselves with strangers, so we over-react with those closest to us. The partner comes home and sighs at their partner, becoming critical and dismissive. The autistic child, having shown perfect behaviour at school, comes through the front door and melts down.
How can we change things, so that we can feel more comfortable? How can we stop bottling things up too much, and then splurging our emotions all over those closest to us, just because they are there, and life is so stressful?
One of the answers is to work on replacing this ‘presentable self’ with a ‘sustainable self’, still reasonably presentable, but letting out a bit more of the bottled-up stuff. We can use the word ‘sustainable’, because we are looking for a behaviour that doesn’t break when it goes on too long. For instance, it may be presentable in the short term to overwork, but it is not sustainable, and will result in periodic illness or exhaustion.
There are four key ways in which our sustainable self is different from our presentable self.
- We are prepared to empathise with our less acceptable feelings, such as anger, jealousy and irritability.
- We are prepared to ask ourselves what unmet needs are causing those feelings.
- We allow ourselves to express those unmet needs to others.
- We are prepared to ask others to adapt to meet those needs.
Our sustainable self can still be polite. Otherwise, it would be very antisocial, and therefore wouldn’t be sustainable.
But our sustainable self is prepared to be compassionate and supportive towards ourselves, in a way that the presentable self can’t do, because it is so busy restricting our behaviour to conform to what we imagine are others’ expectations of ‘acceptable’ behaviour.
We can be a lot happier with a sustainable self, rather than a merely presentable self. The trouble with the presentable self is that it thinks no one is interested in helping us through our suffering. It believes in the ‘stiff upper lip’, and soldiering on despite feeling awful. This is very brave, but ultimately foolhardy, because in the end we will break.
We need to learn to sense our own suffering, and listen to it. We need to do some investigation, to detect what unmet needs might be lurking. Do we need to feel safer? Do we need to feel freer? Do we need to feel more respected? Do we need more downtime to recover? These are all extremely reasonable needs.
Once we have detected our own underlying needs, we can then set about expressing those unmet needs to others, and even requesting that others play a part in meeting those needs. It’s a lot better than being presentable most of the time, and then exploding into a rage when it all gets too much, and we get overtired or overstressed. That’s not sustainable.
Maybe try it today. We can ask ourselves from time to time:
- What am I really feeling (even the ugly thoughts)?
- What’s the understandable need underlying those feelings?
- How can I express that understandable need to others?
- How can I ask for others’ help in meeting that need?
If we can build this habit, we can turn our over-restrictive presentable self, into a more free-flowing sustainable self. And we won’t have so many periodic meltdowns.