Have you ever tried to look better on the outside than you were feeling on the inside? Do you ever abandon your truth to please others? If you weren’t afraid of losing someone’s approval, acceptance, or love, if you didn’t feel that you had to choose between abandoning yourself or being abandoned by someone else, wouldn’t you be authentic all the time with everyone? Wouldn’t you stand up for yourself more?
Whenever I am challenged to please others at the expense of being real, I think about Anais Nin’s eloquent quote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” It is painful to hold ourselves back. At some point, we stop thriving and begin living in endurance when we believe we have to maintain an act rather than be real. But if we let our fear of abandonment run us, we bully ourselves into submission.
In the film, The Breakfast Club, five high school students are given detention for various infractions against school rules. Their punishment is to remain in the school library all Saturday with the task of completing one assignment: Each of them is to write a thousand-word essay describing who they think they are. Because the assignment seems silly and boring to them, they begin instead to try to figure out who the others in the room are.
At first, they buy each other’s act: the jock, the brain, the crazy one, the prom queen, the criminal. They cling to their own acts too, uncomfortably comfortable with their labels. But as they spend hour after hour together, their real selves peek through, and each of them starts to chafe against the restrictions of his or her image.
As they break out of their molds, their false sense of security and identity are shaken, but they ultimately come to respect each other. By the end of the day, they decide to write only one essay among them, conveying that, like the adults in their lives who see them only as they want to see them, in the most limited of ways, they also saw themselves that way before spending the day together. They write that what they learned is that each of them has attributes of the others within themselves. They are all capable of being smart, athletic, crazy, elitist, or rebellious. They are all of these things and yet they are so much more. They leave detention as comrades, having learned something crucial: judgments are real but they are never the truth. They also come to see that their self-judgments were the most restrictive of all, forcing them to behave in ways that limited them and fed their fear of others.
When in an act, we behave incongruently with what we really feel. Whatever our reasons and fears of being authentic—hurt, ridicule, abandonment—the problem is that after we have our act for a while, we can’t remember who we were without it. And if we can’t figure out who we are, how are others going to really know us? How can we have intimacy if we are not authentic? If we sacrifice intimacy for acceptance, our relationships feel lukewarm and boring. We may keep seeking hot and exciting, never realizing that, as Dylan Thomas said, “Something’s boring me; I think it’s me.”
The Breakfast Club reminds us that molding ourselves into the image of what others want and expect is cruel to our spirit. It takes courage to be authentic in every moment. But who we really are is much more interesting than any character we could possibly play.
By Jane Straus, the author of Enough Is Enough! Stop Enduring and Start Living Your Extraordinary Life (Jossey-Bass pub.).