Wednesday, December 26, 2012

If you don't stop making that face...

Did your Mom ever tell you, "If you don't stop making that face, it will freeze that way"? When life is moving really fast, people often just get one glimpse of us, like a snapshot. In their minds, that's the way we are -- face, talent, personality, preferences. That's their image of us, our face is "frozen that way".

How closely does my public persona resemble the person I think of as me? Has anyone ever gotten fixated on an inaccurate view of me or formed an image that represents just one side of who I am?

Sometimes, the matter is out of your hands. Parents often think of their offspring as children, even after they grow up, and no amount of rational persuasion or objective evidence will change their minds. Maybe your classmates from high school remember you as that nerdy/freaky/jock/flaky kid even though you've moved past that long ago.

The cast of Star Trek got stuck in the image of the characters from that show, no matter what other roles they played. They got a lot of money and fame for their efforts, but their careers pretty much got stuck there. The movie Galaxy Quest parodied their plight, with a story about a group of actors from a long-defunct television show who could only find work reprising their roles at sci-fi conventions and shopping mall openings.

In the 1960s, four budding musicians and actors signed on for a TV show about a boy band, The Monkees. Their careers were defined by the characters they played on that show for the next 40 years. They got very frustrated at the constraints imposed by their contract, but they raked in a pile of money. That was a good thing, financially speaking, because their most visible source of income in the years to come was band reunion tours and appearances as former members of The Monkees. Was it worth it?

On the other hand, if you don't provide something that your audience, clients, or friends want, you can find yourself all alone.

A folk singer I know insisted so strongly on doing everything on his own terms that he choked off his own career. He didn't care enough about what his audience wanted, and his fellow musicians found him difficult to deal with.

Andrew De Leon, an aspiring singer, gave his first public performance almost as a way to put his dreams to rest, certain that he was going to be hated. The audience responded in an overwhelmingly positive way, and his new-found fans pressed him to release a CD. Now, he's changed genres, blending the operatic style that made him famous with the heavy metal and goth styles that he has admired for several years. Did he perform his least important kind of music so that if he was rejected, at least it wouldn't be for the music that was closest to his heart? Should he please his fans or please himself? You can't blame the fans for wanting more of what drew them in the first place. On the other hand, being typecast in a role that's not really you can choke off your enthusiasm before you can realize your potential.

In my previous job, I became known in my company as a very capable technical editor and trade show exhibit manager. That wasn't inaccurate, but those talents ranked very low on my list of personal priorities. Perhaps I could have pursued my creative writing and visual arts interests in my spare time, but my job left me very little time or energy to pursue the things that I cared about most. My employers didn't require those skills from me, and "creative writer" was not what came to mind when they thought of me. So I provided what my employer wanted, at great cost to my personal priorities.

If you don't care enough about other people's feelings, you're a narcissist, and people walk away from you. If you care too much about what people think of you, you're a people-pleaser, and they take you for granted and exploit you.

There has to be a third way, where you engage with other people while keeping a sense of yourself. You act in a way that shows respect and caring for others, but you respect and care about yourself as well. Reveal your true self, but only as much as appropriate. Actively seek common ground between what you have to offer and what others desire from you. Have boundaries, but give your closest friends a means of access to the self that you think of as "really me".

"Being yourself is not remaining where you are, or being satisfied with what you are. It is the point of departure." -- Sydney J. Harris

"As I think more positively, I attract positive-thinking people into my life, with whom I have satisfying relationships." -- Barbara J. Winter

"As I know myself better and act with more integrity and authenticity, I become more capable of entering into close, authentic relationships." -- Nancy McGuire


  1. There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet...
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions
    And for a hundred visions and revisions
    Before the taking of a toast and tea

    The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot.


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