Becoming Your True Self

Reflection on the Suicide of a Former High School Classmate

Recently, one of my former high school classmates committed suicide by leaping off his apartment balcony. The eerie thing about the internet is that his LinkedIn and Facebook profiles lived on. I had not been in touch for nearly fifteen years, but I was tempted to have a look.

The thing that worried me was his show of pride for supposedly having graduated high school — because I knew he had not. He had flunked the final year, had not been allowed to redo it and was forced to get a job. To keep up appearances he had spent a lifetime fooling himself, his friends and family into believing something that was not so. Could the weight of this lie have been the real cause of his depression?

Chasing Substitutes

It is self-evident that most of what drives society can be attributed to people’s need for chasing substitutes, such as money, status or diploma’s. Using those substitutes, we try to make up for the lack of love and appreciation we really crave. We go to work for the promise of a promotion we may never get. We put in unpaid overtime hoping that someday we’ll get a raise. We give up on our social lives to study straight A’s in hopes of appreciation.

But “we can never have enough of the things we don’t really need,” wrote longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer. What drove my former classmate’s depression was that he did not feel valued for who he was, but for having to live up to some impossible condition. Why do we allow others to so destructively communicate to us their sense of our worth?

Unconditional Positive Regard

We carry with us this learned attitude, submitting our inner needs to external validation, our whole lives. We elect political leaders that promise a “better future” or a “return to prosperous times” — the straight A’s of the people — but their ideals often come at our expense. We’ve imprisoned ourselves beneath layers of ideological dirt to hide from the view that all of us flunked the school of humanity.

The root of the problem is that we’ve been trying to ‘fix’ with technology that which was never broken: our capacity to love, respect, recognize and appreciate others, and in doing so, ourselves. What we need is a society built on unconditional positive regard, as psychologist Carl Rogers called it. If we learn to let go of substitutes and embrace our real needs, then we cease to live the lives of others and finally become our true selves.

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