This is how things really are., paper collage, 2022
He holds before his soul his image of perfection and unconsciously tells himself, ‘Forget about the disgraceful creature you actually are; this is how you should be; and to be this idealized self is all that matters. You should be able to endure everything, to understand everything, to like everybody, to be always productive’—to mention only a few of these inner dictates. Since they are inexorable, I call them ‘the tyranny of the should.’Karen Horney
Of the classic psychology texts and theorists I’ve studied over the years, Karen Horney and Carl Jung resonate with me the most. Although, there is something about Horney in particular, the theoretical framework she uses, that rings particularly true for me. That is, I feel I can use her theory as a lens through which to view myself, to understand myself differently, and even, to help myself.
Horney talks a great deal about the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives that often drive our behavior without our conscious knowledge, as in the quote above. She suggests that, from a young age, we begin constructing an “idealized self-image,” a vision (often unrealistic, or not in accord with our true nature) of who we believe we should be and then construe our world, through a series of narratives, or “necessary proofs and alibis,” to reinforce that image. For example, if I believe (likely without my realizing it) that I should be the best at everything I do, I will likely look for proof of this in my environment: I was the top performer in my company last quarter. I have more advanced degrees than anyone in my family. I am the only person I know who won a triathlon.
And, if by chance, there happens to be evidence in my environment to the contrary, I must reshape it to make it coincide with my narrative. She didn’t really beat me—she cheated. She may have as many degrees as I have, but they weren’t nearly as difficult to achieve as mine. And, she may have won a triathlon, too, but my times were better, or my course was much more challenging.
Furthermore, Horney believes that anyone or anything in the outside world that forces us to look at our own conflicts—at how unrealistic and damaging our own narratives are, especially to our own wellbeing—will elicit anger and raise our defenses. The more deeply entrenched and damaging the narrative, the more rigidly and viciously we will defend it. You’re a loser! You’ll never amount to anything! You’re jealous of how much I have achieved! You’ll never be as successful as I am!
This is not unlike Jung’s concept of the shadow. But there is something about the way Horney describes it that makes me peer into myself differently. Indeed, it is possible to see our own underlying narratives, as well as our “shoulds.” Although, it can be a complicated task.
To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be an invaluable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek out our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain. Only when we are willing to bear the brunt can we approximate the ideal of being the captain of our ship.Karen Horney
It is my experience that, if I am paying attention, I can catch a faulty narrative in action because trying to satisfy its demands causes me anxiety or discomfort. Or, my intuition kicks in and a quiet inner voice says, “It isn’t good to think this way,” or “This isn’t how you really feel. Look again.” For example, I recently caught myself refraining from doing something I wanted to do. And it was causing me discomfort. My inner dialogue went something like this: “I am so tired of this. I really want to do x, but I can’t!” I stopped myself and probed the issue further: “Why can’t I?” The answer was: “If I do x, I risk revealing my emotions. And I cannot show my emotions here (to this person, in this environment).” I almost laughed aloud when I realized what was holding me back. What a ridiculous thing to think. I then proceeded to do x rather easily and without discomfort, and nothing bad happened.
What’s more: it is my observation that faulty narratives, once discovered, come tumbling down like a house of cards if you change the behaviors that reinforce them. And it doesn’t necessarily take much—one routine or habit, one way of relating to others, one thing done differently to prove that I don’t have to be the best at everything I do. Or, not everyone has to like me. Or, I don’t have to be productive all the time. Or, it’s OK to like “this” or do “that”.
It also occurs to me that once these narratives start to topple, life not only becomes easier (freer of anxieties and discomforts), but we also start to move naturally toward wanting to do what’s good for us all the time. That is, I think we grow so accustomed to living according to what Horney calls the “tyranny of the should,” to working tirelessly (and it is very, very hard work) to be who we think we should be, to make other people how we think they should be, to make the rest of creation as we think it should be, that we grow fatigued. And once the shoulds come crashing down, we start to realize we’ve been punishing ourselves a lot, that we’ve been unnecessarily and unrealistically hard on ourselves and, perhaps, on other people. And that it would feel better to do what’s good for us, for a change. If something isn’t good for me, I don’t want to do it anymore.
It’s ironic. I’ve spent so much time in nature, admiring other creatures and thinking, this is how things should be. Only recently, I’ve begun thinking, this is how things really are. This is how I am. And this is how things are.