Confessions of a Fraud

It’s a New Year, and I’ve been reflecting on what I want out of 2017.  Like really want, my soul’s longing.  And it has nothing to do with diet, workout routines, more productive habits, or even meditation.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  My deepest longest is to see and accept my true self, as I am, and by extension, be my fullest self in every moment.  And from that, I believe, comes true freedom.

Sound great.  The only problem is: I have spent an entire lifetime crafting a veneer, a self-image, carefully developed to meet society’s expectations of me.  I have learned to play the role other have scripted for me.  On the surface, I look great.  I have accumulated a collection of prestigious degrees, a beautiful place to live, and a rich network of friends.  I am a skilled conversationalist, with the right words in a given situation to please or appease.  I post glorious photos on Facebook about my fabulous life.  Physically and mentally, I am in good clinical health.  On the surface level, it seems like success.  But when I listen quietly, I feel the incongruity.

To make matters worse, I am a meditator, a yogi, a teacher on feelings and emotions, a scholar on authentic human connections – which makes me even more skilled at self-deception (and this insight all the more surprising).  It took most of 2016 – culminating in an intensive 8-day workshop in December – to surface this pattern clearly.

And so what to do, where to begin?  How do I free myself of the shackles of my own “success” – in being who I was taught the world wanted me to be?

The answer I have come to is: make the journey public.  Fundamentally, my carefully crafted image exists because I want to be liked, admired, employed, and “successful.”  There is a safety in neutrality, in silence, in keeping my warts hidden.  By sharing my raw self, and my journey, the image is shattered.  For when a truth is released onto the internet, there is nowhere to hide.  And when exposed in the open, the voices of fear inside me lose power.  Even as I type this, I can feel anxiety shudder through my body – which is all the more reason to hit “post.”

And so this is my commitment: to write a series of confessions and reflections in 2017 on how I have been inauthentic and out of integrity, alongside a commitment to realign myself going forward.  My intention is to be raw, to be vulnerable, to be real, and to be at peace with whatever response I elicit.  That’s the journey.

To push myself a bit further, here is a preview of some areas that have been untrue for me, that I will explore more deeply in the coming weeks:

  1. I say what you want to hear, instead of what my heart says is true.
  2. I have let my roles and degrees define me, and distance me from others.
  3. I say I love and care about you, but I hold you a safe distance from my heart.
  4. I have numbed myself to feeling the things that really matter to me, because I feel powerless to change them.
  5. I subtly distort the truth in an effort to be liked and maintain a self-image.

Let the journey begin.  To discovering the Truth inside!

The Holiday Spirit

As a child, I often felt disconnected and sad during the holiday season.   We were the only non-Christian family in my school, and I felt separate from this collective celebration.  The story of the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, as well, felt far removed from my family’s immigration story to the New World.  And today at the Thanksgiving table, at least one person will criticize the holiday as a celebration of the white man’s brutal conquest over naively generous natives.

Yet over time, I have experienced something deeply universal that our wintertime celebrations tap into, be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, or Kwanza.  In the dark, barren moments of winter, we are reminded that we are not alone, that we are part of something bigger: a community of others, family and strangers alike, who are there to care for us, and in turn who we are being asked to care for.  I think it’s no coincidence that as the light outdoors grow dimmer outside, we have rituals and celebrations that call upon us to shine our lights from within even brighter.

Harsh environments and shocks can separate us, or bring us together.  Cultures in harsher environments evolve to be more collectivist and care for one another more (think: Scandinavia).  A recent study found that natural disasters also bring communities closer together (think: Hurricane Katrina, or 9/11).  When life gets tough, we have the choice of hoarding and competing for scarce resource, or cooperating with our neighbors, our communities, those beyond our own household walls. The invitation of this time of year is: tap into that inner light, come together and give.

I now find inspiration for this in the stories of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  For me, Thanksgiving is about a group of settlers who arrived in a foreign land, asked for help, and their ask was granted.  Despite cultural differences, at the onset of winter’s harshness, these two tribes shared a meal of peace (as well as a formal peace treaty).  At times in life, we are the natives: with scarce knowledge and resources to share; other times, we are the new arrivals, who need to humble ourselves to ask for help.  The story also reminds me that we living in America today have much to pay forward: we too can help the immigrants who land on our doorstep (sometimes uninvited), or the global neighbor in need beyond our own borders.  Yes, Thanksgiving brings our families together, but as I see it, it is as much about looking beyond our families to the stranger in need, or the stranger we may need to ask for help, outside of our household walls.  It is a reminder of our interdependence.

The story of Christmas is filled with similar metaphors, calling upon us to help and care for others.  Jesus’ birth took place in the stables of a stranger.  And the stories that most inspire me about Jesus were his actions of kindness and compassion towards society’s outcasts.

Nowadays, if we are lucky, Christmas and Thanksgiving coordinate a meal with our busy and scattered family members.  This year, I would like to invite you to look beyond the gift giving, and even your immediate family.  In the darkness of the winter solstice, there is an invitation to be a brighter light into the world to the perfect stranger, to the outcast, to those seeking refuge, to those to whom we normally don’t show compassion.  When nature is at her harshest, there is all to the more need for us to be at our gentlest.  This call to shine a bit brighter transcends any religion or ritual [and certainly bargain basement sale] this time of year.  It’s embedded not only in our stories and traditions, but more fundamentally in the seasons themselves.

Wishing you, those you love, and those you will never meet much brightness this season.

Rejection as the Path to Acceptance

I opened the envelope, and the paper inside read: “Your task is to go to the streets and ask fifteen people for a dollar.”

This was followed by a question: “On a 1-10 scale, how comfortable are you with this task?”  I immediately checked 1: extremely uncomfortable.  I was going to teach a class on connecting with strangers in two days, yet I could barely bring myself to talk to fifteen people.  I consider myself a rather confident and adaptable person.  What’s going on?  What was I so scared of?

As a social, interdependent species, humans have historically experienced rejection as an impediment to survival.  Still today, we desperately want to belong.  Whether being picked last in a middle school gym class or being turned down for a second date, experiencing rejection hurts.

But what I have learned in the past two weeks is this: Confronting your fear of rejection is among the most satisfying and liberating things you can do.  And my experience suggests to start with rejection from strangers.

This October, my friend Jessica Semaan and I co-taught a class at Stanford’s d.school called Sharing with Strangers.  Twenty brave students undertook the task of confronting their deep-set fears and assumptions to answer the question: How can I connect more frequently, and more deeply, with perfect strangers?  This post is primarily about their journey, and the transformation I saw in them.

It turns out, when time is spacious and the environment contained, we are very good at connecting with strangers.  Think of an unforgettable conversation on a long plane ride.  Yet in our day-to-day lives, we shield ourselves from others with our earbuds, our back-to-back meetings, and our general distrust of others’ motives.  Why is this person bothering me?  Do they want cash, or a conversion to a new religion?

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Our students faced personal fears and social taboos as they first had lunch with a stranger, and then gathered the stories and videos of people they met on the streets of Palo Alto.  Most were greeted with skepticism and flat-out rejection: “No thanks, I’m too busy,” or simply a distrusting glare.  Yet when they were able to break through, eureka!  For both parties, it was the highlight of their day.

After facing rejection head on, our students developed multiple prototypes to confront their internal fears of rejection and increase the odds of acceptance.  They learned a few things.  Mentally preparing yourself for rejection, and reminding yourself it is the situation and not you personally, helps.  Persistence pays off, even if someone says “no” the first time.  Approaching boldly, without giving yourself or others much time to overthink, leads to a more frequent “yes.”  As do actions that shock us out of our normal routines, such as asking for a piggyback ride.  Be humble and non-confrontational in your demeanor, and reveal your motive to disarm others and establish trust.

After their second round of interactions with strangers (with refined techniques), students came back glowing and energized.  They not only overcame their fears of rejection, but on the whole had surprisingly meaningful conversations. Once both parties’ defenses were let down, they were stunned by how much others were willing to share.

I can relate to this myself.  The week after teaching, I attended two conferences.  The rejection risk at conferences is inherent in traditional networking: Is this person worthy of me and my time?  Though when I worked through that fear, and actually approached others as humans (rather than as means to an end), I formed meaningful professional connections rooted in our shared dignity and values.  Serendipity just emerged from there. I also spent time with close friends that week, yet somehow the “high” of connecting with perfect strangers was on different plane.  It is like being seen, understood, and cared for by an outsider somehow makes the whole world a bit kinder and a bit brighter.

When I asked the fifteen strangers for a dollar, I’ll confess that all of them said “no.”  It didn’t feel great, though it didn’t feel nearly as bad as I had imagined.  And the experience was a success: I left much more at peace with hearing “no,” which of course, is the only way I will ever get to a “yes.”

Don’t Dis Disconnection

Late Wednesday evening, I pulled up in front of my apartment complex to find a hearse waiting outside. Perplexed, I hastily double-parked and watched as a stretcher came down the stairs. It was Joe, my neighbor of nine years. He was jolly, Irish, senile, and utterly delightful. He passed away at 87.

I spoke with his sons, who were remarkably lucid and composed. They invited me into his apartment to discuss the details of Joe’s passing and offered me some of his furniture. But there was something off, almost zombie-like, about them. They were highly functional, but disconnected – from me and themselves. The real mourning had yet to begin.

Two days later, I realized what made me uncomfortable about Joe’s sons: I saw myself in them. I, too, was in a state of mourning. I, too, was disconnected from others, and myself. But it took weeks to recognize the symptoms.

On Monday (two days before Joe’s passing), I came back from my seventh year at the Burning Man festival. For me, Burning Man has always been about intense, authentic connections to others. I have described past years as “heart opening,” or “rekindling my belief in humankind.” But this year this was different. Beautiful things happened: I ran into old friends at sunrise in a vast sea of dust; I was driven back to my camp by a white palace on wheels; I conversed with countless strangers, leaving bejeweled with hand-made necklaces and stickers they gifted me. Yet I chronically felt unable to fully “plug in” to the festival, like an iPhone cable missing a few of its connector pins. My favorite moments were those spent alone, or in silence. The whole week, I worried about this. Why am I distancing myself from others? Why can’t I just sink into this experience?

Joe’s sons put my concerns into perspective: Disconnection is not only okay, it is necessary and healthy. The only way I can open myself to deep connection in the future is to embrace disconnection at the present, taking the process of reconnection slowly and gently.

On reflection, I see now that I am mourning many relationships in my life, in different ways. I ended a short but intense romance this June, which I truthfully am not really over. The week before Burning Man, I had a challenging conversation with one of my first true loves, where we concluded that our friendship will never truly be whole again. And at Burning Man, a  friend of mine hurt me deeply, and then did not make the time to repair the damage; out of self-protection, I must distance myself from that friendship. It took a corpse on my doorstep to recognize that I spent Burning Man mourning my ties to several important people, still processing old wounds and letting myself fully feel them. All relationships evolve, and some even die. I had been affected by these changes, and my instinctive response was to withdraw. Embracing this disconnection and aloneness is the most important thing that I can be doing right now. Because in this disconnection, I can at least start to reconnect with myself and my own feelings.

In yoga class, students frequently request heart-opening postures; they want to leave practice feeling blissfully connected to everything. Yet the most powerful idea that I learned I learned in my yoga training is the concept of bandhas, or energy locks. Bandhas are a way to contain and channel our energy, to create boundaries, to draw our life force and senses inward. Every morning, before I do my heart opening sun salutations, I first activate my bandhas to contain and focus my internal energy.

I think the same principle applies to our relationships. We want to feel more connected – yet particularly when in a sensitive place, we first need to go through the process of turning inward, fully feeling and experiencing our disconnection.

This does not mean cutting out people entirely. I am only writing this piece because, after a deep conversation with my brother, he asked me to put my thoughts into words. My friends, and strangers at Burning Man, have been instrumental in my mourning and gradual process of reconnection. Yet I also see now that my emotions are more closed off, and I am uncharacteristically guarded before letting people “in.” And that is okay. That is my natural defense mechanism while the wound is raw, like an emotional bandage. It gives me space to focus on healing myself internally. At some point, these feelings too shall pass. And the process of re-opening myself to connection is happening, albeit in baby steps.

Can we honor the process of disconnection as much as we value connection? Can we allow ourselves to sit in sadness and fully mourn, as a starting point for reconnecting with ourselves?

My hope is that Joe’s sons are able to see their disconnection, let it serve them, and take the space and time they need to truly withdraw and mourn. It can be a long journey, but I believe it is the only way to heal.

Social Silence

As a social psychologist and extrovert, I both study and thrive on human connection. But from time to time, I need a recharge, so I frequent extended silent retreats when I can.

This February, I had my first invitation to practice a day of silence in a social setting; others were talking, while I abstained from verbal and non-verbal communication. This “social silence” was less about looking inward, and more about witnessing my deeply ingrained reactions to social situations. I was stunned to observe the many ways that I look outside of myself for validation.

My silent day was at the Esalen Institute, a breathtaking retreat center nestled in California’s rugged Big Sur coast. I spent that morning soaking in hot tubs.   A young man spoke to me as soon as I entered the tub: “Isn’t the view lovely.” He sat there anxiously awaiting a response and then tried again. “Hi, my name is David.” I signaled that I’m not speaking, intending to justify my seeming rudeness, but he remained uncomfortable. I experienced a man sheepishly requesting some validation of his existence. I felt awful – was it my moral obligation to talk to him, to make him feel good about himself? I had been in his position many times before, seeking human connection as a short-term fix for my own deeper loneliness.  I know the pain in being ignored.

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I couldn’t stand the tension and left for another tub. After a few minutes of soaking, a woman asked, “Do you know if they have shampoo in the showers here?” As it turns out, they don’t, but I had brought shampoo with me. I desperately wanted to run out of the tubs, get my shampoo, and offer it to her. But to me, silence is more than not speaking; it means wholly drawing inward. Her hair would survive a day without shampoo, and I would survive without gaining heroic validation from sharing my shampoo. I reluctantly signaled my silence and stared back out at the ocean.

My final test came in the showers. The person across from me left the water running, a cardinal sin in drought-ridden California. My impulse was to race over and turn off the water. But I paused. Silence here meant accepting the world as it was, without my well-intended meddling. And so I let the water run. Non-action proved surprisingly liberating. [And someone else shut off the water within a minute.]

These strangers became a window into my own nature. I realized that part of the benefit I get connecting with others is receiving their steady steam of validation. And every time I get to “solve” someone else’s problem – providing shampoo, turning off the running water – I get a rush, a feeling of worthiness. In other words, I rely on the outside world to affirm my own existence.

But the truth is, my existence doesn’t need outside validation. And it’s not my place to validate others.  I can’t solve the world’s problems. Inaction, and walking the world as a silence observer, proved paradoxically empowering.

When the silence ended, friends came up to me and noted: “You looked so sad.” But I wasn’t sad. Nor was I happy. I was deeply content, and I was at peace – with myself, and with the world around me, precisely as it was.

 

Are you ready for your own day of silence?

Self-Love: Through a Stranger’s Eyes

The past few days, my Facebook, inbox, and dinners have all been abuzz about the NY Times article on Arthur Aron and colleagues’ research: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” The piece argues: ask a stranger a series of 36 intensifying questions, stare into each others’ eyes for four minutes, and love emerges.

This fall, I had a similar experience, though with a different outcome. I stared into several strangers’ eyes, I was asked one question repeatedly, and ultimately I fell in love with myself. Or more accurately, I came to know myself deeply, and self-love emerged from there.

It was my final day at Burning Man – a festival of 66,000 in the desert of Nevada – and I was dusty, dehydrated, and exhausted. I stumbled into a crowded workshop, knowing little more than the title. Our instructions were simple: stare into your neighbor’s eyes. After a seeming eternity (probably about four minutes), we switched, and then switched again. And then the directions changed; maintain eye contact, and ask your partner the question: “Who are you?” Repeat the question, switch partners, repeat the question, switch partners. Don’t lose eye contact.

I’ve asked myself the question “Who am I?” at length while meditating in Sri Ramana Maharishi’s ashram in India in 2013. I achieved quiet and confusion, but no insight.

But this time, the journey was different. I had a partner.

Who are you? Michael. Who are you? A scholar, a designer, a brother, an American. Who are you?   Warm, vulnerable, anxious.

And then finally, I got to as deep as I could. Who are you?   I am presence. That’s it. I am alert, I am aware, I am being, I am flow. I am presence.

Just for that moment, all the labels were gone. And in their absence was deep quiet, deep knowing, and deep love. Love of myself, love of who I am, deep down. Because how could I not love pure presence?

That experience did not last long. My attention returning to mundane concerns like eating and planning, and society quickly reminded me of my social roles and labels. But the afterglow of the workshop has persisted for four months now. I have a deeper sense of who I am, and greater love for who I am. My heart has been more tender and open than ever before. My romantic life has also significantly improved [more on that in my next post].

 

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What if my mother or romantic partner stared in my eyes and asked me the same question: “Who are you?”  I don’t think I would have arrived at the same place. There’s a special-ness to strangers, an absence of history and purity of intentions. We can be vulnerable with strangers in a unique way. A stranger can be like a mirror, reflecting back exactly what we need to see.

Let’s return to Arthur Aron’s research. It’s tempting to view vulnerability as the path to love; share your dreams and your fears, and someone will love you. But my experience suggests another interpretation. In the right context, a stranger can uniquely reflect our deeper self, and thereby allow us to be vulnerable with ourselves. It’s the process of knowing and loving oneself that opens us to love of others. It’s not surprising that thereafter, the person who brings you to this state, and seems to accept you as you are, becomes the object of your affection.

Before seeking out a stranger to fall in love with, ask a stranger to help you fall in love with yourself.

Share with Strangers

This blog explores the drivers underpinning sharing – sharing our homes and cars, as well as sharing our time and hearts.

How might we live in a world where we reduce the distance between strangers and ourselves?

My name is Michael Ovadia, and I study and teach the psychology of sharing at Stanford University. Based out of San Francisco, I enjoy running, yoga, dance, dinner parties, and connecting with people different from myself.