A saying that I heard ascribed to Frederick Nietzsche goes like this: Have the courage to be who you are. I don't take this to mean: Have the courage to be who you could be, the courage to constantly improve, advance, and become "better." I think Nietzsche was saying: Accept the you that you are now and be that you without shame.For a long time I have loved the music of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. His music can be deeply touching and inspiring. It can also be self-destructive, somber, and even tragic. And in this enormous range of expression lies what I admire most about his music, its genuineness and authenticity. That it is an expression of this man in all his humanity, all of his complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction. And that he lets us be witness to this enormous range of personal expression without shame, without masking or papering-over who he truly is. Although it is a great mystery how an artist's personal psychology can be communicated in their creations, nevertheless I believe this happens-that somehow arrangements of tones, or words, or colors can, in rare instances, communicate a sense of psychological honesty, a sense that we can trust what is communicated as true to the artist's personhood, true to who they are.
I know something about shame and not having the courage to be who I am. If you met me the first thing you would probably notice is that my right eye looks unusual. There's a layer of mucosal skin that was surgically placed over my eye so that my cornea is opaque, you can't look into that eye. If, as the poet says, the eyes are the window to the soul, I only have one window. This all stemmed from an infection that occurred around the time of my birth that destroyed the retina in my right eye, leaving me blind it that eye, and also partially damaged the retina in my left eye, reducing its visual capacity. You would notice this weakness of vision if you saw me holding reading material so that I can get a close-up look at it. But the most salient thing you would see would be the unusual appearance of my right eye.
This is not all I am, but it is a part of who I am. And it is a part that I spent years denying. Of course I couldn't literally deny it because anyone looking at me saw it right away. But I could deny it psychologically. I could act as if it were not a part of who I am. This strategy had certain advantages. I think it made people who I met more comfortable.
If I'm not acting as if anything's wrong, then they can proceed in the same mode. The strategy of denial also helped me do things. If I act as if nothing is wrong then perhaps I will create fewer self-imposed limits regarding what I can do-though I certainly haven't escaped this pitfall entirely.
But my denial had an even deeper, more primitive function. In the irrational world of our deep psychology there are all kinds of mechanisms at work that act in contradiction to, and in defiance of, our rational understanding of how the external world works. Denial is one of those irrational mechanisms. With regard to my eye, the irrational mechanism of denial had a purpose something like this: If I believe that I look normal and behave in accordance with this belief, then I somehow will be. Using this mechanism meant that acknowledging this reality about myself, really acknowledging it on an internal level, was not even on my psychological horizon as an even imaginable option. Instead, all psychological energy was aimed at the irrational strategy of denying that my appearance was anything other than "normal."
Time passes, things happen, we change. Relatively recently in my life I've been able to move toward giving up denial as an attempted solution and moving toward some kind of deeper acceptance of this part of who I am, some kind of courage to be this part of who I am. And as I move toward this, something unexpected is happening. As I move toward letting this be part of who I am, rather than trying to pretend that it is not, it begins to take on perspective, to actually be less important than I imagined it was as I was trying to deny it. I think of Carl Rogers' seemingly paradoxical maxim that we have to accept ourselves before we can change. I realize how impossible it had been for me to put this part of who I am in proper perspective when I was frantically trying to keep it off the radar screen. And I am beginning to sense that as I accept it, it's actually a much less big deal than when I was trying to deny it. And I also begin to sense that the denial ultimately caused me more trouble than my disability or the reaction of others to it. This is a recurring theme in the annals of humankind's attempts to deal with wounds of all kinds: Our attempts to heal psychologically can go awry and cause us more trouble than the initial wound. But we also never lose the potential to reinvent the process of our healing and the resilience that comes with that.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is Professor and Interim Chair of Psychology at Kutztown University and maintains a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown.