© 1994 Michele Toomey, PhD
It is a mistake to approach life as if it were a test, yet that is what most of us do. We have been taught to think of life as a test, and unfortunately, that is one lesson we usually learn. Everything we do becomes some measure of our worth and proving ourselves becomes our primary goal. This is not only an extremely stressful approach to life, it is a very wrong one. Just by being born we become worthy of respect. We do not need to prove our worthiness, we need to be true to it. That is why integrity and accountability are so important. To be true to ourselves, we must be truthful about ourselves. That truth is the key to our right to fairness and respect.
If we are worried or confused, frustrated or angry, excited or proud, carefree or happy, we need to claim those feelings and try to understand why we have them, and what we need to do to be true to them and respectful of them. The last thing we need to do is think they are a sign that we did something wrong or even something right, and then use them to justify who we are or what we are doing or not doing. Rather than prove how we feel and justify the feelings, we must be in touch with how we feel and try to discover what those feelings are telling us about ourselves and what’s going on with us. It is this discovery process that frees us to speak and act and make decisions that sustain our integrity.
When we think of life as a test, we don’t have the opportunity to discover things about ourselves without fearing we will dislike what we discover, or without using what we discover to put ourselves up or down. Consequently, we frequently lie to ourselves or hide from ourselves in the hope that we can be someone we’re not. This pretense is another stress and another proof that somehow we are not who we say we are or think we are, and very often we feel like an impostor. Doing life as a test frequently creates a false sense of who we are and a terrible fear that we are really not deserving of what we get, or even worse, if we are mistreated, that we actually deserve what we get.
Either way, being on trial makes every decision, every action, and even every word somehow a proof of something, and therefore a source of constant stress. To deal with this constant stress, we develop coping mechanisms and survival skills that create a sense of being at war and defending ourselves against the defeat of failure. Those who are successful in proving their worth, gain an ease and often a false sense of their worth, and they can become arrogant and superior. Those who are unsuccessful and feel like failures often become anxious and/or angry and lose their self-confidence. They can became arrogant and hostile in their sense of inferiority.
To live under the pressure of passing or failing the test of life is to live with the constant pressure of self-doubt and possible self-abuse and blame. To spend our lives distracted and oppressed by our own pressure to succeed as a way of proving our worth and justifying our actions, is to spend our lives alienated from and oppressed by ourselves and possibly oppressing others as well. There is no real “proof” of worth. Success, in and of itself, is empty if it doesn’t bring us inner satisfaction and joy of having ventured well. As proof it falls far short of anything of real substance. Proof of what? Intelligence? Hard work? Talent? Goodness? If inside we are feeling self-doubt or self-loathing, what does our success prove? If we are feeling arrogant and superior, what does our success lead to? Being better than others and therefore more worthy and deserving of better treatment?
And what of failure? What does it prove? That we are not intelligent, hardworking, talented or good? Are we then deserving of poor treatment and abuse and are inferior? We may be any or all of these things at any one time, but we are more than any trait or any mood, or any accomplishment or any failure. We are the one who has these traits, these moods and these accomplishments or failures. We are not superior or inferior because of what we do or who we are. We are deserving of fairness and respect if we have integrity and are accountable for what we do and how we are. Equality in integrity means treating others with the same respect and fairness that we treat ourselves. There is room to develop and grow without endangering ourselves or others, if we are journeying with integrity and learning as we evolve.
In and of itself, success or failure are not the point. Understanding ourselves and what we need in order to live with integrity and be intimately engaged with our life is the point. If we are exaggerated by accomplishments or failures we are alienated from our true self. If we are alienated, we are not ever going to have a life of fulfilled desires. We won’t even know what we desire.
To look on life as a journey, is to be on a trip not on trial. As a journeyer we are expected to discover and learn as we travel, and to evolve and mature as we age. Evolving and maturing are meant to provide growth in our understanding of ourselves and our complex nature. The guiding principle of our journey is integrity not perfection, and our goal is intimacy not conquest. The contrast between being on a journey and being on trial is found in the agility and freedom to explore that comes with journeying with integrity vs. the rigidity and fear dictated by the confinement and conformity of being tested and on trial.
There is no such thing as perfection. It cannot be achieved. And there is no proof of worth, it cannot be proven. There is, however, truth in our nature and integrity in our being. If we learn how to process our information instead of using it for proof, we can learn how to relate to our complex nature with integrity and not live in fear of failing life’s tests or in superiority for passing them. I would like to teach you how to process your thoughts and feelings so that you can discover how to be true to yourself and not live with such inner stress.
Process is evolutionary. As the process evolves, the relevant truths are discovered and the outcome flows from the process. It is not known before or dictated prior to the process and it is not imposed on it, it evolves out of it. The process of discovery is the tool of the journeyer. Without the tool we are not equipped to journey and evolve. And that is an unhealthy stress. Add to that, the mentality of proving and judging and being on trial, and the stress can be unbearable. I invite and encourage you to learn to process and not prove and to be on a journey not on trial.