Last week, my wife and I hosted a birthday celebration for my mom. Before our guests arrived, I tried to wrangle my 3 yo out of her PJs and into a party dress. Tried is the operative word.
I smiled brightly as I told S that wearing a dress would be fun. I did my best to make a game out of changing. I promised her she could revert to PJs when guests departed.
As each of my efforts failed, I felt the tug of disappointing my mother who, I knew, would relish seeing S in a party dress. Yet, my wife and I had agreed months ago that it wasn’t worth taking a stand over clothes when S insisted on wearing pajamas to preschool. This was a variation on that theme.
So I sat down on the floor and told S it was fine that she wear her PJs. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have claimed that my words to her were gentle and genuine.
My perceptive daughter promptly sat on the floor next to me and said:
“Don’t be disappointed, Mommy.”
Yikes! While S might not have heard my inner dialogue about disappointing my mother, she sensed that her not wearing a dress = disappointing me. S had pegged my insincerity.
I took a moment to remove my mother from the equation and realized I was fine with S’s PJs. So I thanked her for helping me understand there was no reason to feel disappointed and I apologized for my earlier response. Now, I said, I really did feel fine about her not wearing a dress. I said it like I meant it. S’s smile and hug told me she believed me.
It wasn’t lost on me that I could have easily—perhaps, more easily—resisted S’s comment and claimed that I wasn’t disappointed. But the cost of my denial would have been high.
There have been times in the past when I’ve been on emotional autopilot and told S that everything was fine when that’s not how I felt. Or I’ve contradicted her perception of my mood because it seemed easier to do so, or I didn’t know how I was feeling.
When I’ve negated what S’s finely tuned intuition tells her, not only have I lied to my daughter, I’ve eroded her trust in me. Also, by denying my emotional truth—even if that truth is not being aware of my feelings—I’ve reduced my ability to trust myself.
The more I thought about the dress-interaction with S, the more I realized I’d lapsed into 2 modes that often go hand in hand: insincerity and objectification. My insincerity was obvious: What I said and felt didn’t match.
Objectification happens when we try to get others to do things with little regard for them. I didn’t really care that S preferred PJs; I was intent on getting her into a party dress, on having her play the part of compliant daughter and granddaughter to serve my needs.
I’d turned my child into an object.
Objectification is often combined with insincerity. When we’re treating others in a mechanical way—meaning, when we focus on what we want from them—we often resort to disingenuous tactics, like false compliments or other forms of manipulation.
I’ve learned a lot about the dangers of insincerity and objectification from Leadership and Self-Deception, a business book. Unlikely as it seems, given its corporate focus, this is an excellent book on individual and relationship change. Seriously. Here are 2 quotes:
“No matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside.”
“Whatever I might be ‘doing’ on the surface….either I’m seeing others straightforwardly as they are—as people like me who have needs and desires as legitimate as my own—or I’m not….One way, I experience myself as a person among people. The other way, I experience myself as the person among objects.”
In other words, when we force a smile to cover anger as we try to make spouses help more with housework and childcare, when we utter compliments to inspire sexual intimacy, when we do or say anything that doesn’t match how we’re feeling, or with the unspoken purpose of having others do our bidding, we’re being insincere and objectifying.
Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t get what we want, or when we do that we suspect we’ve sacrificed something important in our relationship to get it?
There are a host of reasons we resort to insincerity and objectification with spouses and kids (and colleagues and everyone else) and, thus, sacrifice trust in the process.
(1) We’re unaware that what we say and feel are out of sync;
(2) We believe masking feelings &/or treating others functionally are how to best get what we want;
(3) We don’t know how to get what we want without these tactics.
If we’re not aware of what we’re feeling, how can we limit the impact of lying to others and ourselves?
One approach is an after-the-fact remedy: If spouses or kids challenge what we say we’re feeling, or suggest we might be feeling something we’re not admitting, instead of resisting their perception, take a moment and consider their claims. Literally, pause and do an internal check-in.
If we notice defensiveness or resistance, it’s likely they’ve struck a cord. Consider copping to our internal response. If we’re not sure of our feelings, say so. If we still believe we’re not feeling what others sense, genuinely tell them so.
If insincerity and objectification are the only, or the best, ways we believe we can get others to do our bidding, what’s the alternative?
This is, of course, a bigger challenge than lack of emotional awareness. One way to shift this dynamic is to admit it to our spouses (and kids, if they’re old enough to discuss it).
In addition to copping to the tactics we sometimes use to get what we want, we can ask them for suggestions on how to better get our needs met, or better navigate differences in what we need and what they need.
Why bother discussing this? Because our family’s trust in us, and our trust in ourselves, is far too precious and central to relationship and individual fulfillment to sacrifice to the convenience of insincerity and objectification.
We deserve our family’s trust. They deserve our trustworthiness.