In Texas, where I grew up, we had an expression—“all hat and no cattle”—that summed up a certain kind person. The expression came from seeing people wearing fancy western outfits who had no idea the hard work or long hours required to run, or work in, a cattle ranch. And, they would not have been able to rope a steer to save their lives. This expression could be said about anyone who was all image and no substance, not just a faux cowboy or cowgirl. Often it also would refer to someone who bragged a lot, but you soon learned you could not count on what they said actually being true.
Being “all hat and no cattle” is not always so bad in some circumstances. Little kids often dress up in costumes of what they might like to be, and many of us have been taught to dress for the job we want to have, though we’ve not yet settled down to master the actual work that needs to be done. Sitting around with friends, we may spout off about things we know little or nothing about, acting as if we were experts. However, as a lifestyle, “all hat” leads to unhappiness and causes others to be disillusioned with you.
True, focusing on image has its place. When we are growing up, a major goal is to develop a personality, or a persona, as the psychiatrist C. G. Jung called it, that helps us be popular and become successful. In this process, ideally we get socialized to what is expected in our family, school, community, etc., so that we can find love, friendship, and career success.
Gaining accurate information about the world around us and its expectations, and some feedback on what others see as special about us, helps us build a preliminary ego structure. Jung’s mentor, Sigmund Freud, said the ego helps us moderate our primal energies (the Id) so that we can go for what we want in a socially acceptable way, and children need to learn this.
But even so, we still can end up being shallow and selfish. Many adolescents and young adults feel empty inside. This can be even more the case if we received very inadequate mirroring from others, leaving us with very little sense of our worth or knowledge of our strengths. Moreover, to the extent that we actually have suppressed our real desires to please or get validation, it may take even longer to discover our genuine life path.
Eventually, being mainly “hat” does not wear well with others. You likely notice how annoying it is when we are on the other end, having to endure Mr. or Ms. “all hat.” Right out of college, I taught public high school for a time before going to graduate school, so I know what the job entails. Thus, I find that I have to exercise a great deal of restraint to treat civilly people who have no idea of the challenges teachers face but still pontificate with great authority, and often in a loud voice, about the lousy job teachers are doing. It also has taken me a while to stop believing the promises of people whose charisma covers for their lack of follow through. And I know that most savvy people eventually wake up and stop believing in “all hat” kinds of folks.
Finding Yourself in the First Half of Life
No worries. Jung said we individuate, that is, we find ourselves, by living, and different life stages help us with various life tasks. For example, by the time you are a young adult, you should have discovered, or be discovering, what you are good at and where you can make a contribution. Then comes the hard work of developing mastery in it. You also should be exploring the equally difficult challenge of learning to be an authentic and responsible friend, lover, life partner, and, eventually, a parent (or in another way caring for the needs of others). While engaged in these, you also ideally learn to empathize with others, including those unlike you, and then develop, a clear sense of ethics and values, so that you modify your desires, not just to look good to others but also to live in integrity with yourself.
The rewards you get from these life lessons begin with gaining some success and having good relationships, which also help you build self-esteem that is based on accomplishment, not derived from your gender, the color of your skin, the size of your bank account, how educated you are, or how successful you are in the world’s eyes. This allows you to feel good about yourself without needing to feel superior to others. And you can see, by observing others and yourself, how unhappy people are when they substitute some such superficial category for an achieved personal identity.
Deepening in Midlife and Beyond
At least by midlife, it is time to deepen beyond even these important attainments. Jung identified how a major source of suffering for many of his patients was not having connected the conscious ego with what he called the Self, also known as soul. Soul, in this usage, does not necessarily mean an eternal part of you, but rather something essentially you, related to your purpose and calling. It is what helps you feel connected to others and the world, and hence can heal alienation.
However, there is no free entry. The cost of finding this essential part of us requires that we confront our shadows, which means being willing to face our weaknesses and the times we have failed others or ourselves. From this, we gain humility, as well as greater empathy and compassion for others in their weakness and struggles. We can then know we matter without having to think we are more special than anyone else.
You may be assisted in getting to this place by paying attention to the images and narratives in your dreams and fantasies, which may reveal to you elements of your life that need attending or possibilities of which you have been unaware. Suffering also can be a teacher. Facing my image in the mirror when I have endured a particularly empty experience or felt emotional pain, I’ve become aware that I have to make some changes or lose my soul. Most often, my issue is that I’m doing something that I feel is not right, or not right for me, because it seems to be required by my job or because of social pressure. You, too, may have experienced something like this.
Most of us find ways to resist facing our shadows. I’ve realized that when I’m in this place, I start judging others harshly and obsessively. This can lead me to walk around feeling a kind of anger, or even devising a plan to fix that person (or group). This anger feels different than the kind I feel when someone actually is harming or threatening to harm me, someone I love, or people I care about. In this case, my task is to set boundaries to stop the behavior and then let the anger go. When my fear is about harm to the larger society, I may have to work for causes or candidates I believe in as well as to vote for them. If it is for my organization, I may need to speak out in ways that feel risky. When I recognize that my anger is a distraction from taking responsibility for facing my own failures, I can have compassion for my own lack of courage, and turn my attention back to what needs to change in me.
Facing our own shadows and fears pays off in the ability to find our deeper selves. We can know initially what that is like by observing people who have done so. I notice that individuated, mature people I admire often possess a quiet sort of happiness, a sense of gratitude for what they have, and a spontaneous instinct to be kind to others. They have a sense of calling and purpose that has a spiritual nature to it. Many do not feel separate from others, even when they’re alone. Some of a spiritual nature feel at home in the cosmos and connected to the divine, perhaps even experiencing the sense of oneness mystics talk about. Such are the fruits of being guided by their inner Self or soul. At times I experience much of this, as perhaps you do, too.
The Challenge of Being Real in a Shallow Culture
What I’ve been describing is simply a very natural growth pattern for human beings, and thus for you and me, that leads to psychological health and wholeness. However, we live in a culture that focuses more and more on image, and less and less on character, authenticity, and generosity of spirit. Major figures over the last decade or so have told us that “greed is good,” and many celebrities model entitled behaviors and exploitative relationships for us. If you have been paying attention to the world around you, you certainly will have observed the problems such soullessness causes—to family and organizational life, as well as to the economy.
To the degree that we buy into living shallow lives, we will be at risk of becoming depressed or constantly angry and of believing that someone or something has caused us to feel this way. If there is no “you” within you, you inevitably will feel empty inside and alienated from a world that seems somehow to blame. Filling the emptiness with more consumer goods, food, or activities does not work. It is a sort of soul starvation that fosters a hunger for what so many today do not even have a word for, nor any experience of how it feels to be whole and themselves. Recognizing this can help you empathize with others caught in this syndrome while you also have compassion for yourself if and when you fall into it for a moment or a decade.
More and more today, I hear people being ecstatic talking about finding someone who is “the real thing,” or as some put it, “the real thang.” And, the more real you and I are, the happier we will be. A connection to our souls gives us something no one else can take away, as I am the only true me, and you the only true you. So, if this natural path to growing up and thriving is interesting to you, here are some things to notice that can give you information on this rather fun journey. What feels good to your deeper, essential self generally will guide your right action. What feels bad is a sign to that you need to course correct.
Tasks that Help You Know Who You Are:
(1) Notice when you feel authentically proud of yourself but have no urge to brag about it.
(2) Notice how you feel when you authentically show both your strengths and your vulnerabilities to those close to you.
(3) Notice how it feels when you work hard to gain mastery in areas that draw upon your strengths and abilities.
(4) Notice how you feel when you are a good, loyal, and caring friend, lover, life partner, parent, or citizen.
(5) Notice how you feel when you express genuine empathy and compassion for someone very unlike you.
Signs it is Time to Course Correct:
(6) Notice what it costs you when you pretend to be something you are not or when you tell lies or half-truths.
(7) Notice any actions that make you feel small or ashamed.
(8) Notice how you feel if you compromise something essential in you, whether one of your values or something you feel called to do.
(9) Notice how you feel if you put someone else down, or when you avoid facing your own issues by obsessing over the wrongdoing of others.
(10) Notice when you feel chronically depressed or angry, or if addictive substances or patterns keep you from recognizing the subtle cues about what would be wise and authentic to do. (If this is the case, it would wise to seek professional assistance so that you can feel healthy, happy, and whole.)
Signs of Connection with Your Deeper Self
(11) Notice how you feel when you own up to a mistake and make amends for what you did (to yourself or whomever you may have hurt).
(12) Notice how you feel when you are spontaneously generous—with a smile, a helping hand, or a leg up.
(13) Notice how you feel when you set boundaries with others so they no longer can do you harm and then (perhaps) forgive them, not because you feel you should, but because you want to let go of resentment that might poison your spirit.
(14) Recognize when you feel grounded by a sense of purpose and calling in your work and private life.
(15) Notice times that you feel completely at home in your world and when this occurs.
(16) Notice moments that seem magical, when you feel gratitude and wonder at the beauty of the world and those around you.