“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness.” Carl Jung
I’ve heard it said that, “Perception is reality.” NBC’s series, This is Us, demonstrates how we can expand our perception of reality through the practice of self compassion, increasing our own humanity. If you want to see an unflinching and heartfelt look at the beauty and follies of good family, this show might be something worth watching. At times, the series replays memories of the same event through the eyes of different characters. We see how each character interprets their reality and in the end, we have a much richer understanding than we had before. Our perception is broadened. Our reality is increased. The compassionate telling of a character’s whole story allows us to reflect on our own lives and see how all of humanity is connected.
One of my favorite examples of this increased perspective is demonstrated when brother and sister, Kate and Randall, start reminiscing about the night they invented “Pearson pizza.” They both laugh about that night. Randall awkwardly, as if the memory was disturbing, Kate, happily, as if she is remembering something fondly. They notice their different reactions and ask each other about it.
Randall remembers his father, Jack, being stressed, neglectful, and angry. Kate remembers her dad letting them order pizza and playing with them. As each of them shares their story you begin to see that both of their memories are correct. Jack was stressed, distracted, and sharp with them. However, he recovered, apologized, and had fun with them. He was far more nuanced than the individual memories of his children.
Kate and Randall are able to reconcile the memories of their father into one complete whole. Their love and understanding for him increases. It’s easy to see why. Jack is a great dad! He loves his kids, plays with them, and always tries his best. In many ways, he looks like the ideal father. However, there is another side of him that he tries to keep hidden. It seeps into the cracks of Jack’s life, when he loses sight of who he is. He’s an alcoholic, he has disowned his brother, he hates his father, he gets angry with his kids, and he occasionally gets in fights. He is flawed like we all are. When Kate and Randall are able to acknowledge both sides of their dad they realize that they are just like him. Rather than diminishing the memory of Jack, they are able to see him with greater understanding. Jack’s humanity is increased because Kate and Randall can see him with more compassion. They are drawn to him because they see themselves reflected in their father’s own successes and struggles.
Each of the characters’ strengths and flaws are revealed in this series, giving the audience a better understanding of who they are. We love them better when we see them completely. Mistakes demystify them and make their successes more impressive. NBC sprinkles greater humanity into the feelings we have for this fictional family because we catch reflection of ourselves in the characters.
What truly makes us lovable is allowing others to see us completely–the good and the bad. This is hard to do. We have our reasons for hiding but we can only become what Brene Brown calls, wholehearted, when we learn to accept every part of ourselves.
There are days when each of us struggles to rise, stare in the mirror and say, “I am good.” Sometimes we may only see the bad in our lives and we forget the good. Like Randall, we can be overwhelmed by bad memories. They haunt us and taint our view of the past. No matter how much money we make, how smart we are, how kind, how wise, athletic . . . none of it is ever enough to make us remember the good. Other times, like Kate, we may want to hide within all the good memories we have and forget the bad. We reject our mistakes, we hide from our weaknesses, and we build a fragile image of strength on the partial memories of our reality. Do you ever feel like this?
My guess is that most of us do. That’s why a TV series like This is Us is so popular. It tells us that we are not alone. Others struggle just like we do. This series mirrors my own experience as a coach and as an individual. In the years that I have worked as a coach, I have watched people struggle, like me, to see themselves completely. It is a bit of a trick, to believe we are good while still recognizing the bad things we have done. Being able to hold on to a complete vision of ourselves is not natural. It takes a lot of practice.
The reason we struggle to manage contradictory information is that our minds tend to prefer definitive answers for everything. We want to move away from ambiguity. Research on why we avoid instead of seek contradictory information, published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association states that, “[When] information about possible threats creates tensions in [our] minds. . . [We] find some way to resolve the tension. If the threat is extreme, or if any potential responses are not expected to be effective, then an attractive alternative is to ignore the threat entirely, which in turn promotes consistency” (Case, Johnson, Andrews, Allard, p353). This means that if we want to see ourselves as good people, we tend to ignore any evidence that might suggest we are bad, or visa versa. We want one definitive answer, free of contradictory evidence. We may believe that we are looking at both sides of an issue or idea but that ability is rarely found in those who have not worked to consciously develop a tolerance for ambiguity.
There are days when I cannot bear the vision I have of myself. Maybe I recently yelled at my child, said something stupid at work, or remembered something bad I did in the past. At times like this, caught in feelings of shame or self-loathing, I struggle to offer compassion to those around me because I have failed to recognize the commonality of my experience with all of humanity. I reject the notion that good people make mistakes. Then when I am faced with the complexity of the actions of the people who surround me, I fail to see how we are all connected.
None of us is free of shame, hurt, and character flaws. None of us is lacks good characteristics, happy moments, and times of pleasure either. The reconciliation of this incongruity into one whole story can make us feel very uncomfortable. It requires more effort. It demands that we offer ourselves and those around us greater compassion.
When I am able to open my heart and mind to embrace the good and the bad within myself, I begin to see myself in everyone. With a whole heart, I can show more patience to my child who is yelling at me because I remember that I also yelled at them in frustration. I can explore a potentially damaging comment made by a peer at work with curiosity instead of anger because I remember that I have also made similar comments. I can forgive my own mistakes because I know other good people make mistakes too.
All of this requires a strong dose of self-awareness and self-compassion. When you can look at yourself from every angle and accept who you are without judgement, you will be able to extend that same kind of tolerance to those you love. Extend yourself some compassion the next time you are struggling. Act with a whole heart, loving your good and bad together. The discomfort that comes from facing a complete version of yourself, will endear you to others. You will begin to see yourself reflected in the actions of everyone around you. You will feel more compassionate and connected. Your problems will still be there but you will see them with a kinder perspective. Your common humanity is revealed in the best and worst you have to offer.