Pulling Back the Curtain: A Story of Authenticity

man-peering-out-from-behind-curtainLast weekend I went to see the musical Wicked and found myself thinking about perception and self-acceptance. The show, based on a book of the same title, is the story of The Wizard of Oz as told from the perspective of Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west. From the beginning, the reimagining of this story questions the power of how we see things, and what happens when that perception is shifted. Our heroine is now the vilified underdog who was born with green skin instead of the sweet, young girl from Kansas.

In the play, the wizard himself speaks at great length about the power of perception. He acknowledges that the only power he really has is that other people believe he is powerful. His entire identity relies on the power of perception. The film version of the wizard is exposed by Toto to be just a man behind a curtain. Fallible and even a little bit tacky, his identity is based not on an internal sense of who he is, but on how others see him. When we actually meet the great and powerful Oz, he feels inauthentic.

We all have inside of us a “person behind the curtain.” For some, it’s an internal voice that doles out judgments aimed at others or internally at ourselves. From behind the curtain, we watch to see how people see us and if it matches the version of ourselves we want to put out into the world. Our internal wizard feeds on fear and anxiety. What will people think? How do I compare to others? It can be exhausting, working so hard to not feel rejection or judgment. In all of the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to lose track of our authentic selves.

The practice of radical self-acceptance provides an alternative perspective from which to view ourselves. It’s a way to interrupt the voice of self-judgment that comes from the “person behind the curtain.” Clinical psychologist Tara Brach writes that “wanting and fearing are natural energies. … But when they become the core of our identity, we lose sight of the fullness of our being.” (2003, p. 20) Brach points out that having feelings or fear, anxiety, jealousy, and envy is natural; it’s part of being human. Experiencing these feelings is not something that we need to be ashamed of. In fact, when we judge them and try to push them away, we can become stuck in a cycle of self-judgment. From a perspective of radical acceptance, internalizing these feelings into our identity can inhibit our ability to fully be ourselves, our ability to be authentic.

In the story of Wicked, Elphaba spends her life as an outcast because of her green skin. This experience of suffering impacts her view of the world and who she grows up to be. Because of her differences, Elphaba cannot live behind a curtain as easily as the wizard. By accepting herself and the things that have happened to her, she is an example of the practice of radical acceptance. Elphaba never tries to be perfect or to be someone who everyone likes; instead, she tries to be her whole self.

Accepting our whole selves is not a cop-out to justify not making changes in our lives. Carl Rogers points out, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” (p. 38) The act of acceptance is a powerful one, and a difficult one. The practice of radical self-acceptance acknowledges and holds lovingly our whole selves. This includes the parts of us that we don’t like, the parts that we’re ashamed of, and the parts that we don’t want to share with others. What if it were OK that we’re not perfect? What if we strove instead to be whole?

How a story is told changes the meaning of what we hear. In Wicked, we’re asked to see things from a different perspective, and we learn things about the villain in the story that change everything. Suddenly, good and bad are harder to determine. Real life is like that, too; it can be messy, murky, and beautiful all at the same time. In our own lives, we are the authors of the story. We get to decide how we want to see ourselves. Challenging our self-judgments and accepting all parts of ourselves can help us stay connected to our own authenticity.

Reference:

Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a buddha. New York: Bantam Bell.

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  • owen

    owen

    July 18th, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    I have been very busy for all my life trying to be what I think that others want me to be.
    I have gelt for a lot of years now that they are more focused on making me into something that I am not
    And that this is more important to them than helping me find and be my true self.
    I would like to say that I should simply rid my life of those types of people
    But this is my family
    I know that they love me, of course, but I have never exactly felt like they necessarily love me for me
    Almost like they would love me more if I pretended to be someone that I am not
    While I know that I would feel more free if I could just live my life openly and honestly it scares me that my family could just fall away if I did that because they would be unable to accept who I really am

  • Isis Amtiess

    Isis Amtiess

    July 30th, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    Hi,
    I have experienced this all of my life as well. I am 26 & during my teenage years, at about 15, I realized just what you said, that everyone in my life was more responsive to their opinions about me, than focusing on who I was as a person & nurturing that.

    I saw the future ahead and decided then that although approval would feel great and I did want it, it was not worth sacrificing myself, my life, and my joy.

    With that said, it has been a work in progress over the last 10+ years. It is usually easy to choose my freedom, except when it comes to hurting people. Because as much as I value my freedom, I value the people I love equally. So, there are a few (and I mean 3)things about myself and my life that I am secretive about, because to me it is not worth the damage it would cause in my relationships.

    It is worth saying that these secrets are not wrongdoings, but elements of my lifestyle that would cause contention & negative judgment.

    In my experience, if you have the same situation, a decision will ultimately have to be made. Will you be who you want to be, how you want to be- even if you do so discreetly- or will you sacrifice yourself in order to be favorably regarded?

  • Campbell

    Campbell

    July 19th, 2013 at 4:19 AM

    with acceptance of who you are comes the ability to change- magic!

  • D Gardner

    D Gardner

    July 20th, 2013 at 2:13 AM

    I have fears too…fears of what others think of me,fears of all the things that are not great about me.Have struggled with them all through my growing up years and I still do at 25 years of age…How to get rid of these sounds easy-to accept oneself…but accepting is what I cannot figure out how to do.I can put up the I don’t care what others think garb for sometime but cannot hold it for too long.Please help.

  • Isis Amtiess

    Isis Amtiess

    July 30th, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    I am a 26 year old woman (turned 26 a few days ago) and your post described EXACTLY how I feel.

    The “not caring” doesn’t work, because in the moment that a negative interaction is taking place the feelings, then thoughts of what I want the experience to be, arise.With that comes the recurring sense of inadequacy and pondering why things can’t just be different for me.

    I am very sensitive, emotional & depression\anxiety prone, so these feelings have a major impact on my life.

    I am not through these issues that you describe, but can offer this:

    It has helped me to focus on who I want to be and what I value, keeping in mind that my life experience is a gift, given to me for the purpose of complete self expression. That has helped me build the personality and lifestyle I idealize, although my values and perspectives are not popular (in my family or society, in general). Seeing the value in this helps me to cope with my feelings of being displaced in the world- which I cannot remember ever NOT feeling.

    Good luck with everything. Relief comes with understanding that coming to a sense of peace about ourselves is the goal. That doesn’t mean that we have to live everything about ourselves, but does require the willingness to shift our perspective to identifying the likes, positives, blessings, and how we can create what we desire to experience.

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