Becoming Your Genuine Self

A few months ago, I heard my 23-year-old son Eric say that he used to lie regularly in his early teens (including at times to his parents), but that in recent years he had made the decision to stop and be more genuine in his interactions with people. That caught my attention, and since it was too much to go into at the time, and Eric had too much on his plate (with his struggling new business) to write about it himself, I asked him if maybe I could interview him on the subject. He agreed, and last Sunday I finally did that interview.

In the raw interview my questions and his answers are kind of rambling at times. I have tightened them up here for brevity.

Cooper: You told me the other day that you had gotten very good at being a liar. Say more about that.

Eric: I think I have always had the innate ability to pull off a deception, whether for “good” or for “evil” [laugh]. Having a background in theater and acting, being a people person able to read people pretty well, being a pretty good judge of character, and understanding how people tick, I found in my middle school years I could combine these thing to effectively lie to people.

I felt like it was very difficult for me to be myself, or express the things I wanted to do or didn’t want to do, like put up with the whole school situation or homework assignments that I was having a really hard time with, and ultimately I think I used [lying] as a tool to cope with that and try to relieve some of that burden.

Cooper: So can you recall an example of lying from middle school?

Eric: I’m pretty sure that there was a biography assignment I kept from you guys for a number of months because I felt overwhelmed by it, and didn’t do it. But I don’t think that was so much lying as not telling you guys something, so perhaps that’s not a good example.

I think some of the bigger examples were not so much with you guys but with other adults I would come across that would have some interest in my life and doings. I wanted to avoid being heckled about the choices I was making or the way I felt about things, so I would often come up with stories to tell adults who asked me what I was planning to do [with my life], like “I want to be a cinematographer” or “I want to go to LACC for two years and then transfer to AFI”. I don’t know why in middle school everybody was asking me what college I was going to, but it happened. Everybody wanted me to have a plan but I didn’t want to have a plan, so I would spout off, whatever.

Cooper: So why didn’t you want to have a plan?

Eric: I didn’t feel like I was ready to, or I should, or like having a plan was an appropriate thing for me to be doing. I wanted to live. I wanted to explore life and my options and just kind of go with it and grow and discover who I was. I certainly wasn’t in a position to know what I wanted to do with my life. I feel like I’m in a better position now, but I still don’t have a specific plan.

In fifth grade I developed a lot of pain associated with anxiety and stomach aches, etc, that kept me home from school and I saw that as an obvious way to get out when I really needed to. So there were several times, even when the stress induced anxiety attacks I had had when I was younger were no longer occurring, I played sick or ill or whatever to get out of things. I guess that’s typical more or less.

Cooper: So the people you lied to included your parents and teachers. How about your peers?

Eric: With my parents and my teachers it was mostly a defense mechanism, but with my peers it was practice or honing the skill. I was someone who my immediate circle of friends chose to confide in over a number of things, and of course there was all sorts of middle school drama. I would share or withhold information to manipulate or accomplish certain goals that didn’t really benefit me, but was a way to hone the skill.

Cooper: So was lying to your peers part of issues with your self-esteem and trying to enhance people’s opinion of you?

Eric: Yes it definitely had to do with building self-esteem. Again, it was something I felt good at, and it was also something that made me feel smart. I had been through a pretty hard time in fourth and fifth grade in the “honors” program. I went into this highly rigorous academic environment which, based on how I learn and who I am, did not go over well and I was really struggling, which caused a lot of esteem issues, like Am I smart? Am I capable? Etc, etc.

So I think I was in a period of trying to rebuild that esteem, and here was this thing of having an understanding of how people worked. I could use and manipulate that and play with them or toy with them and make them do things and think things, and at the time that made me feel smart and capable and powerful. You know in sixth and seventh grade those are powerful things to be thinking about yourself and very alluring.

When I engaged in a conversation with someone, either someone I was meeting for the first time or someone I knew, the conversation would not be genuine. I would be reading them and trying to figure out what it is they wanted out of it [the conversation], and how I could respond appropriately to make them happy and build their trust with me, so I could either use that later or accomplish the immediate goal associated with that conversation. But I was not speaking from who I was or what I wanted, but always analyzing people and trying to figure them out and figure out what their stimuli were and how to make them do this or that.

Cooper: Can you give an example of a lie that needed to be lived to be maintained.

Eric: I had told a number of people that I had travelled to Canada, because it seemed like a plausible thing I could have done, and it had come up in some conversations, etc. That’s not a huge deal, nobody ever called me on it…

Cooper: So people thought it was cool that you had been to Canada?

Eric: I don’t think they even thought it was cool it was just incidentally in a conversation and it was to my advantage in that conversation to say that I had been. And so a number of people knew that so that was something I just had to maintain.

Cooper: So at some point you made your own decision to stop doing this. When did you make that decision?

Eric: It was a process over a long time and it came to a head at one particular moment. So the process began toward the end of the middle school period where I felt that it [lying] was becoming too much. The benefit I gained from it relieving certain burdens was being outweighed by having to constantly maintain all these different deceptions. At first it was quite exciting because it was like being in this whole different world and it was kind of mysterious. Can I keep this up? Am I smart enough to stay above this level of being caught?

There are lots of TV shows and movies aimed at kids about kids lying about stuff and getting caught, and the moral of the story is that things usually work out. I watched those and analyzed what did they do wrong, and what it came to is that I had to live it. But living it meant that there was no rest from it, and every new lie added to this stack of things that I had to remember and keep up with.

I am very much a people person and I survive on relationships with people and I had all these disingenuous relationships with people and I didn’t like that, so the benefits started to be outweighed by the downsides. But at that point I was still not looking at it as a character issue necessarily, which I came to later.

I left school in the middle of eighth grade and the few friends I kept in touch with out of my large group of friends from there I think are the ones I had more genuine relationships with. The ones I felt comfortable enough with who I was to not have to put up this defensive thing. I can’t really say they were more confident about themselves, but they were just into things that were more real. Hanging out and just having a good time and just not trying to throw themselves out there, given that they were mostly introverts to my knowledge. I don’t know how much a difference that made or if it was just who they are. They weren’t as bombastic.

Other friends were always trying to coerce me, and were just more into this weird ego game. Two friends in particular were very outgoing and rambunctious and were constantly seeking attention, and hanging out with them I felt like I had to compete to get attention. And even though I was outgoing too, I was outgoing in a person-to-person way and they were outgoing by doing extreme things, making fools of themselves to attract attention or just go out and do things to get people’s attention and that was not really my thing, but I had to compete with that.

Cooper: Okay. So moving forward then, what was your school situation when you were fifteen?

Eric: Well I left school in the middle of eighth grade when I was fourteen and by fifteen I had gone to four days of a public high school and decided it was not for me and I wanted to continue my homeschooling which had become unschooling. I had gone to a theater camp for the summer that I had gone to several summers previous. I met a girl there and shortly after that we started dating. It was my first real relationship, given that we were still fifteen and it was a relationship you would expect from fifteen year olds, and it was more than a couple weeks. I guess I had been in a relationship before for a couple months or so, but this lasted for more than a year and a half, and was my second longest relationship to date.

During that time, she kind of provided me with a mirror for self-reflection, in that she was a very genuine and honest person, and being with her and seeing that in her constantly made me realize that I was not. Even though I had stopped the grandiose stuff, I would still approach conversations kind of looking at the person thinking “How can I work this?” rather than just having a conversation with people. The tendencies were still there, it was still kind of part of who I was. And I was that way with her as well which, ultimately, caused our relationship to end. Besides that, a year and a half is a long time for a relationship with a fifteen or sixteen year old.

So that was a long period of reflection, and during that I started attending events at YRUU, which is the Young Religious Unitarian-Universalists, which is the Unitarian-Universalist youth program. The first event I went to was a summer camp, and it all happened really quickly, but I got there, and I didn’t know anyone there. There were probably eighty kids there and I didn’t know a single person. I was familiar with the setting because it was the same camp my drama camp had been at, and I had also been to several years earlier for UU family camps.

When I got there I felt this atmosphere and this strong community feeling of support and acceptance and opening up to people and welcoming people and just this bond. I really felt it almost immediately, just seeing how people interacted with people and I went in and just found some people and said, “Hey, I don’t know anybody here! I’m Eric. What’s going on?”, which is something I can do because I’m an extrovert and I realize not everybody can do.

But the important thing is that I made a decision pretty much right then that this was an opportunity for me to shed all the baggage and nobody here knew who I was. I, based on how I interacted with these people, would determine how they perceived me.

I had been so wrapped up in all the lies, and that with other people I knew I would be judged if I revealed to them or withdrew from these positions, you know, but here there would be no judgment. I could just be myself, and I chose and decided to do that. Fortunately it was a comfortable environment where I felt very comfortable being able to do that, but I just decided that this is not something that I wanted to be part of my life anymore. Not only was it no longer advantageous for me, but I really felt bad about it, like I felt it was a hindrance and I wanted genuine relationships with people. I wanted to have the trust that people held in me be well founded. I didn’t want to lie and manipulate. I didn’t want that anymore, and here was an opportunity where I could stop.

Cooper: Let’s see… maybe one final question to wrap up. Maybe you can say how you are now relative to how you were then. How do you see yourself presenting yourself now?

Eric: I think the biggest thing is that I have looked at what makes relationships, not just romantic ones, work. The things I have identified through my own experiences, in talking with others, and especially observing the relationship of my parents, is that a successful relationship is based on trust and communication. When I identified that, which was a process over that whole period I spoke of and kind of beyond it as well, I decided that those were principles I wanted to live by. Furthermore, being in YRUU, it built up a more genuine confidence in who I was, that people would accept me for who I was, that I became proud of who I was and I wanted to share that with people, and I wanted to have genuine relationships.

So today I have really made it a priority in my life to be a person of character, at least the way I view myself. I want to be someone I can be proud of. I want to be someone I want to be, and right now I am. In dealing with others, I place a very high priority on dealing fairly and honestly. I’m very open about trust and trust issues. If somebody asks me, and this is probably a dumb example, but if somebody asks me to keep a secret about something, I’ll be very straightforward with them how I feel about that, and let them know straight up if it is something I’m comfortable with or not comfortable with, etc.

I don’t know why exactly I’ve always been someone that people confide in about things, but at one point I made a choice to set some limits for myself about how I would interact with people in those kinds of situations. Now I put myself out there as someone always there to listen to friends. I’ll always listen, but I’m not someone who is going to dish out the advice. But I will listen and I won’t judge. I’ll try to be there for people.

And overall, it’s kind of the Golden Rule when it comes down to it. I look at how I want people to interact with me, to treat me, and to have relationships with me. I feel if I am reasonably to expect those things, I need to live that and I need to be that, and interact with people in that way. I feel that I am a lot healthier of a person for it, and I have these wonderful real relationships with people, and I don’t need to lie. I’m confident enough in who I am, what I do, and the choices I make that I can just be that and live that.

Cooper: Cool… Thanks Eric!

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2 replies on “Becoming Your Genuine Self”

  1. Interesting story…I can see your growth. I’m not sure I’ve grown anyfrom high school, forty years ago!

    You know, I always had trouble getting my son to accept people as they were. He was hyper-critical, but it was a defense mechanism. We discussed the golden rule…

    “Treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s the golden rule.” I told him, and I had never brought up those words before.

    “You mean, bow down and worship them?” he says, smart-aleck.

    But it made sense to him. The golden rule.

    You bringing it up, Eric, just confirms it.

    He had a rip-roaring time in school, too, and was homeschooled, now at 17 going to Tech instead of his senior year. Learning what he needs to learn.

    Thanks for putting yourself out there.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Thanks for the comment. I forwarded it to Eric since I thought he would appreciate it.

    I’m curious that you say that you are not sure you’ve grown over the last 40 years since high school. I’d love to hear you say more about that.

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