Friday, 15 January 2010

A Fraud and a Fake

Whilst revelations about Tiger Woods’ extra-marital affairs came as something of a shock, the disparity between the image of him as the professional, clean living, sporting hero and the sordid reality was not altogether a surprise. After all, he follows in a long line of upstanding “role models” who have fallen from grace. What was more surprising to me was the degree of righteous indignation that I felt. “His public humiliation serves him right for pretending to be something that he was not,” I heard myself say.

I had felt the same on hearing that some of our “honourable” Members of Parliament had abused the public purse with their inflated expense claims, and again when our supposedly fiscally prudent bankers were shown to be reckless and greedy. In each case, there was the sense that these people were frauds and had acted in a duplicitous, devious and unethical way. They had failed to live up to their own professed standards of behaviour.

I was not alone in my condemnation of Tiger Woods, but I knew from the strength of my personal judgements that there must be some buried material that my primary selves did not want me to acknowledge. I sensed that it must have something to do with presenting a professional image that was in some way deceptive. So I decided to do a bit of self-scrutiny.

I had been a management trainer for many years and had made a career out of being “the expert”, the one who “knows”, who can “explain”, who has “the answers”. To do this I had developed and honed an amazing Seminar Leader self who commanded respect and earned me a good living. He exuded honesty and integrity. For support he drew on the resources of a wonderful set of primary selves - my Organiser, my Planner, my Rational Mind, my Perfectionist, my Performer and my Nice Guy. With them helping to run the show I felt competent, in charge and in control. Any vulnerability I had was safely hidden from view.

However, beneath my professional persona lurked a gnawing anxiety. A voice in my head whispered, “You’re a fraud and a fake, and some day you’ll be found out.” I had recurring dreams in which I arrived late for a workshop or was standing in front of a group teaching a subject about which I knew nothing or for which I had done no preparation. Sometimes I found myself giving a presentation to an audience totally naked, or having sex in font of everyone and feeling ashamed and embarrassed. In other dreams, the workshop participants were rowdy and would not respect me or even pay me any attention. Often the class contained manipulative and menacing characters I feared were going to attack me. The atmosphere was always chaotic and I felt anxious, alone and very vulnerable.

As I reflected on these dreams I could see that the threatening characters represented aspects of my personality - the unruly parts of me that were lax and ignorant, could dissemble, didn’t care about integrity and didn’t give a damn what others thought - that I had had to disown in order to identify with my competent and capable Seminar Leader. My primary selves’ worst fear was that these opposite energies would take me over and that my carefully constructed professional world would then fall apart. They fretted that, just as in the dream, I would be publicly exposed and vulnerable.

But was there any basis for this in reality? As I searched my mind for an answer I could feel the resistance of my primary selves. There was something in my past that mirrored Tiger Woods situation that they clearly didn’t want me to look at. Every time I felt I was getting close to what it might be, the judgements about Tiger Woods welled up, blocking out the memory. It was easier to point the finger at someone else than to shine the spotlight within. Nevertheless I persevered and suddenly I got it! I knew what the buried material was.

Being a slow reader, books were never a particular passion of mine. The thicker they were and the smaller the print, the less likely I was to plough my way through them. You may therefore be surprised to learn that I left university with a degree in English literature. My best marks were for essays on tomes I had barely scanned. My trick was to read synopses, short critiques and reviews of the set books, canvas the thoughts and opinions of fellow students, and out of this construct my own “original” analysis. I felt a bit of a fraud, but I got my degree!

After university I decided I wanted to get out of the UK and travel. I applied to the British Council and, on the basis of my degree, was hired to work as an English teacher for a kind of anglophile club in Finland. It was run rather haphazardly by local volunteers and I immediately saw an opportunity to restructure the club’s activities, improve revenues and increase my income. My Organiser and Planner selves created a graded programme of classes, a comprehensive weekly schedule and a local advertising campaign. People flocked to enrol.

The only problem was that I really didn’t know anything about teaching English. Grammar was a mystery to me and I had no idea how to use the phonetic alphabet and teach pronunciation. Someone had recommended a course book, so before each lesson I would frantically read through the teacher’s manual then stand in front of the class and wing it. Once again I felt like a fraud, but no one noticed and my salary doubled!

I became a big fish in a small pond and this gave me a certain self-assurance and bravado. From behind my image as the respectable, fresh-faced Englishman - the professional teacher whose integrity, character and knowledge could be trusted and relied upon - an altogether wilder side kicked in. I initiated an affair with a married woman who was a member of the committee who employed me. Had people known, I would have lost my job and quite likely been assailed by an enraged and jealous husband. But there was more. At the same time, I was having another secret liaison with an English teacher working in a nearby town.

As with Tiger Woods, there was an enormous disparity between the appearance and the reality. The only difference between him and me was that I got away with it. I was not found out!

As I acknowledged my own duplicitous, devious and unethical behaviour as a young man, my judgements about Tiger Woods waned. Looking honestly at my own buried selves gave me an appreciation of what he had had to disown in order to present himself as a squeaky clean, super sportsman. How would I have felt if people had realised what I was up to and accused me of being “arrogant”, a “fraud” and a “fake”? Although it would have been extremely painful for me, it would not have been an international news story. The lurid details of Tiger Woods’ liaisons made media headlines around the world. I empathised with how vulnerable he must be feeling.

Often professionals such as sportsmen, teachers, politicians, bankers, priests, doctors, lawyers and therapists have to hide their vulnerability and bury “unacceptable” parts of their personality in order to maintain their image and status. This earns them kudos and/or cash and keeps them secure. However, sometimes the hold of the primary selves slips and the disowned material breaks through in highly charged and negative ways.

The theory of the Psychology of Selves tells us that if we identify with certain selves and allow them to unconsciously run our lives, of necessity we will disown their opposites. And there is a price to pay. The longer and more deeply we bury them, the more likely they will cause us grief when they show up in our lives. This is especially so with our instinctual energies. Our task is to understand and honour every aspect of what makes us human and to find a conscious balance between all the many competing parts of our psyche.

The Ancient Greeks understood this very well and described it in their mythology. They knew that an offering had to be placed at the altar of every god and goddess. You could have your favourites - for example Apollo, the god of the mind. But if you left the opposite god out - in this case Dionysius, the god of wine and revelry - it was he that attacked you. It is the disowned energy that kills us - as Tiger Woods has discovered to his cost.

Whilst I don’t condone Tiger Woods’ behaviour, I am grateful to him. Exploring my initial judgements has allowed me to uncover and integrate some of my own shadow material. As I do this I no longer feel the need to condemn him in such a visceral, holier-than-thou way. As the saying has it, “There but for the grace of God go I.”