"You know, people are in a constant state of impression management. They've got their true self and the self that they want to project to the world. And we know that the body displays things that sometimes people try to keep contained.” -- Arthur “Skip” Rizzo, psychologist, USC Center for Creative Technologies, from an interview on NPR
For a four-week stretch this spring, I didn’t derive much joy from anything. I would disappear in a decent book or TV series, or engage in some spirited competition with friends, or sit at lunch with friends or dinner with family, or play outside or on the Wii with my kids, or walk with my wife, and in medias res it felt OK. In the moment, there was this sense of almost-joy not dissimilar to the sense of Paris one gets from looking at a postcard of Paris. Once the event passed, however, and my mind was no longer engaged in that event, I found myself again feeling this gnawing emptiness. What I’d hoped was a full meal had come and gone faster than a Taco Bell burrito.
In that hollow aftermath, I’d try to suss through why I couldn’t sustain any sense of satisfaction or contentment. I’d get angry with myself for being ungrateful, for being a sourpuss, for being weak. I had no excuses to feel down or empty, I’d tell myself with an interior monologue of some bitter football coach whose veins pop through his beet-red neck. My life and virtually everything about it is, simply, blessed. Shame shame on me for that emptiness, the inner coach would yell. Yet that empty feeling persisted.
I put on a good face through it, though. Other than a few passing comments to a friend or my wife acknowledging being “a bit down,” I mostly acted like I was expected to act around others. I clung to my daily and weekly routine like a life vest, hoping that no matter how banal it seemed, it would keep me afloat until the sun came back out.
Now, being free from these “doldrums” and looking back, I mostly think my routines and givens -- work, friends, familiy, love, hobbies -- are precisely what kept me from sinking deeper, from despairing more. While I failed to derive the level of enjoyment I was accustomed to from these givens, I had an equally strong sense that losing those experiences would not fix what ailed me.
And I listened to “Hollow” by Better Than Ezra about twice a day. It’s not a perfect song, to be sure, but that chorus was a balm, my friends.
All my rage sits insideIt sounds cliche to say a single flawed song can help heal our wounds, but I know of no single better salve for my wayward mind than the right song at the right moment. The lives they made. Life is richer in a minor key.
And even the finest things leave you hollow
All my days left behind
And even the finest things are leaving you hollow
I kept listening, and I kept acting, and I got better.
“Impression Management” sounds like a bad thing. It is, by its very definition, disingenuous and inevitably deceptive. It's Anti-Dr. Phil. Yet I’m pretty sure it saves more people than it destroys.
When married couples are struggling, they often go out and play the part of Mostly Happy People. Even if others at the party or gathering know the truth, that everything is in crumbles or on the verge of falling off the cliff and into the ocean, they engage in Impression Management. Some couples split anyway, but some don’t. In fact, many stay together.
Isn’t part of Impression Management the belief that, if we can create and maintain a certain version of ourself, if we can aim for some idealized version of Who We Are long enough and with enough accuracy, that we might just become what began as a pretend identity? Or at least get close enough to be a better or improved version of our crappier selves?
In The Messenger, Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is engaged in a deeply internal struggle, fighting a post-Iraq war despair bordering on outrage while desperately clinging to some form of Impression Management, holding onto his identity in public as a strong, brave, reliable and loyal solder, trying desperately to be a decent human being.
The reason the movie is so emotionally gripping is because Montgomery manages, mostly, to heal himself. Awash in panic while alone in the darkness of his bare apartment, he rehabilitates himself out in the open by working stubbornly at being better than he feels.
Maybe the reason The Greatest Generation seems so much better at managing personal crises, in hindsight, isn’t due to their repressed emotions, but rather simply because they were better at Impression Management. They knew that being genuine and honest wasn’t always the best way to survive and advance. They knew that enduring doldrums, depression or despair requires an amazing ability to act like the person we want or need to be until we can remember how to genuinely be that character once again.
The best actors endure and continue to hone their craft, and the worst crumble and dissolve.