True story: One day a woman came to Mahatma Gandhi with her sugar addicted son. The woman said, “Please sir, tell my son to stop eating so much sugar. He’s getting sick from it and won’t listen to me. I know he’ll listen to you.” Gandhi smiled and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” and went on to the next person in the room. A few months later the woman, who was determined that Gandhi was her only hope, brought the boy to the great man again. “Please Mahatma, tell my son not to eat so much sugar! I am fearful for his health!” Gandhi looked at the boy and pointed a finger. “Don’t eat so much sugar.” The woman was taken aback. She pulled Gandhi aside and asked, “Why didn’t you tell him that the last time I brought him to you?” Gandhi smiled and said, “The last time you brought him I was eating too much sugar.”
Being congruent can be a major challenge. Still, we want to walk our talk, avoid hypocrisy, and be able to look ourselves in the mirror. Its tough when we have internal forces working against our better nature.
I once worked with a psychology supervisor who was grossly over weight. While she counseled others on learning to be safe with their feelings and not repress or medicate them, she was clearly medicating a lot of her own with food. Her mental health and ability to focus on work began to suffer so much she couldn’t hide the effects anymore. One day she was fired on the spot and escorted out of the building. When they cleared out her office they found candy bars taped under desks, behind file cabinets, and inside the closet.
We can be incongruent in a thousand ways: the smiling neighbor who is a closet alcoholic and abusive parent, the business success story who is a weekend binge gambler living on credit cards, the religious zealot who is indifferent to the suffering of the homeless and encourages the bombing of innocent countries, the perfect housewife who is a prescription drug addict, the dedicated married man who cheats because— “I’m under so much pressure,” the pornography obsessed man who is overly protective of his daughter but fine with other men’s’ daughters pleasing his sexual tastes, the comedian who is secretly suicidal, Lance Armstrong, the hero of bike racing—getting busted for doping.
We all have what is called “shadow” in Jungian psychology. Shadow is that part of the psyche that runs contrary to our better nature. Shadow wants us to be incongruent, run afoul of our values— even destroy others and ourselves. We all have shadow and so we’re all subject to being incongruent with who we want to be—who we see ourselves as. There is even a “collective shadow.” Collective shadows appear when large groups go unconscious together. Vietnam, Iraq, the mortgage meltdown, Watergate, the objectification and repression of women, African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Native Americans—are just a few of the ways collective shadows have been played out in America.
Honesty is the best way to deal with incongruence. Shadow, the root of incongruence, thrives in the dark of isolation and hiding. Shadow can also be thought of as what author John Bradshaw calls, a shame bind. We are ashamed of ourselves, we want to hide our incongruent behaviors, pretend to the world they don’t exist, be “liked and admired.” But as we are seeing with things like the current political cast of characters and the, “Me too”, women’s movement— living in the shadow has an egg timer on it. We always end up exposed to others and ourselves in the end. The roosters do one day come home to roost.
To be congruent we want to practice “rigorous honesty” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous. We define for ourselves what is and isn’t acceptable behavior according to our values. Then we can seek help in keeping ourselves accountable. We have a trusted friend, a therapist, a church group, a support group, a coach—anyone that we can be “rigorously honest with” and keep ourselves congruent. If we need treatment for an addiction we seek out a twelve-step group. If we are in debt we make a budget with a financial advisor or maybe join Debtor’s Anonymous. If we have a rage issue we do anger management work with a therapist.
What areas we need to be congruent with comes from asking ourselves the simple question, “Am I congruent in all my behaviors for who I say I am?” If the answer is no, its time to look for help. If the answer is yes, you’ve probably done a good amount of work on yourself already.
If we feel we are perfect and don’t need anyone’s help we could be truly dangerous in our incongruence. All dictators, narcissists, and oppressors believe on some level that they are beyond reproach and that their bad behaviors are either not bad or because of others. I recently saw a documentary on a Short Term Loan store chain that systematically stole tens of millions of dollars from thousands of poverty-stricken customers with hidden fees, small print, and manipulated loan payouts. The owner of the chain, who had personally pocketed over two hundred million dollars, thought of himself as an innocent victim. He tearfully stammered, “How can they do this to me? I was just running a business. I don’t understand. I’m losing everything!”
In Humanistic / Client Centered therapy, congruence is considered a main stipulation for a successful outcome. We all benefit from facing our shadow, giving up the need to be seen as perfect, getting a little help, and becoming congruent with our better nature. When we are congruent we are truly brave, trustworthy, living in integrity and accountability. We are able to be of genuine service to the life we want to live and to the lives of others.