In choosing how to live our lives, we are bombarded with social and cultural expectations of what is preferable or correct. Existentialism encourages us to examine the relevance of these expectations. However, concepts are often difficult to grasp and even more difficult to apply to our own lives. The language of myths explains existential concepts of freedom, choice, responsibility and anxiety in a straightforward manner readily applicable to your own life experience.
The Group Myth
In many aspects of our lives, we look to others for what is acceptable, desirable and appropriate. The fashion pages of modern magazines bear witness to collective beliefs of how to dress, present ourselves and evaluate others. Cultural and social expectations further influence the course of our life choices. We rarely stop to question whether this is the path we want to take. We experience temporary freedom when we break from the norm. For example, the ‘gap year’ or ‘overseas experience’ when young people travel, or personal development courses, offer the opportunity to reflect on our lives. However, reflection is often explored within equally safe boundaries which are acceptable and predictable.
So how do we choose what is right for us in a world that offers us so many answers? Accept that you are unique and what will bring you happiness will be very different from someone else. Question the norms which influence your life and focus on what you enjoy – even if it contradicts what people of your age, gender and culture expect. Relationships can be a source of mutual enjoyment. Therefore, only allow people into your life who accept you for who you want to be rather than who they want you to be.
The Identity Myth
From a young age, the pressure to conform to the demands and expectations of others is enormous. In the normal course of socialisation, we want to belong and be accepted by others. However, conflict arises when there is disparity between who we want to be and what others want us to be. The resultant anxiety is often interpreted as presumed ‘rightness’ in the status quo. However, this is not the case. Anxiety is part of living a well lived life and is inevitable particularly for someone who chooses meaningfully. It doesn’t mean that it is right for us to conform to others’ expectations and choose from the limited options this brings.
To manage the conflict that arises out of non-conformity, we often try to influence others to change their behaviour and become who we want them to be. However, by engaging in direct action to bring about happiness in our own lives, we connect with our personal power and gain mastery over our own life choices. Aim to define what is desirable for you rather than allowing social pressure, fashion or image to dictate socially, culturally, gender and age-appropriate behaviour.
The Commitment Myth
So often our lives are bogged down with commitments made at earlier times in our lives and which, if we had the choice, would be relinquished. Many commitments, once made, are unquestioned and we continue on a path that is more about duty and obligation rather than enjoyment and meaning. We feel that we have no choice.
You do have choice. You can re- examine your current commitments and their function in your life. Those that contribute to your unhappiness can be relinquished as long as you are prepared to pay the price. For example, to stay in a career because of previous investment or a marriage that makes you unhappy is the cost you pay for staying. Whilst responsibilities should be taken seriously, the only way to gain the equivalence of resources wasted so far is to use your time, money and efforts exactly how you want to now.
The Selfishness Myth
From a young age, we are told that we are selfish if we put our own needs before those of others and that putting ourselves at the centre of our own lives is unacceptable. Cultural and social expectations encourage us to conform to others’ expectations rather than consider our own needs seriously. We are pilloried as selfish parents, partners, friends or neighbours if our desires impact negatively on others. However, what is labelled as selfish is often a function of others’ unhappiness because they selfishly want us to act as they require. By putting yourself at the centre of your own life, you will experience increased personal mastery and freedom from pretence. You will also offer others the best example of taking responsibility for themselves.
The Dishonesty Myth
Social expectations encourage us to be discreet, modest or modify the truth in our interactions with others. This is often labelled as discretion, etiquette or good manners. For example, we attend parties we don’t want to go to because we will offend people if we don’t. We tolerate rudeness from family members in order to avoid conflict. The reasons we give for this is not hurting other people’s feelings. However, the real reason is that the anxiety of being honest is greater than the anxiety of maintaining the status quo. However, the real cost is dishonouring your needs, fear of being found out, resentment or maintaining the pretence of being who you are not. Dishonesty robs us of freedom and mastery over our lives.
The Dishonesty Myth is highly pervasive since the desire for others’ approval is so strong. Facing life with honesty often brings conflict from others who don’t approve of our new way of being. However, dropping the pretence of being what we think others want us to be frees us to embark on a journey of getting to know ourselves better. Aim to cultivate honesty in every aspect of your life. The personal relief, trust by others who can trust your word, and increased self-awareness will be a few of the benefits you will enjoy.
The Change Myth
Many of us want to change certain aspects of our lives but feel unable to for a number of reasons. We refer to commitments, debts, obligations and others’ expectations as the reasons for not changing. Some people say that they want things to change but feel powerless to change or unsure as to what they really want. Others say that if only they won the lottery, shed their debts and relinquished their work and personal commitments, they could make all the changes that they wanted to.
To impose these conditions on yourself is to shed responsibility for your life. In many ways, it is a Myth that you can’t change. Even if you don’t knowingly make changes in your life, changes will inevitably occur requiring modifications to be made by you. Why wait for pressures or other people’s plans to initiate change in your life? You have your own unique abilities, talents, dreams and ideals. The biggest issue is getting in touch with how you want to use them. You can increase your income, get out of debt, reduce your working hours or have more satisfying relationships. However, they just don’t arrive one day. You are the author of your life and if you want to change in a meaningful and informed manner, there is always a way.
The Morality Myth
Morality, whilst a difficult concept to define, refers to a value system implying right or wrong. But what is correct and whose standards should be used when judging moral behaviour? Three types of morality exist, namely Individual, Universal and Absolute. Individual morality is a self-directed code of conduct which is used to bring about personal happiness. Universal morality implies someone else’s dictates which, if adopted, will supposedly bring about personal happiness. Absolute morality comes from some authority outside of the individual and dictates that the individual should be moral regardless of the consequences to him or herself. However, all morality is individual since you are the person who will ultimately choose the moral code by which to live.
You are 100% responsible for your own life (even if someone else offers to accept the responsibility) because you are the only one who will fully experience the consequences of your actions. Therefore, try to develop an individual moral code or generalised attitude towards decisions. Judge the usefulness of your own moral code by its consequences and ensure that those consequences are important to you – if not change it!