Why Young Lives Are Losing Meaning And Purpose IV: Impression Management

By M.K. Styllinski

“The only way to find true happiness is to risk being completely cut open.”

Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

Reading time: (10 mins)

Studies published on life satisfaction in 2016 by economist Hannes Schwandt were based not on future situations, but on how young people felt about where they would be in five years. The gap between the optimism of the early years and the disappointment at the end of those five years was extremely clear in the graphical data. As a result, by their thirties realism had kicked in and expectations had levelled off and conformed to the well-documented U-shape trajectory of happiness for their fifties. So, there is reason to be hopeful. Meantime, the curve downwards in twenties and thirties appears to be getting steeper and the parameters and focus by which happiness is defined appears very narrow. i.e. equated with material possessions and employment. As discussed before, while the latter is important, they are not reliable indicators of happiness, the very concept of which is highly ephemeral and quite different to core, creative joy. Jonathan Rauch wrote in The Happiness Curve (2015) about the nature of a natural, U-shaped curve, a mid-life transition rather than a dead-end crisis: “This transition has a direction: something you could even call a purpose…The upslope of the happiness curve has an emotional direction, which is toward positivity. But it also has a relational direction, which is toward community….This is a social story, although we rarely experience it that way.” [1]  Why is that? Perhaps because we are programmed to fabricate our own personal islands on a sea of perceived separation from our fellow humans. After all, it’s a dark world out there and society is designed to actively limit pragmatic and constructive cooperation outside the State.

In truth, the myth of the middle age crisis is just part of an overall crisis of meaning that reaches pressure points throughout our lives. Such crises appear to exist outside time and space. It may well be an archetypal/mythical narrative that demands to be heard and acted out so that creative energy can be released. If we don’t consciously address what is lacking then the adaptive unconscious will do it for us to survive. We might see this recognition as a form of recapitulation as described by Carlos Castaneda, whereby we go over our lives with a fine tooth-comb, remembering all we have met, places we have visited and situations we have experienced in order to glean insights and realisations. This focus may create a form of resonance and feedback from the past to aid us in the future. Personal responsibility in this regard and to social interaction in general, could determine how we handle the happiness-unhappiness seesaw and if we can transcend it; whether we become masters of our ship and gain satisfaction from the simplicity of life as much as the dramatic flourishes of success, as defined by our culture. This would explain the common period of discontent at various stages in later life from the late thirties and forties. Rather than a mid-life crisis of lost opportunities perhaps it is a realisation that all that creative energy is not being used as it should?

The emotional and relational drive toward meaning and purpose is intimately tied up with our natural social intelligence that can guide us to connect for the good of the whole and the health of the individual. The desperate ambition and self-oriented focus of youth, a natural egocentricity which has been inflated by our cultures can, through the crises that happen, become a redemptive process when tied to community initiatives. Abstractions and conceptualisations have the potential to become concrete and specific, grounded in real-world solutions and tailored toward our own local needs. Trying to save oneself is transposed to “saving” others. Trying to save the world is transposed to “saving” the community. These efforts outwards, reflect the work taken place inwards, and paradoxically away from self-absorption. This can foster greater authenticity and the slow shedding of the narcissistic traits that we have allowed culture to create for us.

Whether or not we acknowledge our responsibility for creating the life we want links strongly to how we’ve been shaped in our early years. A key finding in the economics of happiness is that young people consistently overestimate their future life satisfaction. What’s more, they are taught to do so. This mix of entitlement, fantasy-fuelled ideals and wilful blindness encourages the expectation that happiness is a right and all the accoutrements of our culture will just fall into our laps if we join the dots of the past and adhere to “normal” life. A negative relationship to unpredictability and uncertainty – the unknown – then defines the future which becomes a potentially traumatic spectre to be avoided at all costs. To have an enduring optimism is a valuable asset, as long as it doesn’t slip into wishful thinking. Yet, this optimum bias appears to be hardwired into all of us which and though welcome, can come up against the very hard nature of what life is as opposed to what we would wish it to be.

This bias is one of many conjoined with other Common Cognitive Distortions that take us further and further away from an objective truth. Americans appear to be particularly prone to this way of viewing reality – the unpredictable nature of life appears to be ignored until such time subjectivity crashes headlong into objectivity with chaos beating down the door of Order. What we considered normal even thirty years ago is a very different beast indeed in the 21st Century. Young people have to cope with this socio-biological fact as well as the legacy of postmodernist ideology and all the above social factors listed previously which have molded a large portion of the younger generations perceptions so that the very concept and route to happiness is distorted.

Certainly, life can grind you down when we see it without any blinders. After all, if we were to be exposed to reality as it really is (i.e. an inexpressibly dark feeding ground of hierarchical predation reflected in nature and in the human sphere) we would not only join the swelling ranks of the depressed but short-circuit into dissociation and/or psychosis. Such buffering of raw reality has its place, but it can only go so far before it starts to eat your awareness from the inside out. Such a survival mechanism in the early years can get stuck as we grow older into a permanent optimistic denial or a melancholic apathy, depending on your personality. However, the more melancholic and periodically depressed are unusually accurate about the past and future. If you can traverse that Valley of the Shadow of Death, – you will be finally transformed so that optimism, joy and objective reality reflects the integration and synthesis which has taken place in your mental and emotional, thus physical centres of gravity.

To bring that universal process into awareness needs the support from a like-minded community of fellow travellers.

“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”

Mark Twain

Feeling centered and happy is not the flip side of depression, but a consequence of resilience, in turn, developed from an inner certainty that one’s life has a constructive, measurable effect in thought and action. With psychological flexibility we learn that culture’s idea of happiness is something fleeting on the road to a state of being that could be more profound and unalterable. Adversity – even the trauma and pain of a miserable childhood – can be the catalyst for a deep transformation, the positive effects of which go far beyond our own lives. Learning to comprehend why we suffer can open the door to new patterns of perception which can hone our will and re-calibrate the mind and body to discover what really makes us creative and therefore, quietly happy. Indeed, the quest to wrest ourselves from the happiness-unhappiness seesaw can slowly be achieved through quiet attention to the present and allowing the space for constructive effects to manifest in our relationships and environment. As a backdrop to the passing seasons of moods and their social directors, there is always the promise of consistent satisfaction and fulfilment that resides deep within ourselves, waiting to be tapped. Avoidance of any kind of pain and running full tilt for the pleasure principle prevents us from finding that fulfilment.

Our need for groups and communities is as hard-wired into our mind-body system as protecting, providing and hunting is for the male and nurturing, seering, binding is for the female. The small print means it requires disciplined effort initially and constant maintenance until you’ve re-grooved your psychology and lifestyle toward that end. Inevitably, some measure of faith is necessary as it is in any deliberate practice to attain mastery. Accordingly, some form of bankruptcy – collapse or depression – is usually the kick-starter to this process since we are usually walking examples of tortured souls bent out of shape by life. Once acceptance of change has arrived, this becomes an opportunity to access that well-spring of creativity by divesting ourselves of the lime-scale of our pathological cultures. It is a form of positive disintegration as a prelude to integration toward a more authentic state of being – the true gold within.

However, without the support to prop us up through these thresholds of change and to help us understand these natural processes, young people and the old alike will be cast adrift in the void, assailed by mental illnesses and sociocultural programming that alludes to a deeper malaise. And societies do everything they can to dam up that creativity so that it is never released in productive and powerful ways.

Photo: Mikail Duran | unsplash.com

“I’m just misunderstood.”


Here’s another thing to contemplate as we seek to create a proper foundation to social exchange that allows degrees of happiness to creep in:  What do you have to offer others?

First off, almost everyone has something to offer. But it means making darn sure you are not the persistent fly in the ointment of constructive interpersonal relations. It means having confidence that the impression you give others isn’t different to the impression you believe you’re projecting in your habits and behaviour. Then you’ll be in the position to provide value to your interactions.

More often than not, there is a very wide gap between who you think you are and how others perceive you. Which is why it helps to have a mirror or snapshot now and again from people who have your best interests at heart. And if you don’t have anyone who genuinely trusts or even likes you in your immediate (non)-circle then it’s even more imperative that a bit of serious self-analysis takes place to decipher how much of it is down to you. It’s also true that one can be the object of derision and dislike within a wide coterie of friends and workers and not even know it. That says a lot too. Should you happen to discover that you are living in a barely concealed social-soup of bubbling resentment and you are aghast at the hidden poison suddenly rising to the surface, it’s up to you to find out if its down to your perceived saint-hood or if you have a habit of pissing people off due to some undiscovered impressions you’ve sent out. Enter the fork in the road.

There is a deeper form of analysis aside from the manipulative marketing method of impression management. Here, I’m referring to the basic impressions that flow out to others based on our learned behaviour. What impressions do we give to others? Do they match our self-concept? Moreover, do we have an inflated or deflated self-concept? Other people’s impressions of us will provide possible answers to those questions when we have recapitulated and chosen to take a look over our life and current state of play. Impressions count. They provide an invitation to exchange or allow the leakage of underlying issues to escape. Overall, impressions are the intial gateway to our core intent, good or bad. One can give an impression of arrogance for instance, but such a quality isn’t necessarily an essential part one’s character. Perhaps you are terribly shy and too concerned with how others see you? Maybe you slip into manipulative behaviour to make sure that people take pity on you. People may have to work very hard to put you at ease or they ignore you. Both actions mean that you have a chance to make the effort to meet others halfway or to use such events to confirm your own self-imposed safe space.

Impressions are surface indicators and we can only find out if they match a consistent personality over time. Since we are mostly strangers to ourselves we have to begin somewhere and back engineer to a point that a spark of authenticity is discovered. Authenticity in our thoughts and actions means getting as close as we can to our true nature. If we don’t know who we really are and what we might be capable of (good and bad) how can we expect anyone else to? The quality of our social interactions depend on it.

Whatever your blind spots regarding your faults (and we all have them) it pays to ask someone you respect and trust to tell you what they think. They’ll be happy to oblige provided you make it clear that you won’t react. Not getting defensive might be harder than you think when you hear someone say: “Well, actually you never let me say a word when we meet. You just talk and talk. I might as well not be there.” Or: “I don’t want to be rude but you can be so harsh – even cruel – to other people. I don’t like that about you.” Or: “You’re always complaining about your lot but you never seem to do anything about it.” Further: “You’re very aggressive sometimes, especially when you’ve had a few.” Etc.  Most importantly, don’t embark on this course of feedback until you’re ready. That means taking some time to really understand your motivations and intent. In other words, one has to develop a level of self-awareness that is ready to go to the next level. And what is “self-awareness”? Organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich describes it in the following terms:  “Self-awareness is, at its core, the ability to see ourselves clearly – to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” [2]  Eurich, author of Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World offers six basic points regarding how we can gain valuable feedback from our peers.

An edited version follows:

Pick The Right Person to Ask For Feedback

  • Look for someone who is more removed and might be more objective.
  • Pick a person who sees you in the right context. For example, if you want to know how members of the opposite sex see you, you need to ask one.

Be Specific About What You Want to Know

  • Don’t write them a blank feedback check, you’re opening the door to things you might not want to hear or might not be ready to work on.
  • Do some reflecting first, think about how you want to be viewed by others.

Pay More Attention to People’s Reactions

  • Think about what your goal is and compare that with the outcome. (You wanted to be funny at the party. Did people laugh at the long joke where your mother-in-law was the punchline? Or did they sit silently, looking around at the others?)

Watch Whether People Treat You Differently

  • It’s not enough to observe their body language, pay attention to how they respond to others. Is that the same way they react to you? Are they listening to you more or less? Laughing more or less?
  • It’s also important to observe whether a person’s response has changed over time, especially if you know that person well. Personality is fairly consistent, so any changes may be about you.

Perform a Friend Audit

  • Ask yourself: “Who are the people who would bail me out of jail at 2 a.m.?” Family members don’t count. If you don’t have at least one or two people on that list, think about what you could do differently so that you have people in your life who would do anything for you.

Create an Imaginary Therapist

  • This is like an imaginary friend, but more honest. Imagine your therapist observing your behavior and then gently telling you what he or she sees. You need to change your perspective, and this helps you be objective and not wrapped up in your own defenses. [3]

After the hot flush of shame and indignation some cracks might appear within your carefully crafted image. This process can be liberating in the long-term, albeit very uncomfortable in the short-term. For instance, it’s possible that you just shut down or disassociate without even realising it. Or perhaps you storm off in a fit of pique after several friends have tentatively confirmed that you are fragile or an obnoxious blowhard. Once a person has been alerted to the fact of his character flaws – ideally by several people – he has an opportunity to modify his behaviour accordingly, provided this has been revealed by a person(s) he trusts. After all, if he reacts angrily and begins to hurl abuse claiming victimhood and a “horrible act of betrayal” etc. the person in question also has an equal opportunity to evaluate whether he wishes to remain associated since it has become clear this may not just be an impression at all but an entrenched character flaw. Many scenarios are set in motion from this line of enquiry and it needs a careful approach. But it doesn’t have to be hellish. It can cause constructive ripples of re-evaluation for all those concerned.

So, you can either have a hissy fit and rationalise what you’ve been told thereby joining those that thrive on such emotional chaos, or contemplate that at the very least, there may be some truth in what has been revealed. It’s takes courage to do this and a good dollop of humility – not a common attribute in our times.

But if the truth in all things is important then searching for the truth within ourselves is a vital first step.



[1] p.281, Rauch; Jonathan, The Happiness Curve, Why Life Gets Better After 50 (2015)
[2]  ‘Do You Know How Others See You?’ By Elizabeth Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/do-you-know-how-others-see-you-1503925251?mod=djmc_pkt_ff&tier_1=21662325&tier_2=dcm&tier_3=21662325&tier_4=0&tier_5=4508749
[3] Ibid.

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