“You can’t handle the truth”
Jack Nicholson’s iconic line, that became an instant classic from the movie “A Few Good Men.” Short, but sweet, it cuts straight to the point. It was of course said in context of a Hollywood movie about a courtroom drama, but it reminds me of many of the messy, challenging and uncomfortable conversations that I have with the families I work with.
As long as humans have communicated through language, truth has been open to interpretations and disagreements. The problem is that truth, like facts are construed by our individual perception shaped by our life experiences and interactions. Whilst most of us go through life being as honest as we can, we are also only human, full of emotions and flaws; therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect ourselves to be truthful all the time.
When it comes to family business dynamics, the two kinds of untruths I witness the most are either ones where a family member denies/omit parts of a story to protect their own image, or where they tell a ‘white lie’ to avoid hurting someone or to protect someone’s feelings. Both stem from a place of wanting to belong to someone or something, but in doing so we often dishonour ourselves by compromising our values.
This week I facilitated a session with a younger member of a family who encapsulated this scenario perfectly. Desperate to feel accepted and loved by his father, he had been ‘pretending’ to be interested in taking over the business just so he could spend more time with him. Part of my work was to help him realise that he could still be a valuable part of the family and have a meaningful relationship with his dad, without being part of the business; the two are not exclusive of each other. He had not only been telling his father and family a lie, but also himself. He was unhappy, lost, and had no sense of identity because he had aligned it with being the next leader of the family business – a business he didn’t truly want to be a part of. Self-honesty is perhaps the hardest truth to navigate and requires us to separate our own needs, wants and desires from others, but failure to do so means we essentially give away our basic needs and identity. Much of my work is about empowering every family member to find their own truth and personal philosophy, regardless of the family name or family business they were born into.
Just as our perception of truth is blurred by outside influences, so are our identities. We internalise the values of our parents, friends, colleagues, culture, all in the pursuit of belonging. The problem is that along the way we find a disconnect with our true self. We may take on multiple identities at any one time through our work or by being a friend or parent, and whilst each role comes with a set of expectations, they are not who we are. Many of the younger members I work with define themselves by how they think their parents see them, but when they don’t feel as they are playing out their truth, they feel uneasy and often end up in a cycle of detrimental behaviours.
Forming an identity is a fluid process that is ever changing and constantly evolving but developing our own core values is the path to living in harmony with yourself and those around you. I encourage family members to step outside of the ‘bubble’ of both the family business and the family dynamics, so that they can find the space to explore themselves, their potential and their purpose.
Following a number of coaching sessions, I ask all of clients to write ‘a personal manifesto ‘- a blueprint for their personal and emotional understanding of what is their Safe Space™. The manifesto is the pathway from the intellectualised concept to the embodiment of it. With this in mind, I would like to share a recent extract from one of my family members which I believe encapsulates the power of self-honesty and the value of knowing one’s identity.
“All my behaviours are related to lies that I have been telling myself. My father is not responsible for the lies I have been telling myself, it is my own responsibility to stop the lies and accept myself and not to demand acceptance from my father. I no longer feel the need to be accepted, and have become aware of the fear that has been holding me back. I have been living in the shadows, limiting my true potential, hiding my true self.”
This young man (a parent now himself) has finally set himself free. He has transformed from being a scared little child afraid of his father, feeling unworthy of love and exhausted by pretending to be someone he isn’t…to… in his own words “become a contributing leader, a samurai, a peaceful warrior able to help others.”
The solution to forming our own personal identity and living with our authentic self is being willing to answer the difficult questions. Many of us are often either unaware of the questions that we need to ask or run away from them when we are faced with them. But, neglecting them pretending and hoping they/it will all go away is only ever a short-term answer.
So, I would like to few final thoughts…are you the kind of person who can handle the truth even if it hurts, or are you only comfortable in hearing the truths you want to hear?