(By Michael Simmons)
“In our studies, when we gave people information about someone else’s success who is close to them in an area they’re also trying to be good at, they say they feel proud and behave that way, but, in fact, they weren’t. When we surreptitiously video-recorded them you could see disappointment and negative affect in their face. Their behaviors did not reflect how they said they felt.”
The hardest part of my business failing was not the loss of the business. It was the loss of the identity that came with being a successful entrepreneur.
I had become so attached to this identity that when others asked how the non-existent business was doing, I said, “Great!” The chasm between the image of being financially set for life and owning a failed business was painful. I felt like a fraud.
When I finally got up the courage to start telling the truth, I could feel a weight lift off my shoulders. I had no idea how much stress I had been causing myself. To my huge surprise, instead of shunning me, people actually treated me with more respect and confided in me with their challenges. I wondered how had I been so wrong in judging other people’s reactions.
In his highly cited research, University of Georgia social psychology professor Abraham Tesser found that when someone close to us outperforms us in a task relevant to us, it often threatens our self-esteem. The more relevant the task is, the greater the threat we feel.
My personal experience matches the research. As much as I would like to be purely happy for my closest friends when they achieve something amazing, sometimes part of me feels diminished. I wonder why I haven’t been able to duplicate their successes, attributing it to advantages they had over me or their superior abilities.
In talking with Dr. Tesser, I learned that what I thought of as insecurity is actually part of being human: “In our studies, when we gave people information about someone else’s success who is close to them in an area they’re also trying to be good at, they say they feel proud and behave that way, but, in fact, they weren’t. When we surreptitiously video-recorded them you could see disappointment and negative affect in their face. Their behaviors did not reflect how they said they felt.”
While I had always looked at this mechanism as a negative force in society, Dr. Tesser’s belief is that people reconstructing their worldviews to constantly think about what they’re best at actually helps the divisions of labor in society. And yet I wondered if it was really necessary for us to try and hide our disappointment, as his study participants did. What if we shared our mixed feelings with others?
In 1997, Arthur Aron, a social psychologist and director of the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University, performed a groundbreaking study that answers this question.
He and his research team paired students who were strangers. The students were given 45 minutes to ask each other a series of questions. Half the pairs were given questions that were factual and shallow (e.g., a favorite holiday or TV show). The other half were given questions that started off as factual but gradually became deeper (e.g., the role of love in their lives, the last time they cried in front of someone else). The final question was, “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing?”
After the 45 minutes, Aron’s team asked the participants to rate how close they felt to their partner. Pairs from the second group formed much deeper bonds. In fact, many of these participants started lasting friendships. In one longer version of the experiment, two participants even got engaged a few months after the study.
Aron’s team also surveyed a broad selection of students not involved with the experiment and asked them to rate how close they felt to the closest person in their life. Aron then compared these scores with the ratings of the study participants who had asked each other the deeper questions. Amazingly, the intensity of their bonds at the end of the experiment rated closer than the closest relationships in the lives of 30% of similar students. A 45-minute conversation created a connection that was perceived as closer than the closest connection with someone people known for years.
Only presenting an idealized version of ourselves separates us from others.
The mistaken assumption is that if people find out who we really are underneath, they’d remove themselves from our lives. The reality is that if we share the ups and downs of our human experience in the right way in the right context, we build deeper connections. In so doing, we can break down the roles we play (e.g., client/customer, boss/employee, fundraiser/philanthropist) and connect with each other as humans.
In a world where people compare their behind-the-scenes with others’ highlight reels, we can surprise ourselves, and put others at ease, by sharing our full humanity.