January 4th, 2010

Get out your protractors, ladies and gents, because it’s time to dust off your geometry skills!
Okay, not really.  (Although I must confess, I did love geometry.)  Today’s congruence is of a different stripe.  This comes courtesy of my mother who, many years ago, took the time to explain her version of the concept to me.  She referred neither to length of sides nor measure of angles, but to another kind of sameness.  I’m sure she worded it more eloquently than this, but what it boils down to is: when your external behavior accurately reflects your internal beliefs and values.
As an example, throughout the holiday season I felt guilty every time I walked past the Salvation Army ringer outside my grocery store and didn’t donate.  I value charitable giving and believe it’s something I should do.  But I never carry cash and so I just walked past the pot as quickly as possible avoiding the ringer’s eye at nearly any cost.  My mind said one thing and my body did something different, and it didn’t feel good.  Similarly, at a company Christmas party I went through a receiving line wherein I was forced to smile and shake hands with someone who played a big part in getting a friend of mine fired for petty reasons over a year ago.  It also felt wretched.
So, there you have it: congruence as theorized by Gale’s mother.  And somehow that kernel of psychological theory actually seeped into my teenaged mind and managed to stay there for umpteen years.  So she must have been onto something.  But there’s one hole in this theory that I want to explore.  And that hole is:
You feel good when you look good.
You all know what I’m talking about: That fancy-pants feeling you get when you’ve just had your hair styled, or put on a stunning new piece of clothing, or lost a few pounds.  It’s why we dress up for interviews and first dates (first impressions aside).  We love to look in the mirror and say, “Damn, I look good!”  I started thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I spent a lunch hour cruising the Bobbi Brown counter at Nordstrom.  As I walked back to my car utterly smitten with my new lip gloss I started questioning why that perfect shade of heathery beige makes me feel any better about myself than I did before I slid my credit card across the counter. 
According to a recent study this phenomenon is a legitimate factor in people’s psychological well-being.  Perhaps not surprisingly, good-looking people have more social relationships than less attractive people.  But what does this say about us, that physical beauty is such a big determinant of our interpersonal experiences?  My level of physical attractiveness is a genetic lottery.  It’s not something I can very well control.  But the type of person I am – whether I am kind, generous, spiteful, acerbic, supportive, or cynical – is something I choose.     
And so I’m prone to wonder…  Shouldn’t it only matter that I’ve got my act together internally?  That I’m tackling challenging ideas and broadening my mind?  That I understand why I believe what I believe?  That I can articulate my priorities and values and live my life in accordance with them?  That I’m a good and honest person doing right by the world and its citizens?  If all those things are true then how on earth could new lip gloss make me feel any better?  But yet it does.  And what does that say about me?
Am I shallow?  Do I value my appearance more than I should?  Ought I have spent that lunch hour reviewing my beliefs system for holes and inconsistencies?  I’m sure there are people in this world for whom this phenomenon doesn’t seem to exist.  (Think of your unkempt-but-brilliant college professor.)  Are they morally superior?  Or do they just not understand how much better they might feel with a tucked-in shirt and a little hair product?  
If I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt, I’ll surmise that the lip gloss-induced happiness is a by-product of my desire to have the meaningful social relationships that purportedly result from being attractive.  (It’s probably also a by-product of living in a society that values physical beauty to a fault, but that’s a discussion for another post.)  But if I want to hold my own feet to the fire I’ll admit that maybe I worry about my looks more than I should.  Maybe I should spend a little more time worrying about what’s going on inside my head.  Because no matter how good I look in it, if I know my internal house is a wreck, my new lip gloss won’t hide the truth for very long.

19 Responses to “Congruence”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley Says:

    Gale -

    A mere two posts in and you have hooked me. Not bad. Not bad at all. You raise interesting and important questions here about our cultural and personal predilections and priorities. There is no doubt that we as a society tend to often put an undue premium on the external facade at the expense of the more complicated (and arguably more important) internal essence of people. This is problematic and I do not think this trend will fade anytime soon in this celebrity-obsessed world in which we reside.

    That said, I do think there is something important, something very Darwinian, about focusing (some) on the physical characteristics of ourselves and others. Arguably, “survival of the fittest” connects in some, albeit inscrutable to me, way, to this focus on the physical. Often, attractiveness is connected to overall health and vitality, right? I do agree that we cannot make Darwinian arguments for focus on highlights and lip gloss. But then again, maybe we can? Maybe these are simply modern adaptations to an evolving world and population? I don’t pretend to know.

    What I do know is that I love this blog already and I am so thrilled you have joined this wild and woolly world that has been very kind to me over the past ten or so months.

    A big welcome and Happy New Year!

  2. Gale Says:

    Thanks, Aidan. I really appreciate your thoughtful response. It is a sticky wicket, this issue of internal versus externalqualities. As much as we try to pretend there isn’t, as you imply, there is something hard-wired in us to perpetuate our species with a healthy and attractive gene pool. But I believe we do take it too far at the expense of valuing things of greater substance. I suppose that as in all things, a balance is the key.

  3. Kristen Says:

    Hi Gale, I just clicked over from a comment you left at Life in Pencil and am so pleased I did. I also noticed some of my favorite places in your blogroll – oh, the serendipity found on a cold winter morning!

    It seems to me that you’re really hitting on two different kinds of looking good here: One, the type you get when you throw a few coins into the Salvation Army kettle. Two, the type you attain when you slick on that new lipgloss. I actually think our society values both – the looking like a good person and the looking like an attractive person. And I wonder to what extent the inside might follow the outside. If we act “good” or make ourselves look “good,” might we be moving toward an internal place where we feel “good” and are therefore prone to doing more “good”? Maybe that’s wishful thinking. You’ve certainly got my mind going today.

    Really pleased to have found you and your new blog!

  4. Gale Says:

    Kristen – Thanks for stopping by. I actually hadn’t considered the “appearances” aspect of of charity. In addition to feeling good about doing something I believe in (in those rare moments when I did have cash to donate) I did in fact also feel good about being seen by others as I donated. It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, to live in a society where we all improve our behavior for purpose of being seen in a favorable light.

    I had an economics professor in graduate school who did a study on people’s behavior at charity auctions. Interesting to consider the effects of charity on a purchase. When you might usually try to purchase something for the lowest possible, participants in charity auctions have a different set of incentives at play – not only the benefit to the cause being supported, but the appearance of generosity to others. Fascinating stuff!

  5. Anne Says:

    Your sister-the-counselor must chime in and say, well done! And actually, I think both principles are correct. To an extent, “fake it til you make it” actually works. Hence the comforts of a good hair day or cute lip-gloss. But if you handed a snazzy shade of lipgloss to someone who hates make-up? I’d venture to say it wouldn’t have the same effect. Because for you…looking good is perhaps something you enjoy. Thus–congruence! I also think there needs to be at least a degree of emotional congruence in your life before “fake it til you make it” can work. When you’re out-of-whack on a deep level, even the best hair day won’t cut it.

    Really interesting post.

  6. Gale Says:

    I think I’m glad that “fake it till you make it” works (to an extent, anyway) because there are certainly times when it’s a handy premise to fall back on. But it also makes me a little sad, because doesn’t it seem backwards? In my perfect world we would all have our ducks in a row mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc before good hair ever came into play. But that’s not reality, and so I continue to do my hair and wear some makeup even on the days when what’s under the surface doesn’t match the facade.

  7. Jan Says:

    I have a friend who is, shall we say, “alternative”, maybe “earthy”; actually, she’s very very alternative, in that she tries to Live What You Believe. Your example of believing in charitable giving/actually putting money in the pot would apply; e.g. she’s very “green,” so her investments fit that criterion. She credits a friend who convinced her that you can, in fact, live what you believe. I probably don’t do that. On the other hand, I noticed one day that she has a really nice new hair-color–done by one of our city’s more chic salons–and I enjoyed seeing it. Makes her a little more human. Guess she, like you Gale, believes in looking good!

  8. Gale Says:

    Living what you believe is no small feat. We should all be as dedicated to it as your friend. Although, I agree with you, it’s nice to see some human vanity (frailty?) even in people whose levels of congruence are so intimidating.

  9. Jeff Scott Says:

    Gale – “Congruence” is a thought provoking concept worth exploring, given the defintion in today’s post. But, quite by conincidence, at church yesterday, the preacher used the exact definition you cited, “when your external behavior accurately reflects your inward beliefs and values”, except he used it to define “integrity”. That seems to raise the question to a higher level of importance . I would much rather be accused of not having “congruence” than not having “integrity”. In either event, it is an issue worth pondering.

    Afer two postings, I am enjoying your new endeavor. Knowing you, I am confident you will not exhaust all of your $10 thoughts!

  10. Gale Says:

    It’s funny you mention integrity, because I thought about that as I wrote this post. I think you’re right, they’re very much the same. And perhaps the examples I offered at the beginning of my post did in fact speak more of integrity than congruence. If I were to offer a more specific distinction, maybe integrity is “living what you believe” as Jan suggested, and congruence is acting how you feel.

    None of it is easy, that’s for sure. And I don’t claim to have cracked the code by a long shot. But it’s interesting to think about and assess my own level success in this realm.

  11. christina Says:

    Whoo hoo Gale!!! Your own blog! I am excited to be here. And a big thanks for having me on your blog roll:)

    Great topic and what a wise mother you have. I have to say that the Salvation Army kettle always “got” me. I gave to the first couple of kettles and then felt the need to explain to the next 20 kettles (over the course of December shopping) that I’d already given. Like “don’t look at me, I already gave.” Appearances, right? I solved that problem last year with a new personal policy. I keep lots of change on me in December and I give to every kettle. Those people stand out there regardless and I feel that dropping a few coins in the kettle and looking another person in the eye and saying “Merry Christmas” matches up with what I feel and believe on the inside.

    Reagrding the lip gloss….I believe there is an inherent need in each of us for beauty and that beauty takes on many forms. Sometimes it’s a sunset, a blooming flower, a bird, a baby, a work of art. And sometimes it lipgloss, really. The need for beauty gets sticky when the exterior tries to make up for the ugly interior.

    Good post today!

  12. Gale Says:

    Christina, thanks for checking out my new digs. I’m glad you liked today’s post. You’re quite right, if the pretty exterior is just a veneer masking something else then it can cause problems; not only for the incongruent person but also for the people around her who are expecting one person and getting someone else entirely.

  13. Nicki Says:

    I headed over here from Aidan’s blog and am so happy I did. This post makes me want to think and want to write.

    Geometry was one of my favorite things in high school. I can hear my 15 year old cringing in the background.

    Congruency, though, is something that I think is hard. It is hard to strive for it as it will undoubtedly put you at conflict at some points in time with those around you. It is hard to live in a congruent state as you are true to yourself, authentic if you please, but it may cause you to be “untrue” to others.

    I am going to be back many times to read your words as you now have me thinking.

  14. Gale Says:

    Nicki – Thanks for linking over. I’m happy to have you. I’ll be posting MWF for now. We’ll see how that goes and then I’ll adjust my frequency accordingly.

    Congruence is a tough one for sure. As you imply, many of us are constantly working to please many people, fill many roles, and live up to many sets of expectations. That can make it a real challenge even to identify who we are absent those other influences, much less live in congruence with that elusive sense of self.

    My hope, however, is that being aware of the challenge is a key step in conquering it.

  15. Hänni Says:

    Welcome to blogging! Very thought provoking post. I will never mindlessly apply lip gloss again!

  16. johncaveosborne Says:

    alright, my friend, i gotta coupla things for you here. first off, i really enjoyed this, not only b/c it was well written, but also b.c it’s a topic i have given a lot of thought to. i constantly ask myself one simple thing about my behavior. person or persona? am i being myself or am i being whoever it is that would best navigate the current situation? it’s impossible not to be a persona every now and then, but a wise man once told me that the very most content of us understand the difference and opt for the person as often as possible. in my twenties i was a persona, but now i feel like a person — more authentic and true, a fact that reflects back at me through my relationships (all different types), ones which are filled with more substance, hence are more fulfilling than ever before.

    lip gloss? looking good/feeling good? looking good appeals to our innate insecurities because when we look good, the world sees us as “better,” and that feels good. why? i dunno, but i think it was something to do with reality TV and and super-white teeth. i care way less about that shit than i used to, and i’m not trying to get up on a soap box here, b/c believe me, i still love to dress up and take Lovie out. i still love to see and be seen. it’s just that i don’t love it as much as the persona did.

    though, honestly? i gotta get something off my chest here… i’m SUPER hot and look great in heatherly biege lip gloss. ask Lovie.

    i can’t wait to stop back by!

  17. Gale Says:

    Hanni – Glad you enjoyed the post. I certainly didn’t mean to ruin lip gloss for you. I certainly still wear it. It was just an easy example of something on the surface that can affect what’s underneath.

  18. Gale Says:

    JCO – I don’t doubt for a moment how good you look in lip gloss. And so accordingly, I will take your word for it. No need to send photos. :)

    Thanks for your thoughts and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I like the idea of persona vs. person. I imagine thinking of it in those terms (and being aware of the choice between the two) can make this abstract battle a little more tangible. New post coming up tomorrow. Tune back in!

  19. Kat Says:

    I think that all those personal characteristics you described — the ones we have control over — are so subjective and unquantifiable, that we inevitably look to more definite markers, like appearance, for some kind of stability. I think that the human mind for some reason really craves those kinds of clear standards, it isn’t any flaw of us or our society. Isn’t that why teenagers everywhere, without fail, automatically create a hierarchy among themselves based mainly on appearance and clear, outward, traits?
    Very interesting post, thanks :)