man and his shadow on a cheer mood

The opposite of seeking reality is avoidance. The person who avoids finding out what is true may be doing that for a variety of character reasons. Think about it… avoiding to seek out what is causing major problems in your life at home or work can lead to a loss of time, money, relationships, market share—the list can go on and on. Knowing this is true, why are we so blind sometimes?

It seems simple when we see it in other individuals, but everyday, we can all find ourselves doing the same kinds of things out of basic character problems. Here are two most common examples:

  • Emotional investment in some other reality
  • Fear of dealing with the ramifications

Basic pride, omnipotence, arrogance, grandiosity, or narcissism—this is the person who sees himself as above others, better than everyone else, knowing all things, and in touch with all reality. To admit he is wrong about something does not even come up on the screen.

A truthful orientation

When most people think about being a truthful person, they think of someone who does not lie. And that is true. But that is a very elementary level of being oriented towards the truth. Having a truthful orientation means that one lives in truth, period. It means that they see it, understand it, want it, seek it, and benefit from it. It is holistic, a life about, and “in” the light. Ultimately they succeed because that is where the good stuff is, in reality, instead of fantasy or deception. If you want love, you have to find “real” love, not fantasy love. If you want success, you have to find “real” success, not pipe dreams. So, real fulfillment only comes to those who live in reality. And that is a lot more than just “not lying.”

But… we have to start there. No one who is an intentional liar ever discovered deeper reality. So, if you want to have the kind of character that succeeds, you must put all deception away from you, in any form.

Usually, the consequences of lying are worse than whatever was lied about. When people are honest about what is wrong, it is usually fixable, but the covering up is what ultimately does them in.

When people are honest about what is wrong, it is usually fixable, but the covering up is what ultimately does them in

Whatever the fears or reasons, it is about someone’s basic makeup. An orientation to the truth is a stance that people take in life. It is the way that they are on the planet or, as existentialists said, their way of “being in the world”. They lean into the truth and reality as a direction of life, the way a compass points north. It is the way they are.

This seeking of truth tends to be balanced in three directions, also. First, they seek it about the external world. They want to know what is true around them, in their company, in the market and in the universe. They want to be intimate with the ways that things are. They know that that is the only way to ultimately succeed, and they have given up the pride of “already knowing what is” in exchange for the profit of finding out what truly is.

As Peter Drucker says in The Daily Drucker: “One constant theme is, therefore, the need for the decision maker in the individual enterprise to face up to reality and resist the temptation of what ‘everybody knows’, the temptations of the certainties of yesterday, which are about to become the deleterious superstitions of tomorrow. To manage in turbulent times, therefore, means to face up to new realities. It means starting with the question: ‘What is the world really like?’ rather than with the assertions and assumptions that made sense only a few years ago’”

Second, they seek this kind of feedback about themselves. They don’t only wait for others to give them feedback, they also go after it themselves. They desire it and see it as an opportunity to grow.

I was doing an executive retreat one time with a small group of CEOs who had gathered for three days to process things. One of them was an up-and-comer in the industry, a rising star. The rest of the group had been around longer and were much more experienced. On the first night, they all went around the group and shared where they were, what they were up to, how they were doing it, and what they needed from the group.

When he finished, one of the more experienced guys looked up and said, “Want some feedback?” He said it in a way that led you wondering whether he was going to give sage advice or rail at the young man for being out to lunch in some way. There was just no way to tell from his poker face. But I will never forget the young superstar’s immediate response: “By all means. Give me a gift.” He saw the feedback, whatever it was, as a gift because it could give him some reality he did not know. I remember thinking, “We will be watching this guy’s accomplishments for a long time.”

Seeking reality, not flattery

Girls discussing with a man
While seeking feedback, it is important to discern flattery from truth

The good ones want to know the reality of who they are and are in tune with the fact that we do not see ourselves accurately. They “seek” out this knowledge in a variety of ways. Some commission 360-degree feedback projects to see how they are doing. Others submit themselves to a mentor, accountability group, therapist, or someone else who has a good view of them. But, when they do, they are not looking for flattery. They are looking for reality. They ask others to tell them what they see.

If you want to know your comfort level in this matter, think of going to the people you are close with and give them 100 per cent permission to be totally honest with you in answering this question:

“What is it like to be on the other side of me?”

Some of you will get exhilarated at the prospect of finding out more about themselves, while other will get nervous even at the idea. The one who is a seeker is usually excited by the prospect, seeing that kind of reality as a friend. Even if it means facing up to some painful news, he or she sees the result as a positive one.

Only through finding out this kind of reality do we know our true strengths and weaknesses. Top performers rely on such knowledge. They major in their strengths and protect themselves from their weaknesses. But without knowing the reality about ourselves, we often don’t even know what those are. And knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses can be the difference between success and failure.

The swimmers are the ones who know themselves accurately and can build on that knowledge. They can utilise their strengths and manage their weaknesses. In my view, these kinds of weaknesses are not character issues, but areas of non-giftedness. Character is always to be both managed and “fixed”. But all along that path, we are growing toward wholeness; we really need to know the truth of “what is”. The more we know about ourselves, the stronger our position.

Less self-awareness = more dysfunction

When you think about it, it is the people who have little self-awareness who are the most dysfunctional. It is a paradox of life that the less we look at our shortcomings, the more others do. The extent that we are in denial is usually the extent to which others are staring at us, saying, “What is his [or her] problem?” The less we look at ourselves, the more others have to.

The extent that we are in denial is usually the extent to which others are staring at us, saying, “What is his [or her] problem?”

The key here, though, is that human nature is to “not look”. From the fig leaf in the story of the Garden of Eden, to Freud’s concepts of the “false-self,” hiding the truth from ourselves is a trait of humanity that no one really disputes. As Shakespeare put it, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” [As You Like It]. The fool is out of touch, not only with his own foolish parts, or “weaknesses”, but with his strengths as well. The natural human tendency is to not face ourselves as we really are. But, a wise person with wisdom as a character trait does face himself or herself.

Herein lies the problem: If we delude ourselves, how then shall we see ourselves, since the “observer [us] is deluded? The answer is in this character trait of “seeking” truth from outside. The most successful and the happiest people always ask. They hire people to help them see it. They have friends who ask the hard questions. They value feedback from others about themselves, even when it is hard to hear. They know they have blind spots that others need to point out to them. For instance, it’s possible you may see yourself as shy, but from the perspective of others you are seen as aloof, or disengaged. Until you seek out information from a different perspective, you will not receive information like this and will continue living unaware.

What do you fear about your character?

Man with fear covering up his face
Unless you go beyond the fear of your weaknesses being exposed, you will never seek out reality

If we are afraid of the truth about ourselves and have a character “stance” to hide, then we are headed in the wrong direction, away from reality. Think of the character issues that get in the way and create this kind of fear:

  • Fear of seeing that I am wrong or have faults that are ugly. Those lead to guilt, or fears that I may lose love, approval or standing, with the people I care about.
  • A fixed view of myself from past experience, either positive or negative. Our early relationships give us a view of who we are, and to look at new input means challenging those views, which leads to anxiety.
  • A lack of skill or resources to deal with what I find. If I open Pandora’s box, what will I do with it?
  • A need for a total redo of a life plan or script. What if my parents made me believe that I was gifted in some area or should be able to do so and so, and the reality is that I am not? Now what? Or if this was my own dream, but I am out of touch with my true areas of giftedness?

The character who seeks reality about himself or herself has the courage to embrace whatever reality he finds. When we talk about “character that meets the demands of reality”, part of that is meeting the demand of the truth about ourselves. The promise of that pain is that when we do that, we can meet the demands of the external world even better. The one who is true about himself or herself is the one who is most able to negotiate things outside of himself or herself as well.

The last 10 per cent

There is a wellness organisation in Chicago, IL that was studied by Harvard Business School as a result of it’s incredible growth culture. From small beginnings, it has now become one of America’s largest wellness centres, with over twenty thousand attendees, and its leadership conferences have been host of presidents as well as highly esteemed business leaders in America. If you spend much time working in their culture, you will hear the phrase “give me the last 10 per cent.” That means they know three things.

First, people tend to hold back on feedback that might be difficult for someone to hear and do not always express their full critique of someone’s performance. They might, for example, say, “It was OK, not your best, but OK.” But the part they are holding back, the last 10 per cent, is “OK, if I am totally honest, you need to go back to the drawing board and start over.” Or: “Before you ever do that again, get some help.”

Second, we need the last 10 per cent to be the best that we can be. I am convinced that one aspect of their huge success in reaching their goals has been to develop a culture of characters who desire to hear the last 10 per cent.

To do that requires characters hungry for the truth. Not only negative, but positive and neutral as well. The real issue here is that character of integrity has a hunger, an appetite, to know the truth about itself. And that has to come from reaching out to outside sources and being open to hearing it.

Sometimes it is even positive. Sometimes people ward off positive reality about themselves because it would mean a lot to take responsibility for. “You have some gifts and some abilities that you have not been using, and we are going to promote you to head a division” may be frightening news for some. And they might ward it off or not see it, unless it breaks through from the outside. Left to their own self-appraisal, they may never take the growth step needed to become the person they can be. We avoid the truth sometimes in both directions, positive and negative. The winners seek both, even the kind that would stretch them out of their comfort zone.

And third, they seek the truth about other people. Not only do we avoid seeing the reality about ourselves, but also sometimes because of past experience, and sometimes to keep our own internal stability we do not see others in the reality of who they are. Many problems in life come from our inability to accurately see other people. From the lonely individual who falls in love with a nutcase, even when his or her friends are saying, “What are you thinking?” to people who make bad hires in business or forge bad partnerships, our tendency to distort others is a big part of how we run into trouble.

Sometimes because of past experience, and sometimes for our own stability, we do not see others in the reality of who they are.
Many problems in life come from this inability

Why we distort others

We typically do it for a few reasons that have to do with our makeup.

Man forcibly proposing the woman
Immature characters are in danger of either idolising or demonising others

The first reason is that we are blind to correctly seeing others who somehow remind us of unresolved figures from our past. You have heard this referred to as transference. It is our tendency to see others through the lens of people from previous experience. In a good way, it can cause us to be more attuned to things that others might miss, in that we can be vigilant in seeing hurtful patterns that we may have grown up with. But, if we have never worked those through, it can cause us either to be blind to them or to overreact when we are faced with them.

Almost everyone can relate to this experience, in that we have more difficulty with a certain kind of person than others. Yes, other people may just experience that person as having a quirk and are able to work around it. But it gets us off course because of unresolved hurt or issues with a person like that from our history.

Second, we distort them out of our own needs. Imagine the lonely person who needs a relationship so badly that anyone looks good. Or, if we are feeling overwhelmed, for example, we might idealise people who present a lot of strength. They give us a secure feeling in all of the chaos. What we miss is that they might be bulldozers and insensitive to people’s needs. The love for the strength wears off and we are left with a jerk. Or, the opposite can happen. If you have recently been through a period of getting beat up by the bulldozers, then you are really drawn to a person with some sensitivity. But, you miss the fact that in their niceness they are overly passive, and you lose respect for them soon after the initial relief wears off.

Third, we distort them sometimes because we are not in touch with something about ourselves. I remember a client of mine one time just railing on irresponsible people and deceivers. They just drove him crazy. And some of the people he would label that way were really not that bad. They might have a few quirks, but they were not irresponsible or deceptive. But he labelled them that way. I remember thinking that he was seeing them in such a distorted way, and yet when I would confront him on it, he would have nothing to do with what I was saying.

After a while, though, others who worked around him came forward with some truth about him that he has not been disclosing: He was not paying attention to many of his responsibilities and was deceiving people all along the way into thinking things that were misinterpretations. In psych parlance, he was “projecting”. He was projecting onto others what he was blind to in himself. As a result, he was not seeing reality in them and was missing a lot of good people along the way. He could not see their good parts because he was projecting onto them his own faults.

I remember one leader who was about to give away the store to hire a guy because of this guy’s “amazing strengths” in a particular area. When I interviewed the second guy as part of coaching him, I could not believe how the leader had idealised this guy’s strengths. He was nowhere near as awesome as my client has described him to be. But what was more surprising was that the very abilities that my client was seeing in this guy and was about to pay dearly for, were abilities that he himself had, but could not own. They were not part of his self-image. He projected his own strengths onto this other guy because he was not owning them. He did not need to hire him at all. He needed to see that he was capable of doing everything he was about to hire someone to do. He needed to take a growth step past that self-image that he had developed in a relationship with a father and a brother who always put him down.

Immature people put themselves, others and the outside world into categories of “all good” or “all bad.” As a result, they cannot negotiate reality very well. If someone fails them, or they fail themselves, they see that person or themselves as “all bad.” They do not see the person’s strengths or value. So, they miss out on that person and on resolving the relationship. They label a child the “black sheep” of the family, or see an employee in a negative light instead of being redemptive.

Likewise, the opposite is true as well. They get enamoured with a person, idolise that person, and cannot see their faults. So, they can get into trouble by avoiding negatives and being blind. They can do the same thing about a deal that they fall in love with, not seeing the problems or the downside, and then disaster comes and the investment is lost.

Be a seeker of reality

In contrast, people of integrated character tend to delude themselves less about others. They see the world in a balanced way. They understand that all people, even the best ones, are not perfect, and can deal with them and help them. They have worked through their own issues and distortions about other people to a degree that they can see pretty clearly. And, as a part of that, they seek to know more. Wise people are “cautious in friendship”, as the proverb says. They seek to get to know a person clearly, as the person truly is, before they hire him, marry him, become partners with him, or divorce him, fire him, or not go forward with him.

People of integrated character tend to delude themselves less about others. They see the world in a balanced way

We can be off in either direction, and the complete character is always asking, “Is this me, or him?” They are checking to see where the perception is coming from and trying to find out what is true. We have all heard both “I underestimated her” or “I overestimated her”. People who have integrated their character tend to do both of those less because they are seekers of reality and desire to see it, even if it is going to be uncomfortable or make them deal with some things.

Remember, reality is the only place where we can succeed. The rest is fantasy. So the challenge is to find reality, always, no matter what the cost. Build into life the kinds of feedback loops with others that will tell you the truth. Evaluate your performance in a 360 degree fashion. And, always study and learn about the world you are trying to operate in, instead of assuming you know.

A version of this article was first published in the April 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Henry Cloud
Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist, acclaimed leadership expert and best-selling author. He has worked with individuals from all walks of life, for more than two decades and has sold over 10 million books worldwide. He draws on his experience in business and his background as a clinical and consulting psychologist to impart practical and effective advice for improving leadership skills, personal relationships and business performance.


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