It’s a word that you probably know, and yet it gives pause. It’s not an everyday word. It might make you think of mathematics, and you probably can’t recall the last time you used it in a sentence. You might search your memory for its usage, both familiar and obscure.
I learned it many years ago, and it’s resurfaced for me as one of the most valuable and pertinent words I know.
I went to the shittiest high school in San Francisco. Okay, maybe not the worst, but high up there on the known list of crappy schools for its day. Luckily, bad situations can turn into great gifts. At this shitty public school, I learned little to nothing about math, history, geography, computer science or English. I learned everything about trust, perseverance, teamwork, tolerance and facing fear.
Most of what I learned there came from one man, Wayne MacDonald, who had an enormous impact on hundreds of young people during his years running Urban Pioneers at the now defunct J. Eugene McAteer High School, located at the top of Glen Canyon near Diamond Heights.
Urban Pioneers was an alternative program to the standard curriculum, alternative in every way. We didn’t work on academic subjects. We gave ourselves our own grades. And yet there were lectures and the most important tests of all: tests of will and courage. Besides the ropes courses, community volunteer work and survival trips in the wilderness of Stanislaus and Los Padres National Forests, we did a regular exercise in public speaking.
Congruence of self-image
We would get up in front of the class, and talk about our week. At the base, it really was a class on public speaking: learning to be comfortable standing up and talking in front of a group of people. But it went further than that.
Our classmates would then give us feedback, not only about what we said and how we said it, but about the image we projected while speaking. Did this image seem to line up with what others thought about us? Did it line up with what we thought about ourselves?
This is what was Wayne referred to as congruence: an alignment of the image we actually projected versus the one we thought we were projecting, or how we thought about ourselves. If the images were aligned, then they were congruent. We were congruent. In the cases where the images were incongruent, there was an incredible opportunity for growth.
Take, for example, the case of someone who sees themselves as shy, not very outgoing, unpopular and/or with a below average skill set. Through this exercise, others see someone who is talented, creative and genuinely likeable. The result can be a huge boost in self-esteem and a positive reassessment of self-worth.
Take another example of someone who sees themselves as highly accomplished, popular, outgoing and confident. Through this exercise, others see someone who is arrogant, condescending and exclusive. The result can be a reality check about what our values are and how we can share our success with others in a more inclusive way.
Incongruence comes from this lack of perspective. We see one thing and others experience another. Sure, the projected image is subjective: two people can have widely different views about someone. And we can certainly project different images on any given day depending on who we’re with and what the circumstances are. But put in front of a group, we can reveal certain tendencies and discern whether there is generally alignment or misalignment.
This mirror of self-image can offer extraordinary insight.
All the world’s a stage
Performance anxiety can also have an impact on our projected image. Sometimes when we get up in front of a group of people, even people we spend a lot of time with, we can become someone else. We can falter. We can become uncomfortable in the spotlight or maybe even overly confident.
I went through the public speaking exercise several times over the course of that year in the Urban Pioneers program, but I remember one day in particular. I was really nervous. I don’t remember why, just that I was giddy about things that had happened that week, and I started rambling on about it. I talked about going to see Metallica, and something about how I loved lead singer Kirk Hammett…
I had always seen myself as confident, smart and quick. Yet, when I got up in front of this crowd of my peers, I became a nervous mess, prone to babbling and mixing up my facts (in case you’re not familiar with Metallica, Kirk Hammett is not the lead singer). To this day I do better in one on one situations, and when speaking to groups I largely prefer being prepared with a set script to having to improvise.
When we’re given an audience, it can have a strange and unpredictable power over us. The audience doesn’t have to be right in front of us either. The anonymity of the Internet has this same power of bringing out another version of ourselves, for better or for worse. We can be funnier, meaner, less inhibited, more forthright, less tolerant from the comfort of our keyboards and behind the mask of our avatars.
We could liken this phenomenon to what’s said about the effects of alcohol: that it helps bring out our true selves. For me the real question is, what is our true self? Is the image I have of myself the same as the image I project to the world? But what’s more, is the image I have of myself realistic? Do I live up to my own potential and/or fail to accept my limitations?
Congruence of self
Now I’m all grown up (?) and have overcome (most of) my adolescent awkwardness. I still get stage fright and have social anxiety, but I also have years of experience and knowledge that a 16 year-old girl didn’t have.
I continue to think about who I am and what my place in the world is. What those extra 28 years have given me is a better look at that world and what choices we have about how to live in it. About how I want to live in it. About the fact that we do have this choice.
I can see myself as generous, and consciously be generous, or not.
I can see myself as kind, and consciously be kind, or not.
I can see myself as unsuccessful, and choose to change that perception, or not.
I can talk publicly about the importance of helping others, maybe even send the occasional donation to an international organization, and then choose to ignore a neighbor in need, or not.
I don’t think incongruence is necessarily bad. The person we can become on a stage or through an online persona can be empowering, and can have a positive effect on ourselves and on others. Congruence isn’t in the acting out of a persona, but rather in the consciousness of the act. Some people thrive on stage or through the written word, and this a beautiful thing.
The fears and anxieties that can make some of us a blundering mess on stage, or have us trolling the Internet looking to pick a fight, keep us from living the lives we want. Keep us from being happy. Because we think we should be living differently. Because we think we deserve more. Because we don’t think we can live with less. Because we’re not smart enough, attractive enough, rich enough, strong enough, good enough. Because we’re smarter, more attractive, more privileged, stronger, better than others. They can keep us from being who we really are.
Congruence isn’t a goal. It’s a test. It’s a tool with which to take stock and measure the distance between perceived self-image and projected self-image, between perceived self, desired self and actual self.
It’s a question that only you can answer, one that I find forces me to be a little more honest about perception versus reality. In my day to day, I need bearings. I need reminders, like looking at what’s right in front of me. Asking, “Is this congruent with my sense of self?” is another helpful reminder.
This text is originally from my newsletter, Making Connections, and may have been modified for publication here.