Do you remember the last time you had company over to your place? If you’re anything like me, the knowledge that people are coming over to the house is a stress inducing experience. I want everything to be clean, uncluttered, and look as minimally lived in as possible. I’ll sweep, mop, vacuum, dust, wipe counters, scrub toilets, buy food and drink, and put everything just so. Because this is not, in fact, how I normally live, I often find myself shoving random items and excess “stuff” into closets, the garage, under the bed, and anywhere else that might be hidden from view. All to create the idea (or illusion) for others that I am constantly on top of my chores, I live in a spotless home, and that I am the kind of person who is effortlessly “put together”. I was reflecting the other day on exactly why it is that I go through this ritual and realized that it’s some version of the same thing that most people do, most days of their lives, in almost every context. I want to take some time today to talk about the thing that very, very few of us want to address. The Shed out back.
Let me explain.
Take a moment if you will to reflect on your own life. When you think about the things you want for others to see about you, what comes to mind? Hard-working? Funny? Loyal? Smart? Attractive? Disciplined? When most of us walk out into the world, we wear a certain version of ourselves that will convey all of these things. We consider and measure how we speak, what food we order, what items we keep on our desk, and how we look in order to appear to any reasonable bystander that we are, in fact, the kind of person we want to be or be seen as. Now take a moment to reflect on the parts of you or the choices you make that you keep private/hidden from others. The things you’d be embarrassed, afraid, or uncomfortable if other people saw. Jealousy? Insecurity? Anger? Neediness? Laziness? Selfishness?
For some, the boundary between illusion and reality isn’t so extreme. As mentioned above, you may be the kind of person who keeps your living room clean but if you walk into the bedroom, there is clear chaos of overflowing closets, stuff on the floor, an unmade bed, and anything else that you might not want visitors to see. If you’re this kind of person, you might be “your work self” and then as soon as your shift ends, you flow more naturally into who you are with friends and family. You feel like yourself all the time, but choose how much of your full personality that you share in certain situations based on the space and place and what feels safe and appropriate. It might feel easy to be open and let yourself be “messy” with your partner, friends, family, and a few close others and also pretty easy to be “more put together” at work or in less intimate spaces.
For others, the importance of holding a boundary between the illusion and the reality is far more intense. It is critically important that there NEVER be any visible clutter, dust, or sign of disorganization. You know this person. They seem like they always have it together. The new mom who still goes to a 5a workout class 6 days a week. The guy who works 50 hour weeks AND is an ultra-marathoner. The person who shows up to the party impeccably dressed, with an elaborate homemade dish, and says “no, thank you” to all the sweets that get passed around. In the advent of social media saturated lives, the idea that people permanently exist in a state of perfect, glowing light seems very possible. We are surrounded with glimpses of people living their best life, in their best sweater, with their best organized desk/house/brain. Having been a human on this planet for 30+ years and having been in the mental health service industry for a decade, I can confidently tell you -- that is bullshit. What I have seen time and time again and learned to be true of almost every human on this planet is that we have a Shed out back that we work really hard to make sure that no one ever sees.
See if any of this sounds familiar to you:
You go to dinner with a particular group of friends and order the grilled chicken and side salad because “that’s what healthy people eat” but when you get home alone you raid the pantry for chips, sweets, or devour an entire frozen pizza.
You say yes to every project or request for help at work to be a “good team player” but then get home and over-drink/overeat/binge a video game to manage the stress of being completely burnt out.
You go to your exercise class 4 days a week and are the “most consistent member” but dread going everyday and end up making an injury worse by not letting yourself rest/recover.
You answer every phone call from every friend or loved one who needs to talk about their life and problems but feel completely overwhelmed and like none of them would want to hear about the ways in which you are struggling right now.
There are a litany of other examples of these discrepancies and you may have even identified a few of your own in reading those few examples. What I have found to be consistently true, across most people, is that there are behaviors, thought processes, and ways of feeling that can get so shamed and criticized in our own systems that we go much further than tucking them under the rug or in a closet. We completely exile them to the forbidden Shed out back that no one you care about is allowed to go near.
As mentioned in Lucy and the Chocolates, what is all too common to happen is that this shift happens gradually over time. We go out into the world and get immediate feedback about what people like or dislike about us and this starts to shape our sense of how we should be, how we feel valuable, and what things we think don’t belong. This can start as hiding a few things in one closet of the house but escalate to needing A LOT more space than one measly closet to contain all the parts of us and feelings we have that we expect other people will dislike or criticize. The more that we get certain behaviors and beliefs reinforced, the greater the divide becomes and the more important it can feel to hide that we ever, for a second, act or feel differently.
It is so common for me to hear stories from all kinds of people about the way they live almost two separate lives. Not in the Bruce-Wayne-by-day, Batman-by-night kind of way but in the only showing active, healthy, exceedingly helpful, ever energetic and kind parts publicly and the agitated, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, self-medicating parts privately kind of way. The problem with having such a pristine house with everything just so is that it actually can’t be lived in. There is no room for life in a house that is perfectly organized and clean because life is messy and the act of living creates clutter and dirt and some amount of chaos. So we can get used to taking up residence in our cramped, chaotic Shed. Feeling that this is the real version of us. That we’ve got everyone fooled and that the positive traits displayed publicly are not true qualities but a mere act. This ultimately leads to one of the most common things that I hear from people of all ages, stages, and phases: If people really knew me, they wouldn’t like me.”
Let’s unpack this.
Getting caught in a polarization between parts of ourselves creates the distorted and ultimately untrue narrative that we are only any one thing and that everything else is make-believe. While this can absolutely feel true, I would challenge you to consider that this experience is directly caused by the effort to suppress parts of ourselves in favor of others. Consider what happens when you have two people and you show direct favoritism to one. Inherently over time, The Favorite takes up more space, gets more support, feels more valued and The Non-favorite feels hurt, rejected, not lovable, and often desperate to get their needs met. This same experience plays out in our internal system. The parts that we value and thus present to the world are seen as more important and receiving of more space but are actually under a lot of pressure to always perform, always be available, and always get things right while the other parts of us feel invisible, forgotten, and alone. This creates understandable tension between parts of our system that lead to some of the “I think I might be crazy” moments.
I should help my co-worker with this project but I want to tell him to shove it.
I should go to the gym but I want to lay on the couch and eat potato chips.
I should go to bed early tonight but I want to stay up and play my new game.
Adding insult to injury, simply having this inner conflict often creates other feelings or reactions that reinforce the polarization.
I should help my co-worker with this project but I want to tell him to shove it. I am so selfish.
I should go to the gym but I want to lay on the couch and eat potato chips. I am so lazy.
I should go to bed early tonight but I want to stay up and play my new game. I am so irresponsible.
Feeling torn or pulled between extremes creates the sense that we can’t be trusted to make reasonable choices when left to our own devices and further applies pressure to ALWAYS make the “better” choice so we don’t slip and become a puddle of nothingness. It also heightens our fear that at our core, we are only “bad” parts. People can spend entire lifetimes desperately keeping separate the main house from their Shed. This is such a dense topic that I am going to dedicate a few weeks to doing a deep dive and explore in greater depth what it means to have a full inner life, how to deal with polarizations, and ultimately how to work on cleaning out the Shed and integrating your system to be a more authentic version of yourself.
Stay tuned for next week’s post where we will visit a Town Hall Meeting.