Propriety – A Healthy Behaviour Inhibitor
During the last ten years of my work as a therapist, I have observed that the people who find it more difficult to stick with therapy aren’t those who face the biggest life problems or the greatest psychopathological challenges. Mostly they are individuals who were brought up in a “comme il faut”* environment, where appearances and “what people might think” ideals were in abundance.
I consider these people victims of a sense of propriety, often instilled in them by their parents and their peers. This state of mind stained their perception of the world as children. Later, it entirely distorted traits of their personality that are necessary for a person to seek happiness, set personal boundaries, and claim the best chances in life.
Propriety Affects the Therapeutic Process
They usually stand inert, accepting whatever life brings them, even if they realise they do not like it. Sometimes, when the pain is great enough, they seek out professional help. And this is a huge and horrifying step for them! In sessions they initially are very cautious, very closed, and it is difficult for the therapist to open them up and work with them. Most of the time, they even criticize – explicitly or implicitly – the notions or ideas that the therapist discusses.
Little by little, mostly due to their curiosity and the pain that still exists in their life, they start working with the therapist up to a point where some superficial issues are set in order. At this point, they start feeling less pain, which to their standards translates to a “pleasant feeling”. But of course, it is not. And these problems are merely the tip of the iceberg caused by many years in a propriety life-style.
At this crucial point, I have observed that once the therapist tries to move deeper to deal with the iceberg, the person reacts very badly. They feel as if the therapist wants to drag them into painful areas again, which they wish to put behind them permanently. Or they feel as if the therapist violates the “propriety” status, which they consider a huge offence.
Propriety Is Intolerant of Emotions
A sense of propriety causes a person to believe that negative emotions and psychological pain must be restricted and suppressed. Propriety dictates hiding feelings and suppressing the experience of emotions, because both of these things tend to undermine the existence of propriety. The “all as it should be” cannot work, when a person feels anger, fear, sadness, jealousy, or physical curiosity. These so very natural human emotions and drives need to be contained in order to protect the unwrinkled appearance of propriety. Ultimately, propriety can only happen by sacrificing the properties of human psyche.
Thus, people who struggle with this issue are totally ignorant of the significance of their emotions as well as the magnitude their suppression might have on their overall behaviour. So when their therapist asks them to face their true feelings, they naturally react. This can take the shape of criticism in regards to the approach of the therapist – the same approach that a few sessions before helped them ease the pain. They might find excuses to miss their sessions, and when set straight by their therapist about these absences, they usually claim that for the moment they no longer need to continue their therapy.
Sometimes, the most courageous, or those whose pain has returned, make the brave step to resume therapy. Usually the second time they are more open. They already have the experience of a different perspective, the one that doesn’t include the propriety factor, and how it worked well in their lives. They take note of the progress and they inevitably raise their awareness of the changes that have occurred. Once this realisation has sunk in, they cannot go back to their previous state.
But there are the exceptions too…
Suppressed Creativity and Propriety
Having consulted numerous clients facing this “propriety spectrum”, it came as a surprise to me, in the beginning, that the vast majority of them shared a very common characteristic: they had a suppressed expression of their creativity. The more entangled with the “comme il faut” behaviour they were, the more they had adopted a lifestyle of conforming with the norm. These norms dictate to be mainly occupied with specific activities which enhance social acceptance.
People with propriety issues usually do not have a creativity occupation. There is no creation attitude, though there is a strong creative drive. And all this creative energy they have is not diffused or invested; it stays inside them and it is transformed into negative emotions, bitterness, frustration and annoyance.
Pseudo-Creativity and Covert Propriety
Another subgroup of this spectrum concerns individuals who are very conformed with the propriety norms, but at the same time they are super occupied with many diverse creative activities. Why, then, since they are being creative, do I subcategorise them under this same umbrella?
Because of the why and the how in which they perform their creative activities.
Let’s take a look at the why part: usually their creations are in accordance with the norms of their propriety. They allow themselves to only do things that they are supposed to do or expected to do.
For example, a fifty-five-year-old woman from a closed and small society was expected to be a good mother, grandmother and impeccable manager of her house-hold and her family. In the mornings, her retired husband was allowed to wander in the local coffee-shops with other men of his age, while she was supposed to exhaust all of her creative freedom preparing elaborated food and pastries at home, or excelling in embroidery, knitting and crochet art craft. She was a real master on these fields, but if she would like to expand her creativity into commercialising it or doing it professionally, as an independent individual, this was forbidden by her small-cell society. A woman of her rank was destined to be tied to her home, and her husband would never allow her to act in a way society might consider “inappropriate”. She was not allowed to find another passionate creative activity that would demand her to leave the cell, e.g. traveling abroad with friends (and not her husband), or going to the big city in order to watch a movie at least once per week as an avid cinephile, or having a side sales-person job in a local woman’s boutique to reinforce her income or socialise and get out of the house for a few hours a day. Ultimately, though she does have some creative activities in her life, she is restricted to the norms of her society and is unable to explore her own creativity.
Now let’s look at the how of the creative expression. During our sessions, I consider it imperative to train my clients to understand their emotions and how these influence their physiology and behaviour. What I have observed with people of this subgroup is a total ignorance of their emotions. They have been suppressing their emotional expression for so long that they find it extremely difficult to start realising what they feel at any given moment of their life and the reason why they feel what they do.
They don’t recognise their anger, when it arises, but instead push it away or rationalise it with the most elaborate logical patterns. They don’t understand when they experience fear, nor stress, nor jealousy, nor disgust. They just divert their attention somewhere else, probably to something they need to do, an occupation, an errand, an activity. But most importantly, due to all the suppressed and stored negative emotions, they rarely experience positive emotions either. No inner joy, no gratitude, no awe about the gift of life. So, when they create, this is not a product of positive emotions. This is a byproduct of their need to conform with the rules of propriety, when at the same time they desire to express their creative energy, but they so much hesitate to do it.
No matter how you analyse it, propriety is incompatible with creativity. The real contribution of creativity is not the production of something, or the ability to show-off one of our creations to others. It is the healthy liberation of creative energy from our inner self. This liberation is the road that provides a deep and meaningful destination to our living. This meaning is what gives us the feeling that our life has a goal, a sense and a higher purpose. And that is what real, pure, authentic creativity is all about.
*comme il faut: (French) Being in accord with conventions or accepted standards; proper.
Last modified: April 11, 2017