I recently had lunch with a friend who said he was being treated for clinical depression and was having difficulty with even simple day-to-day tasks. He runs a successful small business that requires a great deal of energy and attention to details. He was concerned, he said, that his business might not survive his depression.
Since we always need a support system when we are vulnerable, I asked him if his employees knew he was depressed and would be willing to temporarily pick up some of the slack. He told me he could never tell his workers about his depression because he would lose their respect.
He said he had to “save face.”
That got me thinking about the concept of “saving face,” which originally comes from the fundamental Chinese belief of living up to society’s perception of one’s moral character. But how can we live up to society’s perception if it doesn’t match who we really are?
And when we say we are “saving face,” are we really saving something we are proud of – or are we actually hiding vulnerabilities we are ashamed of?
As I see it, “saving face” is about protecting an image based on who we think we should be. I see it often in men who feel they have to be strong and confident even when they don’t feel that way. Saving face helps us get through some tough times, but it could also compromise the quality of our lives.
I first met a man I’ll call Albert last year, when he complained that he was constantly frustrated with people at home and at work, and felt pretty ineffective at both. He was especially concerned about his 14-year-old son, who he said was doing poorly at school because he was lazy. Albert said that he had tried many times to get his son to change his ways, with no success. To make matters worse, he and his wife argued almost daily because he felt she was not respecting his paternal authority. Albert was certain that if he could just figure out what he was doing wrong, he would know how to motivate his son and get respect from his wife.
After my client and I got to know each other, I asked what he really wanted out of his life. Albert seemed confused, almost disoriented. “No one asked me that question before,” he said. “To be honest, I haven’t even thought about it for many years, I’ve just been trying to become a better person.”
Eventually, he said he secretly wished that one day he could own his own music store and make people happy. But that would not conform to expectations that he perform and produce at very high levels. So he still works at a high-pressure job that he does not enjoy.
Growing up, his father told him what was expected of him as a man. It’s the same message that many men get: Being a man means working hard, raising high-achieving children, and earning the respect of your spouse, family and community.
That was the image he had to live up to – the “face” he had to “save.” In fact, his greatest fear was that his wife and son would find out how insecure and unhappy he really was. If they knew the truth, he said, he would certainly lose their respect and they would leave. As he thought about it, he realized he had two choices: to live an unhappy life, or take a risk with his family.
He chose the latter. His family responded with care and compassion. In the ensuing discussions, he learned that his wife also wanted a smaller, quieter life. Her way of saving face was to stay quiet out of fear of upsetting her husband and disrupting the family image. And his son? Part of the reason his son wasn’t performing well was that he did not want to live the life that his father had.
Sometimes, continuing unhappiness and irritability are symptoms that need to be treated. Other times, these frustrations are the voice of a malnourished spirit speaking from behind a “face” that is not one’s own.