Your road to self-empowerment

The 3 faces of mankind and how social expectations are burying your potential

October 29, 2020.Merijn Duchatteau

There’s some really weird shit in Japan. Black icecream, square watermelons, a yearly “festival” in which sumo wrestlers compete to see who can make a baby cry first. And if that doesnt float your boat, they also have baths filled with pork soup and ramen noodles. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about a Japanese proverb that offers a little more depth than a crying baby festival. Well, it’s supposedly from Japan as the author is unknown, but let’s just give them credit for this one.

“The Japanese say you have three faces. The first face, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends and your family. The third face, you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are.”

This proverb is about authenticity. Something we obviously all have, but also something that is buried under a pile of dirt (read: social expectations) for most of us. Let’s break down the proverb.

Your three faces

Your first face is the version of you that you show strangers. People that don’t know you. People that you want to impress – or at least not scare away with your weird obsession for cats. This face is drained in social expectations. Together with the all other beautiful humans we’ve created a front that is seen as “generally acceptable” and “low risk”, which each of us puts on the moment we encounter strangers. You may hate someones scarf but will tell them its gorgeous. And when they ask you how your day was, are you really going to tell them all you did was eat cheetos and take naps? Of course not! Your day was amazing and exciting. You did all kinds of fun … stuff.

The second face is the version of you that is a bit more free. Less limited. No shame in talking about eating cheetos to your parents. They know. You know they know. They’ve seen you do way worse and you know it. Close friends know your preferences and expect you to scold them when they bring an ugly scarf. You swear more. You laugh more. Wearing your pyjamas is no longer off limits. Social conventions are watered down and you feel more like yourself. Great!

But wait, there’s more! The third face is the version of you without any limitations. No filters. No worries about what anyone else thinks or does. Just your full, authentic, you. Embraced, free, fearless. You yell a big “Fuck you” to so-called acceptable behaviour or feelings. You’re you and you think, say and do whatever you want. There is zero energy going towards conforming to any social expectation. But how often does this really happen?

The “power” of social expectations

An extraordinary amount of our thought goes out to what other people (will) think of us. Sometimes consciously, a lot of the times subconsciously. We are constantly putting in tremendous effort to fit in with what others expect of us. We all do it. Its natural. Wanting to be part of a group is one of the strongest drivers for human behaviour1 and in order to get in, we align ourselves to the expectations and with the behaviour of others. There’s this one amazing experiment done with monkeys that perfectly illustrates how strong this drive can be.

Bitesized science

An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a cage. At the top of this cage there are a bunch of bananas. There is a ladder underneath that goes towards these bananas. One of the monkeys climbs the ladder, but before he gets tot he banana, the experimenter sprays him and all of the other monkeys with cold water.

Not long after, another monkey takes his shot at the prize. Again, the experimenter quickly sprays him and all other monkeys with cold water. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys pull him off and start beating him in order to avoid the water.

Next, one monkey is replaced with a new monkey. This new monkey of course starts climbing the ladder as he’s oblivious to what’s going. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.

Another monkey is replaced and he too tries to go for the bananas. But again, he gets pulled off and beaten by all monkeys, including the one that just came in. By the end of the experiment, all original monkeys were replaced with new ones. None of them had ever been sprayed with water, but they all knew two things:

1) you don’t go for the bananas
2) whoever does gets beaten up

This experiment beautifully illustrates the power of social expectations and the limiting effect it can have on behaviour. Well, humans aren’t too different. We want to fit in. And we make sure to do so – even if we’re not always sure why. As a matter of fact, we’ve done since we were kids. For many people, their “identity” is indeed based on the social expectations and conventions they learned as a child, leaving their true, authentic self nowhere to be found. And boy is it tiring to live like this. Just imagine all of the energy you are constantly using to make sure you fit in this frame of social expectation; just to make sure sure others accept you.

When interacting with strangers, this effort is massive as the risk of judgement is high. For close family and friends, the effort is far lower, but you’d be mistaken to think it’s not there. Even in our close social circle we only show what we want others to see. After all, no one likes the person who keeps whining about their work EVERY TIME they meet. No one likes the person who’s just plain depressed all the time. And you can only tell your friends so many times that you think their clothes are shit before they’ve had enough and walk away.

Maybe there’s a few people in your life you feel fully comfortable with, but for the majority of our interactions we’ll be constantly reflecting real-time, either consciously or subconsciously, whether or not we’re saying or doing anything stupid that could get us kicked out of the group.

Living from your third face frees us from all of this. It frees up incredible amounts of energy, all for us to use for bigger and better things instead of worrying about acceptance of others. There is a downside to this, though. One could argue that “living from your third face” and “doing and saying whatever the fuck you want” could, shockingly, get you disliked by some people.

Though I’m a big advocate for only letting people in your life that truly accept you for who you are (why would you want anyone else?), pissing a lot of people off may not be the best way to go. So let’s say that our ideal “face” is somewhere between the third and second and we aim to be fully authentic – while keeping in mind to be respectful of others. Seriously. Don’t be an asshole.

Getting to your third face

Every since we were little, we’ve been constantly spoonfed with the “ideal” person. Not just what we’re supposed to look like physically, but also how we should act and feel. Therefore:

Getting to your third face is not so much a process of adding, but rather a process of removing. More specifically, it’s about removing the social expectations and conventions to which you’ve been conforming your character for the past decades.

Have you ever seen a commercial for cologne? My god. I’ve always been fascinated how a product that’s about scent can be promoted extremely well through a TV-screen just by showing some hot people next to the bottle. Anyways, the point is that every commercial, tv show or movie we’ve seen since we were little communicated an “ideal”. Women who get dressed up and put on a ton of make-up get the guy and the buff, fearless guys get the girl. And we all aim to be like them, because they radiate success.

But this happens in real life, too. As we are all influenced by these ideal images, we start projecting them onto others. Throughout the years a status-quo emerged on the “ideal” person. Something that pressures us constantly. Our first face has emerged.

The pressure to be this ideal version is not as prevalent in our close social circles. But even they have conditioned us to fit into a certain frame. When we were young, our parents raised us to follow what they thought was right. If a kid screams in a bus, the mom would tell him to be quiet. Add some strangers that are angrily looking in the kids direction and voila: the belief “I may not bother strangers” is formed.

Of course it’s not that simple. Once isn’t enough. But it doesn’t happen once. It happens every busride over the course of years. And maybe its not about bothering strangers, but maybe you’ve learned that your opinion doesn’t matter because no one ever listened to you. Or maybe it’s something else – it doesnt matter. We all have deeply rooted beliefs that we take for truth, even though they come from no more than our previous experiences and the people in our environment.

We all have deeply routed beliefs that we take for truth even though they come from no more than our previous experiences and the people in our environment.

The subconscious power of these beliefs is tremendous. As adults, we have the capability to reflect and think more logically than when we were kids. Now we may say: “I’m allowed to speak on the bus”. However, the subconscious effects of these beliefs have not dissipated. They still influence your thoughts and your behaviour – be it sublty.

So what to do? How do we get our true face back? We use our newly learned adult reflection superpowers to dive into our past and our current environment and identify which social expectations formed our beliefs. After all, the beliefs we created when we were 5 don’t have to be the same beliefs we have now.

  • Think of how you were raised or what your close friends and family value. How has this rubbed off on you?
  • What have been impactful experiences in your life? How have they impacted your perspective on things?
  • And how do these things align with your ideal beliefs and behaviour – how you would want to think and act right now?

Is everything the way you want it to be? Or would you create different beliefs and behaviour if you had the choice? Revisiting the past gives us a chance to take more control over our life now and fully tap into the potential we have by disregarding the unwanted influences from others. It also allows us to get insight in limitations or “weaknesses” we see within ourselves. Just make sure to take action once you’ve found them.