I was first introduced to the idea of congruence while in graduate school for counseling psychology. Simply put, in a psychological context, congruence means that what you show on the outside—words, actions, body language, etc.—matches what is on the inside—thoughts, feelings, body sensations, etc. If what is on the outside does not reflect what is on the inside one could be said to be out of congruence, or incongruent. A very common example of the latter would be when someone asks, “How are you?” and you muster your best plastic smile and reply “Good,” though you are actually having a crappy day and feel like punching a hole in a wall.
Nearly everyone fluctuates in his or her level of congruence. There are situations we encounter regularly where it may not be wise or entirely helpful to be totally congruent, in other words, to share how we are really thinking and feeling. For example, telling a prospective investor you don’t like them because they smell bad and wear crappy cologne could have some negative consequences.
The Mask We All Wear
We all have a persona, according to the Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, a self that we present to the world, the existence of which does not connote any mental health issues. However, the problem arises when we drift into a state of nearly constant incongruence where we believe we are our persona, even with friends and family, and lose track of who we are on the inside, our real self. When this occurs we begin to lose the ability to consciously choose what we express and show to the world and end up living in a shallower existence in something akin to autopilot.
Carl Rogers, a highly influential American psychologist, first came up with the concept of psychological congruence in the 1950’s. He defined it as the matching of experience and awareness and incongruence as the using of a mask or façade in an attempt to hide ones true feelings. He emphasized the importance of congruence in the psychotherapist, a sharp turn away from the blank slate model that Freudian psychoanalysts were using at the time. Rogers believed that therapists who hid behind a screen of professionalism were not being real and thus unable to provide things such as warmth and human connection, important components of psychological healing in Rogers’ mind.
We Can’t Really Hide It Anyway
According to the research of Albert Mahrebian communication is 55% body language and 38% tone of voice, which leaves 7% attributed to our actual words. It also turns out that body communication and tone of voice are much more difficult to consciously manipulate and craft then our word choices. In other words, the body and voice has a hard time being dishonest. You know that funny feeling you get when someone says something to you but you can tell something isn’t adding up? That’s a bit of what is on the inside coming through the much larger aspects of body language and tone of voice. In actuality, most of us are pretty bad at fooling others into thinking our persona is real, however we live in a culture that very much supports the crafting of a well constructed persona. So, what’s going on here? Why do we all spend so much time and energy on being incongruent, which causes us to feel bad, when everyone can already tell? My best guess is that though most of us do actually sense when someone is communicating incongruently, we have trained ourselves to ignore this sense and instead go along with what it being presented.
We live in a culture that more often than not prefers a nice fake answer to a real one that might challenge us or create a “problem,” and so incongruence becomes reinforced as the norm.
It’s Supposed to Feel Bad
Being confused about what it is you really want or feel and noticing a permeating sense of isolation and exhaustion are all signs that you may be living in an incongruent state. These negative feelings are a warning sign that something is amiss. They might mean that you are out of touch with a large part of who you really are, or they might mean that you are afraid of showing others what is on the inside for fear of being judged.
Incongruence feels bad! It’s supposed to so we know we need to change.
Rogers believed that because incongruence ultimately feels bad that all human beings have an innate drive to become more congruent, even if in their family of origin congruence was not supported, or even safe. In Rogers’ view congruence is a big part of what he called self-actualization, the height of healthy human development. He believed that when the real self, the perceived self, and the ideal self are all in alignment, in what one could call our authentic self, we experience a great sense of peace and clarity. Additionally, the energies previously used to keep these separate can go toward more useful pursuits that benefit all of humanity.
The Path Toward Congruence
Perhaps you have experienced moments where you felt that all aspects of your being were in alignment, a state where you could be honest and vulnerable about who you really are without self-judgment. Though vulnerability is often associated with weakness in our culture, this is actually a very powerful state, because it includes total acceptance with nothing to hide. Many individuals experience moments of this sort of congruent alignment, however most do not know how to get back to that state or live there more often.
Ultimately congruence exists on a spectrum that for most is constantly fluctuating. If you are interested in experimenting with congruence and possibly taking steps toward coming into more of your authentic self, it all begins with awareness. I suggest beginning to notice your level of congruence in different situations. Give it a percentage number from 0-100. Pick several situations where you know it is hard to be congruent, for example with a difficult coworker or with your parents, and then pick a few where it feels easier. Plan to ask yourself the question, “What percentage congruent am I right now?” the next time you encounter these situations in the next week. Notice what it feels like in your body to be in greater congruence. Do you feel more relaxed? Does your chest feel more open? And, notice what it feels like to be highly incongruent. I know for me I feel tense in my shoulders, breath more shallowly and feel disconnected and frustrated or resentful. The aim here is to begin to increase your awareness of your level of congruence, to know what your spectrum feels like.
Spend Time With Animals!
Another great way to become more aware of your shifting congruence and even increase it is to spend more time around animals. I would especially recommend spending time with horses for a number of reasons. Let me explain . . .
Horses are incredibly relational, highly perceptive–including the ability to sense your heart rate–and they are always 100% congruent. If you approach a horse in a pasture it will often display an initial curiosity and then let you know what it thinks and feels about you, though their communication may differ from yours. One thing horses don’t seem to like very much is incongruence. In many ways horses are more perceptive than humans and since they haven’t been trained to ignore their perceptions, they show that they are uncomfortable with someone who is presenting something other than what is actually real for them. Horses don’t have personas.
For these reasons many people feel fear and apprehension when approaching horses. They are big animals, but more then that I find that people fear being seen by a horse, another animal, or even a baby. We wonder, “What if they can see who I really am?” And, we worry that who that is isn’t good. However, this is only because we are out of touch with who we really are; we have lost touch with our real self and become identified with the persona and beliefs about ourselves. When a horse snorts and walks away from you, it isn’t seeing inside you and judging you, it is likely noticing an incongruence, which makes it hard for them to relax and trust. Let me give you an example.
An Experiment in Congruence
I was participating in a 4-day gestalt therapeutic equine retreat at a horse ranch. I was working with another student therapist in the pasture and realized that I was feeling pretty frustrated and even angry but that I was afraid to express that around all the horses. I thought it might scare them. The therapist suggested I try anyway, in the form of pushing against her hands and letting out a sound to match the feeling (a loud growl). After doing this whole heartedly for about 15 seconds I stopped, looked around, and noticed that all 20 horses in the pasture were looking right at me. Their ears weren’t pinned back, a sign of fear or aggression, but rather perked up and pointed at me. They were simply all of a sudden aware of me and curious. Then a few started to walk over. I was so surprised! I had let out something that I considered, ugly, loud, and obnoxious, and here these big beautiful animals were now coming toward me with curiosity. I had come into a greater state of congruence and now they wanted to relate. In this moment I felt so much more alive and connected to myself and the world around me. This experience has informed how I relate not just to horses but to people as well.
Whether you have a therapeutic equine center near you or just a friend with a few horses I encourage you to spend some time with them. If you live in Colorado I would highly recommend a Gestalt Equine Institute of the Rockies 1-Day Intensive. If you don’t know much about horse handling and there isn’t a center nearby like the GEIR make sure to get a safety lesson beforehand, but after feel free to explore your relational impact on them and their impact on you. If you are feeling particularly courageous you might want to even try riding lessons. Though your instructor may not use the word congruence, it is one of the most important aspects of relating to and thus riding a horse.
With congruence comes connection, and with connection comes friendship, intimacy, and healing.
I wish you well on your journey toward congruence and invite questions and comments to the ideas presented here.