When in high school, Stefani Germanotta was thrown into a garbage can by neighborhood boys. She was laughed at and ridiculed in front of her classmates, to the point where she was afraid to go back to school. Her straight-A grade point started to suffer as a result of her embarrassment. She was ashamed of who she was.
Shame is the feeling of abandonment. The fear of disconnection with others can lead to different levels of shame—at its most intense is humiliation.
When students are bullied in school, the pain of their humiliation is often so great that they have difficulty recalling other moments in their childhood when they felt happy and loved. The scars are deep, and they endure. Germanotta recently said, “When certain things are said to you over and over again as you’re growing up, it stays with you and you wonder if they’re true.”
To cope, our ego builds a self-image that is not based on reality, but on whom we think we ought to be. And so, we reinvent ourselves. No phoenix has risen from the ashes with more aplomb and attention than Stefani Germanotta, better known to her fans as Lady Gaga.
Forbes ranked Lady Gaga #14 among the world’s most powerful women in 2012. She reinvents herself in each new public appearance with infectious beats of music and oddball fashion. She is welcomed in a contemporary culture that seems to mock the very idea that there is anything solid and true about the self. Cosmetic surgery, performance enhancing drugs, psycho-pharmaceuticals, and perpetual makeovers are preferred to the genuine article.
In my book, Secrets of a Strong Mind, I discuss why it’s easier to pretend to be someone else than to dig deep into our courage and be real. After all, the reason we reinvented ourselves is because the real person was rejected in some way.
For Lady Gaga, however, history is repeating itself because she recently endured ridicule and insults all over again. Neighborhood boys morphed into reporters, and this time their ridicule is targeting her 25-pound weight gain. But, at 26, it appears she has the courage to face the biggest critic of all—herself.
She responded on her social media website, LittleMonsters.com, by revealing a painful secret—she has suffered from bulimia and anorexia since she was 15. The singer then announced the launch of her new movement, “A Body Revolution 2013,” meant to encourage girls and young women to accept their body.
Lady Gaga is moving into important territory. She is shedding the image that helped her cope with years of shame and humiliation, and instead, is taking up the mantle of authenticity. This is an unusual move for any contemporary performer who uses invented images to generate success, but it is one that will have a positive influence in several areas:
First, as a role model and leader for girls and young women, she is giving them permission to acknowledge they also struggle with body issues. Her celebrity status and recognition on the Forges list of powerful women gives her the authority to stand up and say, “I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it anymore.”
Researchers explain that each of us has a deep-seated sense of duty to leaders with authority. This is particularly true with groups of young girls who are influenced by peer pressure. One of the most effective ways to break free of negative behavior and attitudes is if someone with enough authority gives them permission to change their behavior and attitudes. Adults act in much the same way, which is why endorsements by people perceived to be experts are given more weight than others.
Lady Gaga explains on her website that the inspiration behind her new movement stems from the Born This Way Foundation, an organization she started with her mother to stop bullying and embrace individuality. “This profile is an extension of that dream,” she wrote. “Be brave and celebrate with us your ‘perceived flaws,’ as society tells us. May we make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous.”
Unsurprisingly, her positive message resonated with her Little Monsters. Soon after the post went up, fans began flooding the website with photos of themselves in their underwear and sharing their own personal struggles with body image issues.
A second effect of Lady Gaga’s willingness to “go to the dark side” is that many of us may be encouraged to do the same thing in order to stop the need to reinvent ourselves into someone else’s image of who we should be. Most of us have a visceral reaction to the image of Stefani Germanotta being bullied and shoved into a garbage can. It was a horrible thing for her to experience.
Many of us have experienced shame and felt vulnerable at some point in our childhood. When I heard her story, similar feelings bubbled up inside of me. My traumas were different from hers, and yours will be different again. But we have all faced adversity in our life. It’s much easier, and less painful, to bury the memories and pretend they didn’t happen. Reality is not for the faint of heart—it takes courage, but unless we are willing to be authentic, we will never be the person we were born to become.
Courage is needed to tell the story of who we are with our whole heart. What makes us vulnerable is also what makes us beautiful and unique (click to tweet). Courage and authenticity are both characteristics of a strong mind. Mental toughness will give us the ability to move from the frightened person who pretends to be someone to a person who is confident to be seen for who they truly are.
Lady Gaga says that she wants her website to start a bottom-up movement to try to make it cooler for young people to be nice. Her agenda is a simple one: to “kindle kindness.” I think she understands that true compassion comes from a tender and vulnerable place where we understand how connected we all really are. This means that we all need to have the courage to move past the personas we have invented for ourselves.
How can you kindle kindness in your community? How have you moved past the persona you invented for yourself as you’ve become more authentic?
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Read my book ““Secrets of a Strong Mind,” available now on Amazon.