One of my more embarrassing memories is the day in high school drama class when I was assigned to deliver the famous monologue in which Lady Macbeth loses her freaking mind. Bumbling my way through history's worst rendition of that scene, I suddenly understood why actors are always asking, "What's my motivation?" I had no idea how to portray Lady M because I couldn't imagine what the heck made her tick.
At the time, I blamed my abysmal acting skills, but now that I've lived many additional decades and watched 800,000 episodes of "Law & Order," I realize my horrible performance wasn't entirely my fault. Lady Macbeth is incomprehensible because after years of secrets, lies, and manipulation, her mind is such a mess even she can't find her way around it. She lives in a private hell, and as she puts it, "Hell is murky." She's constantly scrubbing at her hands, but that doesn't help. Nothing is clear to her. Nothing is clean.
Though few of us are in Lady M's league when it comes to foul deeds, most of us at least occasionally act on motivations that are less than pure. We tell little lies to get people's approval, do things for acceptance that feel wrong-ish, soothe a friend's feelings not out of unsullied love but because we're hoping for a favor. To live a totally clean life is as rare in its own way as being a mad murderess. But even if we can't be completely pure, it's within our power to do what twisted sister Macbeth couldn't: clean up our act. Which is another way of saying welcome to the Agenda Cleanse.
Why an Agenda Cleanse Is Good Life Hygiene:
The problem with hiding your real motives is that you're essentially keeping a secret, and as neuroscientist David Eagleman has written,"The main thing that is known about secrets is that keeping them is unhealthy for the brain." When we begin to weave webs of deception, we need to expend enormous mental energy to prevent them from tangling. There's less brain power left over for solving real problems, and we start to falter in other areas of our lives.
The problems may even show up in our bodies: Secrets and lies can weaken our immune systems. They're also hell on relationships, both personal and professional. People can feel the difference between a pure agenda (you kissing your baby) and a murky one (a politician kissing your baby). They find ulterior motives vaguely to intensely repulsive. As a result, impurely motivated actions tend to backfire. Lie for approval, and people disapprove. Try to control people, and you lose control. Pretend to be perfect, and you risk being caught by folks who'll abhor your pretense of perfection more than your imperfections themselves.
If, in light of all this, you're hesitant to do the Agenda Cleanse, I'll assume it's because you're either Lady Macbeth or Mother Teresa. Everyone else, please meet me at the next paragraph.
Agenda Cleanse Step 1: Pick an interaction, any interaction.
Think of something you plan to do in the upcoming hours or days that involves other people. It could be going to a coworker's birthday party, putting in a day at the office, attending square-dancing class, whatever. We'll call this interaction activity X.
Step 2: Ask yourself the actor's question.
Keeping activity X in mind, ask yourself, What's my motivation for doing this? Don't spit out the first facile answer that comes to mind (Um, I have to?). Give it real thought, and be brutally honest. Your clarity -- maybe a little piece of your sanity -- depends on it.
There might be several reasons you're planning to undertake activity X. Feel for the one that's deepest. Maybe you'll be attending the coworker's birthday party because you sort of want to be there but also to be polite, and mainly because you want cake. You may go to work to earn money, and to feel important, but primarily to prove your worth to your parents. Perhaps you square-dance partly for love of the music, partly to show off your new Frye boots, but mostly because your friends just keep hounding you until you go. Pick the motivation that feels most true, your real bedrock reason.
Step 3: See if your real agenda aligns with your apparent agenda.
Now that you've identified your actual motivation, check to see whether you're making it clear or hiding it from others—and even yourself. Finish this statement, and don't hold back. Tell it like it is.
I let myself and others think the real reason I'm doing activity X is _______________________________________________.
To the extent that this answer is the same as your answer in step 2, your agenda vis-á-vis activity X is transparent. If the two answers are different, you're in hot water. Happily, I mean that in a good way.
Step 4: Clean your hidden agendas with an unbroken stream of truth.
Simply by stating your real agenda and admitting that it's different from the one you present to the world, you've already started getting clean. To keep the process going, consistently tell yourself the truth about your motivations and any deceptions you perpetrate. You won't change your behavior immediately, and that's fine. Just keep getting clearer inside by acknowledging where you're not being clear outside.
This means that as you wish your acquaintance a happy birthday, you remind yourself, I'm here for the cake. As you assure your boss you love your job, own the truth: This is pure b.s. -- I need the paycheck. While do-si-do-ing, silently admit, I'm doing this only because I didn't have the guts to say no.
Sustained personal truth-telling will gradually cleanse your inner life. This, by the way, is what happens in good therapy: Each week a perceptive professional helps you admit to the real forces behind your actions. As you start to see your inner motivations more clearly, you begin relating differently to the world around you. This leads naturally to the next part of our cleanse.
Step 5: Allow your pure inner agenda to radiate outward.
Just as muddy motives leak, revealing impure agendas to the people we're trying to fool, a sustained clear agenda becomes ever more luminous to others. Even if you don't mean to change your behavior, your cleanse will begin shining truth on everything around you. This may disturb people whose motivations are still impure. Indeed, these people may become so alarmed that they try to pressure you back into insincerity.
In response, you can always go back to having crazy-making, murky agendas. Or you can keep cleaning up your act until folks around you either undertake their own cleanse or go away. One client told me, after an especially hidden-agenda-packed meeting, "I'm exhausted by my own hypocrisy." Once you start articulating such feelings, you'll stop doing things with impure agendas, slowly separating from people and events that are essentially environmental pollutants.
Of course, there are scenarios in which it isn't wise to take your true feelings public. But these scenarios, like Lady Macbeth, are truly insane: political dictatorships, prisons, reality shows featuring various populations of "real" housewives. People who live within such systems sustain impure agendas just to survive. As you become more honest with yourself, you'll know whether being more pure in your outward behavior is truly inadvisable or whether "I can't say what I really mean" is just another fib.
Step 6: Fill your life with clean, clear things.
I've noticed that as my clients begin speaking the truth to themselves more often, they grow increasingly accurate at spotting false agendas in others. This makes them safer in every situation.
Run frequent agenda cleanses, and you'll unconsciously steer yourself toward activities you truly love and people who truly love you. People will trust you, and you'll know whom to trust. The brain space that was tied up in conniving manipulation will be free for problem solving and creativity. Your energy will rise; your stress level will fall. You'll be happier and more at peace.
Macbeth tries to make this happen for his wife. He orders a doctor to "Cleanse... that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart." The doctor, checking his records and noticing that psychiatry won't be invented for centuries, says, "Therein the patient must minister to himself." Agenda cleansing, you see, is an inside job. And I have nothing up my sleeve when I say I think you're just the person to do it.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).