The Wounded Child and The Personal Brand

Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver in one movie - a good reason to watch "You Again," out on Redbox this weekend, and it was worth the price of "admission." Painfully I laughed and winced as well as the ensemble cast, led by talented Kristen Bell, conveyed the secret struggle many of us go through as we overcome the petty, constant emotional scarring that was high school.

The opening sequence of the movie hit especially close to home. When Bell tells a group of PR trainees that "You can't control what others do to you, but you can control how you react to it, and that is the essence of public relations," I literally felt like she had reached into my high school yearbook. (I mean, it wasn't that bad, but let's just say there's a reason why the tome isn't coffee-table reading in my living room today!)

Aside from learning that my life is a Hollywood cliche, I gained some insight from the movie about a topic that has been percolating in my head for some time. That is, I think there is a connection between the intense interest people have in personal branding nowadays, our earliest experiences, and the pernicious threat posed by crimes where people are bought and sold like cattle.

To be very direct about it: I am not a psychologist, but from my own experience I believe that the effort to "brand" oneself can stem from a rational, logical place (make money, compete successfully) as well as an irrational one (recover self-esteem eroded a long time ago).

If the former, fine.

If the latter, hold on a minute.

Because if you are looking at yourself through the lenses of a time when you were made to feel "not good enough" - no amount of image-building is going to make you feel whole. Which can lead you to make bad choice after bad choice in an attempt to feel successful.

So it pays to have some awareness into this whole area, if only to have a measure of control over your own life.

As I think about the connection between the wounded child and the personal brand, it strikes me that there is more than high school bullying that can cause someone to be intensely interested in image building and image control.

Again, not that I am a psychologist or psychoanalyst, but it seems logical to me that there is a relationship between one's upbringing and the way one would use personal branding.

Meaning, if your parents or caregivers were there for you, supported you, and validated your worthiness no matter what, you would be less likely to need a brand to give you self-esteem.

Conversely, if you were ignored or mistreated, you may very well turn to a product to give you substitute love.

In the sentence that follows, I am not (!) blaming anyone here for working - please don't get me wrong. But it strikes me as no accident that just in my generation, where divorce became ordinary and staying at home to raise the kids became less and less the norm, we saw the rise of the pervasively branded culture.

More than the Baby Boomers, my generation was disconnected from solid, rooted families; raised on TV; cared for by daycare givers and later, peers; and divided into tribes based on the logos we displayed on our clothes. Perhaps lacking in validation from a solid unit of caring people at home, we validated ourselves by buying things, and as adults we reassured ourselves for leaving our kids at home by buying them Einstein videos and just the right kind of organic baby food. Not to mention expensive nannies who we could order around in our absence (a form of depersonalization right there).

If you take this line of thinking a step further, it is not a very far leap to see why social cancers like human trafficking are such a threat, if we ignore them. Because if we have made it acceptable to view ourselves as products, then we have become de-sensitized to our own uniqueness, and we are less likely to value the humanity of others. We understand that we must sell ourselves, in a way, and so why is that such a far leap from accepting the reality that others get sold?

In the brand-based global economy, we are socialized to accept that it is not our inner worth that matters but rather what others think of us - this is after all the very definition of brands. And we are savvy enough to know that in a world where every product is reducible to a commodity, manufacturing is not the basis of value. Rather, marketing is, because it is only the illusion provided by the brand that gives anything any value at all.

This is a lot to overcome. As individuals, how do we overcome the painful past, and deal with a challenging present, without losing our humanity in the process? Here are some suggestions.

1. Practice "self-compassion": There are a few books with this name floating around and they all center on the same concept. Rather than trying to achieve things by putting yourself down (e.g. the "drill sergeant" model of self-improvement), you take the opposite path and re-parent yourself in a loving way. You pursue an inner journey to value yourself separately from your paycheck, your weight, your social status, or any other irrelevant external marker.

2. Validate others: Do for your family, your friends, and your co-workers what you should be doing for yourself. Encourage them to value themselves as three-dimensional people and not for their "marketability."

3. Practice "mental environmentalism": Basically, take some time each week to unplug from all the marketing crap. All the TV, the magazines, the everything. Disconnect and get back to yourself.

4. Find your passion: What do you love to do in this world? Find a way to do it, either on the job or in a classroom or as a hobby. Get in touch with your true self no matter what you have to do to earn a living.

5. Volunteer: The act of helping other people whom you don't know puts you in touch with both their humanity and your own - and the fact that all people have an essential self-worth despite their life situation.

You may be wondering how all of this can help. For on the surface, doing the above gets you out of business mode and perhaps off the professional "success track" that you may have been chasing.

In a way, that is true. You're not as single-minded anymore.

But on another level, if you do all these things and have a more balanced life, you may actually be more valuable as a professional. Because when you are fully self-validated, you are not looking to your image to shore you up as a person. You are simply looking at personal branding objectively, as just another tool to help you achieve your goals in a rational way.

And when you are calm and your mind is centered in this way, you stand a greater chance of not only achieving your professional goals, but sustaining them over the long term in a balanced way. As a thinking person. As someone who cares.

That is something that really puts you on the success track at work, and in life - a potent contributor to both your own personal economy, and to society.


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