“If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would you choose?”
Stampeding yet stumbling, my thoughts rushed forward, tripping over themselves in a hurried race to nowhere. I was a doctor, stumped by an ice-breaker. Of course, it wasn’t really about the answer—it was about who was asking and what I was saying about myself. She was intelligent, sociable, competent, attractive, and by all appearances, confident and successful. By contrast, I was, well…not so sure of myself. In fact, I was unsure about many things, most immediately which three people I would choose as dinner companions. I felt sure of only one thing: I was out of my league. The more we talked, the more I despaired of getting another date.
Truth told, “ice-breakers” make me anxious.
Introductions are always a little uncomfortable for me (including introducing myself to you in this, my first Artisan blog post). Ice-breaker questions create an awkward, sometimes amusing little exercise in image-management (after all, first impressions matter, right?). I want to be distinctive and unique, but only in a way that everyone else will accept. I feel the pressure to say something engaging, something personal yet innocuous, something that will make others think, “I wish I had said that.” Inevitably, I end up only half-listening to what others say, while I rack my brains to come up with the “best” answer. That’s when I notice the subtle signs—my knee bouncing, foot tapping, slightly elevated heart rate, breaths almost imperceptibly shorter—and I know I’m anxious. The answers slip through my fingers as my thoughts run faster, almost too quick to catch. (“What if my answer isn’t as good as everybody else’s? What if it sounds dumb or boring? Is this interesting or embarrassing? Will they like me or think I’m an idiot?”). And maybe that’s why I feel anxious—I’m already comparing myself to everyone else, pressuring myself to measure up. I’m anxious because I have a sneaky assumption that if I don’t measure up, I won’t be accepted.
Every ice-breaker contains a hidden, treacherous question: “Can I really be myself—my whole, valuable, quirky, imperfect self—with you?”
I suspect I’m not alone in that fear—we all long for acceptance. And that’s where the value lies. There is no true acceptance without true risk. Without risking genuineness, we can’t have any sort of relationship—friendly, familial, romantic, professional, or otherwise—in which we can both exist and be accepted as our whole selves. Furthermore, without the experience of rejection, we never learn the powerful fact that we have dignity and value, even when others decide we don’t measure up. This is hard, counter-intuitive truth: we don’t learn to accept ourselves when others love us unconditionally; we learn to accept ourselves when we love ourselves unconditionally.
If I could have that conversation over again, I would ask my own favorite ice breaker. It’s quite bland and unimpressive, really. That’s why I like it. Instead of challenging people to measure up, it asks us to be normal. It bypasses those pernicious little assumptions and comparisons, and it replaces them with an invitation to be human, to be common, to be okay, to be, well, an ordinary person. And if you’re willing, I’d like to try it with you now:
“What is the most average thing about you?”
One of the most average things about me is that I love my snooze button. Sometimes, I lose count of how many times I press it. If I don’t have somewhere I have to be, I might stop “snoozing” and just turn the alarm off altogether. Even if I’ve planned to get up early and do something “productive” with my extra time, I still manage to press it a few times. I can be…a bit lazy. I’m not proud of it, and I wish it wasn’t true. Come to think of it, that wish is kind of average too. Actually, it might be even more average than my love for “snoozing”—I have things about me that I don’t like, things that are embarrassing, things I hide because I worry about losing your respect. That, too, I guess, is pretty average.
It turns out I’m anxious during ice breakers for the same reason I tend to reject life’s hardships—I forget that I’m average. I fear rejection and seek acceptance by comparing myself to others – demanding I measure up – instead of showing myself the gift of radical self-acceptance. As a wise supervisor once told me, “You can’t be safe until you’re safe for yourself.” That’s a big secret. We must compassionately care for ourselves in the midst of our common, human struggles. When we learn to embrace how average we all actually are, we begin to accept our own whole, valuable, quirky, and imperfect selves—strengths, shortcomings, gifts, imperfections and all.
I guess what I’m saying is, “Hi, my name is Ben. I’m a therapist. But more importantly, I’m also just an average human being learning to embrace my ordinariness.” And I have an ice-breaker question I’d like to ask and, if you’re willing, answer with you:
“What is the most average thing about you?”