A Modern Greek Tragedy
Once upon a time in ancient Greece, there was a demigod named Procrustes, diabolical son of Poseidon, who tortured unwitting travelers seeking refuge. Procrustes would generously offer each traveler a bed for the night. A bed that was guaranteed to fit. What the traveler failed to realize (probably buried in the fine print) was that he or she would be made to fit the bed, to conform, and not the other way around. If the traveler were too tall, Procrustes would hack off his legs. Too short? The traveler would be stretched on the rack to conform to the space. However, here’s the real dirty little secret of the Procrustean game: No one ever fit the bed exactly.
Procrustes’ bed is truly a Grimm-worthy fable to be sure, but is it really a myth? Procrustes was the stuff of legend, but every fable has a real-life moral. A “Procrustean bed” has come to represent arbitrary standards to which we are forced to conform. In today’s world, those may be arbitrary standards for a job, a group, or even a relationship. Many (if not most) of us can probably think of a time we made ourselves small or stretched ourselves too thin, either to please other people or just to fit in. However, when we conform in ways that are not authentic to who we are (our strengths, our values, and our principles), little by little we chip away at our core.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Here’s the bigger, bolder question: How much of the standards we perceive to be “required” are truly forced, and how much are a bed of our own making? We can conform to what we think it means to be a good leader, parent, spouse, partner, or friend; but is someone else really forcing us to adhere to these arbitrary standards, or do we choose to conform because we fear the possible consequences?
- Accept a promotion into a role we don’t want because we feel we can’t say, “No”?
- Participate in events we actively dislike to avoid negative judgments by people around us?
- Avoid conflict with a spouse, friend, or colleague because we fear damaging or even losing the relationship?