martha beck, emotional health
Photo by: Ann Cutting
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.

Next: True agendas and false agendas