Few intellectuals have tapped into the undercurrents of human behaviour as deeply as René Girard (1923-2015), a figure celebrated not just for his insights but for the journey that led him to those revelations.
In the wake of the post-war academic boom, Girard, seeking stable employment, found himself teaching French literature—a subject for which, quite candidly, he wasn’t initially well-prepared.
Astonishingly, many of the works on his syllabus were novels he hadn’t previously read. As he began delving into them, he started to connect dots that many had either ignored or simply hadn’t noticed.
The deeper he ventured into these works, the clearer a pattern emerged: characters, no matter how divergent their circumstances or backgrounds, were locked in cycles of imitation. This wasn’t mere coincidence; it was an illumination of a fundamental human behaviour. And so, the theory of “mimetic desire” was born.
“Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”
The theory suggests that human desires are not birthed in a vacuum but are rather reflexive, echoing the desires of those around us.
The Battle Against Surrounding Mimetic Desires
In my work, I encounter many clients with a genuine ambition to reshape their lives.
They express a deep-seated yearning to embrace healthier lifestyles—they talk about eating well, exercising, meditating, and genuinely wanting to live a life brimming with vitality. Their intentions are clear, their motivations are pure, and their commitment is evident. And yet, so many falter and stumble on the path to consistent habits.
The mimetic trap that Girard so profoundly highlighted.
Despite their best intentions, these individuals find themselves surrounded by family, friends, peers and work cultures caught in cycles of self-destruction. These cycles manifest in excessive alcohol consumption, an insatiable appetite for sugar, and hours lost to the abyss of doom scrolling.
It’s not just about willpower or personal commitment.
The gravitational pull of mimetic desires, especially from those closest to us, can be overpowering. It’s challenging to sustain a healthy-eating, jogging habit when everyone around you is indulging in junk food and alcohol while slobbing out in front of the 150th episode of The Block.
It is also hard to close your laptop and not answer emails after 6pm when your colleagues are sending emails at all hours.
The road to personal transformation becomes treacherous when the very environment you exist in constantly pushes you towards old habits.
Finding Our Authentic Selves Amidst the Mimetic Maze
Understanding and acknowledging the pervasiveness of mimetic desire is the first step in reclaiming our autonomy.
Are we pursuing a goal because it aligns with our core values and passions, or are we chasing it because someone else has instilled its value in us? This differentiation can be the key to unlocking genuine happiness and purpose.
For those in the throes of personal transformation, it might mean seeking out communities or support groups that align with their new values or, at times, distancing themselves from environments that pull them back into old patterns.
Here are some actionable suggestions to start that journey:
Diversify Your Listening:
Try a podcast on health or mindfulness. New angles can reshape old habits. Share new ideas and podcasts with those closest to you to start planting new, healthy seeds of growth in their mind. Discussion, deliberation and debate are the tools of personal growth. Cancel nothing.
Change Up Your Reading:
Explore books to mould new perspectives. Seek what is hard and challenging to you to expand your thoughts. We live in a world that is literally aiming to cancel pain through facile language and trigger warning galore—growth happens through pain.
Join biking groups or other wellness-focused communities.
Redefine Digital Spaces:
Engage in online groups promoting health and longevity.
Link up with someone living the values you seek. Their roadmap can be invaluable.
Often, mimetic desires start in childhood. Identifying and analysing these early set patterns may help you realise that the cycle of anxiety/addiction/self-sabotage/overeating/being in the wrong career/attracting the wrong partner was never yours to begin with but belonged to people in your family.
By actively seeking out and immersing ourselves in environments and communities that mirror our genuine aspirations, we can pave a path to a more fulfilling, authentic life.