Written by Lauren Helm, M.A.
Take a moment to pause and reflect on the relationship that you have with yourself. What is it like? Are you finding it difficult to answer this question? It can be quite eye opening to discover that so many of us have difficulty answering this question because we are not even sure what it means. It may be the first the time that we’ve even recognized that we do, indeed, have a relationship with ourselves, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. We have had this relationship with ourselves since we were young children, and it has continued to evolve throughout our lives. However, as opposed to many other relationships that come and go, this relationship is here to stay whether we like it or not, and boy, does it have the power to influence our lives like no other relationship may!
If we come back to the question, “what is your relationship like with yourself,” know that you’ve made the first step forward in enhancing this relationship by becoming more fully aware of and acknowledging its existence. To more fully discover how to answer this question, consider what your relationships are like others in your life. Relationships are characterized by a dynamic interplay; they may show up in our lives in various ways, typified by varying levels of interaction, connection, engagement, and intimacy with the other. The quality of our relationship is often directly affected by the ways we interact with and respond to one another. We can be powerfully affected when others respond to us a kind, loving, accepting way that fosters a sense of trust and safety in being who we are. We can be just as powerfully affected when others in our lives respond to us in a harsh, critical, judgmental or condemning way that undermines a sense of safety in the relationship. The ways that others respond to us (and we to them) have great power.
Consider, now, how you typically respond to yourself? In times of happiness or sadness, how do you relate to yourself and your experiences (your thoughts, your emotions, your behaviors)? Is it a supportive stance characterized by gentleness, soothing, understanding, and deep trust?
So often we automatically and in subtle (or not so subtle ways) respond to ourselves in times of pain in a cold, rejecting manner. We can even punish ourselves for feeling pain, for “being weak.” In times of success, accomplishment, or celebration, we might even block ourselves from fully opening to and experiencing our free experiencing of natural happiness or joy, perhaps because in the back of our minds lurks an insidious doubt or lack of trust in our own deserving the success, or our ability to tolerate the possible loss of the happiness that we have worked so hard to “earn.”
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why is it so common to become our own biggest critic, so often undermining ourselves in the name of self-betterment? It is startling to come to a full realization of just how “normal” it is to engage in self-deprecation or of pointing out the validity of our flaws…whereas, if we were to do this in a relationship with another, we would (rightly so) consider this to be emotional abuse.
Recently, the relationship that we have with ourselves has been the subject of growing interest. Psychologists (along with many others!) have begun to more openly and honestly explore why it is so common to have a harsh relationship with ourselves, and what we can do to shift into a more authentic, resilient, strong, and nourishing relationship with ourselves. Fortunately, psychological research is demonstrating that not only does our relationship with ourselves potently affect our well-being, it can also be healed and strengthened. We can learn to become our own greatest resource. Please stay tuned for the next part of this blog series which explores and ties together some of the recent theories about our relationships with ourselves, and cultivating a radically different relationship with the very valuable, authentic YOU.
Until then…check this amazing video out for a hint about what’s to come:
Brach, T. (2004). Radical acceptance. Bantam.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
Brown, B. (2013). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.