Too many of us today have almost no idea who we really are. Nor do we even know that we have no idea. We simply exist without a clue and hope for the best. If we ran into some sharp corner of ourselves we wouldn’t know how to round if off. Nor would we even have the foggiest notion of how to bring out the better parts of ourselves or how to recognize those better parts that already exist inside of us. Modern people — us — often lack self-reflection. We may function well but live in a fog. Often we’re strangers to ourselves. Despite all of our self-preoccupation and technical savvy we really don’t know ourselves very well.
What is a self-relationship?
Despite all of our self-preoccupation and technical savvy we really don’t know ourselves very well.Having a mature self-relationship is a complex process that requires practice, courage and close relationships with others. It involves knowing our true selves — who we really are in our private lives — and our false selves — who we appear to be to others. How we deceive ourselves and how we actually function are all parts of a self-relationship, as we need both. Some common masquerades are: the eternal rescuer, the white knight, the model of success, the miscreant, the con artist, and of course, the scapegoat. None of these appearances are a complete description of who we really are. We are not our behaviors, our roles or our masquerades. We are way more than that. To actually know ourselves more fully we need to be in touch with our whole selves: our body sensations, our thinking processes, and our vulnerabilities. We also then need to have an idea on how all of these pieces fit together. We need to look behind our masks.
Often such integration entails grasping our past and understanding how our past life plays into our present — both for good and ill. We need to understand how we are different from others, how we impact others and how to tolerate our differences with others. Doing so often involves having an active emotional relationship with ourselves that is based on forgiveness — of self and others — and honesty, that holds us accountable. It is precisely this forgiveness and realism that gives us self-acceptance and personal security. People with a mature self-relationship are the most sensitive, secure and compassionate people you will ever meet.
Most of us have less than a mature self-relationship. We either exaggerate who we really are or underestimate the value of our existence. We’re not aware of ourselves. We don’t even know we need to relate to ourselves to know ourselves. We do the best we can with what we have. However it’s wise to know that it is never too late to have a fully authentic relationship with ourselves. It is the most important project we do in our lifetime.
Signs of not knowing yourself
The following are signals of a lack of a self-relationship:
- You’re constantly striving to impress or get the approval of others
- Being rejected or abandoned is a devastating experience for you
- You find it impossible to accept praise or reprimand
- You often feel like a fraud and are terrified of others knowing who you really are
- If you’re truly honest with yourself you don’t believe you’re lovable for who you are
- You’re constantly trying to prove yourself or worry how you appear to others
- You are self-conscious, inhibited and anxious in public gatherings
- Life generally feels empty to you no matter what you do or accomplish
- You may act like a puppy dog when someone says they want to be your friend
- You generally having little or nothing to say when someone asks, “How’s it going?”
- You have continuing periods of spacing out and going through the motions
- You don’t initiate relationships with others
Why are you so reluctant to know yourself?
Psychological reasons and cultural factors both contribute to our lacking a self-relationship. There is an old saying that says it is better to not know than to know and not do. Too many of us are afraid to open our eyes to ourselves. We have little or no training or practice on how to reflect on ourselves and even less aptitude for coping with the doldrums of life once we do look at ourselves in the mirror.
Most of us only see our own image when we look in a mirror. We turn off our x-ray vision that can both accept and hold us accountable for the kind of person we are. A lack of emphasis in our childhood by our caregivers of what type of persons we were becoming is at the heart of self-oblivion. Many of us were judged by our accomplishments and not by our character. Some of us were not seen at all. This superficial view reflects the shallow view our caregivers had of us and of themselves.
All of us develop shame by not having our internal lives be validated by our parents and we become terrified to look inside ourselves too deeply. We fear we are uniquely and fundamentally flawed. Ironically, the reality is that our internal lives are no different than anyone else’s and yet we are also special in some unique ways. Having no one in our past to reflect on our complexity drives us to be oblivious and oblivious to being oblivious. We live under the mantel that “Ignorance is bliss.” The real tragedy is that we don’t know at a heartfelt level that we are good people despite all our flaws.
Sadly some of us were abused in childhood and have demons we hide from for the rest of our lives. We generally don’t want to know ourselves because when we examine ourselves it stirs up the demons inside. This is where psychic numbing, addictions, and spacing out come in to save us. When we look at ourselves in a mirror we see that our images are broken, so much so, that it is hard to distinguish who we actually are from the awful things that happened to us. It feels impossible to put the pieces of our mirror back together and we live with a broken view of ourselves. Most of us don’t like being broken mirrors. We’d rather not look in the mirror at all.
Julie worked at a café that was typically understaffed. Some days she cried from having to be all over the floor to handle the customers. Her boss turned a cold should to her request to hire more staff. She said she would talk with him later. One day I caught her crying and offered her a hug, which she took. The next week when I asked her how her talk with the boss went, she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” She looked at me with fire in her eyes and later said, “Have a nice day.” Clearly I had crossed a line with her that she didn’t want crossed. For some of us, not knowing ourselves is the best we can do.
Living in a culture of oblivion
Running scared keeps us oblivious.For most of us modern life is an utter frenzy. Gone are the days of lingering and sitting quietly in the town square and greeting others. Now we’re constantly on the move, often with no people contact. We go from work at the office to work at home — company reports, late work meetings, computer updates, telecommuting from home, texting our kids, multiple after school activities for our children, Ebola scares on TV, extended family obligations and, heaven forbid, car problems. Is it any wonder that in all of our tension we don’t take time to reflect on ourselves? Heaven forbid! Most of us would rather be oblivious to ourselves because we fear what we would see and it would take too long anyway. We’re willfully blind speed demons. Perhaps we’re not living the life we would like to live. We’re living our lives on other people’s terms and we’re just surviving. Few of us realize that actually, when you come to think of it, most of us are pretty good people down to our core. However, when you live in a war zone of fear you have little time for real friendships and you lose any idea of who you really are. Running scared keeps us oblivious.
The values of our modern world have significantly shifted for the worse. Our age of technology has caused many of us to buy into the hypercompetitive view of life. This view is based on business-based thinking, “There is only so much good stuff to go around. If you don’t grab the good stuff, somebody else will grab yours and you will have nothing. It’s every man for himself.” Thus more emphasis is placed in schools and athletics on achievement and test-taking, and very little attention is placed on character development, relationship abilities or the sheer love of living. So we get modern work places with many new bright young people who have impoverished people skills and poor self-awareness. We may have won the battle but lost the war. In fact few of us even realize that life just doesn’t have to be a war at all. There is plenty of good stuff to go around. It’s called love.
Unfortunately too many of us look for love in all the wrong places. We will not develop a strong identity or clear self-understanding by looking on Facebook, Twitter, or texting. These resources supply information but not wisdom because they do not involve all of our senses and leave us emotionally wanting. We simply become addicted to these resources because they deprive us of what we really need — to be fully seen for who we are. They tease us but don’t fulfill us. On the other hand, real face-to-face contacts with beloved people, where we have nowhere to hide, have the potential to give us a much more complete and honest view of who we really are and who others are. Looking into a friend’s eyes, receiving a warm hug from dear ones and taking in all of their body language have the potential to give us all the information we will ever need to truly know ourselves. The eyes are the window to the soul.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
This article first appeared in the 2014 November / December issue of The Phoenix Spirit.