Bring your Authentic Self to the Relationship Dance
From our very early relationships, we learn that who we essentially are is not always enough to get the kind of affirmation and love that we naturally crave. We learned to hide what we believed was unacceptable and to construct a way of being that we believed might get us the recognition that was our birthright. This construction is often called the Ego or the Strategic self.
The failure of the ‘others’ to recognise and value our true self almost always left us with a belief about ourselves that provided the foundation for the construct that we created. For instance, if I believed that the poor response from others meant that I am ‘not good enough’, I may have created a self that is dedicated to proving otherwise. I can try to do this by achieving or excelling in the world or perhaps by serving and pleasing others. The hidden end goal, though, is always to get back the recognition that we previously failed to get.
Having concluded that our ‘true’ self is deficient and meets with some kind of rejection, we instinctively created ways of hiding and protecting that self to preserve it from further hurt. Since our Ego became who we believe we are (or need to be), we also devised ways of defending it to protect this ‘constructed’ self from exposure.
These unmet needs remain unmet and the early constructed self stays in place. It is from these two places within us that our unconscious operates and this is what we bring, unknowingly, to our relationships. In an intimate relationship we are unconsciously trying to get our partner (the other) to meet those needs though we are seldom aware enough to identify and express them.
We approach the other in two ways – firstly with the hope that they can provide us with the relief and affirmation that we are seeking and secondly with the kind of wariness that is hyper-alert to any clues that we are going to be disappointed again. When we identify (or imagine) that this disappointment is near we retreat into our defended way of being. This defended-ness can be negative in relationships – shutting ourselves down, keeping the other at bay or driving them back to a safe distance as if they were a threat.
We often express the hope that they will meet our needs in manipulative, patterned behaviour. The person who believes themselves to be ‘not good enough’, for instance, may be committed to addressing the other’s needs in the hope that this will yield the rewards they seek – a giving to get way of relating. When this does not work we may retreat into a “what about me” reactive state.
Relationships are a dance because the other in our relationship is just like us – not exactly because they are different in character and their wounding, beliefs, Ego and defences will be all their own and unique to them. They are, like us, a mystery to be uncovered.
And, like us, they are seeking to get their unmet needs met and they are looking to us to do it for them. So we have two wounded souls, lost in their patterned behaviour, hoping for the other to love them unconditionally and alert to the very real possibility that it’s not going to happen. It is a volatile situation!
The unpleasant truth is that no one else can meet our needs for us! They are unmet and will stay that way. They were there to be met at the time and the failure is permanent. It is a developmental failure and we cannot go back and re-live the first few years and get ‘re-programmed’.
However, we can change how we react. The solution is individual, and only relational in the sense that we can learn to bring a growing self-awareness into the equation. We have only one recourse – we have to get to know ourselves – delving into the deepest places of our being. And, paradoxically, the most fertile place to do this is in an intimate relationship.
The journey to ‘knowing yourself’ is replete with challenge. We first need to become present to what is happening to us in the here and now. This involves taking our attention into our bodies where emotions and feelings reside and where our unmet needs make themselves known. When our strategic selves are challenged and when we are triggered into a protective state, it is in our bodies that we can recognise and begin to understand what is happening to us.
When triggered (threatened) in relationship there is nearly always a ‘reactive’ defensive response. This reaction serves us (unwittingly) in succeeding to confirm the negative beliefs we have about ourselves. It does this by triggering the protective reactions in the other and instigating their withdrawal from intimate contact and thus from us.
Inner awareness allows us to recognise the reaction before we act on it and creates a space in which we can decide to ‘do it differently’ and doing it differently allows an authentic relationship to begin to develop. It only takes one person in a relationship to break the chain of reactions for a relationship to grow into a more real and satisfying dance.
About the author:
Nicole Renaud is a counsellor with over twenty years’ experience helping people improve their relationships.