Much of our internal energy is devoted to maintaining a sense of ourselves that matches our familiar picture, that is, staying in our comfort zone about who we are. On the other hand, we have a strong motivation to come to know ourselves deeply. The problem is, it is difficult to tolerate parts of ourselves that are embarrassing, awkward, or distasteful to us. And for each person, the constellation of characteristics that are tolerable varies.
At this point, I had better give an example. Let’s imagine that I am talking with a young woman who is having difficulties in her marriage. She tells me her husband doesn’t care about her, doesn’t talk to her, and is crabby. Is this problem his doing or hers? We are always in the position of trying to figure out what part of these kinds of interactions is part of the other person’s personality and what part is that person reacting to our own quirks. So, we have to sort out whether her husband really is an insensitive brute, or whether he is communicating in other ways or perhaps responding to some sense of being criticized or shut out by her.
How in the world can we tease these things apart? To jump to the end of the story, we have to have relationships where we trust the other person to be willing to sort those things out together with us. And building a relationship to the point where that trust is there, as solid as a chair you can sit on, takes a lot of time, a lot of errors, and a lot of corrections. Because no one is perfect. So each of us is going to make mistakes, give the other person losses, and cling to our own fragile inner self-esteem.
So when I am talking to this young woman about her marriage, first of all, I have to have built a relationship that is solid enough that she can trust I am committed to her best interests. Then, I have to be aware of what parts of her identity are particularly sensitive and meaningful to her. In this example, she tries to be very giving. It would not be helpful to ignore that aspect of her way of relating, for example by telling her she is being selfish. At the same time, if I don’t reflect to her something of an accurate picture of what she is telling me, I am not respecting her ability to grow and change. It is this balance between accuracy and sensitivity that underlies the trust that gets built.
The fact is, the problem is a little from column A and a little from column B. Her husband tends to be taciturn, and she tends to be critical, unintentionally. As she lets go of her need to be right, she can begin to see the way her responses to him may feel critical to him, even though that is not her intention.
The very incremental process of coming to know ourselves deeply requires that we be willing to have our invisible quirks made visible. This can feel uncomfortable. However, if we can stick with it, we can liberate ourselves from patterns of feeling and thinking that are unnecessary and limiting. And the way this happens is that we make deep relationships with people whom we can come to trust over time. These constructive relationships are rare, precious, and hard won.