Your relationship with yourself
There is no denying the importance of human relationships when it comes to our mental well-being. Humans are social creatures, and as recent events have made clear, most of us are not good at self-isolation. Our need to interact with others is built into our DNA. We strive to maintain relationships with family members and friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even people whom we have never met in person. Yet with all the importance we place upon our need for human relationships, we often overlook the most important one of all: our relationship with ourself.
Why is our relationship with ourself the most important human relationship we will ever have? Because we are with ourselves from the moment we are born until the moment we die. No other human relationship will be as close, or as enduring. Consider the person who says, “I’m my own worst enemy.” That means this person spends every moment of his or her life in the company of their worst enemy. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? They can’t get a break, not even when they are asleep, because most dreams are telling us something about our relationship with ourself. This is why so many dreams are about conflict.
We often look to our relationship with others to try to make us happy. We believe that having great friends or, most especially, a “soul mate,” will finally do the trick. This is one of the most enduring myths we continue to tell ourselves and each other – that happiness will come to us in the form of another person. It’s the basic plot of almost every rom-com and Disney movie ever made. And like those movies, it is a work of fiction. Because of it, most people focus a tremendous amount of energy in trying to find the perfect mate to make them happy, while neglecting the one relationship that matters most.
More than 48,000 people committed suicide in the United States alone in 2018. That number will likely be higher for the year 2020. And every year, at least a handful of those people who take their own lives are famous celebrities. These are people who are adored by millions, and have more money than they could ever spend. Most of them are married. They would seem to have it all, and yet they die by their own hand. Why? The most common reason is because they hate themselves. The love of millions wasn’t enough to offset their feelings about themselves. This is summed up by the title of the Nirvana song, “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” Singer Kurt Cobain, who wrote the song, took his own life at the height of fame.
I spent a great deal of my adult life looking for the right woman to come along and solve all my problems. I was in good company, because it seems like most of us have done this at some point, and might be doing it still. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but here it is: it’s not going to work. If you don’t like yourself very much, it doesn’t matter how awesome your mate is. You are still going to be unhappy, and it will never change until you change your relationship with yourself. When I finally realized this, I wasn’t very happy about it, because it meant I had work to do. But it also meant my happiness wasn’t up to fate, to the off-chance I would find my soul mate. It meant whether or not I became a happier person was actually within my control, just like it is with you.
So: how does one go about improving their relationship with their self? Well, the bad news is, it’s not easy. It can be done, however. And it’s important to understand that our relationship with ourselves isn’t all-or-nothing. We all have mixed feelings about ourselves. There are things we like about ourselves, and things we don’t like. Generally speaking, the more things we dislike about ourselves, the unhappier we are. But there are a few key tasks that can lead to a better relationship with oneself.
The first of these is challenging some long-held beliefs about who we are and our worth as a person. This task is at the core of cognitive-behavioral therapy. It means we have to look at the messages we absorbed about ourselves while growing up, messages that maintain feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. I wrote about this more in-depth in my previous article, “Shedding the False Identity.” This process is not something you can do over a long weekend; rather, it is ongoing. The process can take years, and may never be absolutely complete. But challenging beliefs that are both negative and false is imperative if one wishes to be a happier person. You cannot maintain a shame-based identity and experience real happiness at the same time.
The second task is self-forgiveness. If we take a fearless look at ourselves and our behaviors, both past and present, we’re not going to like everything we see. While it helps to realize we are not as bad as we might have been taught to believe, the truth is, we’ve all done some bad things. We are certainly not perfect. So some of the guilt we feel is warranted, because we behaved badly. We can either live under a cloud of our own guilt, or we can forgive. Again, not an easy task, and usually it’s another long process. But here’s something that makes the difficult task of forgiveness a little easier: taking the time to understand the reasons why we did those bad behaviors.
All behavior is goal-directed. Usually, the goal is to gain some type of reward, or to avoid pain. If we look at our bad behaviors, chances are good that we can understand them as an effort to do one (or both) of those things. That doesn’t mean the behavior was right or good – it just means it’s understandable. It’s generally true that most bad behavior is done by decent people who are in some kind of pain. (Clearly, there are exceptions to this.) If we take the time to ask ourselves, “What was going on inside of me?”when we look at our bad behaviors, the answer is not likely to be, “I was overjoyed.” What is far more likely is that we were hurting emotionally. Understanding this can make it easier to regard ourselves with perhaps a bit more compassion and a bit less condemnation.
There is a saying, “The best apology is changed behavior.” This leads us to the third task: change. There is not much point in self-forgiveness if we continue right on doing whatever it is we feel guilty about.
Change might be the hardest task of all. There are no tricks to make it easier. Changing our behavior is a royal drag. But there it is. We either do it, or we don’t. Part of what I do as a therapist is to support people in the process of change. I can help people decide what and how they want to change, and I can provide motivation and encouragement, and hopefully some wisdom. But I can’t do the work of actual behavior change for anyone (except myself).
Another task is self-acceptance. When we look at all the things about ourselves we don’t like, we need to be realistic about which ones we’re going to tackle. I don’t recommend you try to change them all, in part because none of us are going to live long enough to do that. There are some things about ourselves we are better off just accepting. In my practice, I’ve been asked many times by clients who have identified some undesirable thing about themselves, “Should I work on changing this?” I usually answer this question with another question (therapists love to do this), which is, “How much of a problem is it?” In other words, is it causing real-world consequences? Is it affecting your health, or your relationships, or your wallet, or some other key aspect of your life? If so, then you would benefit from changing it. On the other hand, what if the only consequence about this thing is that it makes you feel like you are weird? What if no one else has a problem with it? In that case, you don’t need to change the thing, you just need to change how you think about it. Accept it. Don’t turn it into a problem. Embrace your weirdness. Everyone has some weird stuff about them, and if you ever found someone who didn’t, well, that would just be weird.
And finally, last but not least, you must own your goodness. We are often ready to provide a whole list of our faults, flaws, weaknesses, or whatever you want to call them, but when it comes time to list our strengths and assets, that list can be pretty short. Whenever I do an initial consult with someone, I ask them to identify their strengths and limitations. Several years ago while meeting with a young man, when I asked him to identify his strengths, he thought for a few moments, and then said, “I’ve got nothing.”
Now, I knew that his statement wasn’t an accurate reflection of his character; rather, it was an indication of his mind-set. The problem wasn’t that he had no strengths, the problem was that he thought he had no strengths. After a few minutes of prodding, he was still unable to say anything good about himself. So I asked him a question: “Are you basically a decent person?”
He thought about it for a few moments, and then said, “Yeah. Lord knows, I’m not perfect. And sometimes I can be a jerk. But basically, at heart, I’m a decent person.” He thought for a moment, and then said, “But that’s it. That’s the only good thing about me.”
Here’s the thing: If you are a basically decent person, then you are good to go. You’re covered. No other thing about you is more important than that. In fact, nothing else even comes close. Not money, or looks, or charm, or wit, or anything. Basic decency. If you’ve got it, own it. That says more about you than your bad habits, most of which are just leftover defense mechanisms. You have to embrace your goodness in order to have a good relationship with yourself, in order to be a reasonably happy person.
The benefits of improving your relationship with yourself are many. One of them is this: the more you are okay with yourself, the less you worry about what others think of you. Imagine being free of that type of anxiety. Imagine going into a social situation without being concerned if others are going to like you. This is quite liberating, and not as far-fetched as you might think. These things are possible, especially if you have some help along the way.