When it's pitch black, you are likely to trip over obstacles in your path. This is as true for your psychological life as it is for your physical one. In my last blog entry, Learning Your Attachment Style Can Light Up Your Life
, I used this analogy to introduce how people's way of connecting with others can be an unseen cause of problems in their lives. It can lead to loneliness
, anxiety, general unhappiness, low self-esteem
, and many other kinds of distress. To follow up on this last blog (and as requested), I will now address how you can turn the light on; and stop tripping.
Stated simply, you can improve your life by increasing self-awareness in interactions with others; and by developing a positive relationship with yourself.
Once you accept that your way of relating to others might be causing you distress, you can begin to develop a better understanding of this problem by:
- Paying attention to how you interact with others;
- Being introspective about what underlies your responses;
- Seriously considering direct and indirect feedback (especially when you catch yourself reflexively rejecting it); and
- Paying particular attention to the level of anxiety - from low to high - that you feel as you get emotionally close to others; and to how much you are inclined to avoid close relationships - from not-at-all to a lot. (For more detailed information on how these traits combine to form four basic personality styles, read my last blog entry on attachment styles.)
By engaging in this self-examination, you will begin to recognize patterns - including problematic ones. For instance, you might notice how you playfully engage others while also keeping them at an emotional distance. Look for these patterns in daily interactions and really let the awareness of them sink in. Increasing this awareness is key to making a change.
The next step is to encourage yourself to 'sit with' your experience. This will likely be uncomfortable. You will want to think about other things. You might want to make excuses, blaming your behavior on the situation or the other person. But, it is important than you keep returning yourself to your experience; to an awareness of your feelings, and thoughts related to those feelings.
If acknowledging, identifying, or staying with your experience proves to be too difficult, try making self-affirmations. That is, think about the qualities in yourself that you value and about the things you do well. Allow yourself to feel good about these; and about yourself. As this bolsters you up, you may find it easier to be open to inner struggles.
If you are self-critical (as so many people are), it is important to be aware of this. Pay attention to how it hurts when you knock yourself down -just as it would if someone else did it. In all likelihood you would not treat a child, friend, or any other loved one like this; instead, you would help them up. Consider treating yourself with the same respect and compassion.
For many people, self-compassion is a novel concept and it takes time to really absorb and apply. That's okay; give yourself the time you need. By being kind, patient, and understanding with your struggles, you will feel encouraged and motivated to want to continue on your path toward greater self-awareness.
In essence, you will want to develop compassionate self-awareness, a combination of self-awareness and self-compassion. With it, you can approach yourself in a positive and encouraging way. For instance, if you tend to become anxious and clingy whenever there is distance (physical or psychological) in an intimate relationship, acknowledge that anxiety, and be compassionate toward yourself when it arises. Do what you can to allow for some 'breathing room' while also being open to re-establishing closeness.
Developing a healthier style of relating is a difficult transformation to make - but it is possible. It requires that you become more compassionate toward, and accepting of, yourself; and that you become more comfortable with both the closeness and distance that are a part of all intimate relationships. If you think that you are not making progress (or if you are having significant problems in your relationships) after sincere efforts to accomplish this, consider trying psychotherapy to help you. When you do develop a more secure style of connection (with or without professional help), you will not only feel better about yourself and your relationships, you will be generally happier and more resilient in life.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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