You may feel good about yourself. You may feel good about your relationships. But do you feel good about both? People who have the greatest sense of well-being move relatively easily between understanding and connecting with what’s going on for them and for others. But problems occur when they focus too much on one side, or they have trouble fully “getting” both themselves and others.
Some people are so concerned about understanding others that they lose themselves. They don’t sufficiently acknowledge their thoughts and feelings – or they may not even consciously register them at all. Instead, they see situations through other people’s eyes and take on those people’s struggles. As a result, they fail to recognize or validate their own feelings, wants, and desires– leading them to feel anxious, sad, or have a more amorphous sense that something is just not right. Discounting themselves can even lead to them being exploited and remaining in abusive relationships.
On the other hand, some people are so immersed in their own experience that it causes different problems. They might think so much about their feelings and thoughts that they lose perspective. In not seeing a larger context for their experiences, they might over- or underestimate how similar or different they are from others. They might be highly critical of themselves for human failings; or they might hold an unrealistically positive regard for themselves. Also, with a limited interest in considering other people’s thoughts or feelings, they are unlikely to understand them, making it difficult to develop healthy relationships.
More serious, there are some who struggle with both -- relating to themselves and other people. This can take the form of either vacillating between fixating on one side or the other; or having trouble really connecting with their own and other people’s experiences. In both cases, when they are upset, they can’t find sufficient comfort by turning to themselves or others. This can leave them foundering, unable to find a sense of stability in their lives. If you feel that this describes you, therapy might offer the best guidance for finding the stability and peace you crave.
You can also counter leaning too much toward focusing on yourself or someone else by considering your bias toward one or the other. When you reflect on your own patterns, you can consciously ask yourself whether that bias is a problem when you are faced with a difficult situation.
You might make it a habit to consider whether you fully understand and can empathize with yourself. You can ask questions, such as, What do I think of this situation? How do my feelings make sense? If you can’t make sense of your feelings in the immediate situation, consider previous experiences that might be affecting them. Something is prompting your emotional reaction, and it can be very helpful to find a way to understand it. For instance, you might realize you are often suspicious of your friend’s kindness because you fear she’ll hurt you the same way your previous close friend hurt you.
As you become clearer on your own experience, consider the perspective of the other person. Ask the same questions above again, but this time relate to that person.
Understanding and connecting with experiences that motivate people is technically called mentalizing (to learn more about it, click here). Being able to do so in relation to both yourself and others is an essential aspect of this process. The more fully you can hold in your heart and mind both your and someone else’s experiences, the more emotionally resilient you will be; and the more empathic and compassionate you will feel. Your relationships with yourself and others will feel deep and connected, bringing you a greater sense of well-being.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate awareness