Everyone's heard this self-help platitude: We need to love ourselves before we can love anyone else. This may sound wise, but it misses a great truth. If we want to experience true intimacy, we need to be taught to love aspects of ourselves—again and again—by the people around us.
As much as we want to control our own destiny, the humbling truth is that sometimes the only way to learn self-love is by being loved—precisely in the places where we feel most unsure and most tender. When that happens, we feel freedom and relief and permission to love in a deeper way. No amount of positive self-talk can replicate this experience. It is a gift of intimacy, not of willpower.
Yet if our vulnerability is met with derision or disinterest, something tender shrivels and retracts within us, and we may think twice about ever sharing that part again. In my favorite Chipmunks episode, Simon falls head over heels in love, but has no idea how to win the (chip)girl's heart. Dave exhorts him, "Just be yourself." In response, Simon wails, "I tried that already!" When our authentic self doesn't work in the world, we create a false self which lets us feel safe and accepted—but at significant cost. The great psychoanalytic theorist Donald Winnicott said, "Only the true self can be creative, and only the true self can feel real." I would add that only the true self can bear the risk of deep intimacy.
Every time we face the choice to share our deeper self, we stand at a precipice. Often, it's just too scary to take the step forward.
Imagine taking a pet you love and putting it in a yard with an invisible electric fence. When it moves outside its allowed space, it gets stunned by an unexpected shock. It will only take a few jolts before your pet gets the message: If it goes too far, punishment will be instantaneous. In a short period of time, your pet won't act as if the borders even exist; it will simply avoid them. If pushed closer to the danger zone, it will exhibit increasing signs of anxiety. The world outside the fence just isn't worth the pain.
Now imagine turning off the charge from the invisible fence and then placing a bowl of food outside its perimeter. Your pet might be starving, but it will still be terrified to enter into the newly free space. And when it finally crosses the line, it does so tremblingly, anticipating the pain of new shocks. It is the same with us; even though we yearn for the freedom of our true self, some deep, reflexive instinct still tries to protect us from being hurt again.
We can each learn more about our true and false selves by answering these two questions:
- What parts of your authentic self did you have to hide or camouflage in your childhood?
- In your current relationships, where are you confined to too small of a space? What parts of yourself are you not expressing?
In my work as a psychotherapist, I've found that we tend to be ashamed of our most unique, passionate, and iconoclastic parts. These aspects of ourselves threaten our safety, but as I explain in my book Deeper Dating , they are the direct path to love and, not incidentally, to personal greatness. When we suppress these challenging gifts, we're left with a sense of emptiness and loneliness.
This shame around our most vulnerable attributes is almost universal. And even our best thinking will barely budge it.
So, how do we free ourselves from the thrall of learned shame and fear around our gifts? The best—sometimes the only— way out is through relationships, relationships which instruct us in the worth of our most vulnerable self.
Who, of the people you know, sees and relishes your true self? Who isn't too afraid of your passion or too envious of your gifts? Who has the generosity of spirit to encourage you toward greater self-expression? These people are gold. Practice leaning on them more, and giving more back to them. They are, quite simply, the way out. They are what I call relationships of inspiration , and we usually need to build these relationships into our non-romantic lives before we find them in our romantic partners. When you date someone like this, recognize what progress you've made to let them in, and celebrate that. In future posts, I will describe the path to building more of these relationships into our lives.
© Ken Page, LCSW 2015
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