The Key to Healthy Relationships: It's All in Your Head
How self-understanding can save your closest relationships
Posted May 16, 2011
Too often we seek from our relationships someone who will complete us, who will make us feel whole, but the lesson of the missing piece is one we all learn with time: no matter how close we get to someone or how much we connect with them, our "missing pieces" reside within us alone, and these holes have a significant impact on our closest relationships.
It's a common misconception that a healthy relationship resembles that of a puzzle, where two pieces fit perfectly together to form something united. An illusion of fusion can lead people to form what Dr. Dan Siegel, Executive Director of The Mindsight Institute refers to as a smoothie, as opposed to a fruit salad. This analogy is easy for most of us to relate to, as the biggest challenge many of us face in relationships is how to maintain a sense of ourselves while getting close to another individual. The lesson of the fruit salad is that coming together, while maintaining our individuality (as opposed to blending in and losing ourselves in a relationship) creates something more vibrant and substantial. The fuller, healthier, and more complete we feel in ourselves, the closer, stronger, and more resilient our relationships become.
So how do the holes from our past create problems in our present relationships? And how does getting to know ourselves help us better relate to another person? The poet, Lord Byron, once described solitude as "where we are least alone." Our greatest weaknesses too often stem from the inner workings of our minds. Conversely, our greatest strengths often spring from our ability to reflect on our minds and develop self-understanding.
Dan Siegel's approach to self-understanding involves the development of Mindsight, the ability to monitor what is going on in our own mind and in the minds of others. Mindsight describes a focused effort to examine one's own feelings and to have intuition regarding other people's intentions. In my May 24 webinar with Dr. Siegel, we will discuss Relationships and the Roots of Resilience and explore how emotional resilience often begins with this type of effort.
Mindsight involves reflecting on one's thoughts, feelings, and intentions and finding common ground in the experiences of others. This entails an openness, observation and objectivity that can help us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them. In this sense, it allows us to reshape and redirect our future and become the author of our own story.
In order to be open, observational, and objective, a person must become aware of the Critical Inner Voice. The term ‘Critical Inner Voice' describes an internalized enemy, shaped from early life experiences. If we grew up feeling neglected, our "voices" might tell us we are worthless. If we grew up feeling criticized, our "voices" may tell us we are deficient.
Voice Therapy is a technique developed by Dr. Robert Firestone that encourages people to identify and combat this Critical Inner Voice. Whether it is telling us that we are stupid to trust anyone or that we are simply unlovable, the Critical Inner Voice is at the core of many of our relationship woes.
By being more attentive to our thoughts and emotions (including the Critical Inner Voice), we are better able to be attuned to the minds of others and see them objectively and with compassion. Becoming aware of the voice process helps us to stop projecting experiences from our past on to people in our life today. It allows us to get off of the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses that were adaptive when we were growing up, but now sabotage our relationships. For instance, if we were frightened into hiding our emotions as kids, as adults, we may have trouble opening up to someone close to us. Shutting down may have had the advantageous effect of protecting us from a threat as kids, but today, it might have the distinctly disadvantageous effect of pushing away someone we love.
By becoming psychologically differentiated from damaging experiences and identities from our past, we can develop a stronger sense of who we really are. We can begin to live our lives rather than relive our pasts. People who are differentiated in this manner have succeeded, to a large extent, in emancipating themselves from negative childhood influences. As a result, they have developed their own value system and set their own course in life. When people have a sense of their identity and are possessed of self, they can have a genuine respect for the boundaries, wants, and priorities of another individual, be it their partner, spouse, friend, or child.
An example of this principle at work is a recently married woman who found herself obsessively worrying every time her husband, a lifelong cyclist, left to go mountain biking with friends. Even though he returned each time safely, overjoyed to see her, she couldn't shake a sense of insecurity and panic that he wouldn't come back.
Eventually, the woman's anxiety became so extreme that her husband offered to stop going on the trips. At a crossroads, the woman sensed what was at stake and refused to restrict her husband from doing something that made him light up. Instead, she decided to explore exactly why she felt such panic at his departure.
It didn't take long for the woman to identify the long list of early rejections she felt as a child from two parents who were constantly away on business when she was young. This process of matching intensified contemporary emotions to occurrences of the past helped ease her present worry in ways her husband's sacrifice never would have. Most importantly, it helped the woman create what Dan Siegel describes as a "cohesive narrative" of her life that allowed her to now generate her own story, freer from the restrictions of her past.
People who are centered in themselves have a greater potential for real relating. On the flip side, a person who seeks to repair old ruptures through current relationships runs the risk of hurting these relationships. For example, a father who felt unsupported in his athletic accomplishments as a child may compensate with his own children by placing excessive pressure on their performance in sports. What the father deems as the support he never got, his children may experience as the pressure they never wanted.
By having the capacity for self-reflection, or mindsight, the father can catch on to otherwise unconscious motivations. He can make sense of his own experience, feel compassion for himself, and separate his experience from that of his children.
Genuine love requires valuing another person's goals in life separate from one's own personal needs and interests. In a truly loving couple, each partner recognizes that the motives, desires, and aspirations of the other are as important as his or her own. Because they feel congenial toward each other's aspirations, partners try not to interfere, intrude, or manipulate in order to dominate or control the relationship.
It is equally essential that children be seen as separate human beings who belong to themselves, not to their parents or families. Parents who respect their children for their unique identities do not treat their children as possessions or property. They don't regard a child as an extension of themselves, or feed off of his or her achievements. Doing so prohibits children from ever discovering who or what they could have become.
This is not to say that the connection between a couple or a parent and child does not involve a special feeling of love, care, or concern. However, loving implies an enjoyment of the other person's emergence as an individual and sensitivity to his or her wants and motives. A lack of independence can lead to the formation of an addictive attachment, or Fantasy Bond, rather than a genuinely loving involvement. It can lead us to search for our "missing piece" as opposed to our perfect partner.
The more we develop our mindsight and identify the negative programming from our past, the better able we are to develop ourselves and approach others with open arms. As Siegel says, "We must look inward to know our own internal world before we can map clearly the internal state, the mind, of the other. As we grow in our ability to know ourselves, we become receptive to knowing each other."
If we adopt this perspective, no longer will we seek out our ‘missing piece,' but instead we will recognize our own value and what we have to offer to another person. Robert Firestone wrote, "Perhaps the single most important life affirming human quality is the ability to feel love-to feel compassion and empathy for and express kindness, generosity and tenderness toward, other people. Learning to love others requires first valuing oneself." This is the foundation upon which all human relationships are built.
To learn more or to register for the May 24 CE webinar with Dr. Lisa Firestone and Dr. Dan Siegel, visit Relationships and the Roots of Resilience.
To read more from Lisa Firestone on Relationships visit PsychAlive.org