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Defining a Self While in a Relationship

How to become one’s own person even when in a relationship.

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“The strongest relationships are between two people who can live without each other but don’t want to.” —Harriet Lerner

The idea of getting lost in the arms of another isn’t new. Many of us find great comfort in merging our life with someone else’s. We might even believe that it’s better for our relationships to compromise, sacrifice, and give up parts of who we are for another person. In our culture, women are trained to fit into certain roles; they’re expected to do the housework, the childcare, and all of the emotional labor. Most of us lose ourselves in these functional roles, pursuing what we think is best for our relationships and family.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to fit into the provider role by delivering financial support and physical labor around the house. When they’re upset, men become emotionally distant, while women seek solutions and/or someone to blame for the conflict. Of course, these stereotypical gender roles aren’t set in stone. However, societal expectations, along with the unique roles we play in our family relationships, shape how we behave and what ideas we form about who we should be to maintain our relationships.

So, what happens when who you are doesn’t fit one of society’s pre-set boxes? What happens when you continue to lose yourself for the sake of your relationships? What if you find yourself angry and upset about the culturally prescribed roles and positions you’re expected to fill? Many of us fear that if we connect more deeply with ourselves, we’ll lose our most important relationships. By constantly going with the flow, giving in, and acting in ways that we don’t necessarily prefer, we may be losing ourselves without even realizing it.

One day, you might find yourself angry, depressed, lonely, and/or lost. These emotions would make anyone confused, especially if you’ve always followed the rules. When this happens, people often think that they’re the problem. They think they must be broken, that something must be wrong with them. After all, they’ve done everything that’s supposed to make them happy, but they aren’t happy. When I encounter clients in this crisis, I always urge them to take a step back and observe themselves.

To observe the patterns that are keeping them angry, depressed, and lonely—not to see what’s wrong with them, but to identify the problems before taking any actions. I encourage them to understand that their emotions aren’t something to be eliminated or interpreted as confirmation that there’s something wrong with them. Rather, they should be seen as messengers showing up to let you know what isn’t working for you in your life. If you just take the time to slow down and observe, you can start to look inward.

Looking inward offers us an opportunity to more clearly define who we are within the culture we were brought up in, and within our relationships. It enables us to express our thoughts and ideas more clearly, and to share what we’ve been going through with ourselves and others. When we can clearly state our opinions to the people we’ve usually tried to accommodate, we’re able to define who we are within our relationships.

It’s important to open your mind and start challenging the beliefs and ideas that contribute to you losing yourself. Challenge the ideas that don’t match with your personal experiences. Ask yourself questions like: What ideas are getting in my way of being who I want to be? How can I have more freedom of choice in my life?

Change happens when we’re able to clearly look at ourselves and define for ourselves how we want to live and who we want to be in our relationships. So many of us get so caught up in accommodating others or defending ourselves that we don’t take the time to define ourselves.

Relationships thrive when we’re free to be who we are; when we’re able to say no; when we pursue our own aspirations and goals. When two separate people with their own minds and lives come together, beautiful things can happen.

But the outcome isn’t quite so beautiful when we look for another person to make a life for us, or when we take the responsibility of another person’s life on our own shoulders. Many of us have learned to depend on others, or to allow others to depend on us; but we don’t know how to value, let alone meet, our own needs.

As Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. says in The Dance of Anger, “Defining a self or becoming one’s own person is a task that one ultimately does alone. No one else can or will do it for you, although others may try and we may invite them to do so. In the end, I define what I think, feel, and believe.”

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