Category Archives: Relationships

Know Thyself (and Others)

To be known is an innate desire in us human beings. But what does it mean to be known? To be known as we know ourselves at this moment or to be known as a process of discovery? There seems to be an understandable need in both individuals and societies for us humans to be complete and settled into who we are, to be solid and unchangeable. The need for this stability is understandable as it provides the basis for building long-term projects such as marriage, parenthood, and careers. From this base point, we can go out and do. Self-reflection and interest in the unknown parts of us do not align very well with this process. They could encounter unexpected realizations that unsettle those ongoing life projects that we participate in and often are solely responsible for. Still, we continue to want to be known by others, to be received, understood and responded to in the way that makes us feel seen. Outwardly oriented, we look to others to give us the self-reflection that we are not so inclined to do ourselves. 

Of course, there are many who are completely averse to any self-knowledge – from others or themselves. This attitude can be effective and lead to great external success. In some small way, a small part of me admires it. However, for those of us who have embarked on an ongoing dialogue with ourselves and others about all that we are, there is a beautiful and exciting road ahead, covered with bumps and roadblocks, interrupted by confusing road signs and surrounded by an ever-changing scenery. And as we go on, we need to keep pausing to evaluate the landscape, assess how it has affected us, determine how prepared we are for the next step, and recalibrate our self-curiosity. There is a continuing tension between the motivation to keep going, and the temptation to submit to the pull of our current environment. This tension appears from the moment we are born. For survival, for nurture, for love (as defined by those important others in our life) we learn to compromise the innate need for creatively expressing who we are. From unconscious split-offs to conscious withholding of our true thoughts and feelings, we hide the parts of us that are not welcome. On an individual, family, peer group, and social level, the creative expression of who we are is constrained by how we are received. What we reveal about ourselves to others is determined by our assessment of what feedback we will get. And so we adapt and reorient ourselves to continue fitting in.

The need to be known remains intact, however. When we are received and understood, we become alive. In these moments we are one with our external reality. Sometimes, it takes only one curious and understanding human being to change our self-perception and activate that (often) dormant need for a dynamic, energetic and connected living.

To live in this way requires a continuous effort to remain in a dialogue with oneself and with others. It is based on deep inquisitiveness, the ability to listen without judgment, and the responsibility and skill to express our own thoughts and feelings. The desire and attempt to see another person’s perception is a high aspiration, a difficult undertaking, a brave step. Mistakes will be made, miscommunication will occur. However, as long as there is a willingness to understand and an attempt at it, the dialogue will go on. In this ongoing dialogue, stands our chance to know ourselves creatively, to reveal and remake ourselves and to do the same for others.

Reaching for a book?

Part 1

This post lists some of the books I recommend to my clients and the ones that have remained my favorites through time. Having gone through a number of self-help books, I have experienced the hope and curiosity they trigger, the validation they offer and the discouragement that arises weeks or even days after we finish reading them. The books below withstood the test of time and produced a good wholesome effect on me. To keep this blog short, I have split the list in 2 parts and will offer only part 1 today:

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

Each chapter offers one story about one client of psychotherapist S. Grosz. The author takes us into the realm of the unconscious and its effects on our behavior. Gently holding your hand, he reveals the nature and impact of psychotherapy and delights you with an expected ending.

The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

Do we change or do we not? This question still traverses the conversation around human psychology. Written in 2007, this book will convince non-believers that adaptive changes in our brains could be seen in brain scans, including changes resulting from psychotherapy. This is scientifically-informed captivating storytelling.

The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller

114 small-size pages will draw you into the complex and intense world of children as they relate to their parents. The innate need for survival as well as the inherent love for mom and dad lead to astonishing adaptive changes in the psyche. This applies to all of us, almost without exception. It is the human nature.

Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

More than this book, I like E. Perel’s original video talks in which she explains “the secret of desire”. She caught the psychotherapists’ attention before she became a celebrity through her popular talks and interviews with the novelty of her ideas, direct and honest speech and a sense of humor.

Monogamy by Adam Phillips

Unconventionally-written and philosophical, this small book may not fit your taste but if it does, you will hang onto it. The ideas feel ahead of our time.

Which of the books you have read supported you and helped you make sustainable changes?

Talking about the difficult stuff

In intimate relationships, and especially in their early phases when people are still settling into each other’s worlds, they could find themselves surprised by how jealous, possessive, and “needy” they feel about their partner. Men and women may become equally sensitive to how their partner talks about others that interest and excite them. They may be startled by how competitive and easily angered they are by anyone who presents a perceived threat to our relationship. These strong emotions can be confusing and so hard to share that we’d rather mask them with humor or focus our criticism on the threatening person. When we reach out for a solution, the self-help literature is quick to tell us that we are not evolved sufficiently, that we need to be above these feelings and hide our fears. This presents us with a dilemma of how we should behave.

We may choose to be cool and maybe even a little revengeful and try to make our partner feel the pain of longing that we experience and return from their perceived departure to us. In working with couples, however, I have observed the power of an alternative and much simpler exchange. From attachment theory, we know that our need for a secure bond is primal and central. To have fears of losing it, especially early on in the relationship, is natural. We need reassurance from our partner that they are not going away and that we are the only one. When those fears overwhelm us, instead of blaming ourselves for being needy and possessive and trying to pretend we aren’t, we could tell our partner that this event or that person has triggered a fear in us that we might lose them, which means that we really care about them and don’t want to lose them.

The key to deciding whether to do this or not is how secure you feel in the relationship, what your past experiences around revealing your feelings have been, and what you know about your partner’s ability to appropriately respond. Even in the best relationship, however, revealing our deepest fears is difficult. The fear of getting rejected is very real and powerful and explains why we don’t tread lightly in these territories. Yet, these brief moments of honesty and vulnerability hold a great potential for deepening intimacy. When this is shared in the right moment, we are likely to get a reaction of surprise and a wave of warmth and reassurance. Our partner may even venture into a disclosure of their own.

An important distinction needs to be made between sharing our vulnerability and asking for a change in our partner’s behavior. We are not asking for a change. We are telling them we care about them and that makes us vulnerable and fearful. However, we also hold in ourselves the impermanence of love and the possibility of losing it. This will give our partner the space to find out how they feel about us and the freedom to respond from an honest place. We cannot force desire or commitment in another but we can invite them to find out where they stand.