The Most Important Relationship In Your Life
And How to Make it the Best it Can Be
We hear a lot these days about whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert. Books and articles abound about how to figure out which one you are, what the strengths are of each, and how to leverage them for success — mostly in the context of business.
But while whether one is an introvert or an extrovert is important, it’s only half of the picture when it comes to the important relationship dynamics in one’s life. Introversion and extroversion have to do with how one relates to others — interpersonal relations. But how one relates to others is just part of the picture — it’s just one kind of relationship. What about the other relationship, the most important one? I’m talking about intrapersonal relationships — or how one relates to oneself.
I hope that doesn’t sound crazy. If it does, that’s actually a big part of the problem. Read on.
How Do You Treat Yourself?
How often have you found yourself feeling angry, and out of sorts, but not at another person, or group of people — you’re just angry? You’ll find it manifest in sarcastic jibes at friends and loved ones, or in your just being short with people who clearly don’t deserve it. It’s background anger — like ambient noise, but emotional. You may be so used to it that you don’t even notice it’s there — because it’s how things have normally been for you for a while.
The anger usually comes from your having failed to meet expectations that you’ve placed on yourself. Even expectations that others have placed on you won’t hold a candle to the ones that you’ve internalized yourself. The funny thing is that in many cases, we take external expectations that others have of us, and internalize them — often without bothering to ask if they’re fair to us. Also, we often magnify the stakes of these expectations; we hang the hat of our very personal worth upon them.
These internalized expectations are often far from realistic, which is what makes them so harmful. And those of us who are actively engaged in self-improvement (be it through reading books and articles, taking classes, or other means) tend to have the most unrealistic demands of all. We have a lethal combination: we are great at being critical of ourselves, we are passionate about improvement, and thus we place high expectations on ourselves — ones that we passionately hammer into our subconscious minds.
So when you (unsurprisingly) fail to meet those unrealistic demands that you’ve placed on yourself, you create a cognitive dissonance — a space between how you perceive you should be and how you feel you actually are. Anger, sadness, anxiety, and the related negative emotions are a result of that. You feel a distance between who you expect yourself to be, and who you are. It’s a real and palpable existential divide that lies at the heart of so much of our daily angst.
How you treat yourself is ultimately how you treat others
The relationship you have with yourself is the foundation for all of the other relationships in your life. However you relate to yourself sets a precedent for how you relate to others. If you tend to harshly judge and blame yourself for even small things, you will likely do that for others — especially those close to you. Think of it this way: the worst way that you treat yourself is going to be the way you treat others in your life by default when you can’t put on a show.
How to Treat Yourself Better
1. Journal Regularly
Seriously. Write down your feelings — not your judgments about your feelings — but just how you’re feeling. All of us have some terrible thoughts, impure thoughts, crazy thoughts, from time to time. It’s important that we acknowledge those thoughts and feelings, then realize that those thoughts and feelings are not who we are.
We are not our thoughts and feelings, rather who we are is based on how we treat the thoughts and feelings that pop into our minds.
If we calmly acknowledge our emotions and choose let them flutter about until we can choose our next actions, we are wise and calm people. If we allow our fresh and harsh emotional reactions and random thoughts to drive our behavior, we’re doomed.
Journaling regularly helps to create distance between your reactions and your actions, between your emotions and your choices. But be sure to use almost entirely first-person language (“I feel that” “I had this emotion…”, etc.). Avoid making judgments about others — how they feel, what their desires and motives are, and the like. That will keep the focus where it needs to be, on you.
2. Don’t Identify With Your Thoughts
You are not the thoughts you think. You are not the emotions you feel. Those things pop into your mind, and you then choose how to relate to them, but they are not who you are. Realizing this can be difficult, but it’s the first step in developing a sense of yourself as a being to be loved and nurtured.
Yes, that’s right, you need to love and nurture yourself. That is not selfish. In fact, to really love and nurture yourself is necessary in order to really love and nurture others in any sustainable way. If you beat up on yourself, and deny yourself love and understanding — while trying to love and nurture others — it is only a matter of time before you have an emotional cave-in. And where does
3. Work a 4th Step
Of the many things that alcoholics and drug addicts can teach us, chief among them is the concept of a searching and fearless moral inventory. It’s an effective way to gain insight into the things that you need to focus on in order to become a more peaceful person. It’s important to note here: the goal is not to be “insanely successful” or to “10x” something or other. The goal is to be at peace with yourself. Nothing else worthwhile is obtainable without that goal being accomplished.
Being at peace with yourself is difficult. It requires a lot of initial work, and a lot of maintenance. It requires changing your disposition from being critical to being compassionate — to yourself and to others. The 4th step in AA and NA is a great model for anyone who wishes to get a better grasp on their emotional life. There is a great worksheet that I found, which is an excellent guide for doing a fearless and searching moral inventory. If nothing else, it provides a great prompt for journalling (see suggestion # 1).
If All Else Fails
If all else fails, remember this: at the end of the day, you are all you really have. Everyone and everything in your life is subject to the forces of decay and death; they can leave well before you do — in one way or another. But you are stuck with you for the rest of your life. The more you understand, accept, love, and nurture yourself, the better your life will be.
It’s difficult work, but I can think of fewer things more worthwhile.
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