Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The mystery of self and other

We come into adulthood with a pre-existing template consisting of our expectations in relationship, fears of getting closer or too far away, how much we can lead with our vulnerability, what is safe and what isn't (can I really allow them to matter?), and eventually come up against the achy reality that intimacy is likely to illuminate pretty much everything that remains unresolved within us.

As a part of this template, we tend to specialize in carrying either the separateness aspect of the relationship, or the connecting aspect, as our role in the relational dance. This is natural of course, to have a bias toward one side or the other, based on what was happening in the relational field while our little hearts and nervous systems were developing. The bias is not problematic per se, but what can be problematic is the disowning or the avoidance of the other pole, or the acting out of it in less than conscious ways.

A healthy, secure, flexible, nourishing relationship seems to require our ability to be both separate and connected, alone and together, alone while together, together while alone. If we deny our separateness, we end up in a state of fusion or merging with the other and that can lead to all sorts of sticky, gooey, enmeshed dynamics where we lose touch with our own integrity, needs, boundaries, and individuation. While if we deny our connectedness, we become lonely, lose contact with our shared vulnerability, and fall out of touch with just how interconnected we all are, and the great power and preciousness of that.

The result of the fusion state is a condition referred to as "pathological accommodation" (see the work of the psychoanalyst Brandchaft) where we'll do just about anything to meet the needs of the other, to privilege them far above our own, and compromising our own integrity for the security of staying close. We tend to the ghosts of the unlived life of our partners, not necessarily out of true compassion, but as an enactment of earlier environments where we were forced to care for the other as the only way to maintain the attachment bond. All the while longing for our own integrity, wholeness, and authenticity.

The result of the avoidant state is a condition referred to as "compulsive self-reliance" (see the work of Bowlby) where we cannot allow ourselves to depend on another, for the other to matter too much, or to share too much of ourselves, for all of this is just way too unsafe, uncertain, and likely to result in just more empathic failure. No thank you, I'll just do it myself. I'm good. All the while longing for connection, to be met, to be seen, to be held.

It is no surprise that we tend to attract (and are attracted to) others who embody those qualities we've disowned or lost contact with in ourselves. Finding that balance between privileging our own needs and that of our partner and friends is of course a dance that takes a lot of practice. We must be willing and have the capacity to tolerate a fair amount of anxiety as we will always be invited back into that pole which we've disowned. It's intelligent and kind to ask our partners to help us as we navigate this, knowing that at times they will be able to do so and at other times they will not, for whatever reason.

May we be kind to our partners, lovers, and friends (and ourselves) as we traverse this territory together which can and will ask so much of us. But also has so much to offer.

My latest book – The Path Is Everywhere: Uncovering the Jewels Hidden Within You – is now available 

My next two events: 

The Great Befriending: A Five-Day Journey of Self-Love, Deep Rest, and Coming Alive (with Jeff Foster), September 21-26 in Loveland, Colorado 

Stay tuned for details regarding a five-day winter retreat January 23-28 at Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, Colorado