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Improve Your Relationships Through Self-Awareness

An important ingredient for a successful relationship is self-confidence, and an important ingredient in self-confidence is self-awareness — often defined as “the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.”

It is self-awareness that enables us to introspectively evaluate why we’re feeling content, happy, passionate and fulfilled, or, sad, insecure, angry and jealous. Self-awareness allows us to recognize where we end and others begin. Self-awareness allows us to connect the dots throughout our lifespan, recognizing thinking and behavioral patterns formed in our childhoods, which often form the basis of our relationships, and how we relate to other people. Self-awareness helps us recognize our “life lenses” — our unique perceptions, and our personal language for interpreting the world.

When I had a counseling practice I quickly realized that a client’s level of self-awareness was often a primary predictor of whether he or she would be able to successfully traverse a rough patch in their relationships. Those who had limited self-awareness often couldn’t progress through an impasse because they were unable to evaluate their partner’s behavior objectively, and as a consequence, they projected their internal feelings onto their partner, often incorrectly attributing their partner’s motives and intentions. We’ve all been guilty of this type of thing at some point in our relationship history — your partner is late and forgets to call and you accuse him of being inconsiderate and disrespectful, when in reality he is merely preoccupied with a giant project at work. Or, your partner makes a joke at your expense at an office party, and you assume she did it on purpose, to humiliate you. This type of misattribution of intent doesn’t necessarily create a big problem in relationships unless we do it too much, and we are always assuming negative intent. In other words, if we have limited self-awareness, and we’re operating off of old negative tapes, or past bad experiences, then we are likely going to be creating problems in our relationships, where none necessarily exist.

I used to be guilty of this type of negative thinking (and behavior) all the time when I was younger. I had limited self-awareness and I tended to project most of my bad feelings outward, assuming that whatever boyfriend I had at the time was the cause of of my bad feelings. For instance, if I felt insecure or jealous I often believed my partner was to blame — obviously he was doing something insidious behind my back, otherwise why would I be feeling this way? I would torture myself, imagining all the ways that a partner was being unfaithful, which caused me great strife, and led to conflict in my relationships, because I had already come to a conclusion, without any actual interaction with my partner. Rather than looking inside myself for answers, I was looked outside instead. But I took it one step further — I rarely, if ever, admitted to my insecurities. Instead, I covered them up with seeming indifference and a cache of posturing bravados, and my lack of self-awareness allowed me to pull this off. When I grew up and matured I began to realize that the insecurity I was feeling was caused by my own brain (and heart), which had been taught at an all-too-early age the pain of unexpected abandonment. I was taking all of that pain and projecting it outward, sliming just about every man I dated with my own internal goo.

How ridiculous is that? Essentially I was creating (and recreating and re-re-recreating) the very thing I so desperately wanted to avoid! But that is the way the human brain works; recreating our childhood pain (again and again and again) may seem illogical on the surface, but if we believe we are condemned to repeat our past, then anticipating the worst is the lesser of two evils, because because while bad, it allows us some measure of control that we didn’t have as children. I may not be able to avoid being hurt again, but I could at least avoid being surprised.

Now, I’m not suggesting that others are incapable of causing us pain, and angst, and anxiety; on the contrary, there are many times where a partner’s bad behavior hurts us deeply. But even if someone is causing us pain, we still must be able to interpret the experience as accurately as possible, and respond in a healthy way. Two people can have the exact same experience and interpret it in vastly different ways (and then respond quite differently as well). The greater our self-awareness, the better we will be at introspectively analyzing how we’ve interpreted our experiences, created meaning around them and responded. For instance, I might date someone who calls me only once a week. I may interpret his behavior as neglectful and indifferent, or I may interpret it as mature and healthy because he’s pacing himself. How I interpret his behavior will depend upon my interpretive skills, which depends in large part on my own self-awareness and my ability to consider another’s behavior and motivations as being distinct and separate from myself and my past experiences.

I became healthier throughout the years because I stopped focusing outside of myself for the sources of my pain, and started focusing inwardly instead. I connected the dots, and gained insight into and understanding of what influenced my perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behavior. I continue to work on connecting the dots every single day because there’s no such thing is “arriving” in the world of self-awareness. Our issues will always be our issues, and truly self-aware people are “life long learners” of themselves.

For those of us re-entering the world of dating after a long hiatus, gaining self-awareness by engaging in a journey of honest self-exploration may be wrought with barriers. For instance, gaining insight and honestly owning one’s part in a conflictual relationship may feel a little too much like conceding and accepting blame, which many people are disinclined to do, particularly if they’re still in pain. Also, honest self-exploration and self-ownership can reduce anger and increase empathy toward a partner (or ex-partner), but that may be an undesirable prospect for some people, particularly since anger can make us feel empowered, shoving aside our sadness and vulnerability (feelings that can make us feel rather powerless). It may simply seem easier to remain polarized, see ourselves as victims, continue to project outward, and call it a dBut if we want to gain increased self-confidence so that we can relate to others in a healthier way, then we must do the emotional work (period). While it’s tempting to take all of our unhappiness and plop it into the lap of our next partner (and call it a day), if we haven’t done the work, then after the newness wears off, we’ll be left with the same (or similar) issues we had in our past relationships.

In order to have a healthy romantic relationship we must increase our self-awareness and enter on a journey of honest self-exploration and self-ownership. We must be able to recognize that we are distinct from our environment and other individuals; we must be able to see the parts that we play in our relationships (good and not-so-good) —what we bring to the table, and then recognize how all of these dynamics relate to our past experiences, our world views and our meaning-making life lenses. We must be able to see that honest self-exploration and increased self-awareness do not mean that we are signing on for a lifetime of blame and shame, or giving others ammunition to use against us. Quite the contrary, in fact. An honest and introspective journey of self awareness can be freeing. It’s a relief to admit to ourselves (and eventually others) the truth of why we feel the way we do, think the way we do, and act the way we do. And once our self-awareness has increased, we can then begin the journey of accepting ourselves — because you guessed it, self-acceptance is a key ingredient of self-confidence.

Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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