John Gottman on Trauma and Relationships

I recently read an article by John Gottman that I highly recommend to anyone who has ever suffered from trauma (you can find it HERE). The article helped me to understand many things about my past relationship experience and why some of my relationships have been so vastly different from others.

According to Gottman, humans are wired for connection from birth, but trauma rewires the brain to seek protection instead, and we are constantly scanning the environment to determine whether things are “safe” or “unsafe.” Gottman says that emotionally safe people can help trauma suffers regulate their nervous system by creating a safe place for thoughts and feelings. He writes: “co-regulation happens when another person sees and hears your feelings and experience. This allows you to feel comfortable.”

This is so incredibly true and explains so much of what I have been through over the past few years of dating. I have been in relationships with people who were extremely capable of co-regulation, and I have been in relationships with people who were not, and the difference is night and day. Those who have been able to help me co-regulate were able to validate my feelings and walk me through my moments of fear and anxiety by expressing empathy and understanding (no matter how crazy my fear might have seemed to them), while those who were not capable of this would jump to defense and invalidation (“That’s ridiculous!” “I can’t believe you would even think that!”) With the former, I felt heard which helped me to feel safe. With the latter, I became even more anxious and afraid.

Unfortunately, the difference also affected how I acted toward my partners. With those who were able to help me co-regulate, my fear and anxiety dissipated quickly without descending into arguments. With those who were not, however, my fear became worse, growing to the point of total meltdown and horrific fights. I’ve written about this a lot over the past few months, because I am still struggling with feelings of guilt and shame regarding some of the things I did and ways I acted during a recent unhealthy relationship (I told a friend, recently, that it feels a lot like an identity crisis. Which person am I? The person I was in that relationship? Or the person I’ve been in relationships both before and since then? The fact that both versions exist within me is extremely unsettling). But I am also coming to understand that I must practice self-compassion (interestingly, Gottman talks about this as well), and part of that lies in recognizing that who I was in that relationship is not who I’ve been in all my relationships. (And even in the unhealthy relationship, my ex and I had many moments when we were capable of this and we both recognized that during the times when one of us was able to remain level-headed we were able to work ourselves through a potential fight without a catastrophic meltdown. Unfortunately, these times were just too few and far between to enable us to maintain a healthy balance). But even though that relationship wasn’t healthy, many of my relationships have been, and those were filled with empathy and kindness and compassion. After reading Gottman’s article, I realize that my recent ex and I were simply unable to consistently help each other “co-regulate.” This is no one’s “fault” and has to do with a number of variables, personality differences, and past experiences. But after almost a year of therapy and countless books, I have come to understand what a critical, crucial role this co-regulation plays for those of us who suffer from traumatic pasts and how vitally important it is to choose relationships with those we can do this with.

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India’s Tirthas

We have been studying the Hindu religion in one of my classes, and were asked to write a paper about Hindu pilgrimages, called “tirtha’s.” I find this idea of pilgrimage fascinating and thought I’d share some of it here…

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I recently read a short story by Stephen King called “The Reach.” In the story, the main character, a 95 year old woman named Stella, is prompted by her dead husband to cross a body of water called “the reach” that separates her island from the mainland. The reach is frozen and as she crosses it begins to snow, causing disorientation and making the journey extremely difficult. Still, she carries on, meeting other parted loved ones who help her along the way. The next day, her son finds her body on the mainland. In the story, the reach is both a literal body of water and a way to symbolize the crossing from life to death.

This idea of a crossing–journeying between two worlds–is fascinating to me. In their books Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed describe journeys they took in their own lives that were not only spiritually healing, but also served to bridge a gap between who they were and who they later became. Even my therapist recently told me she wants to start hosting intensive healing retreats that include a sort of pilgrimage, as she believes there is a healing and transformative power that comes from such a journey. In the Hindu religion, this idea of crossing is embodied by the concept of the “tirtha.” In it’s simplest definition, a “tirtha” is literally a crossing place or ford, but in Hindu culture the word “tirtha” has come to refer not only to places of pilgrimage, but to the way one travels. Tirtha’s are believed to be “limens which link this world and the other,” and the journey itself is considered a spiritual transformation where one may “cross over to the far shore of the worlds of heaven.”

As this is obviously a practice that has endured for centuries with powerful effects, even in our modern culture which doesn’t typically operate within the framework of concepts such as tirthas, it begs the question: what makes such a journey so powerful?

Perhaps its power lies in the meaning of life itself.

I was recently speaking with a friend about Aristotle’s concept of “eudaimonia,” the pursuit of which Aristotle believed was the highest perfection of life. Often taken to mean “happiness,” the word is better translated as “the highest human good” and embodies the pursuit of goodness for goodness’ sake, rather than a means to some other end. In this line of reasoning, well-being is not so much an outcome but the process of realizing one’s own “daimon” or “true nature” and pursuing one’s own virtue. The idea resonates powerfully with me, because I have long believed that while in American culture we are indoctrinated toward the “pursuit of happiness” as the highest goal, the pursuit of “goodness” is, in my opinion, a much better one.* (Of course, how we define “goodness” is a topic all its own, but suffice it to say that the pursuit of “goodness” will often [and, I think, necessarily] be accompanied by moments of extreme UNhappiness). Unlike the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of eudaimonia is not one of pleasure, comfort, or ease. There is no instant gratification, no achievement of satisfaction through indulgence or entertainments. Like the tirtha, it is arduous by its very nature, and, according to Diana Eck, it is the difficulty which serves to multiply the rewards.

In this way, I believe the tirtha is not just the act of traveling from one place to another but the deeply symbolic physical manifestation of a spiritual truth. The tirtha is not just something we do, it is something we are.

*As an interesting side note, Aristotle believed that deep intellectual contemplation was necessary for the acquisition of a moral character, and therefore a requirement in the pursuit of eudaimonia. Hindu teachings echo this concept, as the world of heaven, according to Hinduism, is said to be a world “illumined by the light of knowledge.”

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Quotes taken from India’s Tīrthas: “Crossings” in Sacred Geography by Diana L. Eck

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Anchor Me Loving

“I forgive myself relentlessly. Just relentlessly. It annoys people how freely and relentlessly I forgive myself. The truth is that I just don’t understand living any other way. Shame is so… self indulgent and power zapping. It leaves us useless. To ourselves, to our people, to the world. Self flagellation is not a badge of honor. It doesn’t make us worthy It just makes us – kind of a drag. And It takes us out of the game. Who has time?
What are we doing here, if not learning and growing and trying again? Why can’t we do that with some lightness and tenderness and humor?
Who we were last year last hour last minute- it’s gone. We are new! Let us begin again!”
–Glennon Doyle

I recently asked an ex to forgive me for a series of hurtful things that I had done during the course of our relationship, and the response I received surprised me:

“I need to forgive myself for what I allowed you to put me through” (paraphrased).

This response not only left me uncertain as to whether forgiveness had been granted, but it also (and perhaps more importantly) made me realize all the ways in which I have not yet entirely forgiven myself. I typically do not struggle with forgiveness (toward myself or others), and I’ve spent quite a bit of time since then trying to figure out why there remain remnants of unforgiveness in me for things from my recent past. In considering this, I was reminded of another time when I struggled with forgiveness toward someone who had deeply hurt me and spent weeks lost in bitterness and resentment because, no matter how I worked the problem, I simply could not find empathy. When I later expressed this to my therapist she said:

“Maybe it would help if you could see the truth behind it all–that there are events from the past that have led to where this person is and how this person acts that they simply cannot help.”

In that moment, I realized that one of the most important aspects of empathy (and therefore forgiveness) lies in the acknowledgment of the fact that, as shame researcher Brene Brown once said, “everyone is doing the best they can.”

Sometimes our best sucks, but it is still our best.  The fact is, everyone has suffered in one way or another, and we often do not realize all the ways that suffering contributes to our actions and to those of other people. For months, I have struggled with guilt and shame regarding past actions, especially during moments when people share stories about my past behavior that are not true. But here’s what I’ve come to realize: those stories are a part of that person’s truth. They are, unfortunately and heartbreakingly, part of that person’s memory of me. And while some stories aren’t entirely accurate in the minutia of their details, they are absolutely accurate in the overall “big picture.” However we arrange the particulars, the truth is there have been a plethora of instances in which I was neither loving nor kind. Instances in which I was jealous, hypocritical, spiteful, bitter, controlling, manipulative, and hateful.

Why?

Because I was in pain. Right or wrong, good or bad, justified or not, I was hurting. The actions I took were the only ones I knew how to take at the time, and I take full responsibility for that. But what my therapist has helped me realize is that there are reasons I did the things I did, just as there are reasons others have done the things they’ve done. In every person’s life, there are events from the past that drive us in unhealthy, destructive ways.

This is not an excuse. Far from it. This is me taking full ownership for every hurtful, horrible thing I have ever done. But it is also me taking ownership for all the ways I am working—and making progress—to heal. As my therapist recently said to me: “It’s good to accept the truth about the unhealthy version of yourself you once were, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that this is no longer who you are.”

I have come to realize that the way I must work to forgive myself is exactly the same way I must work to forgive others:

I must find empathy.

And I must wholeheartedly embrace that empathy in an act of radical, relentless self-forgiveness.

“When you think that you’ve blown it in every possible way, that you’ve broken [your commitment to love and compassion] irredeemably, instead of becoming mired in guilt, view it as an incentive to spend the rest of your life recognizing your habitual tendencies and doing your best not to strengthen them.”
–Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully

“I have some issues with my past self, but she was young, and I forgive her.”
—Glennon Doyle

I forgive her. Whether anyone else ever does or not…

I forgive her.

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I’m done with the shame. Done
with the cage of self hate.
I know there are things I haven’t survived.
I know there are people in this world
who have been through hell because of me.
I don’t ever want to take that lightly,
but I want the heavy to anchor me brave, anchor me
loving, anchor me in something that will hold me
as I aim for my own goodness
until the muscle in my chest tears
from the stretch of becoming what I came here to be:
A lover.

(Modified from Andrea Gibson’s poem’s Ode to the Public Panic Attack and
Boomerang Valentine)

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The Rats in the Walls

This week in class we were assigned a short story to read called “The Rats in the Walls” by H.P. Lovecraft. One of the themes central to the story is that of family history and secrets, and, most likely because I’ve been thinking about these things a lot, lately, it resonated with me in a way the author may not have actually intended.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been seeing a therapist and working on some things from my past, and during the process of my own healing, I have come to realize just how pervasive family dysfunction can be and how prevalent and widespread the effects of it can become. In “The Rats in the Walls,” the main character, Delapore, begins researching his family history and moves into his ancestral home where each night he hears rats climbing inside the walls. Interestingly, only he (and his cats) can hear these rats, and they eventually lead him to the truth about his family’s horrific secret past.

Likely because of what I’ve been studying and personally going through, I took the fact that only Delapore can hear the rats to be the case because Delapore is a family member and a descendant of those who once lived in the house. Interpreting the presence of the rats in this way is meaningful to me for two opposing reasons. First, it signifies the fact that within each family, only the members of that family really know what takes place “behind the walls.” Conversely, it also signifies how each of us is often blind to our own family dysfunction, and even though we are literally witness to it every single day, we often cannot name (and therefore heal from) the dysfunction unless it is pointed out to us. For example, the emotionally incestuous father who casts his young daughter in a role his wife ought to play, depending on the daughter emotionally and spiritually for far too much. Or the perfectionist mother who teaches her son that self-worth is only achievable by being the “best.” In both cases, child and parent have no framework to recognize the behavior as abuse and therefore believe it to be normal or even healthy–the daughter’s actions toward the father considered loving and dutiful, the son’s perfectionism framed as “drive” and “ambition.” Meanwhile, none of them see the very real, and incredibly destructive, cycle of abuse.

In a similar manner, Delapore knows the rats are present. He can hear them, but they are hidden from his other senses just as abuse is often too obscure and covert to identify in anything other than the vaguest sense. Delapore spends most of the story searching for the truth of his ancestry and, in the end, accompanied by his friend, Norrys, he blindly follows the rats into those “grinning caverns of earth’s centre” where they are destined to lead. There, we find Delapore, aroused by the knowledge of his family history, eating the body of his friend while his cat—the only other witness to the rats—tears at his throat, presumably in an effort to stop him.

Isn’t this what family dysfunction does? It leads us deeper and deeper, entangling us further and further, until, if not seen and healed, the dysfunction spreads onto our adult relationships, damaging those around us as we “eat” our own. And isn’t there always some witness tearing at our throats, trying desperately to warn us of what is happening to us and those around us? Do we listen?

It’s a dismal look at the human psyche. But I think it’s also a necessary one.

Will we listen?

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“Is it safe for anyone to love you?”

I recently received an email from someone who had a few questions about my recent blog posts. I thought her questions were insightful, and wanted to post our correspondence here. In her email to me she asked:

I personally enjoy change and I have lost friends along the way because of that and even truthfully some family members to which I am okay with. But I wonder, if you are always evolving how does someone find true love and partnership?

Does there come a point in a persons life that they eventually know who they are and what they want? Have you reached that knowing? Or can a person never have a complete identity and they are just left grabbing a hold of ideas of others and trying them on? If the latter is true, then is it safe for anyone to love you?

This is my response (slightly edited for readability and after further correspondence, where she challenged my use of the word “only” to define the two reasons we are given this life. 😏):

You have asked an incredibly insightful question, and to answer it I would have to give you a little bit of background on my personal philosophy. I believe that we are given this life for two “main” reasons: To love and to learn. I cannot say I believe in reincarnation (although I cannot say I don’t believe in it, either) but in Buddhist philosophy, we are continually brought back to this earth to evolve further and further until, in our last incarnation, we reach “enlightenment.” I am not a Buddhist (although many of my beliefs and practices line up with Buddhism), but something in me deeply resonates with the idea that we are here to get as close to “enlightenment” as possible. I believe Jesus was speaking of something akin to enlightenment in many of His teachings. So that’s where the “learn” part comes in. The “love” part is a little more tricky, because most people’s idea of love involves finding that one special person who is going to fulfill all our needs and spending the rest of our lives with that person. I think this is beautiful and I honestly hope to find it, someday, but the hope of finding a “forever” love with one particular partner takes a back seat in my world to learning and growing. Not that love itself takes a back seat to growth (I view them equally), only that I believe finding one romantic partner isn’t the only way to love. So when given a choice between staying stagnant in order to hold on to one particular love vs. having the freedom to continually grow, I will choose freedom and growth. I am not saying this is the “right” choice or the “only” choice, just that it is my choice.

You ask “Does there come a point in a person’s life that they eventually know who they are and what they want?” I think the answer is: Yes, to a point. But I have always believed that if I am the same person today as I was ten years ago–if I have the same beliefs and opinions and ways of being in the world that I had a decade ago–something is wrong. So, yes, I believe you reach a point where you are solid in who you are, but I also believe that there will always be parts of “who you are” that are ever-changing as you learn new things, explore new ideas, and discover new wisdom, and finding a partner who is able to roll with that may not be an easy thing. So to answer your question “if you are always evolving how does someone find true love and partnership?” the answer might possibly be: you don’t. I am well aware that it will take an incredibly special and strong person to be able to handle my ever-changingness, and I accept that I may never find that in this life. But… do I have to? In American culture, we are inundated with the idea that finding one “forever love” is the epitome of happiness. But is it? What if finding one person–as wonderful and beautiful as that is–is not the only wonderful and beautiful thing? I wrote this years ago and still believe it to be true: “Maybe love is not something that happens once in a lifetime. Maybe love is something we ought to give over and over, without condition, without reservation, without expectation.” I, personally, would absolutely love to find my forever person. That one person in the world who could accept my ever-evolvingness and possibly evolve with me and support me in all the ways I want to navigate the world. But if I can’t? If, instead, I find one who can love me and support me in this season, and then another who loves me and supports me in another season? Who says that isn’t just as beautiful? Who says that isn’t even more beautiful?

There are two things I’d like to share with you about this, each deal with this aspect of “forever love” vs “seasonal love.” They are both, in my opinion, absolutely beautiful and worth pursuing and I would be happy to experience either one. The first speaks of the more temporary love, the one that is seasonal, the one that says “this is who I am, but I reserve the right to be someone else, and if that someone else doesn’t work for you, we will gently and lovingly part ways,” and the second speaks of the “forever love” which, in my opinion, is much more difficult:

Seasonal love:

“The most awe-inspiring person I ever had the privilege of loving planted his feet firmly in front of me and said “This is what I want.” There was courage, transparency. There was declaration. There was no insecurity, there was no need to compare myself to others or compete. The most awe-inspiring person I ever had the privilege of loving chose me every single day, and I chose him. When that wasn’t the case, we parted ways. We didn’t drag it out, we didn’t try to convince the other. We didn’t feel the need to grip, and chase something that did not fulfill us or inspire us. It was natural, and organic, and it allowed for me to feel deeply and confidently. That is the kind of love you want.”
—Bianca Sparacino

Forever love:

“Relationships never stabilize. When you solve one problem, another arises. There is actually no way to finally get comfortable. I actually find this kind of heartening. Instead of constantly working to get comfortable in my relationship and feeling that something is wrong because I can’t ever quite get there, I can relate with the instability as a strange invitation to remain awake in love. There is something magical—yes, magical—about the discomfort. You are right there, never quite in your comfort zone. There is no possibility of falling asleep. You are always a tiny bit on the edge, as if you are trying something new for the very first time. When it comes to love, this is not such a bad approach. Brilliance and inspiration and everything fresh are discovered on this edge, including how to open your heart beyond what you ever thought possible.”
–Susan Piver

I think both of these loves have their place. And sometimes, even a relationship that was on track to be “forever” can–and should–turn into a temporary relationship if one person takes a path of growth that will keep the other from their path of growth. In that case, the couple, in my personal opinion, ought to part ways. But, again, this is because I hold the belief that romantic love takes a back seat to growth. But here’s the really beautiful thing: if this parting can be done with kindness and understanding and true support and encouragement, then it IS an expression of love. And, in some special circumstances, that love doesn’t have to end, it just changes form. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.

One last thing. You ask “is it safe for anyone to love you?” Let me answer by quoting yet another of my favorite authors (is it obvious yet, how authors make up a significant portion of my “generalized other?” 😆)

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries: avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
–C.S. Lewish

So… no… it is not safe for anyone to love me, just as it is not safe for me to love anyone. Love (and life, for that matter) requires being open to the possibility of pain. I would go so far as to say it requires being willing to accept certain amounts of pain. So there again, we’re speaking about life philosophies. Pain avoidance is nowhere near as high on my list of priorities as learning and loving. I expect to go through this life feeling pain. As Andrea Gibson once wrote:

“I don’t want to get out without a broken heart. I intend to leave this life so shattered there better be a thousand separate heavens for all of my separate parts.”

 

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New Fires

 

Yesterday, I mentioned how I will often work through things I’ve taken on as my identity to determine whether I want to keep them, and I wrote about a time when I went through this process in the presence of my (then) partner. She actually wrote about that moment, and I loved what she had to say, so I thought I’d share it here. As this is not an article written by me, I am only sharing an excerpt and then I’ll add my own insights along with hers:

When she told me she felt guilty, it made me upset. I mean, why would she feel guilty? And what did that mean, exactly? All I wanted to do in that moment was to change that feeling for her. After all, in my opinion there was nothing to feel guilty FOR. But here she was, wrapped in the covers, sitting on the bed with an intense look on her face. I grew in frustration as I changed into my pajamas. I just wanted to go to bed peacefully, but I had to do something. I had to think of the right thing to say to help her process this emotion and make the monster go away.
But no matter what I said, it all seemed to fall on deaf ears. My frustration grew, eventually turning into anger, and I began to do the worst thing imaginable toward her: withdraw. Sensing this, she attempted to explain:
“I need to sit here with this guilt,” she said.
Sit with it? Well, that didn’t make much sense. Why sit with this emotion? Why let it make you feel this way? Again, I reminded her that she had nothing to feel guilty about, so why sit and feel it? She explained further:
“You don’t have to fix what I am feeling. I need to see what this guilty feeling is made of. Who gave me this guilt? Where did it come from? Who said that I had to feel this way?”
And I was in shock. You mean you want to feel guilt so you can kill it? Man, what a revelation! Talk about taking the tall, overshadowing monster and reducing it to ashes! Picture this for a moment: she was actually going to take an emotion and turn it inside out. As if she was filleting this monster down to nothing. Who does that? How did she learn to do that? Wait, how come we never KNEW to do that? Was she saying that instead of trying to ignore the emotion or take days to get over it, she was going to grab it by the throat? And if she can do that, we can too? We can change our thinking? We don’t have to carry some of this baggage around we’ve been carrying? This really was a revelation….

She goes on to write that after this moment, she began to hold some of her own thoughts and experiences up for evaluation. She writes about how she came to understand that we tend to take information, think we understand the fullness of it, and then share it with others. This can certainly be a beautiful thing (I do a lot of that on the blog), but it becomes a problem when we build, as she writes, “little camps around that truth and sit by it,” inviting only those who are in agreement to sit there with us and never allowing room for further revelation. She writes that she is beginning to understand that she must leave room for revelation that doesn’t “look, smell, or feel the way I THINK it should.”

This is a beautiful realization, and one I’m thankful to have been some part of.

Yes, we really can change our thinking.

No, we really don’t have to carry around all that baggage.

But, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, doing that means changing our conceptual framework. It means digging deeper, becoming willing to consider new truths, and finding a different “other.” Because what neither my partner nor I understood enough to articulate at the time is that we are psychologically hardwired to not only remain comfortable in the warmth of our campfires, but also to remain safe in the company of those we know and love best. We are hardwired to value the opinions of others, and especially those of our closest people (in fact, this is where the term “significant other” came from, and the opinions of these “significant” others carry much more weight and become much more incorporated into our sense of selves than the “generalized other” I wrote about, yesterday). As long as those people make up our “significant other,” there will be aspects of ourselves that we cannot change. This is why, as I have recently learned, many people are literally not capable of healing until their parents or partners pass away. Because casting off actions and beliefs that no longer serve us requires that we move away from the warmth and safety of that which we have always known and step fully into the unknown.

We must seek out new fires. Or maybe a better way to say that is…

We must construct our own.

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”
—Brene Brown

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The Other

This semester I’ve been taking a sociology class, and one of the most impacting things I’ve learned is in regard to the processes we go through in creating our sense of “self.” (Bear with me as I slip into academia for a moment, I promise it will get good).

A quick summary is that our concept of self is generated through the process of our interactions with something called the “generalized other.” The “generalized other” is the group of people that we “engage in internal duologue with when we evaluate our own feelings, thoughts, and actions. When we find ourselves saying, ‘Well, that’s just the way it’s done,’ or ‘People will be upset if I do that,’ we’re responding to our interpretation of the ‘generalized other’—our own internalization of social attitudes and expectations. We [may not] actually know who the ‘they’ is that we’re referencing; we just know that ‘they’ have certain expectations, and we judge our own behavior in accordance with our perception of this generalized other, or ‘they’” (1).

In other words, we are constantly evaluating our thoughts, feelings, and actions against our perceived ideas about what other people (and especially those important to us) will think or feel about them. While this can sometimes happen on a conscious level, it is always happening on a subconscious level. There is no getting away form this, we all do it, it’s just part of what it means to be a human being. Now here’s where it gets good:

This means I get to choose.

Not only do I get to choose who my “generalized other is,” I actually consider it my responsibility to choose who my “generalized other” is. I’ve long told my kids that the people we choose to have in our lives matter (especially those most important to us), because these are the people whose opinions will influence our thoughts and actions. Not only does this make it incredibly important to choose our friends wisely, it also confirms something I have done for years—something that doesn’t always sit well with the important people in my life–which is to continually change my life in accordance with new ideas that I want to incorporate into who I am. For instance, many of the people who currently make up my “generalized other” are authors I have never met and public figures I have never spoken to. An ex-girlfriend saw this and accused me of “letting other people influence me.” Another told me she felt it was “hypocritical” to be continually changing. (She once asked “aren’t you supposed to be consistent?” to which I responded by reciting a favorite quote: “Don’t be consistent, but be simply true.”) And several family members have accused me more than a few times of “reading too much.”

It’s understandable that some people see this process as inauthentic or hypocritical, because while we are all always subconsciously shaping our identities in accordance with the opinions and values of others, I also try to be aware of this process and do it consciously and purposefully in a way that is a bit less typical. For instance, I might read something that resonates with an idea of who I want to be and then work to incorporate that trait into myself. For instance, if I hold “kindness” as a personal goal, I might watch someone help an elderly person across the road, interpret that as an attribute of what I define as “kindness,” and then incorporate this practice into my concept of self and begin walking little old ladies across roads every chance I get. This example is a fairly easy and painless one—I’m simply adding to an identity I already have. But others are not so simple (or painless). For instance, I might read something and decide to “try on” certain traits to see if they fit. I’ll ask myself questions such as: “does this seem to integrate well into my sense of who I am or who I want to be? Does this seem like an action that is helpful or beneficial to myself and others? Do I find joy in doing things this way?” After a period of “trying it on,” I will either choose to accept this as another aspect of who I am or discard it. Likewise, I might take off previously accepted aspects of my identity and work to determine whether these old standards are those I wish to retain. (One of my partners actually saw me go through this process in “real time” when I was struggling with the feeling of guilt. Rather than give in to the feeling or try to suppress it, I sat thinking about it in an effort to determine whether the belief I had adopted and was feeling guilty about was one I wanted to keep [it wasn’t. More on that tomorrow]. Another time a family member accused me of not being there for her, and I engaged in the same process to first determine whether she was right and, upon realizing she was, whether I wanted accept her opinion of how I ought to behave or remain distant. I chose the latter).

Understandably, this is not the easiest process for a loved one to go through with me. As Jodi O’Brien states, sometimes significant others are able to “shift themselves into new alignment,” and sometimes they are not. I have lost many people along the way due to my desire to be ever-evolving, and I know I will lose many more, but I have come to understand this as an imperative part of who I am.

But whether we want to spend this life constantly evolving or we want to spend it (as a friend says) “sitting with our ancestors on Plymouth Rock,” WE GET TO CHOOSE. If we do not like some of our actions, thoughts, feelings, or ways of navigating the world, we get to change them. If our “generalized other” is causing us to act in ways that don’t mesh with who we want to be, we get to change that. If we are exposed to something completely different from our norm that we appreciate and want to take on, we get to do that. If our “generalized other” no longer fits, or if we find a “generalized other” that fits us better, we get to adjust.

As I spoke with a friend about this today, I pointed out that this is likely one of the reasons it usually takes years and a lot of therapy for someone who has always identified as “straight” to come out of the closet. She said that during her own journey, her therapist would continually ask “what are you afraid of?” But recognizing the concept of the “generalized other” makes it easier to see why this is so hard—it’s not necessarily that my friend was afraid of what people would think, it may just be that those opinions had so long formed her “generalized other” that they had become incorporated into who she thought herself to be. And, for most people, changing their self-perception to include traits that the “generalized other” considers wrong or immoral (especially if it could completely change their lives) can seem almost impossible.

This also helps me to better understand some of my past relationships and some of the difficulties I have had. If my partner and I have vastly different “generalized others” who hold extremely different beliefs and have had extremely different experiences, there is a very good chance our values and desires regarding how we want to navigate the world just won’t mesh. In this sense, learning these concepts can turn them into valuable tools that help us to better comprehend the motives and actions of those we love as well as help us better understand why we are who we are. More importantly, they can help us to consciously make choices that align more closely with who we want to be.

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(1) Jodi O’Brien, The Production of Reality

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