In the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, there is a scene in which the protagonist asks his professor about why we pick people who treat us like we’re nothing, and his professor answers: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Of course we do. I’ve experienced this in my own life. Over the course of many years, I can clearly see how my circumstances always mirrored how I felt about myself. It was reflected in my relationships, in how I treated my body, and in my internal world and self-talk.
I believe that how we see and feel about ourselves is the foundation, a blueprint if you will, from which we form other relationships and how we move through life. As you read, keep in mind that this is meant to be a guide for reflection and increased self-awareness, not self-judgement, so be gentle.
You may think to yourself, “I don’t really know what kind of relationship I have with myself.” Well, it is always reflected in your life. I don’t mean by the physical appearance but rather, how you truly feel about your life. Is it abundant with joy, laughter, adventure, meaning, health, connections, deep relationships, etc.? Are you creating new memories, or do most days feel gray and dull and you’re just ‘trying to get through it’?
Below, I’m sharing a few ways in which you can better understand your relationship with yourself. Keep reading and notice if there are any patterns you recognize in your life.
How you talk to yourself every single day.
By this, I don’t necessarily mean speaking out loud to yourself (however, it could be), but rather what is that little voice in your head telling you most of the time; what kind of thoughts roam around your head. Do you tend to shame yourself, be judgmental, and self-critical? Well, we all do at times. But would you generally say that you like yourself or that you are your own worst critic? Are you overly focused on your ‘weaknesses’ and have a hard time letting go when you do or say something you thought was embarrassing? Are you trying hard to convey and maintain a certain image of yourself and struggle to show any “flaws” and “imperfections?” If you’re struggling to have an answer to these questions, imagine looking into your own mind. Spend a day just observing your thoughts. When you notice your mind wander, bring your attention back to observing your thoughts. Simply be curious as if you are meeting yourself and your inner world for the very first time.
Your actions and behaviors.
Do you spend your 24 hours on things that make you feel fulfilled at the end of the day, or do you end up feeling regretful, beating yourself up, and feeling out of control most of the time? Do you honor your passions, values, learning, and growth, or does it feel like you spend most of your days avoiding life and discomfort? Write down all of the things that you do during the day. We are creatures of habit, so what you do day-to-day is likely the same, hence, think of a typical day. Take a look at your list. Does it reflect time spent intentionally and meaningfully? What is something you would like to include more of in your days, and what seems to get in the way of you doing that? If you frequently feel like you’re just floating around from one thing to another, this exercise will give you a chance to slow down and chose what you want to be doing intentionally.
How you treat your body.
Also, how do you fuel your body? The way you nurture your body is so important. It will be the difference between feeling energized or depleted. Your body will rebel against not having good quality nutrients, or not having enough movement, or sleep. It will always tell you whether it is treated in the way that will propel vitality or fatigue, exhaustion, or lethargy. There is really no way around this one. For example, with our thoughts, over time we can learn how to change our thinking, but you can’t eat garbage and trick your body into believing that’s it’s good for you. What you put it is what you’ll get out, every single time. There is a plethora of research supporting the benefits of exercise and nutrition on mental health. This not to say that simply because someone works out and eats healthy it can be assumed they have a healthy mind and a healthy self-image. Another note, people have different nutritional needs and activity levels, but generally speaking, most of us have an idea of foods that make us feel sluggish and tired. I’m yet to see a person that thrives on a fast food diet.
Relationships with others.
Think about your current or last romantic relationship you had. How did you feel around this person most of the time? Did you feel like you can truly be yourself around them without judgment, or did you constantly have to watch what you said or did, felt flawed, or not worthy enough? Were you able to say ‘no’ to things that didn’t feel right, without feeling guilty? In a healthy relationship, one can compromise without feeling like they’re giving up themselves and their needs, and one is able to create boundaries still knowing they are valued and loved. Another important aspect to think about is, whether it seems like you keep attracting a specific type of a person over and over again. If you keep attracting kind and loving people and have great relationships, I’m guessing you’re not even reading this. But if you feel like you’re treated poorly and something feels wrong in your relationship - it’s an indication to listen to your gut feelings. Also, you could end up in a relationship with someone who appears like a decent human, but you either sabotage that or think that if this person was so great, they wouldn’t be with me.
If any of these resonate with you, there is a theory discussing this phenomenon. It’s called self-verification theory, and in a nutshell, it postulates that people prefer to be seen in the way they see themselves, and they will seek out interactions and people that will confirm their own self-image. Wait, what? For example, people who think positively of themselves will prefer to be around people who also see themselves positively. Ok that makes sense, but, when people have a negative self-image, they will prefer people who see them negatively, because it creates predictability.
Think about the areas of your life in which you feel like you are settling, giving up your needs and wants, or feel like there is more you could do, have, or be. Stay tuned for part two where I’m going to expand on how we create our self-image.
Many people come to therapy not being able to pinpoint why they are struggling. They just know that life isn’t fun and fulfilling, and they feel stuck, unhappy, numb, broken, anxious, or depressed.
I believe this happens when we (unconsciously) keep navigating the world with strategies and identities that were once helpful, but they no longer are. A favorite metaphor of mine for this is trying to use an outdated map to navigate around new terrain. As children, we learn who we need to be to be accepted and loved, but as we become adults, those identities may start to feel tight and uncomfortable – like an old, unfitting suit.
I remember existing and being there, but not feeling seen.
Growing up in a traditional patriarchal household meant not challenging adults, especially men. You needed to be quiet and push down your expectations, needs, and wants. One of the unspoken rules was that when adults are in the room, children have to disappear. I don’t have any memories of us sitting at the table and having meaningful conversations or sharing experiences and lessons. In my family, what children had to say was irrelevant.
A specific memory that comes to mind is one of my dad coming home from work and whoever was sitting in the “good” chair had to get up. No one ever questioned this and over time we would make sure that this chair is empty for him to sit in. The same was with the TV. We had one TV in the living room/kitchen/bedroom and there was no debate as to what will be on. My dad had a saying that when he watches TV (his favorite past-time was, and still is, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while watching sports) he must not hear a fly. Meaning my mom, my sister, and I had to be quiet. When we were silent and unnoticed, we were rewarded by him not being angry.
This was working, until it wasn’t.
These and many other instances, were something I haven’t thought about much throughout my life. I cognitively understood these experiences and promised myself that I am not going to have that type of marriage and that kind of life. But these messages were engrained in me so strongly that I wasn’t aware of how they were still playing out in my life as an adult.
That is, until I found myself in situations in which I had to either speak up, have an opinion, share about myself, be visible and noticed, and have a voice of my own.
Through continuous self-reflection, questioning, and learning, I realized that I was most comfortable when I am unnoticed, don’t bother anyone, don’t ask for what I want, don’t express anger and frustration, when I’m quiet and invisible, when I make myself small, and when I anticipate other’s needs and put mine aside.
I wanted more from life.
Over time, I realized those old identities didn’t feel right anymore. The life I wanted, required me to let those identities go and learn new ways of being. I was no longer that helpless child being at the mercy of its environment. I didn’t have to make myself small and invisible just because that was something I knew how to do well. Those behaviors helped me survive in my family but keeping them didn’t feel necessary anymore.
Questions to ask yourself.
Now as an adult you can learn how to give yourself what you need.
You can cultivate love and self-compassion for yourself as you are, with all the strengths and imperfections that you may deem so unacceptable.
You can welcome all parts of yourself and feel worthy without punishing yourself for your internal experiences. You can learn how to create a new map for the life you want and choose how you want to be instead of being driven by old patterns.
You can be you again.