“God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance.” — Hamlet,Act III, scene 1
As sentient beings we yearn to be loved unconditionally, and we were raised in a highly competitive society that taught us tools to gain love conditionally — mostly through doing and accomplishing certain tasks, achieving certain goals, and/or appearing and speaking in particular ways. Ever since we were infants we received positive reinforcement — smiles and “yes!’s” — when we behaved or appeared in ways that pleased our caretakers, and we received negative reinforcement — frowns and “no!’s” —when we behaved or appeared in “uncivilized” ways that displeased our caretakers.
Carl Jung spoke of the personas that we create in order to interact with others. More pejoratively, D.W. Winnicott theorized that we developed “false selves” in order to help survive our childhoods as we acclimated to the demands of our society. I think we can agree that we have facades that we use to interact with most people, and then we have our somewhat unglamorous and often unseemly real or authentic selves that we only show a few close friends and family members.
But what if the tools we developed as children that are now part of our personas/facades don’t actually help us get our emotional needs met? What if those tools actually inhibit authentic relationships, connections and interactions?
Maybe we acquired tools such as fear, suspicion and doubt, which protected us in our youth but now cause us to hack into our lovers’ email accounts to see if they are remaining faithful? Maybe we procured the tool of seduction and know how to attract people’s attention and provide them with moments of titillation and glee, but remain unsure if they love us? Maybe we discovered the tool of playing the victim, of drawing people into our dramas and forcing them to take care of us? Maybe we cultivated the tool of providing material comforts for others but end up resenting them for being gold-diggers? Maybe we learned how to fill our lives up with busy-ness in order to seem important but are now perceived as frenetic, disorganized and distant by others? Maybe we were taught to smile and look happy on the outside even when we feel alienated, misunderstood and disconnected on the inside? Maybe we learned passive-aggressive language to avoid being vulnerable?
What interpersonal tools did you acquire growing up?
Are they still helping you get your emotional needs met?
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem resembles a nail.” — Abraham Maslow.
Are you open to expanding your toolbox and repertoire?
If you take a look at your patterns, you may find that many of your tools — your reactions — are misguided and even maladaptive. For example, some of our tools push people away when we want to bring them closer; some of our tools cause people to flee because they inadvertently signal desperation and neediness.
We need to examine the ways our minds have been programmed to act and react and find how to take ourselves off of autopilot so that we can be truly present and show up authentically. Otherwise, we’re not much more than a pre-packaged bundle of reactions waiting for stimuli to trigger those reactions.
In my “Mindfulness for Authentic Relationships” workshops, I use simple mindfulness exercises to demonstrate that many of our reactions are maladaptive and actually hinder us from getting our emotional needs met. This is why we need to learn how to cultivate non-reactivity, which is one of the immediate benefits of both yoga and meditation. If we can learn how to observe our thoughts, feelings and reactions to stimuli rather than simply act them out unconsciously, then we can make decisions that bode more favorably for our long-term health and well-being.
In addition, I love to provide students and clients with new tools to help them gain confidence to show up authentically for relationships — tools such as Marshall Rosenberg’s “Non-Violent Communications,” Imago Therapy’s reflexive listening, and finally, my personal favorite, the tombstone exercise: Whenever I treat bickering couples I reframe their often heated, finger-pointing conversations by asking them “What do you want it to say on your tombstone?” Nobody wants it to say, “Was Right!” on his or her tombstone. Most sane people want it to say, “Beloved.” So why do we spend so much of our mental lives making ourselves “right” and other people “wrong”?? Obviously, this is a flaw in the design of the mind, one that we can use mindfulness and non-reactivity to remedy.
I like what Leonard Cohen said about what people do to try to get their needs met: “We are not mad, we are human, we want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.”
Many of us have toolboxes full of rather blunt and often unsophisticated, childish tools that we employ to get our emotional needs met, e.g., posturing, boasting, lying, whining, complaining, etc. But once we make the decision to take ourselves off of autopilot and live mindfully and authentically, the possibilities for real connections, peace, ease, calm, love, and joy flourish.