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Margie Ulbrick4 min

Our Relationship With Ourselves Is Our Relationship With Others

An extract from Healthy Relationships: Being Willing to Look Deeply  

The way we relate to ourselves is the way we relate to others. If we are cut off from or rejecting certain parts of ourselves, we tend to do this to others also. Often we don’t even realise we are doing this to ourselves, let alone our loved ones. We only experience the result – the lack of intimacy and the conflict that goes with it. Once we realise this truth, we can start to heal our relationship with ourselves. We humans have a tendency to reject or disown certain parts of our personality. When we reject parts of ourselves, these become hidden from us and become what Carl Jung would call the ‘shadow’ aspect of our personality. This process begins in childhood, when more instinctual, primitive parts of our personality (such as sexual desire, hatred, murderous rage, desire for revenge) are superseded by the conscious mind. These then operate outside of conscious awareness and cause problems in our intimate relationships. Often what we react to most in our partner are the disowned parts of ourselves – a process sometimes called ‘projection’. When we are caught up in projection we are unable to see our partner clearly, as a whole person. As a result, we are cut off from seeing the good in them and miss or respond negatively to their bids for contact. Mindfulness helps us look deeply into ourselves. When we become intimate with ourselves, we begin to notice the disowned, shadow parts of our personality. We can acknowledge and own our human vulnerability, history and baggage and hold this with loving kindness. We learn to look below the surface to see what our (and our partner’s) reactions actually represent. It’s rarely about the toothpaste lid or the socks on the floor. We become able to sit with difficulties and differences of opinion rather than reacting to them or pretending they don’t exist. This is a respectful way to be in a relationship.  Mindfulness allows us to respond rather than react to the current situation. When we remain attentive to what is going on for us, we become more aware of what we are thinking and feeling. This allows us to choose how we respond, rather than blindly reacting according to previous conditioning. We activate our tend-and-befriend circuits and our fight/flight reactivity starts to subside.  Our bodies are central in this process. They anchor us in the present and give us a wealth of information. When we allow whatever is happening to simply be there, without judgement or resistance, something very interesting happens. We stop resisting reality and we notice it changes all by itself. When we sense into ourselves in this curious and mindful way, we create space. We feel a sense of relaxation as our body no longer feels under threat and we are able to include our own experience and that of another. This unconditionally friendly attitude leads to compassion and understanding both for ourselves and also for the way our loved ones are experiencing their particular version of reality. We breathe into our feelings and make space for them simply as they are. Then we do it again and again and we begin to make sense of how they came to be, of both our histories and stories as well as the impact they have had on us.  Over time, this practice of sensing inwards and moving towards what we are experiencing with an attitude of friendly curiosity allows us to develop our capacity for choice in our relationships. We can choose to sit with difficult feelings and look deeply to see where they come from, rather than reactively trying to ‘fix’ them. This gives us greater choice about when – and if – we discuss things with our partners. We develop the capacity to tolerate separation and closeness because we no longer avoid and flee from our feelings or those of another. Instead, we are able to acknowledge that it is okay for us to feel what we feel and for our partner to do the same. We can express and feel a whole range of emotions. We can allow ourselves to be disappointed, sad, angry, jealous or afraid, as well as calm, happy, excited, grateful or energised. And it is okay for our partners to also have their feelings. We know what it is like to be fully alive and fully human as we breathe into an ever-developing sense of self. Mindfulness also helps us notice what we are reacting to in our partner. Through noticing our reactions, we start to recognise our projection and become familiar with the disowned parts of our personality. We start to notice when they are present and they cease unconsciously driving our behaviour. We can then stop blaming each other and become willing to look deeply into our own vulnerabilities and take responsibility for our own reactivity. This is the true meaning of ‘know thyself ’, which the Greek philosopher Socrates believed was fundamental to functioning effectively in the world. And when we hold these parts in a space of loving presence, our internal conflict and tendency to project decreases, and we start to feel more integrated. We experience a growing sense of calm in our relationships.   

Exercise: listening deeply and developing empathy 

Offer to be with your partner and really listen to what they have to say. Invite them to talk about something that they find difficult.  Pause and listen deeply, without trying to fix anything. Sense the underlying emotions. You might pay attention to their body language and their facial expressions as well as the words they use and the tone of voice. Reflect back to them what you understand them to be saying. Check that you have understood correctly and when you are really sure that you understand them perhaps summarise what they have said.  Then imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. Say something simple like, ‘you must feel so frustrated about that . . .’ or ‘that must make you feel really sad’. Notice how they react and see if you can read whether you have been accurate. Then ask them whether you were, and compare their response to what you thought. Remember: the goal is not to solve their problem, but rather to let them know that you understand. Building the bridge of empathy is crucial for healthy relationships. It’s the part that is so often missing but when it is there we feel safe, like we can come home to each other.   Extracted from Mindful Relationships:   Creating Genuine Connection with Ourselves and Others by Margie Ulbrick & Dr Richard Chambers(£17.99, Exisle Publishing).

Margie Ulbrick

Margie Ulbrick is a certified emotionally focused therapist, relationship counsellor and writer. Trained in family therapy, somatic therapy, law and collaborative practice, she has many years of experience working to help people create sustaining and nurturing relationships and work towards maximising optimum health in families. As a relationship counsellor, Margie works with couples, individuals and families, and teaches the skills of mindfulness to assist in promoting healthy relationships. Margie’s articles have been published on websites and in journals, newspapers and magazines.