Disclaimer: This series is about identity/the self in life’s various spheres and through a Western lens. You are all of these things. You are pieces and you are the whole. You are a system, biologically and otherwise. You cannot change a part of you without changing the entirety of the system. Now, let’s break it apart.
Vocabulary to note:
Self-Concept is a cognitive process in that it is simply describing what you are (think: mindful practice of describing your environment without judgement).
Self-Esteem includes your emotional evaluations/judgements
Let’s explore this aspect of your life using some guiding questions.
How do you value relationships?
‘Relationships’ could have many different definitions. Most of the time, relationship makes people think of romantic partnerships. However, here, I mean the multi-level definition of the word— the relationship between you and your friends, your family (though this was touched on last week), your romantic partner(s), your acquaintances in your neighborhood or city, your co-workers, people online, and may I venture to say, etcetera.
Is it important to you to have relationships? Maybe you are more jazzed to spend time and develop your relationship with yourself! That may be true. Relationships are typically very important as we are social creatures, but maybe they’re just not important to you. And that’s fine, as long as you’re functioning.
How is your self-esteem when it comes to relationships?
You go to the deli and bump into the person in front of you because you’ve been looking at the menu; all the while, you’re rehearsing your order because you know you’re going to say the wrong thing at the counter, and the person who works behind the counter is going to be upset with you. There’s a few things to dissect here. Your worry seems to be around relational issues. The person in front of you and the person behind the counter are both people with whom you have relationships. You’re coming into the deli feeling a heightened sense of anxiety and struggling to be aware of your environment-- hence bumping into that one person. You’re super concerned about your interaction with the man behind the counter. What do you think he’s going to think of you? This is an indication of what you are either already feeling about yourself or how you learned to feel about yourself in your childhood. In this example, you appear to exhibit low self-esteem when it comes to the way you move through the world, relationally.
What is your self-concept around relationships?
In the above example, you may feel anxious about yourself in your relationships. However, you may also operate from a belief that you are good at relationships due to the way others’ presently treat you. For example, because of the anxiety you experience in the deli, you end up being deferential to those around you. This leads the people around you to show kindness. In this example, you may not believe that you deserve kindness, but you can believe that you bring out the best in people and that people generally like you. It’s complicated!
What value do you place on yourself when it comes to relationships?
Do you feel like you have a place of importance in your relationships? Do you think the role you take in relationships is important? Some people put themselves into categories when they’re in a group of people-- the smart one, the funny one, the counselor, the planner, the spontaneous person. While these categories may simplify relational interactions, there is a chance that they can give you a clue into whether you value your role. Do you believe it to be important to add spontaneity in your relationships? You may not like always coming up with some new. On the other hand, you may believe it to be quite important (the reality, of course, is the delicate balance between spontaneity and stability is of utmost importance).
What level of satisfaction do your relationships bring? How is it related to your self-concept/self-esteem?
Maybe you feel like you want more out of your relationships. Maybe you feel like you’re going through the motions when speaking or being with others. Many people talk about wanting to talk to others about more than “just superficial” conversation. This may be unfulfilling for you. You may not feel that you can bring up topics that would move toward a depth-related conversation-- many times due to societal implications, but there is also the possibility that you shy away from depth due to your self-esteem or self-concept. You may not feel that anything you would have to say is important enough to talk about (despite your yearning to have deeper relational connections). You may hold a belief that your role in relationships is to act and speak in a very specific way which limits your ability to maneuver around what you find unfulfilling. On the other hand, you may feel greatly satisfied in all of your relationships which could come from feeling secure with yourself or needing relationships to feel secure. Feeling dissatisfied in relationships could lead to destructive behavior or isolating yourself.
How did you learn your point of view about relationships?
Traditionally, in psychotherapy, we believe that the way we learn how to feel about ourselves and our position in our relationships is from our very first relationships (our parents) barring significant trauma throughout the lifespan. This is the kind of thing scholars write books about-- the kind of attention you received as an infant and consistently throughout your life affects the way you perceive that you are being perceived by others. Additionally, as a young person, you watch your caregivers interact with each other and the world-- there you pick up cues of how you should act, how you should feel and how you should think in your own relationships. Life complicates things as you interact with others who are important to you (a best friend, an important teacher, a first romantic partner) and more beliefs about yourself in relationships are shaped.
How can you manage mixed feelings, continue to raise awareness, and incorporate insight?
Many conflicts are outlined above. It’s very difficult to step outside of yourself and notice discomfort that you experience in relationships without trying to relieve that discomfort by performing your usual tricks (like being very deferential or being aggressive). When you notice that you are having a physical feeling (like a stomachache) when you’re at the deli counter or that you’re behaving in a way that signals discomfort (like yelling at the car next to you), you both examine that feeling or behavior and then defuse it by moving toward the present (getting out of your head). With work on yourself (which may happen in therapy) you may be able to challenge the beliefs that you hold which cause you discomfort in your relationships in order to move you toward your values.
We’ll continue this exploration in a similar format next week!