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 intimate/romantic relationships?
Do you find being in a romantic or sexually intimate relationship important? [Now, romantic relationships and sexual relationships are not necessarily the same thing, but for the purposes of this episode, we’ll take the cultural touchstone of the intimacy involved in both to link them.] Maybe you have no interest in an intimate relationship. Lots of people get enough juice from their friendships or their family or themselves. It’s tough because society wants people to couple up and that may cause some discomfort—when one of society’s values is not one of your own values. Of course, you may highly value intimate relationships and discomfort may arise if there is a struggle to maintain intimate relationships.
How is your self-esteem when it comes to intimate/romantic relationships?
Maybe you feel like you're a ‘bomb’ partner (does anyone still say that? I’ve never said that in real life.) Maybe you’re walking around thinking anyone would be lucky to have me. Good for you— there’s probably something to explore there as well. On the other hand, maybe you feel like you’re the worst partner ever. There could be an issue there if you value highly intimate relationships, but feel like you are “bad at them.” Being “bad” at relationships is a head scratcher to me. If you do value intimate relationships, and you’re able to become entwined, your job would be to move toward your values. In this case, it’s rolling up your sleeves to put in “the work” when you’re in an intimate relationship (including communication, respect, honesty, etc…). However, if you experienced something in your younger life that gives you the message that you are “bad” at relationships, you may not struggle to break free of this assumption in order to move toward your values.
What is your self-concept around intimate/romantic relationships?
People get pretty stuck around their self-concept when it comes to intimate relationships. It’s hard for young people to shift their self-concept around this subject. If you have not been in an intimate relationship before, but you do value intimate relationships (and like the person who is also interested in you), it can still be difficult to take the leap and make the relationship “official.” It’s almost like the concept that “I am a single person” exists beyond words or phrases. Becoming enmeshed (in a positive way) is a totally scary leap—even before the rise of social media, everyone sees this supposed ‘new’ version of you. And, of course, the thing that happens is that it turns out— you’re still you despite being coupled or more than coupled— whatever kind of intimate relationship you’re in.
What value do you place on yourself when it comes to intimate/romantic relationships?
Because of the shortage of roles in romantic relationships, this question is a bit redundant following the self-esteem question, although it could be significant in a polyamorous relationship. I could see this question being answerable around sexual intimacy. You can have good self esteem as far as sex goes but not value the role you believe yourself to hold. If you ascribe to very traditional gender roles and you’re in a heterosexual relationship and each person identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth—maybe, you feel like you’re a great husband but that you as a husband isn’t very important. Or maybe you think you’re a great wife and wives are the most important part of the family ecosystem. Check and check.
What level of satisfaction do your intimate/romantic relationships bring? How is it related to your self-concept/self-esteem?
Are you fulfilled in your intimate relationships? There’s a good chance that if you’re in a crummy relationship, you may not feel fulfilled by it. Although, you may be in a crummy relationship and maybe you feel very fulfilled by it which could be quite problematic. If that is happening, you may believe that you can only be in bad relationships and that you don’t deserve any better (self-concept/self-esteem). Alternatively, you may feel the relationship you’re in does not allow you to be the person you feel you can be, or have been in the past. There could be some issues around satisfaction if your relationship is contradicting your values, which happens more frequently than one would expect. There’s some inner conflict there to pursue.
How did you learn your point of view about intimate/romantic relationships?
Often we learn about intimate relationships from our parents or caregivers. We internalize what we see or what we feel and create our values, self-esteem and self-identity. There’s always that thing— “you’re looking for your father/your mother”— in your adult relationships. Because intimate relationships gets so close to the parts of us that represent our core selves, many of our early experiences that may not affect our identity in any other kind of relationship/sphere could affect our intimate relationships. Additionally, experiences in our young life could affect how we think of ourselves later in life; i.e, a tumultuous relationship in middle school could have created a blueprint for the kinds of relationships you find yourself in for the next ten years.
How can you manage mixed feelings, continue to raise awareness, and incorporate insight?
There are, of course, external conflicts that occur between partner(s) in intimate relationships that could be examined through open communication. However, there may also be internal conflicts that occur around intimate relationships whether the individual is in one or not. It’s really difficult to manage mixed feelings when it comes to intimate relationships. This is the thing that very often lands people in therapy because it’s so… intimate… it’s so close to yourself and has so much to do with deep-seated core beliefs. That being said, I feel that through depth-related self work, like journaling, much of your mixed feelings can come to light and you can determine whether you want to take action, sit with discomfort or perhaps, take a third route.
We’ll conclude this identity exploration next week!