19 October 2022

Developing our capacity for ‘Self-Relating’

As we grow up and develop, we start to realise that there is one relationship that is always with us…
Our relationship with ourselves and our inner world.
Like any relationship it can be easy or difficult, critical or supportive, understanding or dismissive. And like any relationship it can be improved.

In our early development we have learned to understand the world outside us, but we tend to have rather less understanding about the world inside us. Self-relating allows us to examine and, if necessary, change aspects of our ‘inner world’. Our inner world is the composition of all of our emotions, our thoughts, our beliefs and assumptions. These things play out continuously in the internal theatre of our brain and body, influencing our actions and decisions whether we are aware of them or not. Self-relating is the ongoing activity of noticing and understanding what is happening inside of us.

Maybe you know the feeling of not knowing exactly why you behaved a certain way in a given situation – ‘Why did I not speak up?’, ‘Why did I agree with her even though I do not agree?’,’ Why did I yell at my family even though there was no real reason for yelling?’. We are not always aware of the thoughts, feelings or assumptions that drive our behavior. And these underlying drivers do not always have to be rational, often they are not – ‘maybe I agreed with her, because I was afraid that if I did not, she would not like me anymore.’ Is that a rational assumption? I hope in most cases – no.
Sometimes, these underlying drivers can be quite a complex connection of underlying beliefs and assumptions that are connected to an unwanted feeling state or an unwanted habitual behaviour, something we call a pattern (we will get back to that later in the blog).

According to recent research in cognitive neuroscience, we are only aware of 5% of our cognitive activity, meaning that most of our decisions, actions and emotions are driven by our unconscious mind. That does absolutely not mean that these are entirely random, they are mostly very informed and sensible. Our unconscious decision-making is based upon all of our previous experiences, sometimes as early as childhood. Our unconscious mind is of immense value to us, after all, if we had to think about every move and every one of our decisions consciously, we would not get anything done! Our unconscious mind is our ‘little helper’ that works in the background, taking care of routine exercises and allowing us to multi-task – that is why we also call it the adaptive unconscious. And while it may be very useful and even necessary for our survival, its processing will not always result in accurate or sensible decisions or feelings (if you are interested, you may want to look into the large body of recent research into ‘cognitive biases’ popularised by Daniel Kahneman, pointing out one aspect of how our mind’s unconscious activity can ‘fool’ us when we are making decisions or choosing how to act).

As another example, our unconscious mind is programmed to have a heightened attention for threatening stimuli – it can be too scared of failure or rejection or other deeply rooted needs not being fulfilled. These needs are often based in our ancient ancestry and did secure the survival of ‘homo sapiens’ in our evolutionary context. Saying this, it is completely normal for our unconscious mind to be hyper aware of negative aspects in our surroundings, however the good news is that we can be aware of this tendency and begin to shift our responses accordingly. This is just one way we can change our relationship with our inner processes – checking for (and mitigating) cognitive bias is another. The more we train our capacity for self-relating, the better we understand the source of our habits, decisions and choices and the less we are at the mercy of the unconscious beliefs and assumptions that bias our thinking and our perception and can keep us stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking, feeling and acting.

Patterns

We often talk about our thoughts, feelings and actions as if they were separate ‘things’. But recent research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology suggest that this is not the case. Our thoughts, feelings and actions are interconnected and they trigger one another. We have distinct patterns of Thinking-Feeling-Acting. Thoughts, feelings and actions fit together in one experience – one pattern. And patterns sit in our adaptive unconscious. Often, one of these aspects of Thinking-Feeling-Acting is most accessible to us and is the thing that is consciously unpleasant for us, whereas the other components that are connected to this are somewhat unconscious. What is unpleasant for us might be an unwanted feeling state – we might feel defeated, scattered, angry, blocked or empty. Sometimes we notice a pattern, because it stimulates an unhelpful thinking process – having an inner critic, catastrophizing or whining. Or we notice an action habit, a “Be Perfect-driver”, a “Please Others-driver” or a “Be Strong-driver”.

Most people carry many patterns in them, and one thing that I realized while working on my pattern is that often they aren’t all too different from each other. Everybody struggles with something and that is completely normal. And when sharing our struggles, we do find comfort in the fact that someone else is having difficulties with the same thing.

Can you think of an unwanted pattern that drives you in certain situations? Maybe you are only aware of one of the three aspects, an unwanted feeling state, a behavior habit, or an unhelpful thought process?

One of my patterns is my perfectionism and setting overly high standards for myself. Perfectionism is a common pattern in our culture and modern world, which can often cause procrastination, being overly critical with ourselves and pushing ourselves past our personal edge. For me, the related feeling is stress, tension, or feeling overwhelmed, my thoughts are very critical and of course the related action is trying to do everything as perfect as possible.

Now you might have an idea about one of your patterns after reading this far or you might have no clue which is absolutely fine. Nonetheless you might be thinking that these patterns are quite annoying, wondering why we even have them.

Patterns are there for a reason

Our unique patterns were once learned by us – often when we were very young but sometimes much later in life. An important thing to remember is that a pattern was always useful at the start – that is why we learned it. We created it

  • to protect ourselves
  • to stay ‘in tune’ with peers, family or important others (or react against them)
  • to gain a benefit at the time

I can’t stress this enough: patterns aren’t useless or bad. But they might be things that don’t serve us well anymore or at least not in every situation where they appear, so we might want to shift our relationship with them. When working on our patterns, the goal is not to get rid of the pattern or that part of ourselves, it is about learning to work with it, about being able to identify the situations where the pattern serves us well and distinguish situations where the pattern does not serve us and then have tactics and strategies to make other choices. We should not be overly critical of ourselves for having a pattern, it always serves some positive intention, that’s why we have it. Admittedly, these positive intentions might be quite hidden from our awareness, but I promise you, they are there. Very often our patterns are there to protect us in some way – to protect us from failure, to protect us from being excluded, and often somewhere deep down they are there to protect our self-worth.

How do I change the way I relate to myself?

When we were children, we were completely absorbed by our emotions and it was difficult not to act out when someone took our toy or had a larger ball of ice-cream than we did. In adulthood, we have more control over simple emotions – I know I am angry, but I am not consumed by the anger. I can examine it and choose a more thoughtful response, so that I don’t just scream at the person that cut me off in my last work meeting. Saying this, we are not always in control over simple emotions, let alone complex patterns of thinking, feeling and acting.

When wanting to change the way we relate to ourselves, we work on gaining awareness of and control over our inner world – our automatic thought processes, feelings and actions. There are different ways of relating to our inner experiences. Sometimes we are completely absorbed by them, we can not question them, they are like the water we swim in. It can even quite feel like we are the emotion. In this instance, we are ‘had by’ an emotion or a belief – we can not question it, view it objectively or ‘get outside it’ to see how useful it is in a given circumstance. For example, if I am ‘had by’ the belief that ‘a good person always gets things done in time’, I might find it almost impossible to postpone a duty when the circumstances just don’t allow me to take care of it and end up being extremely stressed by trying to get everything done. However, if I ‘have’ this belief, I am able to step back and reflect. I can place the belief on the table in front of me and examine it. This enables me to decide whether this belief should apply in the given situation or whether it is acceptable to miss a deadline when you are really sick.

Work by Robert Kegan suggests that development is the process of moving aspects of our inner world from ‘subject’ to ‘object’. When we are ‘had by’ a pattern, we are subject to it – we are absorbed by the emotion or act completely automatically. When we manage to ‘have’ the pattern, we can hold it as an object, we can notice it coming up inside us (for example ‘oh, here is my need to control the situation again’) without feeling the need to act immediately. We are loosening the pattern’s grip on us and so can have more choices, even if we do notice a degree of stress in the situation. We should not expect to get rid of our patterns completely – they are often a deeply ingrained part of who we are and they might show up again here and there, sneak around the corner, catch us on a busy day or come in from a different angle – but we can change the way we relate to them.

When working on our capacity for ‘Self-relating’, the goal is to get to know ourselves better, why we feel, think, act in a certain way in given situations, question the accuracy of some of our underlying assumptions, emancipate ourselves from beliefs that do not serve us well. Gradually, over time, we can all move to a place where we feel that our thoughts, feelings and actions are sensible and in line with our beliefs and values. Most importantly, we can become aware of mismatches in our beliefs and behaviours, our desires and our feelings so that these conflicts gradually create less tension inside of us.

Lastly, I would like to say that it is inherently rewarding to spend time with and in ourselves, by doing so, we can find comfort in our own unique way of operating – becoming increasingly the ‘authors’ of our own lives.