What relationship in your life matters most to you?
If we were to ask 100 people on the street, the vast majority would likely respond by talking about their spouse/partner, kids, parents, or their closest family & friends. And while these are undoubtedly important, I am not going to spend any time focusing on these relationships because I believe there is one relationship that is more important than all of these. There is one relationship that precedes all and determines the quality of these relationships—the relationship with oneself.
I know this focus may seem counterintuitive and confusing. In the past, I know I have received messages that focusing on myself is selfish. Heck, the very creation of social media and the internet naturally draws our attention to people, places, and things outside of ourselves as the very source of our happiness and satisfaction.
The reason I want to shine the spotlight on one’s relationship with themself is twofold. Firstly, I believe that all of our relationships with the external world (people, places, things outside of ourselves) are a mirror of the relationship and communication we have with ourselves. Therefore, mastering your own internal communication is imperative if you want to impact your most meaningful relationships with other people. The second reason I am writing this is a little more self-serving. I want to pull back the curtain on what counseling and coaching can be like and give you a taste of how it can be beneficial.
Wherever You Go, There You Are
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer who was influential in bringing mindfulness and meditation to the Western world, wrote a book by this very title Wherever You Go, There You Are. While I have never actually read this particular book of his, I love this quote because it gets to the heart of why I am focusing on the relationship one has with themself.
Repeat it slowly to yourself, "Wherever you go, there you are."
You cannot outrun your own experience. It is easy to think that moving to a different city or finding a new relationship, moving into a new home, or seeking something in the external world are the answers. No matter what changes in the outside world, there is one common denominator in each of these equations: we are left with ourselves and our own experience. So if I am always going to be with myself, the next question becomes: why not get comfortable with that? Why not nurture that relationship and really make it how I want it to be? Let’s explore this deeper with a quick little game, a thought experiment of sorts…
A Quick Thought Experiment
I want you to think about someone you have met that you just absolutely love to be around. Maybe you feel most like yourself when you’re with this person. Maybe you feel unconditional love or acceptance with this person. Or perhaps, there is a real sense of trust, comfort, or safety. Close your eyes and spend a few minutes imagining that you are with this person; maybe in a setting in which you have connected with this person. Take it all in. See what you see. Hear what you hear. Fully connect to the experience of being with this other person.
What is this like? I’m sure it feels pretty good. It might feel like home. Maybe this person is a spouse/partner, an old friend, a grandparent or family member. Whoever it is, I want you to notice the way in which you feel when you are in their presence.
When I ask these questions, what I hear a lot is that it feels comfortable, effortless, safe, loving, compassionate, and empowering. This experience or relationship might represent how we feel when we are “at our best” or most connected with our truest, most authentic and deepest self.
How often do you feel this way? Only when you are around this other person? Only on special occasions?
It can feel as if these good feelings and this strong sense of self is only available if we are around “that other person” or when we do something special in our lives. However, I believe one of the powerful effects of counseling and coaching is one’s ability to transform this internal communication with themselves and begin to have this sort of relationship with themselves most of the time—independent of external circumstances. What if these powerful feelings are really not coming from “out there”? What if it is a misattribution that keeps us stuck and constantly chasing and seeking the next exciting thing or relationship?
A stable, strong, and compassionate relationship with ourselves is always available but we first have to admit and give up on the faulty belief that it is coming from other people, places, and things. We have the power to have this quality of relationship with ourselves in our lives right now—at this moment.
Another step in transforming your own internal communication and your relationship with yourself is to gain awareness of the program that is already running. When I think about my own experience or my work with clients, the experience of feeling critical, degrading, judgmental, and harsh toward oneself is a common experience that shows up a lot. It's human to be our own inner critic.
Think about your average week. Consider the way in which you talk to yourself; think about how you feel. What is it like to be alone? I like the terminology of the “inner critic” to describe the part of ourselves that is judgmental, critical, and constantly chattering about how we are failing or constantly falling short. Let’s explore this inner critic briefly.
The Inner Critic
What are the feelings and emotions that stand in the way of living the life you want? What does your inner critic say? What are the messages you receive over and over that are defeating? What is the tone of your inner critic’s voice? What is the volume and tempo of this harsh inner voice? Really connect with it. Take the next few moments to take a step back and simply observe the inner critic. I’m sure it has a mind of its own and is probably not very open to suggestions, new perspectives, or alternative points of view. Merely by observing this inner critic, you are building awareness and creating space and freedom from it.
I like to think that after months and years of this inner critic running wild, we start to get comfortable with it. It becomes a familiar part of our experience and we even start to believe it without even knowing we are. It becomes an invisible player in our lives.
Awareness Alone is Curative
Imagine a fish that was born in the water. It swims in the water and the water is all that it has ever known. In fact, it does not even know that it is swimming in water because there has been nothing to contrast it with or compare it to. That is, until the fish gets caught by the fisherman and is pulled out of the water. At that moment, it sees the land, trees, humans, and a whole new environment it has never seen before. It feels the air and what it is like to not be immersed in water. This is a moment of awareness. It is also a great metaphor for what it is like to become aware of the inner critic that likes to control and invade one’s experience.
Counseling and coaching is a context in which a person can safely explore their inner world, build greater awareness, and begin to make new decisions about the experience they want to have. When working with clients, I believe an inside-out approach is the most transformative and healing. In my experience, focusing on one's relationship with themselves is akin to focusing on watering and nurturing the roots of a tree. It is the source where all things come from. A healthy and nurturing inner relationship yields healthy and nurturing outer relationships with others and the world. Counseling is not easy work and it is not something that happens overnight, but as the old adage goes, it works if you work it.
Xavier Heditsian, MA, LPC
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