A frequent reason people go to therapy is relationships: wanting to be in one, to get out of one, or for him or her to change. The yearning for a loving relationship is universal, and yet so many seem to come up short. The search often ends in disappointment and heartbreak.
There can be many reasons for this, but a common one is a lack of self-awareness. We embark on a relationship without really knowing who we are or what we want. We focus on the other person, trying to be what they want so as to capture their heart, without realizing the deception we are perpetrating in the process. We aren’t being real. And then we wonder why, down the road, our partner feels confused or betrayed when our “real self” shows up.
We don’t generally do this with any malicious intent. It’s a natural inclination to put our best foot forward, to be our best selves. But our blind spots sometimes get in the way. Striving to know and be comfortable with who we are can improve our ability to bring our authentic selves to any relationship.
So, how do we do that? Therapy can help, but there are also simple strategies you can do on your own or with friends to know yourself better. Here are a few ideas:
Ask “Who am I?”
Start with the words “I am…” and then follow with whatever comes to mind. Then ask more questions. What am I feeling? What do I like? What am I good at? What are my strengths? What are my shortcomings? What are my hopes? What are my fears? What do I want? Don’t overthink it. The idea is just to let the words flow. You might be surprised by what you learn!
From questionnaires in popular magazines to more sophisticated systems like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram, psychological typologies can be a fun way to learn more about yourself. We all look at the world through our own individual lenses colored by our unique strengths, challenges, temperaments and needs. Some of us are introverts, others extroverts. Some learn by doing, others by seeing or hearing. Play with these tools and see what you learn.
Grab a book
Reading can be a wonderful way to learn about yourself. It can open doors, show you different perspectives, let you try things on, agree, disagree, get lost and be found. Thinking about the books you read as a child can also offer clues. What were your favorite books and why? Which characters do you remember? In what ways did they influence you? Re-reading some of those books now can be not only enjoyable but elucidating.
Pick up a pen
Writing is a tried and true pathway to higher self-awareness, one suggested by many therapists, teachers, and authors of personal growth books. The simplest, and often most effective method, is journaling. A journal is a place to tell the uncensored truth. After all, nobody will ever see it but you. Writing things down makes your thoughts and ideas feel more concrete and real. It offers comfort and support, reveals difficulties and solutions, and helps you to better understand yourself and the things that motivate you.
Most adults tend to divide people into two camps: there are the creative artists and then there are the rest of us. There’s no denying inborn talent and creative genius, but I challenge the idea that creativity is reserved for a select few. Creativity is about engaging your imagination, opening your mind to new possibilities, and seeing yourself and the world differently. So, what could you do to bring more creativity into your life? Make music or art? Take up gardening or cooking? Get into photography or writing? Pick something and give it a try!
Spending time outside can fall by the wayside in our busy, electronically driven lives. When was the last time you really let yourself be immersed in the sights and sounds of nature? It can be restoring, invigorating and awe-inspiring, helping to bring you more fully present and more in tune with your body. It can also help quiet or clarify your thoughts. Hiking, gardening, kayaking and mountain-climbing are just a few of the many activities you can pursue outdoors. Find something that works for you—and leave the headphones at home!
Pay attention to your thoughts
Your thoughts, whether positive or negative, play an important role in the way you feel about yourself. Thinking is something you do “without thinking” much of the time. You have messages that run through your mind seemingly on auto-pilot, and then have emotional responses to those thoughts. The emotions lead to more thoughts, judgements, assumptions and subsequent behavioral reactions—but you often don’t realize it was a thought that started the whole thing in the first place!
Simply stated, mindfulness is being fully present, paying attention to both your inner experience and outer environment, and noticing what you are thinking and feeling both emotionally and physically. Many people shy away from meditation or mindfulness practices because they seem too daunting or time-consuming, but even short periods of simple meditation can be helpful. Focusing on your breath for a few minutes when you first wake up in the morning or before you go to bed at night can be a start. Find something that works for you, commit to it for a few weeks and see what you notice.
Improving self-awareness takes work, but it doesn’t have to be arduous. These ideas are meant to bring some playfulness and fun to the process. For more ideas, visit my website at www.cathyzane.com.