Improving Your Relationship with Yourself and Others

I would like to offer some wisdom on this matter, wisdom that I have learned on my own and from others: To improve your coping abilities AND your relationships with others, focus on healing the relationship you have with yourself.

Have you met people who seem happy and relatable and are liked by almost everybody -- but at the same time do not possess super-charismatic personalities or movie-star good looks? What is it that they have? It may be be "authenticity." That is, they are not afraid to be true to who they are, including their personality, values, and principles in life. Put another way, authenticity is simply having a good relationship with oneself. In our culture, we are often advised that to have friends and attract a mate we need to be more glamorous and have more money, possessions, or power. In short, we need to be different than who we are. Our culture is often inauthentic, and as a result, we become inauthentic. Let’s face it, many people are attracted to glamor, money, possessions, and power. And that is fine. But those things alone do not create a quality human being. The true measure of quality is one’s relationship with oneself.

Self-Parenting

The goal of raising children to adulthood is to love, nurture, and guide them to the point where they can parent themselves. Your parents probably did the best they could with the hand they were dealt. But no child gets all of their needs met or escapes youth without an ounce of trauma.

In most cases, we end up arriving at adulthood with self-esteem deficiencies, or psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, insulation (overeating, alcohol or substance abuse), projection, distraction (workaholism, all-consuming hobbies, etc.), or physical symptoms (headaches, skin rashes, gastrointestinal issues, etc.)

Psychologist and Author Ram Dass says that just by virtue of socialization we arrive at adulthood with net-negative self-esteem. That is, just by being told, “No, you don’t do it this way.” Or “No, you say it like that,” we end up feeling like we are “less than” or that our intrinsic selves are not ideal. When there is arguing, fighting, tension, or even emotional distance in a household, the children absorb the emotional climate and it becomes part of their mental makeup. In short, we arrive at adulthood “wounded,” to one degree or another.

One way we can heal our wounds is by learning how to become an “ideal” self-parent. What would that look like? Should we be controlling, harsh, unloving, and critical? That would be like applying a blow torch to heal a burn. Instead, we need to be kind, loving, forgiving, compassionate, and accepting 100 percent. Not to say you should gloss over your mistakes. Instead, you acknowledge them, make apologies if necessary, and then move forward knowing that love and kindness will help your future self far more than criticism and condemnation.

I like to think my self-parenting style is like that of a kind elder who is forgiving and understanding, a wise man who knows what’s best and is kindly amused at the misguided ways with which I tried to cope before I knew better.

Neuroplasticity and a New Superhighway

Neuroplasticity is a general umbrella term referring to the brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience. When we are very young we have a high degree of neuroplasticity so our early experiences create thought patterns that are like “superhighways” of cognition. It’s like cross-country skiing: It is easier to ski on a blazed trail than to create a new one.

The thought patterns we developed as a reaction to pain and neglect do not serve us well as we engage in healthy relationships. They may have been effective at shutting down pain, but unfortunately, they also shut down our overall range of feelings. Keeping painful experiences repressed saps our energy and leads to emotional and physical issues – but bringing these experiences out of the dark and into the light can be challenging. Our protective brains tell us, “I have already dealt with that!” or, “That experience didn’t really bother me that much!”

Because we have lost much of our neuroplasticity by age 11, we have to do a little work to create new superhighways – but we can do it! It takes 45 days to create a new superhighway, just by thinking for five or ten minutes every day. All you have to do is think back to earlier times when you were most vulnerable. In particular, think of the times when you felt you were the least likable. Think of your most cringeworthy moments. Look at these experiences, as an ideal self-parent would, with forgiveness, kindness, love, and compassion. You can acknowledge your mistakes and even apologize for them. But more than that you have to realize you probably made mistakes because you didn’t know better or because you had misguided ideas that were reactions to pain. The point is to look at all the negatives as your brain's natural defenses – put in place so you could cope. Don’t expect to make significant progress the first day you try this. Instead, judge if it is working for you after several weeks. For me, it took close to five weeks before I was convinced!

Your Transformation

Look at this process as part of the transformation from the “old” you to the “new” you. You can now go forward in a beautiful new way, where you are the perfect self-parent (or nearly so) with nothing but love, understanding, and encouragement for your poor inner self. Treat your inner self with huge admiration. You went through a lot of pain but you didn’t say no to life – you didn’t give up even though you weren’t dealt the best hand. Don’t just think about this stuff. Feel it and recognize that you can build on this for the rest of your life.

While you are pursuing this path, you will start to feel better because it changes your brain chemistry. It’s not just wishful thinking or a bunch of self-help advice. You have four “happy hormones,” which are really neurotransmitters. DOSE. Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins. The best way to raise your baseline dopamine level (not a spike with a letdown but a persistent lift) is to be working toward something. The best way to raise your oxytocin level is to be helpful and kind and to create personal connections. These are proven facts. What is also true is that if you work toward self-love, self-compassion, self-acceptance, etc. it will raise your happy hormones in the same way as if you were helping and loving another person.

Your Plan of Action - Reflection Sessions

If you want to improve how you feel, and how you show up in life, then start a 45-day plan to create your new “thought-pattern” superhighway. You will be healing yourself from the inside out and the outside in. It only takes five or ten minutes of reflecting each day and here's what you do:

  • Just before you go to sleep, or after you wake up and are still in bed, spend five to 10 minutes thinking about your past.
  • Think about the good things that have happened and also your most difficult times.
  • Turn toward your thoughts of these experiences. How did you feel back then, right at that moment?
  • Go beyond thinking and try to feel the same feelings deeply.
  • Ask yourself, how did these experiences shape my thought patterns, the same patterns I have today?

Now here is the part that will create the new superhighway:

  • Turn toward your painful or cringeworthy experiences while being the most kind, compassionate, forgiving, and loving self-parent possible.
  • Feel the warmth of love and forgiveness for yourself, realizing this will make you super powerful.

It may not come easily at first but you will see improvements in less than 45 days. You will notice your most cringeworthy moments start to make you cringe less, if at all. That is part of the healing.

If you feel like you are letting yourself off too easily for mistakes you have made, consider this: You need to be totally forgiving if you want to heal. Revisit the "Self-Parenting" section above. You can't be your best self if you continue to let the past drag you down. Look at your mistakes as uninformed or misguided attempts at coping with the difficulties of life. If you were able you would have done better. Think to the future and how you want to rid yourself of baggage so you can be the best at helping yourself and the people around you.

Keep this up for the rest of your life. You can use your new energy and understanding to help other people. That will generate more oxytocin and more happiness for you and those around you!

The only difficult part is that as you become enlightened and evolved, the people around you may need time to adjust. They can feel left behind in a way. That is your calling to be creative. Figure out how to help them through kindness and love, even when they don’t get it, even if they keep sending their intrinsic pain your way. You don’t just accept abuse; you try to understand it is not about you and that they are suffering.

Doubling Down on Self-Inquiry

Improving your relationship with yourself is not only about self-compassion and self-forgiveness. It is about unburdening yourself from things that have happened to you. Once you are up and running with your 45-day Reflection Sessions (see above) you can begin to add in these questions:

  • What happened to you that should not have?
  • What did not happen that should have?

This is part of a healing process described on the Reframing Your Past page. There you will learn about the four steps to healing and why reconnecting with your past can reduce anxiety, depression, problematic behaviors, and physical health difficulties.

On Healing and Forgiveness - Ted Talk by Dolph Lundgren