In your mind, everything is going wonderfully. In addition to the mutual attraction, fun, shared interests and values, you both get along so perfectly. There is a deep sense of acceptance with your partner that you have never known before. They really, really get you, and love you for who you are.
And then the hammer falls.
They start out small and innocent and perhaps reasonable. But soon they bloom into what feels like life altering, ego-squashing, self-abdicating requests (demands, criticisms, etc…) that cause panic in your body, and chaos in your mind.
First comes defensiveness: “What’s wrong with the way I do things? Why should I be the one to change?” Then comes self-doubt and insecurity: “They don’t love me for who I am — they don’t understand me — I’m not good enough”. Finally comes fear: “If I don’t do things differently, I will lose this person”.
So much of the conversation regarding change within relationships revolves around the premise that changing oneself de facto means losing or giving up oneself. To change for someone else is, in a sense, to betray yourself. If someone really loves you, that person will love you exactly as you are. Although popular, setting up this dichotomy – that I either stay true to myself and “be me” versus compromise myself for my partner — is not the only way to look at things. A much more exciting, positive, self-empowering paradigm exists.
As a young man in Rabbinical school, I was asked “What’s the difference between a tree and a reed? While a tree is strong and upright, it is uprooted by the wind. A reed merely bends during a storm, staying connected to it’s roots throughout. To survive and to flourish, we need to be like reeds.”
Being as strong as a tree has it’s advantages. There are times in life that we need to be strong and immutable, especially when it comes to our values and beliefs. But as you go through life, do you want to be the dog that can’t learn new tricks? The stubborn, old coot that will try nothing new?
Who are we, really?
Kelly McGonigal, in her work The Neuroscience Of Change, explains that far from being a cherished trait, our strongly defined sense of self is actually one of our greatest sources of pain. When we insist that we are “such-and-such” a person, or “that just doesn’t work for me” or “I’m just not like that”, we are actually imprisoning ourselves into a definition that will often clash, head-first, with reality. When this happens, we experience negative emotional flooding i.e. – helplessness, frustration, anger, and pain.
Being open and able to change, and in the deepest personal ways, is at once our greatest challenge, and yet our highest ability. Far from losing oneself, re-inventing yourself is a journey of self-discovery. And oftentimes, there is no stronger impetus than your most important relationships.
So next time your loved one asks you to be somebody you are not, make space for that possibility. Alongside the indignation, anger and fear, keep in mind that far from losing yourself, perhaps they are giving you the opportunity to find out who you really are 🙂
Portland Relationship Institute: Emotional Flooding and What to do about it
Kelly McGonigal: The Neuroscience of Change