One of the chief motivations for individuals to seek psychotherapy is relationship dissatisfaction. Many of my individual clients have partners who refuse to attend therapy with them. They typically request feedback from me on what could be going through their partner’s head. “Who does that,” is a common question, which I have discovered is a synonym for, “It shouldn’t be that way.” Another frequent response is, “Can’t they see it?”
In many cases, NO is my response. Many people lack awareness of not only their own blind spots and flaws but also their partner’s right to have their own SELF. What do I mean when I say having a sense of SELF? The most concise answer is the ability to have one’s own thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. Furthermore, you do not allow others to impose theirs on you or yours on them.
Lacking a Sense of Self
You are not threatened by others having a differing view than yours. Moreover, you do not abandon your own due to being intimidated by someone else’s or to maintain approval, acceptance, or presence. One of the primary challenges when dealing with someone who does not have a sense of SELF is they simultaneously cannot tolerate you having differences from them, and they cannot SEE that they are doing this.
Attempting to resolve conflict with a person with these traits is next to impossible. If you cannot develop the capacity for empathy, which is not sympathy or compassion but the ability to suspend judgment and understand what another’s experience is like on an emotional level, you are dead in the water when it comes to conflict management.
Furthermore, an individual such as this cannot tolerate being wrong; it is a threat to their fragile sense of SELF. If a pillow on your couch is red and they assert it is orange, even though it is actually red, they will risk ruining the entire relationship before conceding it is red. To do so would be putting their life on the line in a psychological sense; they will fight to the death.
The Origin of The Issue
From a rational level, this makes no sense. But when you understand the deeper processes behind it, there is a rationale to it. The underlying cause of this stems back to shame and attachment failures. In an ideal setting, a child brings its thoughts, feelings, and perspective to its caregiver. They then help the child explore their emotions and thought processes, encourage them that all thoughts and feelings are acceptable, and instruct them on how to utilize these sources of information about their internal and external world into effective actions.
In child development terms, this would be like winning the lottery. The majority of us were raised in environments somewhere between this milieu and complete neglect and abuse. Despite many positive aspects we may have received from our family of origin, there were likely deficits as well. This is one among many factors that make relationships in our adult life so complex and challenging.
Fear of Attachment Loss
In my experience, almost all of us have insufficiencies in our capacity for empathy and having a sense of SELF. If our caregivers do not accept certain beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, we must then dissociate or defend against them in some manner. This is done in an effort to prevent attachment loss of some form, such as pulling away love, approval, acceptance, or presence. Even the perceived fear of this will cause us to block these aspects of our SELF.
Once this has been internalized, we no longer need an external force to cause us to do so. Perhaps, there is an inner critic whenever we start to feel a certain way – “I shouldn’t feel so sad about this; I shouldn’t be so angry; I should be more grateful.” Sound familiar? There are two main ways people will attempt to compensate for not having an adequate sense of SELF. The first is to become compliant and avoidant. The second is to become dominating and controlling. They both stem from the same wounds: shame and grief.
Compliance Versus Control
In a relational context, these two types of adaptions tend to pair up with the opposite one. I rarely see two dominators, they have likely killed each other prior to making it to therapy, or two avoiders, there is not much to bring to the relationship, and they tend to fizzle out due to lack of any true emotional connection.
Returning to the question of, “Can’t they see it,” this is usually asked by an individual who is more passive of their partner who is more dominating. I am in no way rationalizing for them when I respond with, “NO!” “They cannot.” This personality type carries a tremendous sense of shame and unworthiness due to not being allowed to have a full SELF and having all parts of THEMSELVES love, affirmed, and validated.
Degrees of Severity
As a result, they struggle to allow others to have a SELF. Moreover, they have to protect their SENSE of SELF by not permitting others to have a different viewpoint than theirs. Their defense then turns into a prison they cannot let people into or they cannot escape from. This is what creates such a pronounced inability to tolerate other’s perspectives. As with most things, there are degrees of severity. I would assert we are all on the continuum to some extent. When you have enough self-awareness to recognize there are probably shortcomings in your overall self-awareness, you are open to feedback and motivated to grow.
But when self-examination puts your tenuous sense of self at risk, receiving feedback is potentially life-threatening psychologically. Perhaps, you are currently with a partner who displays these characteristics. The higher up the scale you go is what people would refer to as narcissism. Again, we all have blind spots and engage in self-focused behaviors at times. This does not equate to being a raging narcissist. Pop culture has grabbed hold of this term, and trying to explain yourself is now categorized as being a narcissist and gaslighting.
Different Sides of The Same Coin
Being higher in the narcissism continuum is a very different thing. These individuals cause tremendous damage to their partners. The irony is the ones who dominate and those who are dominated are operating from the same wound but through a combination of traits and circumstances adapted to the attachment failures in opposite forms.
To individuals who exhibit high traits of narcissism, everyone in their life is an extension of their reality. They literally cannot see others as having their own experience. They view having a differing opinion or perspective as a personal betrayal. If you are in a relationship with someone like this the only way to remain in it is to lose yourself, which is not a good option. I have worked with clients who have such a lack of SELF they do not even realize they have been abandoning themselves due to having to have done so to such a high degree in their formative years.
Commitment to Growth
In these cases, I would encourage a person to seek psychotherapy, develop all the social support they can, create financial independence, and work toward extricating yourself from such a toxic environment. When there is no ability to SEE, there is no way to have a healthy relationship with this person, which will result in their partner becoming emotionally, physically, and spiritually ill.
For the majority of individuals and couples, I would urge educating yourself in an effort to increase your self-awareness and commit to investing in your personal and relational growth. In my opinion, they only way to maintain a healthy, long-term relationship is if both partners are committed to their own and each other’s emotional and spiritual growth. As a person committed to my own growth and assisting thousands of others with theirs, I can tell you we all have a lot to work on and there is always more to SEE.
You will never arrive! This is not to be discouraging but to encourage you there are greater levels of joy, happiness, fulfillment, and intimacy to be achieved. A final word to those who are more on the passive/compliant side, start expressing your thoughts, feelings, and views in small ways; challenge yourself to come out from hiding. Identify relationships that are safe and take a little risk to express your SELF.
Psychotherapy can be one such relationship. I thoroughly enjoy creating a safe environment for all aspects of my client’s SELF they can then bring out and explore and experiment with. If you would like to understand more about these concepts, receive guidance in increasing your sense of SELF, or support in extricating yourself from a toxic relationship with someone who will not allow you to have a SELF, contact me anytime at 561-468-6464