intimacy | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Each Person Is A Prism, Part 2: Valentine’s Day Edition

Well, as advertisers are helpfully reminding us, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  For me, as for many other people, this can be a time of irritation.

This isn’t because I’m what our culture calls a “single guy.”  I enjoy that, actually.  It’s because this is the time of year when I get to hear people lament how long it’s been since they’ve been “in a relationship,” or since they’ve done whatever other romantic thing they think they should be doing.

One Person’s Romantic Comedy Is Another’s Horror Movie

The most frustrating part, when I listen to these people, is that they don’t seem to be paying attention to what they actually want.  Instead, they’re measuring themselves against what they see as the culture’s expectations, and blaming themselves for falling short.

“My friends are all married,” I hear (and I’m sure you’ve heard) people complain.  When I hear this from someone, I try to respond compassionately.  But I have to admit, sometimes I just want to caustically remark:  “that makes perfect sense — after all, the rule is that you have to do whatever your friends do!”

And, of course, there are people (mostly men, but not exclusively) who will be able to tell me, to the month, day and hour, how long it’s been since they “got laid.”  Hearing this, it’s all I can do to keep my inner Captain Sarcastic from spitting out:  “true, if you don’t ‘get some’ soon, you’ll lose your place at the ‘jock’ table in the high school cafeteria!”

The saddest part of this, in my experience, is that many people stay dissatisfied even if they do find what they say they’re looking for.  Trying to live into somebody else’s vision of how romance or intimacy should be, I think, is a recipe for suffering.

What Do You Really Want?

If someone is griping to me about their “singlehood” (at least, I think that’s the right word), and they’re really willing to explore the issue, what we’ll often discover is that they don’t even want to be married, “in a relationship,” or whatever else, right now.  They are hurting because they’re telling themselves it’s wrong not to want those things, and beating themselves up.

In my experience, when people become willing to admit that lack of desire, often it’s as if a weight lifts from their shoulders, and their bodies feel lighter.  What’s more, amazingly enough, sometimes acknowledging they don’t want intimacy actually opens the way for them to want it again.

Why?  I think it goes back to what I talked about in my post on “finding compassion through selfishness.”  We’re all made up of a bunch of different parts, or, as some put it, “selves” or “energies” — the aggressive part, the solitary part, the outgoing part, and so on.

Calling Out Our Doubts

As I put it earlier, the way I see it, each person is like a prism — something that breaks up a beam of light into the colors of the rainbow.  Sometimes, we don’t like one of the colors — the anger, the hurt, or something else — and so we cover up the prism.  The trouble is, when we do that, no light can get through.

We all, I think, have a part that wants connection with others.  But we also have parts that are cautious, hurt, untrusting, and so on.  When we tell ourselves it’s not okay to feel afraid or unready about intimacy, and we push the hesitant parts of ourselves down, we can cause ourselves a lot of pain.

I’ve found, both in myself and in talking to people, that it can be so liberating when we acknowledge the areas where we’re uncertain, and it can actually help create the connection with others that we’re looking for.

Being Angry and “Being Spiritual”

In the past, when someone said something to me that I found insulting or disrespectful, I tried to avoid reacting angrily.  I told myself I was probably just being thin-skinned, and that the other person probably didn’t intend to hurt me.

Besides, I said to myself in “spiritual” jargon, the anger I feel comes from my ego — my identification with my body, my accomplishments, my possessions, and so on.  In reality, I am all that is, I am consciousness itself, I am Atman.  How could pure spirit take offense at anything?  By letting myself get upset, I dishonor my true nature.

On one level, I think some of this “spiritual talk” is valid.  There have been moments when, in meditation, I’ve ceased identifying with the body and history that people arbitrarily label “Chris,” and experienced myself as limitless consciousness.

And yet, I can’t deny that, from time to time, I get pissed off.  I feel a tension in my shoulders and a dull heat in my lower back.  In moments like these, I can remind myself of my spiritual nature until the proverbial cows come home, but that won’t change how I feel.

Is It “Spiritual” To Deny Our Anger?

A little while back, it occurred to me:  is it really “spiritual” to tell myself I shouldn’t feel angry, even though I do?  If I, in my true nature, am perfect and complete, why isn’t my anger perfect and complete too?  If I’m really a “spiritual being having a human experience,” why isn’t it okay for that experience to include getting mad sometimes?

What’s more, I used to tell myself that, in my true nature as spirit, I am infinitely loving.  Thus, when I tell someone I’m angry, I’m acting inconsistently with my deepest self.  But does this make sense?

In fact, I find my relationships with people most loving when I can tell them what’s really going on for me, and hear the same from them.  How can I really connect with, and love, another person if I’m not willing to reveal my anger to them?  Doesn’t that render our relationship kind of a farce, or at least superficial and businesslike?

Anger and Intimacy

Acknowledging all this was painful, as I think most growth is.  But these realizations have led me to start dealing with people in a way that’s a lot more satisfying for me — and, I think, for them as well.

Over the past year, when someone has talked to me in a way I’ve found disrespectful, I’ve taken to telling them “I don’t like what you just said to me.”  I don’t call them names or otherwise attack them — I just share, matter-of-factly, how I feel.

Instead of destroying my relationships, doing this has actually led to deeper intimacy.  I’ve found that, when I tell someone what’s really going on for me, they tend to feel freer to reveal their own emotions to me.  Even if what they share is their own anger, that gives me a better sense of who they are.

This doesn’t always happen, of course.  As I’m sure you know, there certainly are people out there who just want to say something hurtful and leave, feeling like they “won” or became superior as a result.  But by and large, letting people know when I’m upset has actually brought me closer to them, and fostered a more genuine connection.

Letting Ourselves Be Seen

I think that, to some degree, we all have a love/hate relationship with being seen — with letting another person see all the parts that make up who we are, whether it’s our joy, anger, grief, ambition, or something else.

On the downside, if we show the other person parts we usually keep hidden, and they leave, we’ll feel hurt.  The more of ourselves we let them see, the more pain we’ll experience if they decide not to be with us.

On the plus side, the more of ourselves we allow others to see, the more it’s possible for them to “love us for who we are” — for them to embrace all of our parts, no matter how unique or socially unacceptable those parts may seem.  I think most of us crave this kind of love, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not.

The “Unvarnished You” Is a Gift

So, being seen is both risky and potentially rewarding — that much, I think most of us understand.  What we don’t grasp as often, I think, is that letting ourselves be seen can also be rewarding for the person we’re with.  Giving them a glimpse of who we are, beneath the polite, competent “social mask,” can be a gift in itself.

I know that, when I’m with another person, and they become willing to show me a part of themselves they usually conceal, my body suddenly feels relaxed and alive.  It’s as if they satisfy a yearning I didn’t even know I harbored until that moment.

This happens even if the part they show me is typically seen as “negative” or unwelcome in our culture.  For instance, although we tend to see anger as a “negative emotion,” it’s such a relief for me when someone who normally holds up a pleasant and even-tempered façade gives me a blast of their fierceness.  When I’m with a woman who does this, it’s often a turn-on.  :)

The Pain of “Relationships” Without Relating

Of course, the idea that just letting someone deeply see us can be a gift flies in the face of the conventional wisdom.  In our society, the “value” we offer each other depends on our accomplishments, possessions and appearance — how much money we make, how “hot” our bodies are, and so on.  Conversation isn’t about seeing and being seen — it’s about communicating our “selling points.”

I suspect this way of thinking is the reason so many of us are dissatisfied with the relationships — “intimate” and otherwise — in our lives, no matter how “successful” our peers say we are.  Of course we feel unloved and unappreciated — because we aren’t letting anyone see us, we aren’t allowing anyone to love us for who we are.

We think working on our credentials, possessions and looks will make us “stand out” and get noticed, but there are plenty of people with all of those things (many of whom are unhappy).  What’s rare, in my experience, is a person who’s willing to give me the gift of who they truly are.

Yes, it feels vulnerable to let someone see us — “negative” and “unacceptable” parts and all.  But opening ourselves in this way, I think, allows us to be genuinely appreciated, and can be a liberating experience for people we’re with as well.

Assumption-Free Conversation

People sometimes observe that I form emotional connections quickly with the people I meet, and that I tend to make friends and build relationships with people after just a brief conversation.  Occasionally, people ask how I do this.  They wonder if it’s the specific words I use, my tone of voice, or the way I move my body.  It’s actually none of those things.

I connect with people by refusing to make assumptions about the way they experience the world.  Instead, I ask them about their experience of life—their emotions, aspirations, defining moments, and so forth.  I understand that their experience of the world is probably different from my own, and I take pleasure in learning the unique ways in which they see and respond to the world.

To understand what I’m talking about, it’s important to see that a person’s experience of the world is different from the facts about his or her life.  For instance, the facts about my life include where I work; my income, age and marital status; what I ate yesterday; and so on.  By my “experience of the world,” I mean the way in which I experience the facts about my life.  My feelings of excitement and passion about what I do, my enjoyment of what I ate yesterday, my irritation about having to stand in line at the post office, and so on are all aspects of my experience of the world.

Often, our conversations revolve around the facts about our lives rather than our experience of them.  The questions we ask in conversations are usually geared toward learning about facts rather than experiences.  We ask things like:  “So where did you go to school?”  “What’s your degree in?”  “Where do you live?”  “How long have you been in your job?”  “What was your golf score yesterday?”  And so on.  Unfortunately, this approach makes for dull conversation and doesn’t create emotional connection.  Somehow, asking for and reciting facts about our lives just doesn’t make interacting interesting.

The reason for this is that the facts of our lives are not nearly as important to us as the way we experience those facts.  Suppose, for instance, that my significant other and I break up.  From my perspective, the mere fact that we broke up isn’t the important part of this event—the important part for me is how I feel about it.  I may feel devastated because the relationship was very important to me.  I may feel liberated because the relationship was becoming smothering.  Or, I may have mixed feelings about it.  Whatever my emotional response to the event is, it will be the most important aspect of the event to me.

Most of us, I believe, understand that our experience of the world is more important to us than the mere facts of our lives.  However, even though we know this, we often hesitate to inquire about the way others experience the world in our conversations.  Instead, we make assumptions about their experience of the world based on the facts they give us.

For example, if I told someone that my significant other and I broke up, they would probably assume that I felt bad about it.  Thus, they wouldn’t ask how I felt about the situation.  Instead, they would likely say something to console me, ask for more facts about the breakup (“how long had you been together?” and so forth), or become uncomfortable and move onto another topic.

I used to make these sorts of assumptions about others’ experience of the world, and I made them out of fear.  I was afraid to inquire into others’ experience for two reasons.  First, I feared that people would think I was asking stupid questions.  For instance, if I asked someone how he felt about breaking up with his girlfriend, I figured he would get angry or disdainful, and say something like “obviously I felt bad about it.  How else could I feel?”

Second, I believed that people would think I was being rude and intrusive.  “It’s none of your business how I felt,” I thought they’d say.  To avoid negative responses like these, I would stick to “polite” questions about the facts of others’ lives.  “Personal questions” about others’ emotional experience were reserved for people I already knew well and felt comfortable with.

Eventually, I became frustrated with the interactions I was having.  Many other people I knew seemed to find social interactions meaningful and fun, but I usually either dreaded them or found them dull or both.  I wanted more friendships and intimate relationships, but I didn’t know how to get them into my life.  Ultimately, I decided to do an experiment.  I would try discarding the assumptions I’d been making about others’ emotional experience, and start expressing my natural curiosity about how life made them feel.

I was surprised at the results.  I found that people were far more willing to open up to me than I’d expected.  More importantly, people I’d just met started telling me that talking to me felt good, and that they felt connected to me—things I’d rarely heard before.  And people I’d known for a long time started wanting to be around me and introduce me to others in their lives.  For the first time, I started developing an enriching and enjoyable social life.

Many of us go through interactions with others believing that we shouldn’t ask them how they feel until we really get to know them.  The flaw in this approach is that, unless we inquire into their experience of the world, we can’t “get to know” them at all.  We can’t create an emotional connection with someone without talking about their emotions.  If we want uplifting, exciting and deep relationships with others, we have to take the risk of asking them how they feel about the events of their lives.  If we don’t, those relationships won’t develop.

And is there really any “risk” at all?  I don’t remember anyone ever shunning or lashing out at me for asking how they experience life.  Yes, those questions are “personal,” because they go to the heart of who someone is as a person.  But we can only connect with each other and form meaningful relationships if we learn about each other as people.  When we give up our assumptions about how others see and react to the world, and actually start asking people about their experiences, we can interact with them on a deeper level than we may have explored before.

(This article appeared on the Avenue of Authenticity blog, located at http://coachgirl.typepad.com/.)