In the past few years I’ve read a lot of different relationship books, and most of them are psychology books. They tend to be factual and talk about the way people work, the way relationships work, positive and negative actions etc. They usually have quite a bit of valuable content, but honestly? Most of them are pretty damned boring to read.
Every relationship is different, so I don’t believe there is a “one size fits all” solution to relationship issues. So when reading something my approach has always been to see if anything resonates with me. If so, I try and adopt it. If not, I ignore it. A lot of the content in relationship books is just common sense – things that seem obvious. “be kind to your spouse”, “don’t sleep with other people” kind of stuff. But although obvious, they do talk about many traps that are easy to fall into if you aren’t careful. So sometimes getting a reminder of that “common sense” is beneficial.
The Gifts of Imperfection
Recently someone recommended I read “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown. I knew a little bit about what it was about, but I was still expecting more of the same old dry psychology texts with case studies. I ordered it online, and when it showed up I was a bit alarmed to see a “featured by Oprah” sticker on the cover.
Now, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a full episode of Oprah. The only time I ever see daytime television is at the dentist’s office and the daytime television of choice there seems to be Springer or Dr. Phil (which is surprisingly entertaining).
Even if Oprah was on, usually I’m only half paying attention. It’s kind of hard to focus over the sound of the drill, polisher or questions/commentary from the dentist (side note – why do dentists talk to you while they work? Their freaking hands are in your mouth – It’s not as if you can respond!!!)
Anyhow, although I’ve never watched Oprah I have this image of her stuff as being all new age touchy-feely. Sure I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about relationships, and I’m relatively in tune with my emotions. But I’m still a guy. When I see a nail, I look for a hammer. I’m not sure if new age is really my thing.
But I bought the book, so I started reading. It opened with the following:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.
Wholehearted living is not a onetime choice. It is a process. In fact I believe it’s the journey of a lifetime.
I mentioned earlier that when I read something, I see if anything resonates with me. And I’ve gotta say, that opener hit home. I didn’t just read it, I felt it.
If you’ve read any of my prior posts you will know that I believe life is all about choice. Your outlook on life is up to you. Happiness is a choice that you make. Even love is a choice. Situations and problems don’t resolve themselves – we choose what actions we take (and doing nothing at all is also a choice). So that opening really spoke to me.
This wasn’t like most of the books I had read. And honestly, it wasn’t even a relationship book. It wasn’t all about facts, instead it was full of big ideas.
I’m Worthy Now
One of the keys of the book was the idea that we as people are worthy of love and acceptance today. Right now. Many people believe they are only worthy under certain conditions: If they could get a better job, if they could lose 10 lbs, if they could gain the approval of their parents, if they could…
…well, you get the idea. If maybe our situation was different, or we were something other than what we are right now. Part of it may be fear – oh I can’t do this because… But another part of it is that people often don’t feel they are “enough” and they think they need to be something more.
The message was that you need to accept yourself as you are and believe in yourself. You need to accept that although the person you are isn’t perfect, you are enough. Embrace yourself and accept yourself for who you are. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all strive for self improvement. But we should be accepted for who we are and not feel we need to fit some mold.
Perfection Doesn’t Exist
One of my mantras is that perfection doesn’t exist – it’s an ideal for us to strive towards. And I’ve always thought perfectionism was striving towards that ideal. Brené Brown has a different take though, and she sees perfectionism as a bad thing. According to her:
Perfectionism is not about achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfectly, look perfectly and act perfectly, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame.
Healthy striving focuses on you. It occurs when you ask yourself, “How can I improve?” Perfectionism keeps the focus on others. It occurs when you ask, “What will they think?”
This had never occurred to me, but I think it makes sense. A healthy approach to problems is that they are opportunities for improvement. But I’ve seen cases where people get really upset when one little thing goes wrong. Something may be going 98% right, and instead of appreciating how well things have gone I have seen people who place what appears to be an irrational focus on the 2% that went wrong.
In our search for worthiness, people have things they turn to when times are tough. Escapes that allow them to take the edge off any pain they may be feeling. The book talks about numbing behaviors, and defines them as any actions people take to avoid experiencing the pain of feeling unworthy. Addictions are the most common things people would think of as numbing behaviors, and they can be drugs, alcohol, gambling etc. But really, anything can be a numbing behavior. Books, TV, the internet, Facebook, video games, even exercise.
Everyone has their own outlets, their own escapes. Any of these escapes can become an addiction when someone turns to these behaviors frequently and compulsively. That makes sense, but here’s the part that I really thought was interesting. She goes on to state:
We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also number the positive emotions.
So when we turn to something to try and escape the lows points in life, at the same time we are dulling the enjoyment we can have, and limiting the high points in life.
Suffice to say, I enjoyed the book and thought it presented some really interesting ideas. The book was largely about learning to love yourself. In order to do that it says we need to:
Practice letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Embracing who we are means accepting that we are not perfect, loving ourselves for who we are
I think that self love and accepting who you are is very important. And the importance of it can be seen when you look at how it impacts us in relationships.
At one point in the book the question is raised – can you love others more than you can love yourself? Brené Brown never conclusively answers that question (she has some arguments for and against), but here’s my take on it:
I believe that to feel loved we need to believe we are accepted for who we are. But if you go back to the gemstone idea from my last entry, it’s not easy to say who we really are. We are a lot of different things. In that entry I mentioned that the people who are closest to us are able to see the most of us, and our spouse should be the person who is closest to seeing the whole person. Everyone holds back to some degree though. We all have parts of ourselves that we are embarrassed of or ashamed about, and we try to hold those back even from those closest to us.
Here’s the problem – if we don’t love ourselves we are liable to hold more of ourselves back from the relationship. This is kind of like the numbing behaviors from the book. If we try to numb the pain, we also numb the positive emotions. As we hold back from our relationship for whatever reason (maybe we are scared to not be accepted or we are scared to fail), then we are also limiting the happiness that we can potentially have in that relationship.
What we get out of our relationships is directly proportional to what we put in. So for the greatest level of fulfillment we need to commit ourselves fully, body and mind to the relationship. But in order to fully vest ourselves in the relationship, we first need to be able to look in the mirror and be happy with what we see. And that’s not always easy.
So today’s advice to anyone out there is quite simply, love yourself. Love yourself and accepting yourself for who you are, and work on loving yourself every single day. Accepting yourself for who you are isn’t the same as resignation that you can never change. It doesn’t mean you can’t improve the things that you aren’t happy about. But it does mean that you don’t believe you need to change those things in order to be happy.