Tag Archives: relationships

Who Am I? And Where Am I Going? / September 3, 2013

When in sixth grade (and 11 years old), I was informed by my teacher that I was to give one of the graduation speeches. Topics were assigned; mine was “Who am I? And where am I going?”


This was, admittedly, a little over my head. In fact, I have a very clear recollection of complete incomprehension. Even today, the existential nature of these questions gives me pause. Certainly I am not alone.


So – who are we? What factors influence and form our identities? 


One factor is genetics. We are all born with a particular disposition that will probably change little during our lifetime. Recently, Oliver Sacks, in a lovely column reflecting on his life, stated, “I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20”. Closer to home, my nieces are both kind and spirited little girls. Yet, one is defined by her sweetness; she is caring, empathic, and consistently shows concern for others. The other is fearless, strong-willed, and feisty. These characteristics have been apparent since they began walking and talking. Barring a terrible trauma, these traits may be tempered, but will most likely remain consistent throughout their lives.


Families-of-origin also influence identity. Ideally, parents and caretakers help shape identity by nurturing children’s unique interests, strengths, and talents. Other family-of-origin influences on identity include the teaching (or not) of basic morals and ethics, as well as the fundamental manner in which children are regarded, e.g. with respect, contempt, etc. The now-classic poems, All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulgham, and Children Learn What They Live, by Dorothy Law Nolte, wonderfully summarize these influences, both found here.


Yet, identity development is fluid, and does not stop with genetics and early experiences. We progress, change, and grow throughout our lifespan, and many factors impact how we think and feel about ourselves. One of the most significant influences on identity during adulthood is our interpersonal relationships. Social relations are prime instigators of emotions, and much of how we think and feel about ourselves forms through interactions with others. Our “selves” are built upon responses to us made by others, and our psychological well-being is largely dependent on relationships with and connectedness to others.


Our best relationships help us feel whole and complete, and reflect back to us the best parts of ourselves. This affirms identity. When these relationships are off, we feel bad because we are receiving feedback that we are, if only in that moment, undesirable, unwanted, unloved.


All our relationships have the ability to influence our identity, including marriages and romantic relationships, as well as interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. Even strangers can impact identity, if only temporarily. La Belette Rouge beautifully captures this here, when an interaction with a stranger suddenly transports her back to junior high school.


So – genetics, families-of-origin, and relationships all contribute to identity. Of course, there are other factors (e.g. societal influences, cultural norms), and the interplay between all these aspects is complex and ultimately unknowable. Most importantly, it is exciting to know that growth lasts a lifetime. We are never fully “cooked” if we don’t want to be.


And – that speech from sixth grade?  Just finished it. :)







On Restoring Connection / April 27, 2013

Ray was furious. He was recalling for the group yet another argument with his wife. “She always thinks she’s right! I wish we had a referee, like in a boxing match, who comes over, lifts my hand in the air and declares me the winner!” The group laughed in recognition. Apparently, “being right”, particularly with spouses and partners, was a common theme for many participants.


This particular scene occurred over 15 years ago while leading psychotherapy groups in a substance abuse clinic, and I have seen this dynamic played out over and over with couples of every age, race, and ethnicity through the years. Sometimes, minimal guidance or education around an issue quickly resolves a difference. However, much more often, what started as a simple disagreement has intensified into a full-blown and intense conflict, each party categorically certain they are correct – and willing to compromise their relationship to prove it.


The insistent need to be right is akin to a disease. When we are very sick, physically, our systems start to shut down; we focus on just breathing, living, making it to the next day. Similarly, when we are focused only on proving our point, we shut down relationally. We become incapable of listening, empathy disappears, and our sense of humor goes out the window. Our interpersonal skills disappear, and the world becomes smaller.


There is no step-by-step plan, or manual, for long-lasting, healthy relationships; we are all too different. However, actively working on the following themes will help to foster intimacy and build a solid foundation to your relationship:


Know Yourself. Certain interpersonal conflicts can be particularly intense and painful. Sometimes, old issues that we are not even aware of trigger these conflicts.  Moving past an impasse, and to a closer, more connected place, begins with reflecting on what in your own personal story may have brought you to this stalemate with your partner. Only then is it possible to identify, and then lessen, defensive barriers to intimacy. This can be a complex and muddy process; it is not easy.


Ray began therapy to address the unsettling conflict with his wife. With time, it became clear how painful it was for Ray to be “wrong”. He was raised by an intense, stern, and alcoholic father who rarely missed an opportunity to humiliate his oldest son. This was particularly true when Ray made a mistake. Ray’s need to be right was really a defense against once more feeling humiliated and demeaned.


Develop a deep and abiding empathy for your partner. Empathy is a fundamental component in healthy relationships. It is an understanding of the world from your partner’s unique perspective, a figurative “being in their shoes”. Developing empathy requires careful and active listening, tuning in to your partner, and allowing room for their distinct experience.


Ann, Ray’s wife, participated in the “I’m right/you’re wrong” dynamic, which resulted in her feeling angry, disregarded and unimportant. Ann didn’t really care about being “right”; she simply had a fundamental need to be listened to and understood. In recognizing this, she realized that she needed to do the same for Ray. When both Ann and Ray were able to be empathic toward each other, arguing and blaming diminished.


Allow yourself to be vulnerable. “Vulnerability” is essentially an openness to emotional experience, and a vital part of intimate relationships. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, and risk stepping into the anxiety that can hinder intimacy. This anxiety is very individual, and, for example, can include a fear of rejection, humiliation, and even a fear of being overwhelmed.


Ann’s mother, although loving, subtly demanded that Ann be just like her. If Ann had an experience that was unfamiliar to her mother, it went unacknowledged; a different opinion resulted in her being ignored or ridiculed. Ann learned very early that the cost of being loved meant she needed to suppress her own identity. To Ann, asserting herself within her relationship was synonymous with risking feeling rejected and alone.


Surrender. Intimacy requires a “surrendering”, in an emotional sense. The psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent first addressed the idea of “surrender” in a classic 1990 paper, and this concept has since been elaborated on by numerous psychoanalytic writers. Ghent spoke of “surrender” as an active embracing of the unknown, emotionally, and an openness to whatever may unfold. Ghent was clear that “surrender” is not to be confused with “submission”, stating surrender implies not defeat but a quality of liberation and letting-go”.


When Ray shared with Ann his history of being humiliated by his father, he feared she would say it was his fault, thus humiliating him again. Ray took a risk by sharing: he allowed himself to be vulnerable and surrendered to whatever may unfold. To Ray’s relief, Ann’s response was deeply empathic and accepting. This resulted in both Ray and Ann feeling very connected to each other, and strengthened the trust between them.


Self-knowledge, developing empathy, being vulnerable, and surrendering may all feel uncomfortable at first. Yet, they all have the potential to loosen protective barriers that may no longer be necessary. The hope “to know and be known by the other” (Ghent) is what most of us wish for. Wasn’t the possibility of this a significant part of why we first fell in love with our partners?


I welcome your comments and thoughts. Please be advised all comments are subject to review before posting. 


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