Self-Actualizing Through Relationship
What do you think of when you imagine a self-actualizing, healthy, empowered self? I often find that our culture champions the idea of an individual who tackles problems all on their own, accomplishing whatever they put their mind to. It’s the picture of the entrepreneur, the “rise and grinder,” the special genius working alone. While I do cherish growth and self-discovery, this portrait of self-actualization ignores what I find to be most important: the ability to grow and expand our potential by being in relationship with others. In short, interdependence.
I know from my own personal journey that simply focusing on oneself does not make one a sovereign, actualized individual. Ultimately, self-actualization requires that we recognize how our perceptions of ourselves are connected with—but not equivalent to—others’ perceptions of us.
WE ARE RELATIONAL BEINGS– THIS IS JUST A BIOLOGICAL REALITY OF BEING HUMAN.
Humans are social animals who need warmth, love, and belonging. This becomes especially evident in infants at around 6 months old when they reach the “mirror stage” where they begin to understand that their bodies are out in the world and can be perceived by others beyond their own first-person experience. They become fascinated with their own reflections and enjoy mimicking others’ actions, coming to terms with the fact that there is a self that can act and be recognized by others. This realization is foundational to all human experience and deepens throughout our lives.
It takes time to fully appreciate the power that comes from simultaneously valuing the truth of our own experiences and acknowledging the reality of how other people experience us. As children we learn that our parents cannot read our minds and always understand how we are feeling; we have to be taught to express ourselves. Growing up, we discover that intentions alone do not determine how someone else processes our actions.
This learning can be painful, and many of us bear emotional scars from our childhood because we did not encounter secure, comforting, attachments that respected the relational connection between ourselves and others. Some may learn to avoid expressing themselves because their own needs were never properly acknowledged. Others will avoid apologizing or acknowledging differences in perspective, believing that they need to “win” any discussion in order to have valid experiences. It is difficult to move from the subjectivity of victimhood to self-actualized sovereignty where we can be confident in our own experiences without reducing our relationships to a zero-sum game.
JUST BY BEING ALIVE, YOU ARE IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS IN THE WORLD.
Even if you live in a cave on the top of a mountain, you have a relationship through your experiences with everyone and everything you have encountered. My experience of myself and your experience of me are two different things. That is an incredibly complex and difficult reality that we have to navigate with every new person we meet as we strive to find connection.
In order to be at peace with this reality without feeling static, we need to find a sense of satisfaction and beauty in the multitude of our selfhoods in the world. Nobody knows another person completely, but what’s amazing is that learning about others’ perceptions can lead to discoveries about ourselves as well! It is by being connected to others that we come to enrich and complicate our own sense of self.
SELF-ACTUALIZATION IS NOT JUST A PLACE OF ACCEPTANCE, BUT AN ENGAGEMENT IN AN EVER-EVOLVING ENDEAVOR. SELF-ACTUALIZATION IS NOT A SPACE WHERE WE ARRIVE AND SIT PRETTY.
That transcendental perspective where we can understand our selfhood as being in motion enriches both our sense of self and our relationship with others.
A healthy, mature, self will know how to hold space for others, offering respect and recognition without demeaning their own wellbeing. A sovereign self understands that reality and meaning are subjective and personal but wildly interconnected to all others. A sovereign self finds that judgment of self and others is irrelevant and can choose compassion in every instance. A sovereign self can take responsibility for causing harm and offer meaningful apology while avoiding self-pity or self-righteousness. These actions produce healthier attachments towards our spouses, our friends, and our children, enriching future generations with a sense of healthy, actualizing selfhood.
Healthy selfhood is not something that follows clearly defined rules, but that hasn’t stopped me from doing my best to find the recipe for effective, meaningful relationship. While working as a couples therapist I’ve come to ground my philosophy in the principles of self and other- and in the dance of rupture and repair—the continuous pattern of coming together, drifting apart, and then exploring that distance to reconnect even more closely than before. I’ve boiled down the essence of this approach into my new 15-page Rupture and Repair PDF for partners struggling with disagreement, distance, and ruptures of all kinds. If you’re ready to embrace the differences that make up our connection with others, start on the path of self-actualizing relationship by downloading the workbook here.