Who are we really? Are we the person we are when we’re with friends? Or is it that we’re the person we are with family? Or perhaps we’re really expressing our true nature when we’re by ourselves. In The Secret Lives of Adults: Your Seven Key Relationships – and how to make them work, Allison Keating explores the different aspects of our identity.
Keating believes we have seven key relationships:
- Me, Myself, and I
- Mum (Mom) & Dad
These relationships are how we express ourselves. Fundamental to this is an understanding of how to bring our whole selves to each of these relationships and how to fit these images of ourselves together. I’ve spoken a few times about the need for and power of an integrated self-image. (For just some examples, see Braving the Wilderness, Happiness, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries.)
Being an Adult
Whatever image we see for ourselves, it should be an adult. Richo speaks in How to Be an Adult in Relationships about what it’s like for us to be the most authentic human that we can be. Keating takes a different approach: instead of focusing on the things we need to give ourselves and others, she seeks to help us better understand ourselves.
We’ve this unconscious assumption that adults must have life all figured out. After all, as a child, we thought our parents were all-knowing and really had it sorted. At least, we felt like this until we became teenagers and suddenly decided we knew more about life than they did – only to return to our beliefs that our parents knew everything when we hit our twenties.
The problem is that this is a false belief. Being an adult means you’re willing to confront the places you don’t have figured out, but few adults I know feel like they’ve got it all figured out. Instead, most of the folks I know, who are brave enough to be honest, know that we’re all struggling to do our best in a world that keeps changing. We hope that our awareness of the world continues to grow.
As Sherry Turkle explains in Alone Together, we’ve got technology that connects us nearly every moment of every day, but at the same time we’re more alone than we have ever been. We have fewer confidants and fewer real friends, even as the number of our Facebook friends blossoms. Friends are an emotional buffer that allow us to weather the storms of life. Without them, we feel buffeted by the minor challenges of day-to-day life and poorly equipped for all that being an adult means.
Our friends today are less likely to know about the deep, emotional scars we carry with us since childhood and the embarrassment of our past. As a result, the friends we do have are poorly equipped to know when they need to step up and support us.
The pace of progress continues to increase. We’re producing more food than ever before. We can meet our own needs with fewer hours of work than ever in the history of humanity, but we’re also working more hours and harder than even a few years ago. The competition bug has caught us. Social media has turned up the volume on the age-old problem of “keeping up with the Jones’.” We get caught on the hamster wheel of work and keeping up, and we barely realize we’re doing it.
Gone are the days “on Walden Pond,” where a deep thinker could sit and stare at the water and peer into their own souls. It’s easier for us to login and find out what someone else is thinking (or saying they’re thinking) than it is to connect with ourselves and what we truly think, feel, believe, and fear.
The tyranny of this is that it binds us to the hurts of our past. No one seems to know about the hurts. Not our friends. And, buried under layers of denial, not even us. We react to others based on events that we no longer remember.
Knowing and Not Knowing
A Johari window is a simple, two-by-two grid of knowing and not knowing both ourselves and others. It creates spaces where we know things about ourselves that others don’t know, things that both we and others know, what others know but we don’t, and, finally, things that neither others nor we know about ourselves. It seems that, instead of peering into the space where no one knows, we’re more interested in staring at the spot where others know things about us that we don’t know.
We’ve become obsessed with “what do they really think about me?” In an age of political correctness and ethical and moral weakness, we must wonder: is what someone telling me what they really feel? Too often the answer is no, and we know it. But we also know that getting to the real answer may not be possible because of the fears they carry inside of themselves. (See The Fearless Organization for more about fear and its impacts.)
Sometimes, the knowledge that you gain about yourself addresses the limitation – and sometimes it doesn’t. Knowing you have the flu doesn’t stop you from having it. It can, however, inform what you do and how you change your behaviors so that you can get better. With the flu, you may choose to get more rest, but you’ll still have a few days before your body has a chance to recover.
On the other hand, knowing that you are sabotaging your success by a simple behavior, you can stop the behavior and get more success. The amount of action (or inaction) required is trivial compared to the challenge of awareness.
The journey to understand ourselves is filled with both kinds of awareness. There’s the kind that makes the problem evaporate – and the kind that exposes the long path that we have to recovery.
Much of the hurt we experience and react to is said to come from our attachment style. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth described the attachment styles as: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. (For more see Daring to Trust.) Of these, only secure attachment was considered to be non-afflictive. That is, people with secure attachment styles have fewer places of harm and are therefore supposed to be less reactive to environmental stressors.
In practical terms, your attachment style isn’t fixed. (See Mindset.) You can heal old wounds by recognizing them and working through them. In effect, we walk towards the pain that we felt, and we resolve it rather than ignoring it. Ignoring the pains we feel leaves us vulnerable to someone else triggering the emotional landmines that we’ve buried. (See Step, Step, Click for more.)
Unconscious Time Travel
It seems that our unconscious doesn’t notice the passing of time. This was hinted at in the movie A Beautiful Mind. (See Incognito for more context.) The point the movie made was that Nash’s friend and the little child that he saw never aged. They never changed as he aged. It’s almost like they were frozen in time. This is an interesting curiosity that could be relegated to a value for dream interpretation until you consider how we respond to hurts.
Our response to hurts is quick and automatic (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on how this happens). In that response is no sense of the time that has gone by – or even, to some extent, how the situation has changed. We’re still that frightened little boy or girl on the inside. It’s that frightened boy or girl that’s lashing out. Until and unless we can quiet the pain of that spot inside ourselves and learn to be okay, we’ll never be able to stop the outbursts. Whether we were injured ten minutes ago or ten years, we’ll still respond to similar situations – until we address the core.
Perhaps our greatest fear lies beneath the surface. The fear is that we’ll be or become unlovable. Some memory back before our brains were fully formed warns us that we’re dependent upon others. We hear every criticism as a hint that this fear of being unlovable may be true. Deep inside, we can’t stop the nagging feeling that we may be unlovable and therefore ultimately vulnerable again.
The nagging feeling can be pushed back. It can be kept from surfacing too frequently, though everyone seems to have it surface now and again.
Some people are taught by their environment that they must always be agreeable. Perhaps their family system is predicated on the need for tranquility at all costs. Instead of having healthy disagreements and constructive arguments, hurt feelings are buried until the day that they boil over. Everyone else is surprised, half at the content of the explosion and half that the family member couldn’t keep it together.
In a system where conflict is bad – rather than constructive – it’s hard to make it ok. In other environments, healthy means sharing feelings without being hurtful and arguing about the perspectives and the values but not about the worthiness of the people. As we learn to be better adults, we learn that, to be ourselves, we must be willing to engage in constructive arguing – and we need to learn how to do that well. (Here, John Gottman’s The Science of Trust is great.)
The Cult of Easy
While the need for tranquility may be isolated to some families and some environments, it seems like there is the perspective that things should always be easy. We shouldn’t have to pour our hearts and souls into things, it should just come naturally, like the YouTube star who seems to effortlessly makes millions.
The truth is “Tenacity, hard work and persistence, especially in the face of adversity, are how you succeed.” As we learn to be adults, we learn that adulting isn’t easy. It’s not easy to face the fifth or fiftieth rejection – or the five-hundredth. It’s not easy to slave over something for years or decades in obscurity believing that something will turn any day now. However, it is how success is won, at least for most of us. (See Grit for more.)
Accepting Your Feelings and Frustrations
In the end, being an adult means accepting your feelings – good and bad. That includes the joy and the frustrations. You can’t side-step or ignore your feelings, because they will eventually come out whether you want them to or not.
Feelings are a part of The Secret Life of Adults – and just like the book, they’re worth discovering.