Know Yourself: Don’t Let Other People Define You

mirror-istockMany times I talk about the importance of self-awareness, defining who you are, knowing who you are and just as importantly, knowing who you are not. People will always try to define you and put you in a box based on their own perceptions of reality, even when those perceptions are false or misconstrued.

People will try to define you based on obvious things such as race, gender, nationality, weight, the way you dress, the way you talk, how much money you make, education, etc. People will also try to define you based on their prejudices and past experiences.

For example, a man who grew up watching his mother bring men in and out of the house may not only define his mother as a whore, but may go on to infer that all women are whores and therefore treat every woman he comes in contact with as if she were a whore, even when she is not.

That means that this guy will never trust a woman, even if he is in the best relationship possible, he will always be looking for evidence that supports his theory that she is a whore, while almost always ignoring evidence that proves otherwise. He will always accuse her of cheating, of wanting to cheat, and will always be suspicious to the point that he will never allow himself to be happy in the relationship and will either leave after convincing himself that she is a whore or will push her away when she can’t take it any more. The sad part is, he’ll probably even then rationalize to himself that the reason she left was because she was a whore.

**On a side note: Numerous serial killers had “loose” mothers and ended up killing women that they perceived as sluts and whores (prostitutes and women they could pick up in bars) because they reminded them of their mother.***

People do this all the time and it’s largely unconcious and that is how stereotypes not only develop, but get maintained. They will assume that a particular group is lazy, or a particular sex is weak and even when they are faced with evidence that disproves this, they will still only see what they want to see.

Richard Sherman

I wasn’t going to get into the whole Richard Sherman conversation that has been going on around the country and in the media, simply because I thought it was pretty well covered. For those of you who don’t know, Richard Sherman is a professional football player for the Seattle Seahawks who in an interview two weeks ago after a big win, made some colorful statements that didn’t include any profanity, but left many in the national media and across the country, labeling him as a “thug”. Why? Because apparently after just one interview people felt like they knew Richard Sherman enough to define him as a thug. Besides, he kind of “fit the description” being that he is Black, has dreadlocks is full of testosterone and embodies everything mainstream America has defined as dangerous and “thuggish”.

This despite the fact that Richard Sherman has no criminal record, graduated from high school 2nd in his class with a 4.2 GPA and graduated from Stanford with a high GPA. The people who were calling him a thug don’t know all of this. All they know is the quick glimpse they got and felt like it was enough to define him. Even more sad is, that some of those who called him a thug who have since learned that he doesn’t qualify to be called a thug, will still consider him to be a thug because they want to place him in a box that matches their perceived reality of what and who a thug is.

Why all of this is important is because everyday we are being defined by people as broad as the media and society to as small as our coworkers and neighbors, right down to as intimate as our family and romantic partners. When you aren’t anchored in knowing who we are and who we are not, it’s easy to get confused and to even start playing into other peoples definitions and perceptions of who we are and from there, we can get lost and find it difficult to get back to “the real us”.

As adults this may seem unlikely, but it happens more often then you realize and usually without us knowing it right away. It’s even more dangerous when we talk about children who are still very early in the process of not only trying to definte themselves, but also trying to understand themselves.

For example, as a kid in elementary school I was told that boys weren’t as smart as girls. I was told that boys weren’t supposed to do good in school. So guess what? I didn’t do good in school, I did the bare minimum. I let that definition stick with me all the way until I was halfway through high school when I learned that it was “cool” for guys to be smart and then I had to unlearn that definition of myself. However, many boys get this same message passed on to them, especially boys of color in the inner-city and they never learn to redefine themselves and unlearn that message. The damage may be so detrimental that they may never learn to redefinte themselves.

I used to tell the inner-city teenagers I worked with that it was absolutely paramount that they define themselves and know themselves because if they didn’t, society would come up with a definition for them and if they didn’t know better, they would unwittingly settle into the role that was laid out for them. Society would see them as thugs, as whores, as future leeches of society and would treat them that way if they didn’t define themselves and stand strong in knowing who they are despite the pressures around them to be what other people want them to be.

Some teenage girls I worked with wanted to go to college, or graduate from high school, but no one else in their family did so they often weren’t supported, sometimes even encouraged to drop out so they could work or baby sit their mothers (or sisters, or cousins) kids. They were even told that they wouldn’t be anything because no one else in their family was. These girls had to remain strong and learn to define themselves and their reality, despite the pressures to succumb to everyone elses definition of who they were and who they were going to be.

People will tell you over and over again who they think you are. Some will say it blatantly, most will do it subjectively, but if you allow it, it will slowly and surely start to move you away from your center, from your core definition of who you are and move you further into someone elses perceived reality of what they think you are instead of your reality of who you really are.

I included a TEDs talk by Tony Porter called A Call To Men because he talks about how men are forced into a box, the same box that society has tried to force me and most men into. It is generally ten times easier to just go along with other peoples definition of who they think you are and should be then to actually go against the grain and stand strong in your self definiton.

Solitude Versus Loneliness

One of the main therapeutic interventions I suggest when working with people is to spend time alone with themselves.

Too often we aren’t just busy with school, work, family and a social life, but overwhelmed and hardly have a second alone with ourselves during the waking hours and are weighed down by stress, anxiety and/or depression.

When we aren’t working, studying, or surrounded by people, we are often thinking about work, studying or the people in our lives. Our minds are always busy and are often filled with thoughts that are either disturbing or distracting.

I especially make this recommendation to people I see aren’t in touch with themselves.

Often these people are fresh out of relationships are are anxious to jump right back into a new one without taking the time to evaluate themselves and their failed relationships so they make the same mistakes over and over again.

If they are lucky they escape unscathed, but more often then not they leave one relationship and enter another with more emotional baggage, lower self-value, more desperation and often an extra child or two.

Often when I suggest to people that they spend some time alone and not rush into another relationship (or surround themselves with people or bury themselves in work, or their family), it’s as if I asked them to do the impossible.

Some will come right out and tell me “I can’t be alone”. Others will say that it’s depressing being alone and others will try it half-heartedly, but are so insecure and fearful that they are easily distracted by whatever takes them away from themselves.

You see, there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Not many people understand that and easily confuse the two.

Loneliness is a sort of aching, emotional pain, while solitude refers to our relationship with ourselves. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful.

Solitude is a place where our restless mind, spirit and body can come together and is essential for our spiritual lives.

I at times find solitude difficult and have went through many extremes to avoid it, but I know that solitude can be peaceful, loving and rewarding.

It is the place where if we allow it, by shutting out all the internal noise, we become closer to our true consciousnesses (some spiritual/religious people refer to this as God consciousness where they become closer to God).

This is the place where our subconscious often brings into consciousness our unfinished business, people we should let go, goals we never accomplished, etc.

Some people find it painful to analyze themselves and I get that, but it is essential for growth and internal peace. Many people don’t like to be alone because of this.

It is impossible for someone to be at peace with others and their world if they aren’t at peace with themselves and that can only come from solitude.

Like I said, many people go, go, go, and get into relationship after relationship to distract themselves from themselves in order to avoid some of the pain of having to analyze their true selves.

I encourage you to learn to love solitude. Even when it’s involuntary. Aloneness  can grow into solitude, it’s a conscious choice and it takes some practice, but it’s spiritually and emotionally rewarding.

I don’t care if it’s only an hour, thirty minutes, a walk during your break time, but make time for yourself. Try to shut out all the internal noise and allow your mind, spirit and body to become one. You may be surprised at what you find.

Time by yourself is always time well spent.

“Solitude is the garden for our hearts which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit.” Henri J. M. Nouwen; Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings Into One Joyful Step 

Parents Denial of Child’s Problems Leads to Further Problems

Recently I began working with a young man and the first thing I noticed was that I could barely understand him when he spoke. It didn’t take me long to realize that this young man had a terrible speech problem, but that is not why he was seeing me for counseling as I am not a speech therapist. His mother had asked that he receive counseling because of his low self-esteem. 

Well within a few sessions I was able to link his low self-esteem to his speech problem and asked his mom if she ever thought about getting him a speech therapist. I was shocked when the mom told me that he had been referred to a speech therapist five years ago, but she thought he would grow out of it and never got him help.

Again, denial comes into play here. Her denial of her son’s speech problem caused her to neglect getting him the help he needed and now at twelve years old he is being teased by other children and is uncomfortable speaking so his self-esteem is extremely poor. Imagine if she hadn’t been in denial five years ago and actually got him the help she needed, perhaps he wouldn’t have developed the self-esteem issues that he is currently receiving counseling for. 

When I told the mom that I was pretty sure his self esteem issues were tied to his speech problem and I recommended that he start receiving speech therapy she was shocked and honestly sadden. She had been in denial even up til that day that his speech problem was that serious. She quickly went and got him a speech therapist which she should have done five years ago. Now this young man is working with me on his self-esteem issues and the speech therapist for his speech problems and as his self esteem increases and his speech improves I am positive he will start living his life fully, the way he should have been all along. 

Emotional Detachment

I was speaking with a friend of mine today who is also a fellow counselor when we got on the subject of emotional detachment. It wasn’t until then that I had a sort of “aha moment” and realized that even just the word detachment gives me an ill feeling and saying it feels like I am saying a four letter word.

See, I have an issue with detachment, it’s one of my flaws. I often hold onto people (and things) far too long out of fear of letting go, even when letting go and detaching is exactly what’s needed to free myself and the other person.

I know from my clinical work that many other people also suffer from detaching from bad relationships, bad friends, bad family members and bad situations for many of the same reasons I do. Some people I’ve counseled are so attached to toxic relationships that they can never truly realize their potential if they don’t learn to detach. What ends up happening for me and countless others who stay in situations/relationships that they should have let go is a build up of resentment, anger, and often times decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Detaching can be hard and confusing because there isn’t always a right or wrong time to do it. If we detach from a person too soon we may feel like we didn’t try hard enough to make it work or that we gave up too easily. There is often unclear lines between not trying enough and trying too hard. And sometimes there are control issues at play. We don’t detach from a person or situation because we are trying to control that person or situation. For example, a woman may have a hard time detaching from an abusive husband because she really loves him, thinks that if he just calmed down and quit drinking he’d be an awesome person, so she stays in that volatile situation trying to change/control him although detaching from him would serve her better. A man may stay with a cheating wife who disrespects him over and over because he thinks he can “make her” love him and only him.

And then there are people who detach too easily, never allowing themselves or others the opportunity to nurture relationships and situations. You have to be listen to your heart and know when it’s time to let go, even if letting go is the last thing you want to do.

Detachment to me often times feels wrong even when it’s right and that is something I have to work on. It makes me stay in bad relationships and friendships far too long thinking that detachment is betrayal and telling someone “I don’t care about you any more”.  In reality, detachment is a form of self-care and we all need to know how to care of ourselves and be responsible for ourselves and let other people be responsible for themselves. Detachment is also a form of setting healthy boundaries and not allowing others to take advantage or hurt us and vice-versa.

Detachment is not a bad word or a bad thing to do when it becomes apparent that it is what’s needed. Detachment doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the other person, but that you do care enough about yourself that you won’t allow yourself to keep getting hurt, used or neglected, and that you care enough about the other person to let them go. Sometimes we have to detach ourselves from people we like or even love. Setting yourself and setting someone else free is sometimes the best gift you can give to yourself and that person.

Detachment is easier from some than for others. If you want more information on detachment and letting go, check out The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie. It is one of my favorite books.

Not Catching the Ball: A Form of Self-Care

I’m not the first to say this. Matter of fact, I heard this from one of my mentors who is a successful therapist, but even before her, I can swear I might have heard it on Oprah or somewhere, but the fact remains it is a powerful statement that has helped me in many situations.

Often in life we get swamped with obligations that we’d rather not do. I don’t mean the things that we have to do like take care of our kids or pay the bills, but I mean things such as running an errand for a friend that would really inconvenience us, or dealing with someones emotional instability that we know will suck us of any energy we have, but we may feel obligated to listen, or help, or volunteer, or say “yes” when we really want to say “no”.

The thing is, these things asked of us by friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, or who ever, is like them throwing a ball to us and we often feel obligated to catch it, but we don’t have to. We can say no, we can politely turn down that invitation to a Christmas party we really don’t want to go to, quite simply, we can just let the ball pass or bounce on by us instead of feeling obligated to catch it.

I had to explain this to a client recently who gave a guy her number when she didn’t really want to, but didn’t know how to say no, and now when he calls she doesn’t really want to answer, but does so to not be rude. I had to tell her that just because he was throwing the ball to her, didn’t mean she had to catch it. The same goes for someone giving you a bad attitude, negative energy or whatever. Just because they throw that negative ball your way, you don’t have to catch it and throw it back, you can just let it pass on by you.

Many times we feel the need to, and sometimes out of habit (or reflex) catch balls we really shouldn’t and sometimes even throw them back. People will always throw balls at us and if we try to catch them all we’ll eventually end up dropping everything.

So I think it’s important from time to time to practice not catching the ball, which will allow us more time and energy for what we feel is most important to us.