Why is it Important not to Focus on Yourself in Relationships?
Our culture is oriented around the individual. People (including us!) write about how to find yourself. Herbert Hoover famously used the phrase “rugged individualism.” Countless articles advise how to improve ourselves, whether at the gym, the makeup counter, or our therapist.
But we humans are neither solitary creatures like spiders nor group creatures like ants. We have aspects of both, and the focus on the individual, who we are, tends to obscure that we also have an identity as what we are.
We recognize, intellectually or by empathy, something of ourselves in common with larger groups. When asked to say everything about ourselves, we say not only our given names, but our family name, our country of origin, our profession, and more. A setback for our group is felt personally, as if a part of us had suffered a loss. Sometimes these identifications are so strong that people will risk death to protect others, like the Parkland survivor who shielded his classmates with his body, a parent saving a drowning child, or a soldier at war.
Perhaps most importantly, we are not an individual who is separate from the rest of the world, but are a part of it, are connected with it. With every breath, we trade oxygen for carbon dioxide. Likewise, we are not separate from society, but so connected that we cannot survive without it.
And so in our relationships, if we can shift our attention away from who we are to what we are, the ego can drop away. You might find yourself really resistant to this. “I’m me! Me, me, me, me, me!” But I’ll wager there have been times in your life when that slipped for a moment. You made love so intensely that the phrase “sexual union” became literal. You hiked, then sat, and for a while, the wilderness was everything.
If you can just be like that with another person, ignoring your usual preoccupations of how you look and where you need to be in an hour and how you had an experience just like they are describing, then you can be open to another kind of experience, that of the relationship itself. This applies to everyone, whether you know them well or barely at all; they could be your bank teller or your lover or someone on Zoom.
How different it is when we let go of our preoccupation with self and are just present with others Click To TweetBy being with them in this way, you can let go of your ego. You don’t need to tell those tales about yourself. You’ve already heard them; how boring to hear them again. The other person has stories you have never heard. It may take a while for them to emerge. It is like sitting quietly in nature when you start to see the birds, the breeze, and the patterns that were not apparent when you first sat down.
On Valentine’s Sunday, Maude joined a Zoom group talking about living love and the sharing of that in loving service. The presentations started with the individual and spread to encompass the greater community. A theme that repeated in each talk was how much we can accomplish when we leave our egos aside. This resonated strongly and matched well with what we were writing about last week.
In last week’s blog we discussed respecting the uniqueness and individuality in your partner, which requires realizing that there is a person other than yourself present. It is important to have the same awareness and attitude in all relationships.
The definition of ‘to relate’ is “to make or show a connection” and “feel sympathy with; identify with.” Is this what we do with each other?
Much of the time, most of us are wrapped up in ourselves. We view the world and experience others in terms of ourselves. This can apply both in our intimate relationships and those in the wider world. When this is the case, we can easily become involved in power values and in measuring where the power lies in an exchange.
When we are listening to others, we often lead with our own thoughts. We listen only long enough to share what we think and what we believe. When we are speaking and sharing, we are quite involved in how we are seen, what others think of us; are we liked, are we heard, are we appreciated. We evaluate what the other person offers in terms of ourselves; is this what I believe, is this what I want, how does this affect me.
Imagine how different it would be if we were to let go of our preoccupation with self; if when we are talking with and listening to others, we are present with them, offering love, letting them feel loved, hearing what they are sharing. When we let go of being self-centered, we can become a center of dynamic affection, feeling who the other person is and what they may need or want.
This then creates relationships built on empowering not overpowering.
As we learn to leave our self-preoccupation aside, we grow into relationships built on the desire to do good for others. The full respect for others as unique and separate personalities moves us toward recognizing the familial relationships we all share. By setting ourselves to the side, we gain direct contact with the opportunities for love all around us.
“There is joy in self-forgetfulness. So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.”? Helen Keller
Photo credit: Maude Mayes