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Tell Me Who I Am 

As fresh little beings in the world, unable to walk, run, even see far around us, we needed to look to others to help us make sense of the world. Babies instinctively seek out faces around them to get cues as to how they should feel – There was just a loud noise; should I be afraid? A new person just took me into their arms. Does their face look loving or threatening?

As we get older and more self-sufficient, we begin to look to others to help us figure out who we are. We decide who we are based largely on how other people respond to us. Our parents, family members, elementary school teachers are all engaged in a continual story telling us about our self. In what ways do I please you? In what ways do I disgust you? What am I good at? In what ways am I lacking? And we look to faces for these answers. We track, often unconsciously, minute shifts in emotional expression on other’s faces, trying to learn how we affect others. We know without knowing if someone’s smile is fake. We sense a slight curl of a lip in anger, before it is covered over with a socially appropriate look of patience. This is not an overblown ego at work, it is an innate survival mechanism that is built to use the communal nature of humans to draw from so that we get as much information as possible to make quick decisions.

In many ways, we are programmed to privilege other people’s reactions over our own. Our physical sensations register quickly, our emotions arise, but our mind looks outward to try and make sense of what we are feeling. Our brain knows we can’t possibly have enough information yet to understand how everything in the world works, so it maximizes by collecting information from humans around us. This is good when we need to get information about immediate danger or safety, but less helpful when we are needing to understand what we, as an individual, are feeling. It is a trick of our highly intelligent minds that we are constantly interpreting other people’s reception into what it means about our self.

Do you seem happy to see me? Am I worthy? Am I lovable? Am I ok?

And then, we start to believe these things about us are true. The interpretations we have made based on others reactions become a solidified sense of Self. In another shortcut, the brain begins to scan for confirmation of the things we think we already know to be true and diminish the contradictory moments. And then, just like that – Man, are we stuck. And we start to feel strangely lonely and we are not sure why. And deep down we start to silently ask our partner, Is this really who I am? Can you tell me? 

couple-1343952_1280Much of couples’ therapy is in working to gently discourage these mental shortcuts so that people can have genuine connection with one another. We have to learn to unhook from the old stories about who we are, stories that we might not even consciously be aware of having formed years ago. We have to decide to stop relying on others’ reactions to tell us who we are and to listen to our own internal cues so that we can show others who we are, and then let them respond. This is a process of unlearning. Don’t jump ahead. Don’t be in survival mode. Slow down and close your eyes and feel for the information inside of you.

Let me tell you who I am …right now. I am feeling a flutter of nervousness to look into your eyes. I am wanting to see love there but I am unsure. I am afraid I will see impatience. I going to look anyway. I see you looking back.

When we meet our partner with what is real in the moment, we create the possibility of learning something new, of having a new experience of ourselves and of how others see us. Intimacy needs us to be available and open. It feeds on new input and on our own willingness to risk not knowing, not taking shortcuts, not running the same old track again and again. This requires us to stop playing out the old tired version of -this is how I think others see me.

It is true what they say, that our partners can be our mirror. But they can only reflect to us what we show to them. Take the risk. Figure out who you are so that you can be seen. It is so tempting to fall back on the old pattern of relying on others to define us. But we are too complex and amazing to be defined so narrowly.

So instead of letting our mind take a shortcut by asking, Tell me who I am, instead I invite you to ask your partner to, Give me a still moment so that I can trust myself to tell you who I am. Then you will have unlocked real possibility for something new to be exposed. Something that is unguarded and unpracticed. That is intimacy. That is who you are.

Melissa Fritchle

Melissa Fritchle

Melissa lives in Santa Cruz and tries to find time each day to move and to be still, both of which seem necessary for her mental health. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (CA LMFT#48627), Sex Therapist and Educator with a degree in Holistic Counselling Psychology. She is the author of The Conscious Sexual Self Workbook and its related blog. She works with individuals, couples, and other relationship configurations in her private practice. She also teaches for Bay Area graduate programs and worldwide, spreading more sex positivity and openness to one another. In 2011 she was awarded the Sexual Intelligence Award for her ground-breaking work in Uganda teaching sex positive curriculum to counselors and clergy. Her therapy foundations are somatic, process therapy, and Buddhist Psychology.

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