We grow up testing ourselves; “Are we good enough? If not it’s our fault. Did we succeed; we still could have done more. Did we fail; it’s our fault.” Testing ourselves is a motivation strategy, “Figure out what’s wrong with us and improve it.” And behind it is the hidden message, “We’re defective and we’d better work at improving and perfecting ourselves every minute or no one will want us and we’ll fail.” The strategy may work for us when we’re children, but it’s self-defeating when we’re adults.
We do grow up; we do get free of our families; we do get jobs, lovers, our own children. That seems to prove that the self-testing strategy works. Since we’re obviously still a long way from being good enough, so we’d better keep questioning ourselves in order to improve.
However, when we become adults, the strategy of always testing ourselves, always finding fault with ourselves guarantees failure. It stimulates guilt, shame, anxiety, sleepless nights and negative self-talk. And it destroys self-confidence and self-esteem. It’s self-destructive, self-bullying.
For evidence, we can look back at our failed relationships.
Think of the times we went with someone when we knew it wasn’t going to work because we had to give up what we wanted, we had to change in order to make another person happy. We kept asking, “Are we good enough to be liked, to be wanted, to be loved?” But that didn’t last.
The message of the self-testing strategy is that if only we’d tried hard enough, we could have changed enough to make the relationship work the way the other person wanted. Then we feel more guilty, more unworthy and we think we have to work harder to change our bad characteristics or personality.
And if we can’t change a pattern, that means we have a great and permanent defect, an evil place inside of us, maybe too much ego, and we’re doomed to fail forever. And that feeds a vicious cycle:
- Low self-confidence and low self-esteem --> so we give up ourselves even more --> we pick the wrong people and try to please them by doing what they want --> we fail once again and feel even worse --> our self-confidence and low self-esteem plummets -->…
In addition to failed loves, the same pattern exists for many failed friendships we tried to maintain with the wrong people.
So what can we do to find love and relationships that fit?
Instead of testing ourselves, we can test the world.
- Act like we are and set high standards for behavior we want. We’re reasonably good, nice, decent people. Therefore, in addition to participating in the other person’s activities, ask the other person to participate in ours. Don’t justify our standards. Be behaviorally specific. Ask for more than vague words like “kindness, respect, appreciation, love.” Simply say, “No yelling, no hitting, no threatening, no relentless sarcastic blaming, no controlling, no public humiliating, no demanding perfectionism. Instead, speak softly, negotiate about what we do, give in and do what I want sometimes for no reason, keep disagreements private and my sense of humor counts.” We can fill in the rest of our lists from what we got or didn’t get in previous relationships.
- To increase confidence and self-esteem, test the other person. If they act the way we want, they can come a step closer. If they don’t, we move them a step further away. If they’re relentless boundary pushers or they violate one of the big boundary lines, “one strike and they’re out.” Notice who has control of the distance; we do.
- “Create an isle of song in a sea of shouts.” Rabindranath Tagore said that decades ago. I agree. We were told that if we insist on our high standards and what we want, we’ll end up alone. “The only way to get someone is to lower your standards.” Nonsense. Of course, in all relationships we make agreements and we don’t always get our way, but we must not lower our important standards.
Now that we’re adults, now that we’ve been in and out of relationships in which we gave up our true selves, we’ve learned that we’ll never get the love we want if we fill our space with inappropriate, abusive bullies. We’ll never get what we need if we give up on ourselves. We’ll only get what we need, we’ll only find someone who loves us for ourselves if we act like ourselves and test the other person to see if they like that.
Of course the other person has free will also. They can stay or leave if they want. But if they leave because they don’t want to live up to our standards or they think we’re incompatible, we have to get over the emotional pain and be thankful that our isle is clear for someone else who wants to be with us as we are.
Only one of many examples: A homely, awkward girl with a wonderful personality and spirit. Of course, during high school and college she was rejected by all the boys who were looking for cheerleaders. As much as she wanted to be wanted, she knew in her heart that she didn’t want jerks like that and she wasn’t going to abandon herself in order to please one. Then she met someone who was worthy of what she wanted. And wonder of wonders, he was hot for her, body and soul. They’re still enthralled with each others’ unique greatness and with their fit with each other.
How can we improve if we’re not always testing ourselves? It’s simple, although not necessarily easy. We know when we haven’t lived up to our standards, when we’ve done or not done something we should have. We don’t have to beat ourselves up in order to apologize, make amends and do better next time. We simply dedicate ourselves to that task.
So we mustn’t give up on ourselves. Test other people; some will stay and some will leave of their own accord. The real power is in our making our choice; who do we want to send away and who do we want to keep on our isle of song? Only then will it truly be our isle and our song.