You may have the impression that the healthiest most honest response is your first pure emotion. You may have come to believe that showing your emotions is the way to be authentic. Actually, this may be a trap, keeping you from slowing down and exploring your more complex internal process and actual intentions. You may be relating to others in a hurried, expedient and impulsive way while thinking that you are doing the best and right thing.
I like to explore words, so it is fortunate that I am a marriage and family therapist, because words are what I spend my working ours using and managing. Recently, I have had the good fortune to learn more about the words freedom, responsibility, and integrity while working with couples and families.
I’m quite familiar with the adult who enters therapy and values their independence and freedom, possibly having spent much of their life trying to push back against a demanding and judgmental world. It is important that nobody “tells them what to do” as one visitor put it. What begins as self-protection can morph into expedient and impulsive behaviors whenever there is a perceived threat or pressure in a relationship, with paralyzing results. Behavior becomes reactive and defensive, and the consequences become personal. The costs for the individual become self-punishing rather than self-caring. Consider the language Alcoholics Anonymous when an addict is advised to consider their addiction as like being in prison, imprisoned by their own behavior.
One of my visitors had spent several years challenging himself to grow, improve his marriage, and change significant behavior patterns. I asked him to tell me how it was better to be a changed man and after considerable thought he told me that he was experiencing freedom from his old impulses and patterns, now free to express something deeper and more meaningful and honest about himself. I was stunned by the use of that word, seemingly the opposite of that original freedom from oppression and demands.
Inspired by this re-invention of a familiar word, I wondered about the difference between reacting and responding in a relationship. Again, some may feel it is most honest to simply react, but isn’t it actually more authentic to respond? Doesn’t it require some strength and courage to stay in the moment, consider the context, listen to the other person, and give a personal response to that person? Isn’t that what you really want to be able to do? Isn’t that more response-able than simply reacting? Perhaps it is more freeing, also, allowing you to be more aware of yourself and your natural responsibilities.
If we are naturally more considerate, able to listen well, and intentional about being thoughtful, then we must be more able to handle contradictions, pressures, surprises, and changes than we usually believe we are. Actually, it may well be that our natural process is kind of messy and noisy, with a complicated bunch of thoughts and impulses fighting each other for attention all of the time. For some reason, we just want to get it to stop or get under control all of the time. What would happen if we just let ourselves listen to the noise, seek a way of balancing the different impulses, and be more ready for the consequences? Wouldn’t this be more consistent with the way we operate naturally? Wouldn’t we be integrating all of those different thoughts and urges? Wouldn’t we be able to call that integrity? Wouldn’t that be great?
Maybe the really healthy answer to the challenges and pressures of relationships is to seek freedom from our automatic defensive impulses, have response-ability for ourselves instead of being reactive, and seeking integrity. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you just got out of your own way.