When I studied psychology back in the day, Fritz Perls was very popular. I felt a new sense of empowerment reading his compelling writing about “owning” the self and developing radical self-reliance — moving from environment support to self-support.
Perls’ views may have been what the doctor ordered when social values encouraged being agreeable and placating others rather than honoring our experience (our feelings and wants) and staying connected to ourselves. Perls cajoled, jolted, and perhaps even shamed people into becoming self-reliant and self-sufficient. One popular view was “No one has or ever will make you feel anything.”
Modern neuroscience and Attachment Theory raise questions about whether this radical self-determination is realistic or promotes an inflated view of our human power. Even if possible, do we want to live in a world where we live unaffected by others or be an intimate part of the web of life?
Rather than strive for independence, our challenge is to find a sense of freedom and empowerment by skillfully fashioning a tapestry — a life — that weaves our autonomy with the intimacy we long for. As Walter Kempler wisely put it.
“Neither separateness nor union is the goal of the therapeutic process, but rather the exhortation of the endless and often painful undulation between them.”
The research behind Attachment Theory offers compelling evidence for our interconnectedness. We thrive when we’re connected. We can argue the semantics of whether or not we can “make” each other feel anything. But the point is that we unavoidably affect each other with our words, our tone of voice, and our actions.
Our sensitive nervous system is intimately attuned to our environment. When danger lurks, we fight, flee, or freeze. When we feel safe, we relax and relish warm connections with our fellow mammals.
Our physical survival may prompt us to be cautious, protecting ourselves from real or imagined danger. Our emotional and spiritual well-being invite us to drop our defenses and relish rich connections that nourish us and boost our immune system.
We are human beings with sensitive hearts. Striving for an existence where we are unaffected by other people is to create a defensive structure and armoring that not only protects us from pain but also from life’s most tender joys and satisfactions. It is to banish ourselves to an isolated existence.
We affect each other by how we relate to each other. We have the power to hurt each other or relate in a caring way. Maturity means recognizing and taking responsibility for how we affect people rather than expressing ourselves with a blind eye toward how we impact others.
The path toward a more fulfilling life is not to detach from others and withdraw into an inner fortress. It is to allow ourselves to be touched by our interactions—to be mindful of the emotions and reactions that relationships trigger in us, and to engage with our inner experience in a creative way.
Living in relationship invites us to practice the art of dancing with fire, as I entitled my latest book. Our way forward is not to strive to be unaffected by people and view that as strength and maturity, but rather to learn how to navigate through the fiery emotions that relationships bring up in us. We find our way toward each other as we stay connected to ourselves and skillfully respond to each other in an authentic, not obnoxious way.
The key to fulfilling relationships is to notice how we’re being affected by each other, hold those feelings gently, soothe ourselves as necessary, and communicate our inner experience in a non-blaming, non-violent way. As we remain connected to ourselves in a way that keeps the possibilities of connection open, we learn to balance our sacred autonomy with a vibrant and alive intimacy.
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