Who are you not?

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Illustration by Blair Gauntt

“We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability and dependability … and we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure and risk.” –Esther Perel, The State of Affairs

I re-watched Revolutionary Road this week. The 2008 film was adapted from the 1961 novel by Richard Yates (who taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the ’60s) and follows a young Connecticut couple, Frank and April Wheeler, whose relationship is falling apart. They attempt to retain their independence in the midst of idyllic white picket fences, monotonous jobs and dull family functions, only to become the very thing they fear most: a typical suburban family living a life of obligation and conformity.

It got my obsessive mind going about relationships and marriage, the ways we can delude ourselves and put unrealistic expectations on our partners to “complete us.” It made me think about a question a client of mine asked recently, “What does a healthy relationship look like?”

The face of healthy relationships has undergone a major change since Yates wrote his book, but like the Wheelers, many of us still begin our romantic partnerships with lofty expectations.

We talk deeply about our dreams to make a difference or, in Frank Wheeler’s case, “really feel something.” Then a few months go by and maybe you argue, or one of you farts, or you’re not sure if the other person is really interested in a commitment. You start to get scared. Maybe you cling or pull away. Maybe you silently hope they will change if you love them enough, or lose weight, or get the right job.

You enter a relationship with the hope you can change your partner — but what if it’s you that need a change? How do you do that exactly? Are you brave enough to examine your expectations of love and explore who you are actually bringing to the relationships in your life? Are you willing to be vulnerable?

A few years ago I went to a yoga training where the teacher did a “vulnerability” exercise with us. I walked into the training feeling insecure and out of my element. My insecurity immediately made me shift to judgement. Who the hell do these people think they are with their perfect bodies and expensive mats? I awkwardly found a spot, filled with regret for coming.

The teacher asked us to find a partner. Noooooo! Memories of being the last one picked in grade school came to mind, but I looked at the woman next to me and she nodded in agreement. He asked us to face each other, knee to knee, and hold one another’s gaze without looking away. He instructed one of us to repeatedly ask “Who are you?” to which we should respond with who we are not in an effort to identify all the labels we think might define us.

This stranger and I faced one another, introduced ourselves and she started asking me, “Who are you?” I safely responded, “I am not a man, I am not an astronaut, I am not a chair.” She held my gaze and did not look away. I felt exposed, awkward, ridiculous. “I am not a follower, I am not a leader, I am not a victim.” She held my gaze, “Who are you?” The desire to look away was overwhelming, but the teacher gently encouraged us to resist this urge.

“I am not a victim, I am not a screw up, I am not an idiot.” The tears started to come from both of us as she continued to ask me, “Who are you?” Who are you when you let go of the stories you tell yourself? Who are you when you stop believing the parts of you that are anxious, depressed, traumatized or angry? My willingness to be vulnerable led to feeling deeply connected to this stranger. After the exercise, we hugged each other for a long time. I learned when I’m willing to be vulnerable and take a hard look at myself, I feel relieved and connected not only to who I am but to other people.

In her book Loving Bravely, psychologist Alexandra H. Solomon explains, “Connecting in an intimate way with someone else must start from within; it must come from a deep and courageous relationship with yourself. Loving somebody else requires us to be courageous, vulnerable and real. And you cannot be real with someone else unless you can be real with yourself.”

Lists, tips and tools for a healthy relationship don’t go far unless we are grounding ourselves in a foundation of compassionate self-awareness.

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We can begin to deepen our relationship to ourselves by getting quiet and listening to our own internal dialogue. What are the messages we tell ourselves? Where did we learn these messages? Whose voice is that anyway?

When we begin to nurture a curious observance of our own thoughts, stories and feelings, we have the potential to develop trust and confidence in ourselves. From this place, we begin to learn to love bravely.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 241.

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