20/20 VISION

Every fulfilling relationship begins with how you see your partner

Are we perfect, or “not good enough?”
Are we perfect, or “not good enough?”
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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It can be difficult to understand a person we are in relationship with, especially when we may not even understand ourselves. Why do we feel good about ourselves one moment and bad another? Why does a person change their attitude toward us from one day to the next? Each human is a complex creature whose behavior is driven by emotion, beliefs, point of view, and how much coffee they had that morning.

Combine that with another person who is driven by different emotions, beliefs, point of view, and how much they drank last night, and we have an opportunity for emotional drama and chaos. Some call it a roller coaster of emotion. Others are calling for relationship help.

If your relationship dynamics have emotional drama, what do you do to fix it? Where can you get a relationship-help manual so you can begin to understand the dynamics?

As I sought to understand relationship drama (so I could avoid it), I discovered several foundational elements that affect all relationships. It didn’t matter whether it was a love relationship, family relationship, or a work relationship—all of them were principally driven by six interpersonal misunderstandings. When I understood these forces, I could not only make sense of other people’s behavior and emotional reactions, but also my own. For the first time, I understood the reasons why I got into emotionally dramatic relationships, and why I stayed as long as I did. When I became aware of these unseen conflict-drivers, I knew where to make the changes needed to avoid the roller coaster of emotion that I had been on.

The original concept for this piece comes from a talk by my mentor don Miguel Ruiz. But it wasn’t until a vision three years later in the New Mexico desert that I fully realized the power these six forces have in creating a matrix of emotional drama in people’s lives.

It is through awareness that we can begin to escape relationship drama; awareness has the possibility of granting you a life free from the illusions that drive emotionally-dramatic relationships.

The basis of emotional drama

False images of ourselves and each other form the basis for emotional reactions. If we want to make permanent, meaningful changes in our relationship dynamics, we should address the real cause of discord—the images we carry in our minds of ourselves, and each other.

We don’t have just one self-image—we have many, and our emotional behaviors in relationships—and how we feel about ourselves—arise from these images. This gets even more complicated when we consider that, in a relationship, the other person’s behaviors are also driven by their various self-images. While these self-images are often difficult to identify in the beginning, as you develop awareness, it becomes easier.

In order to understand the ways in which you see yourself, and others see themselves, start by noticing your thinking, internal dialogue, and what you say about yourself and other people. These comments are clues to the  self-images that lie below the surface of normal awareness. Here, I’ll use a relationship between a man and a woman to illustrate my meaning.

The six false images in a relationship

Let’s begin with the man’s side of the story. Enter Phil. Phil will play the man’s role in the relationship. We must first understand that Phil doesn’t come alone—he comes with a set of beliefs, stories, and self-images. We could say that every story Phil has about himself has a self-image associated with it.

Image one: Phil, the failure

Some self-images Phil has fall into the category of being “not good enough.” They include images of failure, or of him being a loser, not smart enough, not good looking enough, not rich enough, not powerful enough, not good enough in bed, not (fill in the blank) enough. These self-images are rooted in any story where Phil compares himself to someone else and doesn’t measure up, or doesn’t feel that he measures up to his own expectations. These beliefs are what create a low self-esteem that Phil wants to keep hidden. It’s not who Phil really is, just a false, hidden self-image that he sometimes believes in.

We call this self-image ”hidden” because these are generally the qualities he doesn’t want anyone else to see. Often these are associated with emotions of unworthiness, powerlessness, shame, and guilt. When Phil succumbs to these images and believes himself to be unworthy, he is prone to look at things from a victim’s point of view.

Image two: Phil, as he should be

But Phil comes with other self-images also. He has a long list of what he is “supposed to be.” This is his inventory collected over the years of all the things that he should do—or be—to be “perfect” or “good enough.” When Phil thinks of himself as a success, a winner, handsome, smart, or a hero, he builds up these images in his mind.

These images are what Phil would like to be, or believes he should be—and is how Phil would like others to see him. Often, he may really feel he is meeting these expectations. When he meets someone new, or someone important to him, he puts his best face forward. Let’s call it his “image of perfection”—it is what his mind’s inner judge holds as the standard. These are his images of what it means to be a success and a winner.

Phil’s inner conflict

When Phil doesn’t believe he is good enough, it’s because he doesn’t feel he is meeting his standards of perfection. This often results in low self-esteem, low confidence, and a feeling of inadequacy. Here, Phil feels like one of the “not good enough,” hidden versions of himself. The emotions Phil feels of adequacy or inadequacy are usually the result of comparing himself to his hidden self-image or his projected, perfect image. The image he believes he fits at the time determines how he feels about himself.

And when Phil feels like a not-good-enough version of himself, he also looks at the world around him through that lens. Phil’s point of view shifts with the self-image he subscribes to at the time. For example, when Phil has failed at something, he feels like a failure. But he also looks at the world through the eyes of a failure. We could call this a victim point of view. From a victim/failure perspective, even his successes are meaningless and unimportant—there is always some inadequacy in his best accomplishments.

When he believes he is a successful winner, his point of view shifts to see things from that projected image of perfection. From this point of view, he doesn’t look at his failings and see a failure. He sees someone building character, becoming a success. All interpretations from this point of view defend the perfect projected image.

Phil’s emotional state is formed from a combination of belief, self-image, and point of view. Since these essentially come as a package, changing one requires changing all three.

(Just for the record, a person might hold two different images of himself at the same time, and therefore have two different points of view and experience two different emotional states at the same time. When this is happening, two different self-stories are fighting it out. The first story insists that we did something wrong. The second story defends our image and points out how we were right. Both sides of the conflict have fabricated false self-images, which mean that neither version represents our authentic self.)

Of course, neither of these images are Phil. Phil is not the failure or the success. He is the person that creates and believes, or doesn’t believe, these images in his mind. He is the one that gives them power or does not give them power to define who he is. I describe this dynamic here, giving an example of how it affects us emotionally in our lives (audio make take 2-3 minutes to load).

Image three: Francis’ image of Faux Phil

But this is a story of relationship drama and it doesn’t stop here.

There is something completely unexpected that happens now—a woman shows up on the scene. Let’s call her Francis. Francis sees Phil, meets him, and in meeting him she makes her assessment, adds appropriate descriptive words to her mental image, and in a short time, she forms an impression of him. She creates an image in her mind of who Phil is. Is it an accurate image? No. It’s a false image of Phil according to how she sees him. Where is the image? It is in Francis’ mind. When Francis thinks of Phil, she sees her version of him. Her version is false. It is made up, imagined, not real, artificial. I call that version Faux Phil.

Whenever Francis describes Phil or talks about him to her friends, she is actually describing Faux Phil. Other people see Phil differently. They have their own Faux Phil images according to their interpretation. No two people have exactly the same Faux Phil image, including Phil himself.

Images four and five: Francis’ perfect and hidden self-images

We should note here that Francis showed up on the scene with beliefs about herself as well—ones that are based in the stories she has about herself. In areas, she feels inadequate or not “good enough,” just like Phil, and she has created images in her mind about who she is. Francis has aspects of herself that she doesn’t want others to see.

These self-images fuel an internal dialogue about not being smart or pretty enough, about what her body looks like, about how she’s not doing well enough financially or professionally. These stories are predominately told from the victim point of view.

To have this point of view and set of self-beliefs, without awareness of their constructed nature, is emotionally painful.

In order to compensate for her “not good enough” self-image, and the feelings it creates, Francis imagines herself to be a beautiful, successful winner. She works extra hard to be her “best.” It’s what she really “wants,” and what she really believes she should be. It’s also how she would like other people to see her. She projects all the attributes of this perfect image to the world. Francis might believe that if she could be “perfect,” then she would be happy—so she tries hard to be perfect. Unfortunately, she has multiple visions of what perfect is, depending on the situation.

At times, she feels like the person she tries to be. At other times, she struggles with the conflicting self-images of her not being “good enough.” And at times she may even feel like she doesn’t really know who she is, because she doesn’t believe in any of the self-images that her imagination offers.

It’s very likely that these different self-images may create some inner turmoil when she meets a man like Phil. Francis wants to make a good impression. She wants him to see her best side, or should we say, her best false projected image.  This might make for all sorts of stress about what to wear, or what her hair looks like. Fear and anxiety arises as she tries to hide her hidden image.

But I digress. This is a boy meets girl story, and it must continue.

Image six: Phil’s image of Faux Francis

When Phil meets Francis, he doesn’t see into her mind. He doesn’t see Francis the way Francis sees herself. He doesn’t see her projected image. He might not even see that she is projecting. Phil forms an impression of Francis based on his own likes and dislikes. He may like things about her that she doesn’t believe she has. He may like things about Francis that she would rather keep hidden. Maybe he doesn’t notice anything about Francis that needs hiding. Phil has his own criteria for liking and not liking someone that are separate from Francis’ criteria.

Phil forms an impression of Francis based on the way he sees her, from his own point of view. Phil creates an image—that exists only in his mind—of who Francis is.

How Phil sees Francis has nothing to do with how anybody else sees her. It doesn’t even have to match up with how Francis sees her self.

Are you following all this?

By now, you may think you need a playbook to keep track of the players in the field of relationship imagination. Individually one of these elements makes a lot of sense. But what happens when all the false images are in play at once? Let me put it all together for you.

Understanding relationships using the six false images

In relationships, the six false images we create affect our emotions, behaviors, and choices. They form the underlying core that fuels problems and the emotional drama that we experience in relationships. Here, you can listen to an example where a woman struggles with her boyfriend in a relationship (9 minutes, audio may take 2-3 minutes to load). But back to our story:

In summary, these are the three images of Phil in the relationship:

  1. Phil’s hidden self-image, which reflects his low self-esteem and insecurity.
  2. Phil’s projected image of perfection, which projects confidence and stresses his strengths—Phil uses this to try to make a good impression.
  3. Faux Phil. This is how Francis sees Phil. Francis has her own understanding of who Phil is in her life and who he isn’t. This is different from how Phil sees himself.

These are the images of Francis in the relationship:

  1. Francis’ hidden self-image, one associated with her insecurities, self-criticism, and fears of how she thinks others might judge her. She wants to keep this image hidden to avoid judgment and rejection.
  2. Francis’ image of perfection, the one where she projects all of her best features and strengths. She believes that this will earn her acceptance and love. This is the image she projects.
  3. Faux Francis. This is how Phil actually sees Francis. Phil forms his impression of Francis based on what he likes and dislikes about her. This is different from what Francis likes and dislikes about her self-images.

This makes for six false images operating in their relationship, with each playing a part in their emotional dynamics. Each one influences or drives these characters to certain behaviors and emotional reactions. And all of the six are imaginary.

A simple example of Phil and Francis, and the impact of their false images

Phil and Francis are driving to an event together. Phil feels he should drive because this is what a man is “supposed” to do (according to his projected image). Phil proposes that he do the driving.

Francis is insecure about her sense of direction and getting lost (part of her hidden image), and Francis interprets Phil’s proposal to mean that Phil doesn’t want her to drive, because of her inadequacy (which was not Phil’s reasoning at all). Victim Francis is offended by Phil’s offer (a dynamic rooted in her hidden image). She doesn’t say anything because she wants to project that it is no big deal (using her projected image to cover up the hidden image).

Phil ends up doing the driving. In his mind, she (Faux Francis) is thankful to not be burdened. The real Francis feels insulted by Faux Phil.

Phil ends up getting lost on the way to the event. In his mind he feels like a failure and judges himself as “stupid” for making the wrong turn (here his hidden image creates a belief with a victim point of view).

Francis still feels inadequate following Phil’s comment. Francis uses the opportunity to jump into a superior role of being right (feeding her projected image), and criticizes Phil for getting lost. This is a way to get out of her “not good enough” feeling. For a moment, in her imagination, she feels superior to Phil.

Because of Phil’s high expectations for his own image of perfection, Phil believes her criticism. His victim point of view causes him to interpret that she is right, and that his hidden belief is right—he is “not good enough.” Phil feels more hurt because now she sees him as “stupid” as well. This simultaneously reinforces the belief that he is failing to meet his image of perfection.

Francis reflects on her comment to Phil and concludes that it was uncalled for. She feels like a failure for not living up to her own image of perfection. She specifically judges herself for the criticizing comment, and feels guilty, reinforcing her hidden image victim point of view.

She also assumes that Phil is judging her for the comment, but this assumption is rooted in her imagination, and rooted in her understanding of Faux Phil. She imagines that Faux Phil is judging her, even though the real Phil isn’t judging her at all. The real Phil is currently in his Victim mindset, and he thinks that she is right for calling him stupid.

Francis and Phil have made assumptions about what the other thinks, and their assumptions are played out and reinforced by what they think is going on with the Faux-version of their significant other. They are both wrong in their assumptions, but are experiencing real emotional reactions based on them. They do not see that their emotions are being created by the interaction of the false images they each hold about themselves and each other.

The chain reaction of misunderstandings in the relationship then continues. Their stories and emotions end up getting bounced like a pinball against electric bumpers, all thanks to six false images of themselves. This is just a small example of how the false self-images are at the core of the emotional dynamics.

What is the way out of this emotional dynamic of false images?

This type of emotional drama can continue in our own relationships until we realize one very important thing—these images are all made up! They are fictional. We are reacting to the movie in our imagination. The only power behind these images and their stories is the belief we give them. It is only because we believe these stories and images that we react emotionally. When we don’t believe in these false images, we eliminate the emotional reactions.

It is important to note that it is more than just the belief and the image that makes for this dynamic. Integral to this dynamic is the point of view. The judge essentially sees things from the image of perfection point of view. The victim sees things from the hidden image point of view. If we are to change the dynamic of our relationships, it is not enough to change our beliefs. We will also have to shift our point of view away from roles of being a judge or victim.

When we change our point of view and no longer believe in the images we create, or the stories we repeat that reinforce those images, we can eliminate all the emotional drama in our relationships. Without these false images driving our emotional reactions, we can easily change our behaviors and our emotional reactions.

What’s more, when we dissolve the false images of ourselves, we become authentic. We no longer reject ourselves based on a hidden image. We accept ourselves just the way we are. We don’t try to be that image of perfection we envision in our imagination. We don’t need to be that false image in order to find ourselves worthy of love.

When the false images dissolve, our mind is no longer split between who we are and who we “should” be. Without this conflict, we can become whole again, and we can recover our emotional integrity.

When we are authentic and live our relationships with awareness, we don’t make false assumptions about others. We don’t expect them to act according to our faux character version of them. Without this type of expectation, we are never disappointed or angry with them for being who they are. We see them the way they are, and we respect and accept them the way they are. Our love for them is unconditional, because we don’t expect them to fit our image.

By the same token, their love for us is not based on an image of who they think we are. Because their love is unconditional, we can be completely free to be ourselves. A relationship that is authentic becomes a place where you can love with no expectations, and you are loved with no conditions.

This post originally appeared at PathwayToHappiness.com.