This article is in response to a question posted to the Ask Anne-Marie global forum. A place where we co-explore burning questions across multiple topics of embodied leadership, conflict in relationships, power dynamics, authenticity, presence, mindfulness and embodied leadership
This question and answer was geared towards personal intimate relationships but the principles I share can also apply to embodied leadership and creating authentic based organizational cultures.
“What does a relationship look like when two beings are fully in touch with their true self and operate from that level?”
To be fully in touch with our “self” is a dynamic and ever-evolving journey. There is no end point to self-discovery and embodiment. The system in which we create and operate in with our partners, and all the people in our lives, is a manifestation of how we operate within ourselves. No two connections are alike because each person brings their own operating system and beliefs about how a relationship engages and sustains itself.
The systems we design together have infinite and pure potential. Our level of self-awareness, and our ability to take ownership for the stress and reactive patterns that drive our behavior and expectations of others, is the fuel to how we operate in relationships every day.
Your question is expansive and beautiful. I could passionately take this in multiple directions. But, for this round I’ve decided to speak to the struggle that can occur between the desire to have two basic needs met in our primary relationships:
Connection and belonging
Freedom and authenticity
It’s a natural desire to want both: connection and freedom. Yet our beliefs , and habituated ways of being, related to embracing both can feel polarizing and confusing at times. In my answer, I also include some myths that I painstakingly shed, over time, to find a sweeter balance of connection and freedom in my relationships.
How does attachment theory help us?
We all have attachment patterns based on our early conditioning in our family or caregiver systems. What we learn about connection, and whether being in intimate relationships feels safe or threatening, becomes the wire frame for how we operate in relationships as adults (you can learn more about this topic in the blog article, We’re wired to connect and protect).
Being in a relationship will reveal our attachment styles. It will reveal our strategies of anxiety or avoidant patterns related to our need for both connection and the freedom to express authentically.
Attachment Gifts: Being in a relationship will show us where we feel safe and confident to set boundaries, ask for what we need and desire as well as receive our partner’s differences without taking it personally.
Attachment Challenges: On the contrary, being in a relationship will also reveal strategies of controlling, withholding and resentfully saying yes when we mean no. There are many ways in which manipulation, or covert tactics, are born as innocent strategies to get our needs met because it’s too vulnerable to ask for what we want and risk being rejected or losing connection. For some people, the barometer of measuring love is based upon how much their partner will tend to their needs in a parental fashion. We all measure love in our unique way and our attachment patterns are the template of our operating system.
The good news about all of these parts being revealed is that when we can see, and take responsibility, for how we operate (think, behave, judge and categorize our narratives about ourselves, others and the kind of world we live in) we create conscious choice. When we have the freedom to observe our habits and select how we want to relate to our life circumstances rather than operate in outdated habitual ways we are engaged in the process of rewriting our inner scripts and updating our operating systems.
I can speak about what it’s been like to become more fully in touch with myself and to bring this kind of sovereignty into my relationships. It’s been both liberating and gritty, and clearly will continue to be a lifelong practice. I’ve allowed habits of protection and control to be illuminated into a microscope of study within myself. It’s been a continual shedding of old skins presented as unexamined ways of being and operating.
The most critical re-frames and re-parenting I’ve done with myself are in the following areas. Some of what I present may not resonate as true for some people and I welcome different opinions and perspectives since we all have to find the one true way for us. For myself, it’s been years of micro deaths and pierced fantasies about reality that I’ve been shredding in order to create something new. Here are the highlights of what I feel are the most significant ingredients to embodying one’s sovereign self while also nurturing intimate relationships and the desire to be in connection.
Myth, re-frame, and self-inquiry
First I will share the myth that kept me stuck, followed by my re-frame, and lastly a few questions of self-inquiry for you to explore.
Mythology #1: One person should meet all my needs
If this is what we are taught about connection, then where is our freedom and independence when we authentically have different needs?
Re-frame: This is what Hollywood, and many cultural messages, have taught us but I don't think it’s true. I think this belief is fear-based pressure and distorts our capacity to meet and love people as they are, rather than who we want or think they should be.
When I contemplate the eclectic range of friends and people in my life I see clearly that having such a diverse group of friends is what allows many parts of me to express and play that wouldn’t other wise get a full expression with the same person everyday. There are friends that I go on meditation retreats with, and others who are my nature adventurers; friends I know I can call when I’m in a dark space and they won’t try to fix me but rather be with me; friends who I laugh with until my cheeks and belly hurt; friends who will tell me the truth about my blind spots; friends I can bring direct feedback to and they won’t defend and blame but rather listen and use the experience to build more trust and intimacy. I don’t expect my best friend to be all things to me and so how can I do that with the person or people I’m in romantic or sexual relationships with? How is it different?
Self-Inquiry: Here are some questions to journal with or contemplate.
Do I believe that one person should and could meet all my needs? If so, what kind of pressure does that put on the relationship and myself?
What am I avoiding feeling, or taking responsibility for, by making someone else the source of my happiness?
Does this belief and expectation make it difficult to love people for who they are rather than who I need them to be?
Mythology #2: Disappointing others, and being disappointed, is a serious threat and should be avoided at all costs
If we are taught that honoring connection means that we never disappoint anyone, nor do they disappoint us, then what does that teach us about having authentic and different needs from others? Our primal wiring depends upon feeling connected and belonging. This paradox, and fear of disappointment, can create internal dilemmas of competing needs.
This myth teaches us to avoid feeling the pain of disappointment and to sit alone in the guilt (or even shame) that we feel when disappointing others. It teaches us to give our power away and hold others responsible for our happiness and visa versa. Emotional connection is a basic human survival need and every adaptive strategy will ensure we get this need met, even at the cost of feeling disconnected from our own needs or steamrolling others’ needs.
Here are some of the common protective strategies most often developed:
Control: Use guilt and shaming as a tactic to control the other person. Early in life we likely latch onto this strategy to protect our vulnerability when it didn’t feel safe or welcome. We learn not to ask for what we desire in order to avoid feeling disappointed or rejected. We learn covert operations of manipulation (that can often appear very charming) or aggressive ways of controlling to get what we need through shame and blame. We may blame others to give us what we want so we can feel a sense of connection again through being in control. There can be a subconscious belief that says “It’s not safe to be disappointed so I’m going to control you to get what I want”, which is an attempt to avoid feeling our need for connection while ensuring the person doesn’t go away.
Protect: This strategy of protection is learned early in life, again, similar to control, when it’s not safe to be vulnerable and authentic. Instead some behaviors we may draw upon are criticizing (others or ourselves); withdrawing from connection to protect ourselves (and maybe to punish others); or operate as a ‘knower’ who has all the answers and argues intellectually often bypassing the wisdom of one’s heart with logic and reason. It’s a very intelligent strategy to not feel one’s own vulnerability, grief and disappointment, and yet it makes it very difficult to stay in connection to yourself and your partner. There is a subconscious operating system that says, “If I pull away you will lean in and maybe even chase me, which will bring me back into connection with you, but I don’t have to feel vulnerable along the way.”
Comply: This strategy is also imprinted early in life (similar to the two above). Over time, our life experience teaches us that if we are good, agreeable and please others that we will maintain connection. It’s a hard trade off. Often the inner belief is that, if you disappoint another person you should feel bad and make amends by giving them what they want. Maybe you even shamefully apologize for not giving them what they want and thereby you give up your authentic needs to please them and eventually you grow resentful a few hours, days, weeks later.
Re-frame: We will disappoint each other and it feels painful. Rather than default to strategies of control, protect or comply, what can be done to accept this truth and stay in connection with our emotions and with the people we care about?
Do you study your relationship to disappointing others and feeling disappointed by them?
What are you go-to’s when you sense you’re going to disappoint someone? Do you withhold? Do you use covert tactics? Do you get angry that they want something different than you?
What are you go-to’s when someone disappoints you? Do you meet yourself in the emotional reaction or put your reaction onto the other person to avoid feeling the raw pain of not getting your need met? Do you couple their disappointment as a measurement of how much they love/don’t love you?
Do you have a tool to navigate rupture and repair to deepen intimacy and trust rather than recirculate patterns of blame (other) and shame (self) which leads to disconnection?
Who are you holding responsible for your happiness, yourself or other people?
Mythology #3: Boundaries are barriers to maintaining connection
This myth teaches us that setting boundaries will push people away so we should accommodate or abdicate our desire to avoid losing connection. Or, steamroll our needs with drama, demands and pressure so the other person can’t say no and we get what we want. Or, we set boundaries so tight (to keep us safe) but the result is that we feel isolated and alone.
Re-frame: Boundary setting is a natural and important practice. To maintain our sense of sovereignty, and connection with others, we need to dive deep to access our most genuine yes and no and communicate it with vulnerability, self-ownership and stay connected to hear and receive impact.
How do you recognize and discovery your authentic yes and no? Do you give yourself permission to change your mind from a no to yes, or vice versa, as you receive new information?
Do you set boundaries differently when you feel anxiously attached or avoidantly attached? If so, what is the driver for you?
How do you respond when others share boundaries that you don’t like? Do you accept, do you run over them and negotiate with pressure to assert your way? What happens? Do you say yes but neglect to go inward and assess if you are an authentic yes or no?,.
Mythology #4: You’re responsible for your partner’s feelings when they are with you
Re-frame: Your leadership is demonstrated through how you listen and extend empathy for the impact your choices, behavior and desires have on someone else. You are responsible for attuning to your own feelings and needs, and bringing your vulnerability in a connected way.
You are not responsible for the way they feel.
You are responsible for receiving their experience, which may be unique to yours, and it deserves to be honored as such. You don’t have to agree with their experience but connection will deepen when you listen and imagine what it feels like in their world, and how your actions or choices impacted them. There is no need to defend. This is empathetic connection.
What is your belief related to being responsible for how your partner feels?
What communication tools do you practice to share and listen to the differences between you and your partner?
How do you practice receiving and sharing impact so you are both seen and heard in your individuality? How do you then explore what’s possible from a ground of love?
What’s your belief about attracting partners who will touch your core wounds so you can integrate the healing available rather than see the attraction as a problem or bad choice?
You may experience differences between what you intended and how it’s perceived and experienced. Do you want to learn, see how you’re both contributing, or defend?
It’s difficult to have both connection and freedom when we feel we are responsible for how others feel. We are not responsible for another’s attachment style, their early conditioning, the lessons their higher self wants to teach them or how they react.
My need for both connection and freedom
I recently found myself falling for a man. On a spirit, energy and physical level, we intersected on many important crossroads. It was nectar to feel this type of synergy. And, at the same time I felt crushed at how unavailable he actually was in an attuned and emotional level to my inner world. The absence of his curiosity and interest in me, beyond how I was assisting him in getting his needs met, left me feeling empty and unseen. I desperately searched for a button that would shift us into a deeper space where he was more available to see me the way I was seeing him, but I was unable to find that opening.
I had a choice: get mad at him and make him wrong, or come back to my core values of what I desire in my most intimate relationships. I brought my vulnerability and desire to him and asked for what I wanted with more exchanging of how we witnessed and held space for each other. I surrendered after speaking my desire and knew that if he wanted this also then the dynamic would shift. If he wasn’t aligned with my relationship vision, then I would have to let my fantasy of our potential and the romantic part of our connection go. The invisibility I felt continued, which meant I had to let go despite how much I wanted it not to be true.
I grieved and felt angry at how painful it feels to be disappointed and longing for more depth. I wrestled with the familiar critical inner voice that says, “Maybe you’re expecting too much.” This inner voice lands like a dead weight and has been known to gnarl and twist me into a collapse of self-doubt and powerlessness. I have learned to stay vigilant and watch for when this critical voice creeps in to judge me for expecting too much. It’s a trap. In these moments I must remain aligned with my values and not compromise because of fears that I’ll be alone or that I’m broken.
In this situation, my sovereignty and freedom lived in the acceptance that he was not doing anything wrong, he was simply being where he was and so was I. The truth was I had to grieve that we were not in the same place. The anger was my disappointment that he didn’t want, or was not ready, for what I need and want in a relationship. In the past I would have overridden my needs and dove into the relationship blindly hoping he would change over time and eventually pulling away and blaming him for not being who I wanted him to be. That’s not love. That’s something else.
Life as my practice ground and fierce teacher
When I take full responsibility for the ways I’m operating, and I commit to interrupting the outdated patterns, I feel a deeply rooted confidence and peace expanding inside. I feel my humanity and it allows me to have greater empathy and compassion for how incredibly difficult it is to unwind these entrenched beliefs that we each create about how our partners are supposed to be for us to love them (and how we need to be in order to be loved).
I’ve studied and hunted for covert and manipulative strategies that I’ve used over the years to avoid my vulnerability and to keep people close or push them away. I’ve fallen in love with the fantasy of who I want someone to be and then collapsed into disappointment when they are not my fantasy.
It’s a re-frame from our culture, but one that has liberated me and allowed me to love in a bigger way. I’m always attracting the teachers who will either meet me in more shared sovereign space together and/or reveal more of the old patterns that reflect a need to control or collapse. And, without them both I wouldn’t be able to birth myself into this new way of being.
We must be gentle and kind towards ourselves and each other. The path of knowing ourselves so that we can be more present to how we co-create our relationships, and the operating systems in which we thrive, can be both arduous and heart-exploding.
To the ever-evolving journey that we each find out way through, alone and together.