A Relationship With Yourself

When we think about relationships, thinking about ourselves is easy. What do I want, what kind of person will make me happy, why is my partner acting this way toward me? We spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and about what we want, but all this thought rarely leads us to actually reflect and get to know ourselves better. We spend a lot of time with our impulses, desires, and the things that satisfy us, but we don’t often take the time to truly know ourselves. Author Colin Wright believes that we must focus beyond our desires and what makes us happy to understand who we are deep down in order to become better people for the world and better people in relationships. At the end of his book Some Thoughts About Relationships he writes,

“Your most intimate relationship is, and should always be, with yourself. Acknowledge and maintain that foundation, then reach out into the world and help others do the same. Ensure that your sense of “me” is mighty so that your sense of “we” can follow suit.”

Inward reflection helps us understand our impulses, emotions, reactions, and expectations. When these remain hidden from us, we act in ways that are guided by thoughts that we do not always understand, and our life is likely to be out of alignment as we strive forward based on ideas and pressures that impact our lives without our knowing.  Getting to know these parts of ourselves helps us make better decisions and act more rationally in any situation.

Knowing who we are also means reflecting on the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world so that we understand not just the positive side of who we are, but also the negative side. The end of Some Thoughts About Relationships aligns with previous work from Wright. In Considerations he wrote, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait. It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.” The better we become at working through the negative parts of ourselves, the better we can empathize with others and connect with people facing the same challenges. In this way, our obstacles help us grow and help us aid others in their growth. A strong relationship with ourselves helps us better know humanity, and helps us connect with others on a more personal and meaningful level.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.

Wins and Losses

An idea that I have come across in my own life and in several of the books I have read focuses on winning and losing, and how building consensus and compromise is the only way to move forward and truly win.  Our society focuses on always being the champion and succeeding against all odds, and in many ways this has created a society focused on binary outcomes. We seem to approach most issues in life as zero sum contests, when in reality very little is zero sum.

 

This mindset is perhaps best embodied by our current president, who views the world as an inherently zero sum competition for wealth and success, and the issues he has grasped onto the most ardently are ones that can easily be reduced and comprehended from a win/lose perspective. Immigration means that native born citizens compete for and lose jobs, and trade deficits are a clear indication of selling less than other nations and losing out in the profit game.

 

The problem however, is that almost nothing in life, especially not trade and immigration, are actually zero sum. Author Colin Wright looks at the way we often approach arguments in relationships from the simple win/lose perspective and how that view point is harmful to not just the person viewed as the loser, but also to the winner. His shift in perspective is nuanced and requires reflection and deeper thought, but understanding and beginning to view the world of relationships as more than zero sum helps us better understand other issues in society that are tempting to view as binary and black and white.

 

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, Wright writes, “If ever there comes an argument where one person wins and the other loses, both people have lost. A relationship is weakened if there’s ever only one winner, because you’re a team working together to build something great. A loss for one is a loss for you both.” What this quote does is shift actors in a relationship from being independent of one another to being interconnected and dependent on each other. As one loses, there are a host of negative emotions that arise and a series of opportunities or perspectives that are squandered. The winner may feel successful, but they have done nothing but limit the growth they can experience with another person.

 

Wright’s quote aligns with the views of Bob Berg whose fictional story, The Go Giver, provides a useful allegory for understanding this concept. A main character in Berg’s story says, “Forget about fifty-fifty, son.  Fifty-fifty’s a losing proposition. The only winning proposition is one hundred percent. Make your win about the other person, go after what he wants.  Forget win-win—focus on the other person’s win.” Berge helps us understand that we can become better and find success by focusing not on what we want and winning ourselves, but instead on helping other people win. In an argument, this means not seeking out our own win at the expense of others, and not even finding a place where we both compromise and land in the middle, but rather thinking about what outcome we want, and recognizing that the best outcome is one where we both better understand the other person’s point of view, our own thoughts and ideas, and how and why we think and view the world the way we do.

 

The process involves putting one’s own satisfaction in winning an argument second, in the interest of being supportive and more understanding of the other person. Finding compromise and understanding leads both people to a point where they are not split 50-50, but instead are better able to understand and communicate with each other, and both feel as though they were respected and were able to express their ideas fairly and openly.

Continuing on The One

In my previous post I wrote about the common story we tell ourselves about romantic relationships and marriages that focuses on a single person fulfilling us and make us happy. Author Colin Wright calls this idea the Policy of The One in his book, Some Thoughts on Relationships. Wright thinks the idea is not just wrong, but it is potentially harmful for how we view ourselves in the world, and how we view ourselves in relationships. A better approach, he suggests, is to recognize that we are full people on our own and that we have choice in relationships and can rationally structure our relationships rather than simply hoping to find someone who is a magical fit. In his book he writes, “You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with between.”

I am particularly fond of Wrights quote because it reflects what I have seen in successful relationships personally and in those around me. It is great to be in a dependable marriage where you have another person who can provide love, support, and stability, but Wright (and I) would argue that you cannot reciprocate those qualities without first being comfortable and confident in yourself, in knowing that you are a complete human being. Understanding yourself and knowing who you are on your own will make you a better partner in any relationship. Not understanding yourself and not being complete on your own makes it hard for you to truly be honest and connect with another person.

This is where Wright argues that the policy of The One breaks down in an unfavorable way. Believing that you are not complete on your own or without another person in some ways limits your ability to be your true self. Failing to be your true self takes away from what you can provide to another person in not just a romantic relationship but in any relationship. This view limits your possibilities and can lead to poor decisions in relationships as you begin to think out of fear and not out of confidence.

Self reflection can help us see who we are, and understanding that relationships can help us grow, adopt new perspectives, and learn more about ourselves should encourage us to seek strong relationships with others. But seeking out relationships to fulfill ourselves or to make ourselves whole takes away from who we are, and limits what we can be in a relationship. Assuming we are not whole without another person means that we cannot learn, grow, and adjust, in relationships, and that we are dependent on another person to fulfill ourselves and our potential on this planet. Turning this perspective around we can see that on our own we can be complete, and that in relationships we can find new areas of growth to be more for ourselves and for those around us.

The One Policy

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright discusses the way most people approach romantic marriages and finding a spouse to spend their life with. In the United States our culture is a little obsessed with the idea of “The One” or the thought that there is one person in the world that is the perfect custom tailored match to who we are.  Wright is critical of this vision and describes the reality of finding a partner.

 

“In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out there who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own.”

 

I enjoy Wright’s thoughts of The One and his vision of completeness. I think it is important for us to always be authentic in who we are, and that includes being our complete self. If we cannot be a complete version of ourselves without being in a relationship and being with another person, then we cannot say that we truly know ourselves and we cannot say that we are truly stable. Self-reflection and awareness can help us better understand who we are and what we need, and can show us that we can be complete all on our own. If we cannot reflect on who we are and if we cannot be full people without another person, then we are going to be asking an awful lot of anyone else to be a complete person on their own and to fulfill us at the same time.

 

Wright is critical of The One not just because it is self-centered in the way that it uses other people to serve us while also being self-pitying in saying that we cannot become whole human beings on our own, but because it implies that relationships with anyone who is not The One are in some sense a waste of time. The concept of The One puts pressure on us to be somehow more than who we are, and it pressures us to doubt relationships and undervalue anyone we don’t think we will marry. We lose the ability to learn and grow within relationships, because we simply look for someone else to do all the growing so that we do not need to.

Change for the Better

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright echoes some of the sentiments and ideas that Ryan Holiday puts forward in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Speaking about the challenges of travel and the new experiences and situations that travel forces us into, Wright focuses on the growth that is possible from getting outside what we are comfortable with and challenging our expectations. He writes,

 

“The energy produced when we struggle, when we grow, gives us the torque we need in order to climb. Seeing these frictions as fuel, as substance to burn so that we might achieve greater heights, means that every discomfort, peril, and concern is valuable. The environmental influences which cause us to change become tools we can use to guide our own evolution and ensure the changes are for the better.”

 

What Wright expresses is the same idea that Holiday focused on in his book: using our struggles and turning the impediment to action into the catalyst for action. Both authors follow stoic traditions, and the common theme between the two of them runs back to Marcus Aurelius who focused on how perception and struggle are pair together to either hold us down or create new opportunities for us.

 

Wright’s quote specifically looks at how the environment around us either pushes us toward growth, or allows us to slide backwards into predictability, comfort, and stagnation. What Wright explains is that travel puts us in new places where we experience friction and are unable to move forward using our standard rules and must develop new rules and strategies for advancing. Leaning into these experiences and working hard to better understand where our model of the world fails to meet the new culture around us is what fuels our growth. Looking at the small friction points as learning blocks gives us a chance to grow in ways that we never would have imagined had we not put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. Simply being in a new place where things are not familiar causes us to think more deeply and turn off the auto-pilot that usually guides our direction along pre-set paths in our day to day lives.

Routines in Life

In Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright explains why he is such a fan of travel and of putting ourselves in difficult situations. He is focused on growth in all that he does, and he argues that the challenges of travel push him to growth he would never reach without traveling to new and unique places, and without being introduced to so many different cultures. In his book, he writes, “There can be joy in rote living, but there probably won’t be growth.”

Wright acknowledges our human desire to maintain consistency in our lives and the predictability that routines can give us, but living the same comfortable life style does not give us room to explore, learn, grow, and better understand the world. Rote living may help us feel secure and comfortable, but it does not challenge us as human beings to think beyond ourselves and our bubbles that filter the world. Maintaining a routine in some way limits us and others as it prevents us from meeting new people and engaging with new people in the world. By pushing back and striving to find something different in our lives and routines, we will begin to have opportunities to impact new people and participate in more collaborative activities.

I struggle with expanding beyond a routine lifestyle. I find that I crave routines to be able to accomplish what I want and avoid challenging situations where I have to make decisions about my time. I have never been good at planning ahead to have fun and enjoy my time with others, and as a result I find that I fall back on routines to keep me engaged yet less social. I have recognized on my own what Wright wrote, but his explanation of the importance of avoiding rote living shook me to be more active in my quest to experience new situations, people, and places.

I have also heard of the danger of being stuck in routines from a couple of recent podcasts. Tyler Cowen was interviewed for the Ezra Klein Show recently, and he talked about our human default that he calls the Status Quo Bias. Avoiding this bias and pushing ourselves to experience new thing, to adapt, and to change is the only way that humans as a species can find ways to move forward. Senator Corey Booker recently did an interview with Tim Ferris for his podcast, and discussed the risk adverse nature of politicians, and he discussed the benefits of running personal experiments in our lives to help us have new experiences and learn more about the world around us. I don’t know how to introduce this idea in my own life directly, but I want to push back against the Status Quo Bias that I have developed, to experiment and learn more about my life, and to find new ways to grow rather than be trapped without growth by my life routines.