Growing up my own mother used to repeat the simple words, “Know thyself, sweetheart, know thyself.” At the time I took these words for granted, and due to a complete lack of life experience, maturity, and wisdom, I brushed them off thinking to myself, “Well, of course I know myself, Mom! Duh!” Only decades of life events, both joyous and tragic, and experiences of love and pain that can only derive from love lost, could teach me what that simple statement really means. Now, I repeat those words to my friends, family members, and clients alike, understanding full well what they mean. However, the great irony is that life must be lived in order to reach a level of self-actualization at which one has a better understanding of oneself. Perhaps life is series of “lessons” that each help us rule out what and who we don’t like and rule in what and who we do like. The ruling in part is how we come into a self-identity.

I digress in this rather philosophical manner only to draw attention to a concept that is crucial to self-development and fundamental for one’s quest for happiness in relationships. It is paramount that an individual have some level of understanding of himself or herself when moving forward to pursue love. It is my strong belief that many couples struggle in their relationships, beyond what might be considered to be a normal or expected level of investment, simply because they are mismatched. Why are they mismatched? Perhaps because they were seeking out their ideal – something closer to what they modeled in early development – rather than a true match. This may not be a conscious process, and it is something that we all do. But the bottom line is, finding a proper match requires knowing oneself, and this is no easy task. It requires insight and complete honesty with oneself, and most importantly, humility about what one truly brings to the table. We all tend to aim higher than where we are truly positioned. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but when combined with the fact that most of us do not understand or perceive ourselves as others perceive us, the overestimation and inaccuracy of who we think we are can lead to complete mismatching.

Know Thyself

Okay…so how does one begin to “know oneself?” Well, if you are up for the challenge, you can write up your online dating profile and discuss it with your friends and family. Pick people who you know will give you honest feedback, and be ready to hear it and process it. Make sure they pick the photos you will put up online, because chances are, they will pick the three photos that actually look like you now, whereas you are likely to pick the three photos that hardly look like you and instead look like what you would like to look like all the time. Just as an aside, most of us do not like our own photographs, and there is a legitimate reason. Most people have slightly asymmetrical features, often very subtle but still extant. When we see ourselves on a daily basis it is by looking in a mirror, which is a reversed image of our face, and reverse also from what a photograph would reveal. Thus, we almost do not recognize ourselves in photos and are often not comfortable with how we look because what we see in photos is actually what other people see, but not what we see in the mirror. I hope that having this insight will make you all think a little bit. It’s an interesting phenomenon, indeed! So back to our homework of how we might come to better know ourselves. Another experience that is likely to help you understand yourself better is therapy or counseling – brief or longer-term. It does require a great deal more time, energy, and emotional investment, however, the benefits are also great.

Therapy or counseling (whichever you are more comfortable using) is not reserved simply for the desperate folks who have no other means for coping or who have reached the pit of Dante’s Inferno. Therapy is a safe, confidential, and ideally positive space within which an individual can process difficult life experiences, past or present, and obtain new tools or sharpen coping skills that can help in battling daily frustrations. We all have some “baggage” from childhood and past relationships, and most of us have learned at least a few maladaptive coping strategies from our parents. Most of us have not properly learned the most critical of life skills – healthy communication skills – even though we attempt to practice them daily. This is a topic that I will devote an entire essay to in this series about dating and healthy relationships because it is the cornerstone of a thriving relationship and ultimately the guarantor of its longevity.

We must be honest with ourselves about our limitations, but also confident about our strengths. Profiles and online dating can be challenging because not only do we often have an inaccurate perception of ourselves, but we also filter out all negative information, which leaves us with a very “ideal” and positive, and slightly inaccurate depiction of ourselves. Research in social psychology has demonstrated over and over again that although opposites may attract, in the end, we are much happier with people who are like us. We tend to pair up with people who are about the same level in terms of looks, intelligence, socioeconomic status, and so forth. And we are actually more likely to end up in a lasting relationship when there is more similarity than difference. This makes sense if you really think about it. If we agree on all the basics (e.g., religion, political affiliation, values/morals, philosophy of life, child-raising views) and have experienced life in a similar way (e.g., comparable levels of education, financial opportunities, social resources), then we are likely to argue about less issues, feel less threatened by differences and more validated by similarities. This results in a more harmonious relationship. Let’s face it; even with all of these things in common, life and our external world (e.g., work, in-laws, financial stress, health problems) still offer a multitude of challenges to any marriage or marital-like relationship.

“We must be honest with ourselves about our limitations, but also confident about our strengths.”

Know Thyself

Statistically, early marriage (i.e., marriage at a very young age, such as teenage or early 20’s) is almost guaranteed to dissolve. Although we may undergo most of our physical transformation between birth and 20, it is our psychological transformation that takes over from our 20’s on. New research in neuroscience suggests that the human brain is not even completely developed until the early 20’s, which means that our higher cognitive abilities only begin to take flight in our third decade of life. Given this knowledge, it all makes sense, right? Most people would agree that we change dramatically from age 20 to age 30 or 35. There is simply no substitute for life experience, irrespective of how “mature” a 20-something year-old may seem. I hear this all the time. “I met this woman. She’s 15 years younger than me, but she’s so mature.” Well, here’s my two-cents worth. She’s not mature. She lacks 15 years of life experience. Period. Perhaps she is intelligent, and this is masquerading as maturity. There is no substitute for life experience. Maturity and wisdom derive from life experience. Intelligence is a different story.

So, what’s my point? Here’s my point: we must know ourselves in order to figure out what we are looking for. When we have a strong sense of self and a firm self-identity, then we have clarity. Clarity allows us to accurately view the reality of our situations and true characteristics of the people that we meet. We gain clarity and insight through life experience, but also through being honest and intelligent with ourselves. Thus, it is not necessarily time per se (although some is naturally required for life experiences to be had) but also the quality of how that time is spent, that can provide us with even better perspective. Unfortunately, there is no formula. Some people may remain drowned in the sea of denial for decades, and perhaps a lifetime, and may never attain that great love. Some may gain insight quickly and early on, because they dare to be vulnerable, and humbled by life and love experiences.

The bottom line: Don’t rush your life. Life is a process to be enjoyed, one day at a time. Don’t miss all the fun in between in your sprint to the finish line. There are no mistakes, only life lessons…lessons that will help you understand yourself better if you are willing to be open to that knowledge.

Photo by Roberto Delgado Webb on Unsplash

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