Over the course of our development, a type of self-construction occurs, a building and shaping of the person you see in the mirror. The evolution of the self involves a complex interplay between the unfolding of temperament (inborn traits) with the powerful impact that others have on our evolving self.
Part of this developmental self-construction includes an integration and rejection of the emerging parts of yourself, a psychic creation that is the result of relationship dynamics with caregivers and other important figures in childhood and life. This relational learning centers around how important others respond to us and the emotional impact this has on our unfolding identities.
Relationship Help: Accepting and Rejecting Yourself
How your caregivers responded to you (accepting-rejecting, curious-indifferent, excited-uncaring, lovingly-hostile, supportive-envious, responsive-intrusive/unresponsive, etc.) powerfully shaped which of your experiences were allowed acceptance and integration into your identity (the known/preferred-self).
Negative caregiver reactions resulted in a form of self-concealment where you discovered that it was best to hide the parts of yourself that led to judgment or criticism. Here the goal was to actively conceal parts of yourself in order to protect the relationship (the known/unwelcome-self); and, more dramatically, if any of your emerging self-experiences seemed to endanger the very harmony of these vital relationships (or if they led to emotional and/or physical abuse), it might have been necessary to completely bury these parts of yourself, buried to such a degree that you no longer had access to these self-experiences (the unknown/shameful-self).
In short, the formation of our identities involves both an integrative (accepting and taking psychic ownership of our reactions, feelings, personality traits) and a dis-integrative process (denying, resisting, disowning the aspects of ourselves that created discord in our primary relationships).
Finding Yourself in the Safe Space of Your Relationship
Though the disowned parts of our identities have been pushed aside and concealed from others, though some aspects of ourselves may have been long-buried and forgotten, these self-experiences still exist and remain significant forces within us (even if unconscious). And in their existence remains a powerful yearning for connection and acceptance. To this end, the known/unwelcome and unknown/shameful-self lie in perpetual waiting, assessing for opportunities to safely re-emerge, for self-expression and, hopefully, for validation from a loving other.
It is in our most intimate relationships where these opportunities arise, opportunities for a deeper level of sharing and self-expression. It is only when emotional safety exists that potential moments to feel whole again are created, moments of loving compassion and understanding from our partner that can allow the long hidden parts of us to slowly re-emerge into the arms of acceptance.
Tread Gently on Each Others’ Vulnerability
We all yearn for loving-acceptance from our partner/spouse, especially during those moments when we take emotional risks and allow our deepest vulnerabilities to be seen. When this level of openness and sharing is allowed, our innermost selves can enter into the loving space of the relationship, a space that allows for a fresh, healing connection that is in direct opposition of the original, hostile-rejecting experience that causes the self to split. Of course, this level of sharing is not easy for many of us, and the potential for misunderstandings and emotional wounding is a real possibility.
When emotional risk-taking goes awry and communication missteps invade the relationship space, you may find that your defensive wall solidifies (“I allowed myself to be vulnerable, and look what happened! I’m not doing that ever again…”). When emotional wounding is the outcome rather than the hope for acceptance and emotional connection, the vulnerable parts of us may now burrow deeper into the recesses of our minds, desperately seeking a safe place to hide.
In short, allowing yourself to become increasingly vulnerable with your partner can bring great gifts of emotional connection and intimacy. We must all be mindful, however, that with vulnerability also comes the potential for unintended emotional wounding. Acknowledging how emotionally tender you are each allowing yourself to be (and not taking this for granted) is an important step in keeping the relational space where sharing occurs a safe place.