Relational Paradox

I have struggled with this topic for a long time, but I think it is really important to share. It’s called the Relational Paradox.

The Relational Paradox:

As humans we really want deep, fulfilling relationships.

To get these relationships we want people to like us.

But we worry that people won’t like us for who we are.

We worry we are unloveable or there are things about us that people will find unacceptable.

This causes us to hide.

We hide those parts of ourselves–maybe a secret part of our identity, maybe a troubled past, maybe a neurosis that embarrasses us.

Because we are hiding things, people feel they can’t truly get to know us. Or if they do end up liking us, we constantly worry they will find out the truth.

This leads us to a bad cycle of one unfulfilling relationship after the next.

Bottom Line: Our fear of people not liking us causes people to not like us. Our fear of not having fulfilling relationships keeps us from having those fulfilling relationships.

When I discovered the Relational Paradox, it completely blew my mind because it felt as though someone finally put into words the struggle I had been facing for years. This horrible paradox sets us up for a downward spiral of unhappiness, but I think we can do something about it. Here’s how:

What Are You Hiding?

Have you ever felt unlikeable? Unworthy? Or worse, as though you had to hide a part of yourself to be liked or accepted? If so, I am so sorry because I know that hiding secrets or hiding a part of ourselves is the most exhausting, terrible feeling.

Can we dig into it a bit together? I want you to start mentally exploring what you hide and WHY you hide it. The most common things we hide are:

  • Issues from our past
  • Problems or challenges that embarrass us
  • Mistakes or failures
  • Fears
  • Secrets

What resonates with you from this list? This can be a small thing, such as getting a parking ticket before walking into a party and deciding not to tell your friends. Or something as big as hiding your sexual orientation from your family. We hide things we are convinced our family and friends won’t tolerate. We decide the best way to be accepted is to leave a part of our self out of those relationships. If you’re like me, you worry whether people know about your insecurities or your history, or your secret habits, or anything you believe would keep you from fitting in. You worry that you will lose the relationship entirely if one or more of those things is exposed. So you keep hiding.

Here’s the Problem

Hiding yourself may preserve the relationship for a while, but this is at too high a cost. The cost is that in this relationship you always will have the feeling that you don’t legitimately belong. Or that if people like you, they aren’t liking the real you, which makes you feel even more inherently unlikeable.

The longer you participate in the paradox, the more pain you feel and the more unworthy you will feel.

I say, ‘No more!’ It’s time to address the feelings we are hiding and reassess our relationships. My goal is for you to be your true self with the people in your life. This might mean putting an end to unstable relationships, where you truly feel you will not be accepted for your true self. Let’s begin that process.

#1: Who Makes You Feel the Need to Hide?

Most of us hide more around certain people. It could be family members, colleagues, or old friends. I want you to start thinking about the people who exacerbate your Relational Paradox. This could be someone who judges you. It could be someone who makes you feel unsafe. Or, more frequently, it’s someone who is a big question mark. A question mark means you really have no idea how this person would react to your true self. They might accept you, they might reject you, but you have no idea because you haven’t really given them a chance. Think about the people in your life and answer the following yes or no questions about them:

  • Do I trust this person with my feelings?
  • Can I count on this person?
  • Does this person treat me with respect?
  • Do I feel safe disagreeing with this person?
  • When I am with this person, do I feel a sense of belonging?
  • Do we treat each other as equals, despite our differences?
  • In this relationship, I feel more energetic.

If you answered “yes” to most questions, you might try opening up to them slowly. I describe more of this process in Step #2. If you answered mostly “no,” they might not be someone you want in your life at all. “No” people need to be minimized, or sometimes you need to end the relationship. Remember, you deserve to be around people who accept you for who you are – ALL of who you are.

#2: Slow Opening

If you feel brave enough to announce your true self—do it! This takes great courage, and I commend you. If you want to take it a little more slowly, here’s how you can do it. Think of the people in your life with whom you really want to stop the Relational Paradox. The people you think of might be amazing advocates, and the people you are hopeful will accept you. Allow them in slowly.

First, set aside some one-on-one time with them. It’s always easier to be your true self in more intimate settings.

Second, tell them you want to get closer to them. The best way to be more vulnerable with someone (especially if they have known you for a long time) is to give them the ultimate compliment by telling them you care about them and want to be closer. This puts them in a generous and open state of mind.

Third, tell them about your new thinking. This doesn’t have to be a big reveal, but it could be that recently you have been doing more self-exploration, self-care, and learning. Send them the YouTube video above or tell them about a book you are reading that inspired you. Basically, what you are doing here is sharing with them that you have a new state of mind and that this is exciting for you. People love to share in exciting new changes.

#3: Vulnerability is Magic

If the person you are with has wonderfully passed the first two steps, then you are ready for this third step. Now, if they didn’t respond well to the first two steps, I would reconsider sharing and having them in your life. Let’s say you told them about some of your new self-discoveries and they sneered or made fun of you. They might not be a safe person. But if they were excited for you and asked questions, then give them the chance to be vulnerable with you.

Dr. Jean Baker Miller is the person who discovered the Relational Paradox, and she says the only way to fight it is to create and maintain Mutual Growth Fostering Relationships. These are relationships where both parties feel that they matter. In these healthy relationships, all of the involved parties experience what is known as the 5 Good Things:

  1. A desire to move deeper into the relationship because of how a good relational experience feels.
  2. A sense of zest, or energy in the relationship, as opposed to it being draining or toxic.
  3. An increased knowledge of oneself and the other person in the relationship.
  4. A desire to take action, both in the growth-fostering relationship and outside of it.
  5. An overall increased sense of worth.

As you begin sharing more of yourself, do you think these 5 Good Things are happening for the both of you? If not, slow down and take it one experience at a time. Remember, if you have one or two of these mutually beneficial relationships, you are rich in love. They are worth the effort.

Bonus: Attachment Theory Quiz 

Have you ever noticed you are dating the same kind of person over and over again?

This might not be your imagination or coincidence. It could be Attachment Theory at work, which says we each have a specific attachment style.

I hope this article and video help you explore some of your relationships and gets you closer to being your true self with more people. Thank you for allowing me to write on this blog and share these thoughts with you.

To your success,

Vanessa

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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