How well do you know yourself? Some of the most depressed people I’ve ever treated became depressed by trapping themselves in circumstances where they really just didn’t belong. With eyes wide open, yet not really seeing, they ignored their own basic nature and got absorbed in situations that violated that personal nature.
Here’s an example of what I mean. One of my clients, Joyce, is depressed, divorced, and in her mid-30s. A self-described “nester,” she claims she wants nothing more than to find the right man and settle down into a long and healthy marriage. But she has not been dating, socializing or putting herself in situations where she can meet eligible men who might be suitable to marry. Why not?
Because she has gotten herself into what I consider a bad situation with two different men who are her “friends.” Joyce calls these men “friends with privileges.” Even though they are “just friends,” with no illusion on anyone’s part that the relationship is going to turn romantic and possibly culminate in marriage, they are having sex together.
Joyce says, “It’s casual, there are no strings, it’s nice to be held, so what’s the harm?” Her level of self-deception is extremely high, keeping her depressed, feeling very bad about herself.
What is a “nester” doing in this kind of exploitative relationship? She wants marriage but is in a kind of relationship that saps her motivation to go out and meet new people. Although she claims to value depth and commitment, she engages in intimate behavior that is in direct violation of those values.
As a direct result of this “solution” to her lack of a love life, she pretty much hates herself, feels cheapened by it, yet feels stuck in it because of all the conflicting emotions involved. She is depressed because she is violating her self-awareness and sabotaging her own goals.
Knowing yourself is difficult. It requires that you think clearly about your desires and values and then you act in accordance with them. Making moral compromises, getting lost in the need for contact or approval, selling out for a raise or a promotion are pathways to unhappiness. You want to know yourself well enough to be able to stay out of situations that are attractive on one level, but violate your sense of yourself on another.
How can you assess how well someone else really knows himself? When he says, “I’m ready for a commitment,” that sounds good, but is it true? When someone says, “I can complete this for you by Friday,” should you believe her? The key point is this: Most often, but not always, people are telling you what they believe to be true about themselves.
Some people intentionally lie and know they’re lying, but for most people it’s not about lying. It’s about self-deception. It’s about wanting, even needing, to believe we’re better than we really are. Thus, no one is going to say to you, “I’m a superficial person who callously uses other people for whatever I can take from them, so will you sleep with me?”
It takes some time to determine how well someone you’re assessing knows himself because you have to talk a lot and listen to what this person says about his or her character, temperament, or nature. You don’t need to believe, nor do you need to disbelieve, what you hear. You simply note it.
Over time, you watch for how well the things people do fit with what they said they’d do. The more consistent they are, the better it speaks for their level of self-awareness. Even when they’re inconsistent, if they’re responsible about it, they’ll acknowledge and try to mend the inconsistency. If they’re not responsible, they’ll make lame excuses for it.
This is why you don’t want to rush into things with people. Until you ask a lot of questions, until you observe the relationship between what someone says and what he does, you just don’t know how much of what he tells you will be true. Until you see someone in a variety of situations and moods, you won’t really know whether he can be respectful when angry or sensitive when stressed. It’s your responsibility to know yourself accurately, including your own vulnerabilities, so you don’t get too easily swept up in other peoples’ bull*@#*.
Photo by Nathan Csonka Photography, available under a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial license.
Last reviewed: 19 Dec 2010