Apr 08, 2022
As the second part of this four-part Integrated Men series on anxiety, we will now look in-depth at how we break away from approval-seeking behavior and start establishing healthy relationship boundaries. Rather than succumbing to the default conflict-avoidance and merging with our partners, we can learn to self-regulate our anxiety and reveal who we are as individuals.
Dr. David Schnarch explains in his book ‘Passionate Marriage’: “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.”
To differentiate ourselves, we must first understand where this fear of self-expression originates and what our warning signals are. When we are consciously aware of this, we can utilize the most effective tools to move past these behaviors and start creating reciprocal systems. When we acknowledge our individual needs can we start emotionally self-regulating, eliminate destructive external influences and live with integrity.
Dr. Robert Glover defines differentiation as the ability to ask ourselves what we want to do and what feels right for us in any given scenario. And then doing it. In other words, it is the balance between our desire to connect and the agency of our destiny. But, establishing connection and self-control are conflicting concepts in many ways, so they require a level of maturity to maintain a balance. We must not enmesh ourselves with the other person, but at the same time, we must at times find ways to connect.
Differentiation is the ability of both partners to maintain a clear perception of self while maintaining relationships with the people who are important to them. External forces may exert pressure on them to conform, but understanding when to choose their own path despite feeling the weight of peer pressure is key. As a result of peer pressure, we might stay in our relationship for longer than we are happy doing so. This could be because we feel as if we are abandoning our family. Or, we may fear the label of divorce and the negative connotations that this is commonly associated with.
As Nice Guys, we will typically grow up in an emotionally fused family structure directed by the most anxious family member. Typically the individual who takes charge is a parent and that parent will try to excessively regulate how everyone in our family group behaves. They will even try to tell people how they should think, feel and act. But they also validate and invalidate members of our group. If we did not conform to that individual’s requirements, they withheld their validation from us and felt deeply personal.
Through this constant onslaught of emotional overwhelm, we learned to sacrifice ourselves to meet the needs of others in the group and regulate others’ anxieties. Typically these community structures will also discourage independent thinking, opinions, individuality and acting with passion. When we grow up in these environments, we fail to develop our own distinct identities. So, once we finally escape these co-dependent structures, rather than break free, we then latch onto someone else who will set a similar set of rules.
Instead of learning more about our wants and needs during our childhood, we consistently found happiness through the approval of others. But, the longer-term issue with relying on other people to regulate our emotions is that other people are wholly unreliable. So, no matter how hard the other person might try, relying on other people can temporarily fix the problem. But, it is not the solution. Other people will not always be there for us all the time. It isn’t physically possible. So, our identity becomes our story of victimhood and abandonment. We create covert social contracts, other people break them and we feel overwhelmed. So, we take it personally and blame the other person for their insensitivity.
We fatally overlooked when we created these covert contracts that the other person is not responsible for looking after our wellbeing. In other words, we are solely responsible for looking after ourselves and ourselves alone. If we rely on the other person for approval, we will never feel worthy of love and belonging. We can never feel like we are enough. To feel that we are enough, we have to learn to let go of whom we feel should be based on other people’s perceptions. We are the only ones capable of knowing who and what we should be. The more differentiated we are, the less likely we are to take it personally.
As Nice Guys, when we start to practice differentiation in our everyday life, we will typically feel very anxious. This is because differentiation goes against our widespread Western cultural values of conformity, so it will feel unnatural. To differentiate ourselves means that we may find that we come across as being controversial at first to others. We may feel that we are going to get into trouble, that people will hate our behavior, that we may get fired or dumped, that we may get a violent response, or we may even just feel embarrassed.
All of these feelings are perfectly normal. When we differentiate ourselves, it is almost inevitable that we experience these feelings. This is because we are standing up for ourselves for the first time. Other people will invariably dislike us standing up for ourselves because they will perceive it as acting selfishly. But when someone accuses us of acting selfishly, what are they saying? They tell us that they dislike our behavior because we put our ‘self’ before them.
If our colleagues, friends, and family are used to us putting them first, this shift in dynamic can come as an enormous shock. But, if we can differentiate ourselves effectively, we can start acting in an entirely new and empowered way. By establishing boundaries, understanding our responsibility for self-expression, and maintaining healthy dynamics, we can cultivate secure, functional communities and feel whole again.
We can recognize effective differentiation in our own behavior when we:
Dr. Glover observes that we can’t be ourselves unless we replace our constant observations of external perceptions with asking ourselves the right questions. Nice Guys tend to believe that we must exist exactly as the other person requires us to exist. But rather than relying on these external factors, we must learn to first find the answers within ourselves. To achieve this, we can ask ourselves questions repeatedly throughout the day. Or, we can at first set a timer on our phone to remind us to keep asking.
We are materially unable to determine where we truly stand in life if we are unable to find our inner voice. Once we have answered our own questions and established our own position, we can observe our answers and let them sink in. This will enable us to figure out what we want, rather than trying to anticipate what other people believe that we should want. We no longer need to play by everyone else’s rules – we can validate ourselves and even learn to be a bit selfish. Helpful questions we can ask ourselves include:
A mature person takes full responsibility for their own needs and takes responsibility for their actions.
– Dr Robert Glover
Mature people constantly eliminate systems that are no longer reciprocal or ones where both sides do not get their needs met healthily and consciously. Having an interest in ourselves does not detract from others. It is about making us a priority before them. In other words, we must put on our oxygen masks first. Then we can help other people through a fair exchange of needs if we choose to.
When we eliminate unhealthy relationships, we make way for healthy relationships that will benefit us much more in the long run. When we establish healthy boundaries, we do not need to repress and sacrifice our own needs. But as Nice Guys, the challenge is learning to state our case and vocalizing our needs. This comes with self-awareness, hard work, and patience. But, now is the time to live with transparency, openness, responsibility, and intention. In other words, now is time for us to live with integrity.
At points in our relationships, we have this agonizing uncertainty about whether it would be best to stay in or leave the relationship. We might find ourselves harboring a curious longing: that the relationship could be even worse than what it is now. If our partner had done something obviously ...
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