Surprised by what you see in yourself?

One thing I often say to marriage clients in their first session is that it can help us in our relationships if we are willing to be surprised by what we see in ourselves, what we learn about ourselves during or outside of a session. I sometimes use the example of myself during a couple of encounters with Susanne years ago. (Side note: I’m not using an example from years ago because there are no more recent examples of me going in bad, hurtful directions in our relationship. I am using it because it illustrates what I want to say). We were fighting about something and Susanne said to me, “when we argue you get very condescending to me.” I said, “no I don’t.” She said, “you really do.”

Our conversation ended with that. As she was walking away I prayed something like, “God, I don’t think it is true that I am condescending toward Susanne when we fight. But if it is true, help me to be willing to see it.” Well, it didn’t take but another few days or so and we were arguing again and I saw it. It was plain as day that I was condescending to her. And in the moment, God gave me the humility to say to her, “this isn’t even what we’re arguing about right now, but I just have to stop and admit to you that you were right, I do get condescending toward you.”

Again, I don’t mean to hold myself up as the supreme example of humility and the willingness to be surprised by the ugliness I saw in myself. I could give examples, including recent ones, where I wasn’t willing to see the truth about myself. And the fact that I was able to admit to it in this particular argument isn’t about me anyway. It’s about God. Any humility I have, any willingness to see myself as I really am, is a gift from him. There is nothing inside me that is capable of pulling this off. To be sure, I could fake humility, and I have many times. But it never works. It stinks like a dead rat and my wife, my daughter, and my friends can smell it when I try to fake it.

One of the reasons humility and a willingness to be surprised by what we see in ourselves can help us has to do ultimately with emotional regulation. That is the thing that is hardest to do when we get into arguments, to keep ourselves emotionally regulated. We can get into spaces in our relationships where we’re so raw and everything, including small things, rip off the scabs of the hurts we’ve suffered. Or we’re ripping off our partner’s scabs. It’s hard to regulate ourselves when we’re in this place. But we have to be able to get out of emotional dysregulation and into regulation if our relationships can progress to a safer place where we’re able to connect, to even share hurts and disappointments without the conversation going sideways. And a prerequisite to emotional regulation is developing the ability to observe ourselves.

Humility leads to the ability to observe ourselves which can lead to emotional regulation. By observing ourselves, I mean asking ourselves “why did I say that to him/her?” “Why did I use that tone?” “Why did that come out of me with such energy? Where did that come from?” “What was I feeling when I said that to him/her?”

When we first start down this path we probably won’t be able to do it during an argument when tensions are high and when we are, in fact, emotionally dysregulated. We’ll have to look back and ask ourselves those questions. But with enough practice we can develop the ability to do it more in the moment. It’s one practice that can begin to set us free.