The word “evolve” is used often these days in the context of self-improvement. I’ve been giving a great deal of thought lately to what it means and how I can apply it, and am applying it, to myself and my life.
What does it mean to evolve as a person? I think the first critical step is to go from being an unconscious and reactive person to one who stops to think about their reactions: how do they compare to others’ in the same situation? What drives us to react the way we do? Some people live their whole lives without ever stopping to consider this first point. Thus the term “unconscious” – you don’t think about it.
Once we shift to a conscious perspective of ourselves and become aware that behaviours are subjective, we then start to ask questions: are there behaviours we exhibit that we don’t like? Aren’t proud of? Are there behaviours we wish to change? And how do we go about changing them? What would we consider the ideal reaction to a given situation? What do we aspire to in terms of how we react and behave?
Next, one begins to consider the root of problem behaviours: why do I exhibit this reaction to this type of situation? Answering the question is an exercise in self-analysis, a probing of the thought processes that underlie the reaction. Most of us find that it requires delving a lot deeper into our psyche, perhaps unravelling multiple layers of self-deception or breaking through defensive walls, until we find ourselves dealing with issues that, until we started this process, we were unaware we had (again, “unconscious”).
And finally, when one has arrived at this stage we seek techniques we can use to make the process of deep self-examination more effective. For myself, the world context in which I frame all my experiences (that set of fundamental beliefs about the nature of the universe) has resonated with the principles of Imago Theory. It is rooted in the sound, scientific awareness that the deeper, more evolutionarily ancient, regions of the brain that are responsible for self-preservation operate at an unconscious level and dictate responses to perceived threats that are emotional in nature in the same way as they respond to those that are physical. The “fight or flight” response is equally valid when one is surprised by a bear while walking through the woods, and when one is deeply wounded emotionally by a perceived betrayal on the part of someone we’ve grown attached to (and thus made ourselves emotionally vulnerable to). Imago theory thus postulates that during the early formative years we establish neural pathways in the higher brain based on perceptions of emotional threat and the responses determined “best course of action” by computations occuring in the deeper brain regions. In other words, our behaviours are established in response to these early experiences and then become fixed, and ultimately reflexive, in nature. As adults we react reflexively to situations that are similar to those experienced in early childhood, responding unconsciously in the manner that our early-developing brain deemed a suitable means of protection.
In Imago Couples Therapy the role of the partner is to aid in self-exploration and, ultimately, healing from past wounds. For it is in the context of such a relationship that one relives the past: in place of the parents or beloved caregivers, the partner becomes the one to whom we are attached and thus emotionally vulnerable. Imago theory argues that the issues we bring into an adult relationship are the remnants of issues battled over and dealt with (in however unhealthy a manner) in our early childhood relationships. Thus, Imago Therapy involves first describing in detail the relationships with one’s parents/caregivers and classifying them. We then try to relate the issues in those relationships with those in our adult relationship. But because doing so consciously and directly can be difficult, Imago uses a form of “reverse engineering”. A conversational style known as the Imago Dialogue (which is similar to Non-Violent Communication) provides a set of rules and protocols for discussing issues that arise between partners in a way that provides an emotionally safe environment in which to delve deeper into ourselves and uncover the underlying issues. Although it is possible to do this alone the benefits of having a partner are many, not the least of which is because, according to Imago theory, we subconsciously choose partners that trigger these situations.
What’s also quite fascinating to me is how parenting comes into play here. For once again we enter into a deep emotional relationship, and once again issues arise that cause us concern. While children cannot act as a partner in the process of parental self-exploration, the buttons they inadvertently push can act as clues to the adult that an issue is there. If they are fortunate they can go to their partner to help work through them. Since becoming a parent I’m intrigued by the parallels: we talk about unconscious and conscious parenting, and the process of evolving as a parent follows the above described process of evolving as a person almost exactly. I’m learning more and more that while parenting is the task of guiding a young person through to adulthood, growth of the parent is a considerable part of the process. Through parenting, we can aid in the process of evolving ourselves and becoming the parent, and the person, we wish to be.
This has all been on my mind lately because I’m finding myself wondering what I want from life in terms of my relationships with friends and my partner. Why do we have friends and what role can friendship play in our evolution as a person? What is the emotional reason for having a life partner – obviously we have a biological drive to mate and reproduce the species, but humans do not appear to be a monogamous-for-life species (see Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love). Still, most of us desire to attain a lifelong relationship with our partners; why? I’m drawn to the answer “so that I can continue to improve myself” (and, as an added bonus, participate in the process of my partner’s self-improvement). I think this can be seen as an evolution beyond biological prerogatives, the natural progression of a species that serendipitously developed the ability to wonder about our selves and our future. Aside from being partners in parenting – the common love for our children uniting us in that endeavour – what happens after the kids have grown up and moved out? What are we left with? What do we want out of our relationship then?
When the importance of sex doesn’t seem so great as it was in our twenties, when the practical aspects of living as a family have removed the romantic notions we had as newleyweds, when age and wisdom expose physical beauty and “coolness factor” as shallow qualities that are meaningless in a lifetime relationship…what are we left with? I think it’s this: sharing the process of evolving as a person with my partner, and thus experiencing a level of intimacy that is far deeper than the Cloud Nine stage of romance.