Blog: Being Present in Relationship

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

It is a common tendency to think that if we just ignore a problem, it will either go away on its own or we won’t feel its effect. Ignoring our problems leads to confusion about what is real and what is true. Unfortunately, one of the most common responses to this state of confusion is to go into denial about the fact that not being present is causing a problem.

In this context, we are looking at denial as the process of looking away from something and then refusing to admit we are looking away. This internal dynamic of denial is often not well understood. This second act of looking away from the fact that we are looking away is the reason most of us cannot simply snap to attention when our yoga teacher says “Be present!”

We struggle because we are not aware of our own resistance to looking at our resistance to being present. The further we get away from our experience, the harder it is to get back to it. So, why don’t we know what we don’t want to know?

Usually, we head down this road because something is happening or has happened that we don’t want to have happened. So the path has as much to do with acceptance as it has to do with being present. We have to agree to accept whatever we are being asked to be present to.

This means we have to get our demands and our preferences to relax a bit, so we can accept something we don’t want to accept. But how do we do that? The prescription that Buddhism offers is to think about something besides yourself. This is where relationship comes in. When we are in relationship, we do have to think about the other person– even if it is only to figure out how to get the other person to give us what we want.

The good news about denial in terms of relationship, is that unless we are part of a family or cultural system of widely cultivated denial (to which we all are to a certain extent), the other person is probably not going to be in denial about the same thing we are in denial about. They are also likely going to be vocal about the effect our denial is having on them. This can, if we are lucky, snap us out of our denial.

For instance, if we are looking away from the fact that mold is growing around the pile of unwashed towels we add to every morning after our shower, the person we are living with is probably going to say something about it. If we want to continue to be in relationship with this person, they are probably going to insist that we look at the effect our denial is having. We have to accept that we have been looking away from the mold, clean up the towels, and start paying attention to where we hang our towel after our shower. We realize we have to clean up our mess because our mess is having an effect on other people, and they may not want to hang out with us if we are pretending there is no mess.

Think about a situation you had some role in creating that someone has brought to your attention recently. What was your response to being told about that situation? Did you look away from it? Did you try and see what effect this situation had on the other person? Did you realize that there was something about the situation that you had to take responsibility for changing? Did you change it? How did your response affect the person who told you about it? What effect did your response have on your relationship?

Look at all the insights you can get about yourself by being in relationship – and this is only from a single incident! Imagine all the insights you can gain by looking at how your denial about the effect of your behavior may be affecting those around you.

As you start realizing how your denial impacts those around you, and then begin to perceive, through the mirror of relationship, the effect your denial has had on you, try not to beat yourself up or engage in a self-blame fest! In fact, I would strongly encourage you in the other direction.

One of the reasons we have trouble coming out of denial about our situation is that the moment we peek out of our foxhole of denial, we experience a barrage of self-reproach. This makes us want to look away, run away, or disappear altogether. We can remain in that place forever.

We have to generate acceptance for ourselves and our responses. We may even have to think about being nice to ourselves. This is where relationship can come in handy as well. If we practice being kind to others, it can be very informative in learning how to be kind to ourselves. We just have to apply the lessons we learn in this regard in relationship to ourselves.

In his book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, Dr. Thupten Jinpa talks about the importance of interrupting inner negativity. In that book, he offers many helpful meditations for encouraging a more positive and helpful relationship with ourselves.

It is important to read what he has to say on this matter. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that it is okay for them to beat up on themselves. I once had someone tell me, “I am not doing anyone any harm, I am just yelling at myself,” when I confronted him about his negative self-talk (that he had been in denial about, by the way!).

Just for today, try to pay attention to the messages you are giving yourself. You might even want to start a journal where you write down, verbatim, every message you hear. This is a place where most of us are either in active denial, or simply not paying enough attention to feel the consequences of this internal negativity. Remember, as you are coming out of denial, it is important to be kind to yourself.

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