Understanding Yourself


by Randall S. Frederick

No one should allow themselves to date another person until they first have an understanding of themselves. In the last month, I have done a great deal of introspection and circled back to this sentiment. Dating without knowing who you are, what you want, and how you react to challenges can become a painful experience for yourself and your partner. Whatever promises are made between lovers will unravel or be challenged by circumstance, so it is essential to know who you are and what you’re dealing with when times get tough.

To better understand oneself, there are a couple of tools you can begin using immediately.


Committing yourself to print has been my bread and butter for half of my life – a good seventeen years and counting. I believe in the power of words, and I also know well enough that sometimes people need to feel the synesthesia of “seeing” their spoken words and thoughts in print. The brain awakens and makes new associations, often hinting at the broad impact of situations we thought were behind us and buried forever. Allowing yourself the privacy to own your thoughts and feelings, to process them, to feel them course through your hands and fingers on to the page and screen awakens us to new emotions, ways of processing, and understanding. One of the things people often tell me when I suggest they begin writing is, “Oh, I don’t know what I would say!” But very often, it’s not that they don’t know what they would say – it’s that they know well enough what they would say, and it terrifies them that they could be honest (perhaps for the first time) and drudge up old experiences or new versions of their identity that could disrupt the cocoon of dullness they have built around themselves. There have been times when I truly did not know I felt something until I wrote it out! Putting your thoughts to print is sure to bring something up out of the depths of who you are.

Personality Profiles

The idea here is to avoid Buzzfeed quizzes, or anything culturally related like “Which Harry Potter Wand Are You?” Those are fun, but don’t provide a lot of insight into who you really are. More or less, you are chasing an ideal answer – say, you want to be like Luna Lovegood because it can excuse your weirdness – rather than doing the hard work of introspection and figuring out why you do “weird” things.

Myers-Briggs is probably the most popular personality profile because of the four quadrants that help locate and explain the personality. For example, I am an INFJ which means I am introverted, rely on intuition or “gut”, make decisions based on feelings or “gut”, and tend to be pretty decisive when action is necessary.

Enneagram is another good profile, because while the Myers-Briggs tends to be more rigid, an enneagram starts with the assumption that all humans tend to have share similarities but that our individuality promotes and emphasizes certain qualities, or nuances of those similarities. Enneagrams see connections to aspects of personality and may establish a hierarchy – the “wing” being a major flexpoint – allowing you to make each “point” your own. You will inevitably emphasize a different side of yourself at different times, under different conditions, and this profile type makes space for that. Less stable than the Myers Brigg, but just as insightful.

Attachment Theory

Reading up on attachment theory helped me tremendously. The theory goes like this: whatever happened to you when you were a baby and your brain was developing created ways that you experience the world. If your parents were, for whatever reason, hand-off and inattentive when you a baby, you will experience that up to the present time, today. You are “wired” from those early experiences to believe that other people don’t really care. If you cry, they may not listen or respond so why bother? On the other hand, you may have learned to be resourceful and take care of yourself. Then again, if your parents and the people around you when you were an infant were very attentive to you, you will probably experience the world feeling that people care about you – or should. If people pull away, you will draw closer (in a healthy way, but never chasing!) believing that’s how things should be. People who care about one another should be close. On the other hand, because your parents were so attentive you may have not learned all the skills you needed to survive. People who had a strong “attachment” early in life feel like they are entitled to that and if their needs are not being met, they may be likely to move along and find someone who will. Sound confusing? It’s not. The theory has a lot of flexibility, but tries to make connections between your early development and your present.

Notice that those examples sound dramatic, though? There’s a reason why. Attachment theory is not an overarching concept for all relationships, but instead how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat. How we attach (or don’t) is complicated, but learning about Attachment Theory helped me understand how I approached (and exited) friendships, romantic relationships, and how my understanding of family developed into what it is today.

When I talk about attachment theory with people, there is generally a point where they try to reject the idea entirely, insisting that their relationship with their parents has no bearing on who they are on their own, their individual identity, or on their romantic relationships. What Attachment Theory proposes is not some formula where “because your parents did this thing, you will inevitably do this other thing.” Instead, it begins with the assumption that brain development is important and that, during the formative period of infancy, you learned ways to meet your needs and have your needs met. How you do that is very different for each person, but many similarities worthy of discussion will appear. We find, when we are honest, that we see the world, ourselves, and our relationships (romantic or otherwise) in light of previous experiences and you have been leaning to adapt from infancy. Having a working knowledge of yourself in relationship to how your experiences (even the ones you don’t remember vividly) have shaped you helps you to take a step back when you need to and locate how and why you are having a response to certain events, and also could help you process through difficult situations with or without a partner.

Love Languages

In addition to personal understanding, attachment theory brings up a lot of good questions about how we “need” to be loved. Gary Chapman brought together some ideas he and other family therapists saw in their practices with his book, The Five Love Languages. The idea he puts forward there is two-fold: how you recognize love and how you express love may not always be the same. More importantly for your relationships, how your partner needs love and expresses love may not be the same as the “love language” you possess. Understanding these difference, if they exist, is essential to providing the love your partner needs and asking for the love that you need. Chapman says the five main love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, gifts, and acts of service; any of those sound like something you “need” to have a healthy relationship?

If you express love through gifts and your partner is averse to gifts for some reason – say, they were bribed for sexual favors in a previous relationship, or gifts were given then taken back, intentionally broken, or thrown away in an argument – the more gifts you lavish on them, the more closed off they will become. You’re not “speaking their love language” and meeting their needs; instead, your well-intentioned gifts are creating resistance to your efforts. Recognizing your partner’s aversion while admitting that, for you, giving gifts is a way of expressing your affection can help you locate a source of tension much faster and cause you to work through problems with better understanding. Would you rather them feel loved on their terms by adapting your expressions of love (but not how you receive love) or continue to demand they receive your love your way on your terms even if it doesn’t speak to them? The answer to this question will either rebuild or destroy whatever exists between you and your partners within a matter of days, so be sure you think it through. Recognizing and then communicating your needs is essential to personal satisfaction and fulfillment; recognizing and meeting the needs of your partner is essential to relational stability and health.

Therapy and Counseling

I spent most of my Twenties becoming more and more coiled through the difficulties of life. In my Twenties, I finished college and graduate school, saw my stepfather abandon my mother and little brother, was there when my brother was diagnosed with Autism, had an affair with my best friend’s wife, watched someone I trusted and respected intentionally and knowingly violate ethics for money and power, endured a tempestuous (and psychologically destructive) relationship, and left a career I loved for good. I was bitter. I was angry. I didn’t trust people. And I was coiled up, unwilling to try again.

Then I went to therapy.

The most freeing thing anyone has ever said to me was, “Wow. That’s [effed] up.” With those words, my therapist broke new ground. Having finally told all of the events that transpired in my Twenties and that brought me to her office, all she could do was recognize yes. It was a lot to go through. It was “[effed] up.” And while many people have had it much harder than me, that in no way diminishes my own experiences. I lived through a great deal of trauma – physical and psychological – and my need for security and stability was “healthy” even if the way I was going about it was not. Hearing another person just acknowledge me and feeling that I had been heard and understood, I began to make progress at a rapid clip. Granted, I still had a lot of work to do. And life did not stop just because I had a moment of realization in a therapist’s office. Far from it – things were rough for a while there even after that! But I began to better understand the ways I had built walls to protect myself, to slowly trust people, to recognize when I was feeling overwhelmed or triggered, and to begin living in each moment instead of the past. Again, I am still trying to do my best day by day. I have not arrived, as they say. But because of therapy, I feel like all of my relationships have been happier, less confusing, and more fulfilling.

It’s different for everyone, though. Some people find through therapy that they have maladaptive behaviors, some find a diagnosis for issues that have troubled them and their relationships for years, and some – like me – just need to let it all out, to uncork and uncoil.

The idea of therapy can be scary for some people, but for most of the ones I know who have gone, their lives have been better since they made the decision to go. 

If therapy and counseling aren’t your thing, or maybe you feel like you need to “babystep” your way towards that, sit down with someone you trust and/or respect so you can share what is going on with you. Ask them to reflect back what they have heard you say – and actually listen. Don’t try to correct them, or fill in the blanks. Just listen to what another person is hearing come out of you, allowing yourself to get caught up for a few minutes in the feedback loop.

Determine Your Core Values

Your core values are not the same as your ideals. Ideals are the things you want to direct your life towards. Values are the things you’re for which you are willing to make sacrifices, compromises, and – if need be – blood. So what is it you’re willing to fight for, and would go down swinging? These values are shaped over a lifetime, so if you dive into yourself and aren’t sure about what you stand for, that’s okay! Recognizing that you don’t have them (or, more likely, just don’t recognize them) is a good starting place. Make a note of your values as you become aware of them, and be open to the fact that many of us are not able to articulate our values off the top of our head.

Not that long ago, a friend and I were talking about an event that frustrated us both. We were commiserating on how awful it was and I had an out of body experience. I didn’t want to talk about that hurt anymore because all we were doing was rehashing the facts, the events themselves. “And then she… And then they… And could you believe it when…” We both knew what had happened. We knew all the details. We just needed to talk about them and process them together. When I came to the end of my limit, I said so. “Hey, we need to change the topic.” But she didn’t. She needed to keep going with it, and so I listened. As she continued, it seemed like she became unshackled; without me “bouncing back” ideas to her, she fumed and allowed her anger to be set loose.

When she was done, there was silence between us. It was the first time that she had allowed herself to “go there” and say everything she needed to say, to draw the parallels and connections she needed to. Finally, I asked if she noticed how upset she got. She had. I asked where all of that came from – it wasn’t something that had happened to her, so why was she this angry about something that had happened to someone else? She considered this for a moment and it dawned on her that she had some deeply imbedded core values that she saw being violated in the world and it stirred her up. The next day, she began to take action, to confront a mutual friend and make amends. Then she joined a community group to apply those values into the world around her. Weeks later, she told me about what had been going on and admitted, “Until we talked, I don’t think I recognized that there was a value there. I just knew it made me emotional and I was sensitive to it.”

Often, we discover our values by the emotions they stir up – not navelgazing. Both of my parents, if you asked them, would say “family” is an important value to them but only one of them gets emotional about this value and takes action. Another way to approach your core values is hinted at by Karen Salmansohn. She writes,

Aristotle believed the highest form of knowledge is insight – because it’s the only knowledge which leads to growth – and evolving into your highest potential is what leads to true happiness. For this reason, Aristotle believed that the reason why so many people are unhappy is that they keep foolishly confusing “pleasure” for “happiness.” “Pleasure” is simply about immediate gratification—of your body/ego. “Happiness” is about seeking longterm growth for yourself as a thriving individual – and is about nourishing your soul/core self.

Come to Terms with Where You Are, As You Are

Often times, you will hear people say that they go through their day with a low degree of tension and anxiety. This is not the same thing as having anxiety as a clinically defined condition. I want to make that clear. But many people, diagnosed or not, feel unsettled and restless because they have not come to terms with where they are. They are in Florida but want to be in Minnesota. They are at work but want to be home, sleeping. This buildup of displacement creates tension that will likely spill over into your relationships. Operating each day with this level of tension and anxiety, this general feeling that you don’t belong, will make you snappish and critical. It will make you harsh at times, prone to excessive statements.

It’s not just location, though. We often feel disappointed with where we find ourselves in life. Think of the single mom who never wanted kids. Think of the man who didn’t do well in college and changed majors to study something that was easier but left him unfulfilled. Coming to terms with your choices, with what happened and why, is essential to helping you reconcile your identity.

Each one of has has an ideal self. The depressed person wishes they were happy or at least felt something other than unremitting “nothing.” The happy person recognizes they feel happy, but that there is something missing. And each of us worries whether we are smart enough, attractive enough, even whether we are too much –  too loud, too much jiggle, and so on. Coming to terms with your choices and your body are just the start. If there are changes you want to make, you have to begin an action plan to change things – if they can be changed at all.

Accept Responsibility for Your Past

What happened, happened. It defines you only as long as you allow it to do so. But whether you embrace your history or give it the shoulder, you must accept responsibility for it and the outcomes – plural. We have all made hard decisions, so “accepting responsibility” does not mean beating yourself up. It could very well mean intentionally making a different decision until you are in a better place. It could mean apologizing. It could be admitting to yourself that those “fun times” you keep talking about were stupid and risky. It could mean shrugging off guilt and accepting yourself. Or it could mean swallowing your pride and telling the truth – maybe for the first time. Whatever happened can stay there in the past, but you still need to be mature enough to come to terms with it and settle up, set things right, and admit your stake in how things went down.

Relationships are too often derailed because one of the partners hasn’t worked through to find themselves. Issues pop up “unexpectedly,” damaging trust and emotional health. Having a epiphany mid-relationship happens whether you’re ready for it or not, but becoming overwhelmed and needing to close yourself off mentally, emotionally, and relationally will disorient your partner – especially if you don’t communicate or even know how to ask for support. Blame follows shortly behind. Either you begin to blame your partner for asking questions and triggering you (when you were fine stuffing those memories down) or your partner begins to blame you for shutting them out and abandoning them to “find yourself.” I’ve been guilty of both. We all have, to different degrees. Which is why it is important to be intentional and work through some of these practices, sharing your thoughts as you go along if you are already in a partnership, but definitely establishing a working knowledge before you dive into your next relationship.

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