Don't be yourself. Be your best self.
April 5, 2017 5:22 PM   Subscribe

"...the researchers actually found evidence for the opposite – that is, feelings of authenticity in a relationship seem to arise not from being our actual selves in the relationship, but from feeling that we can be our best or ideal self." [abstract]
posted by clawsoon (27 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
This makes a lot of sense. Recommended follow-up reading regarding relationships: basically anything by Mira Kirshenbaum, whose books are frequently recommended on the green. She touches on this a lot in lessons derived from her own clinical experience. I've read like three of her books in a row recently.
posted by limeonaire at 5:34 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

It took three years before I heard my partner fart and I love her for it.
posted by adept256 at 5:56 PM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

welp, guess I fucked THAT up
posted by koeselitz at 6:17 PM on April 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

“I spend a lot of time with the real me and believe me, nobody’s gonna love that guy.”
--BoJack Horseman
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 6:34 PM on April 5, 2017 [23 favorites]

A great revelation for me in the last couple of years - it sounds so trite and silly - was that I could consciously choose to be my best self. Nothing was really stopping me, the external situation didn't really matter, in that I could always be my best self, in that situation regardless of how crappy it was.

Asking myself, "what would you tell a friend?" and "what would the best smoke do in this situation? What would the kind of smoke you want to be do?" has been so liberating and healthy for me.
posted by smoke at 7:06 PM on April 5, 2017 [37 favorites]

This rings so true. I am better in a good relationship. Not different, but better. I do more for myself. I'm the best version of me, because I'm with someone that is worth it, who deserves it.
posted by dazedandconfused at 7:12 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I never chose to be my best self, but I try really hard to be a good husband, and that's translated to being a better me. Definitely agree with the post.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

This vague as fuck clickbait article annoys me, because I'm dealing with a breakup, which ended right after resolving a series of crises that pretty much had me in difficult pieces and definitely not my "best self." I'm feeling actually a lot more my best self after the breakup, since now I'm in a stable housing situation and can live comfortably and take care of myself and have way more energy and resources.

So that annoys me, since I'm regaining my self-esteem after the breakup and understanding that I am amazing despite and because of what I have gone through, and did my best during the relationship in the circumstances anyway. What does this article even mean? Isn't there some kind of quote that talks about how "just try to do your best everyday, and your best changes everyday?" What is this encouraging?
posted by yueliang at 7:38 PM on April 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

yueliang: What is this encouraging?

Just wait until you read the article, We feel more authentic when we’re with other people and we behave as they expect.
posted by clawsoon at 7:45 PM on April 5, 2017

clawsoon: I did read the article before I wrote the initial comment (I'm familiar with a lot of people not reading articles before commenting, but I try to not follow my trend as one of the ways that I do in my acts of "best self"), and it still was really strange and meaningless to me. I am generally my best self possible around others and even during difficult situations, but we also are encouraged to be vulnerable and authentic as well. I'm wondering what other people are seeing in this article that I'm not. It seems too vague and generalizing to be that helpful?

I mean, what does best self mean anyways, to people who are building senses of self like mine? When I talk about building my own self-esteem after a relationship ending, it's allowing me to form a sense of what a 'best self' is in the relationship to myself and others, and the relationships that I have, especially in the context of self-improvement. But I am learning it to do it with healthy boundaries. Perhaps I am the wrong person that they are addressing, or I am thinking too deeply about this, but there are many ways to be a 'best self' and those are all active decisions that I make on a daily basis.
posted by yueliang at 7:57 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Let's get the usual caveats out of the way: this is (by the authors' admission) a pilot study, carried out online using verbal prompts to elicit people's judgments. Any conclusions about whether people's feelings in genuine, real-world relationships conform to this pattern are therefore speculative. At most, it shows something about people's everyday notions concerning what produces greater relationship satisfaction for them.

Having said that, it rings absolutely true for me. The relationships that I have felt most committed to, most deeply emotionally involved in, and happiest about have been those in which my partner brought out the best version of me. Not that there's a unique such thing, but each person I've loved in that particularly intimate and attached way has transformed me in a way that was irreplicable, and that sense of elevation out of ordinary life--like being illuminated--is what was so precious about being with them.

And in large part it's what I mourn now that they're gone. On my bad days I feel like not much more than the staggering, half-alive wreckage of the person I remember being back then. I miss that guy; he was all right.
posted by informavore at 8:05 PM on April 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

yueliang: It's social psychology, so I don't take it too seriously. I was hoping you'd enjoy rolling your eyes at the second article.
posted by clawsoon at 8:06 PM on April 5, 2017

Yeah, the articles were vague in terms of what of any importance actually comes from "feelings of authenticity" in a relationship. I guess the point is on some level a slim one about how it might seem counterintuitive that people feel more "authentic" when they're inspired by a partner to live up to their own highest ideals than when they're technically being what they consider to be "themselves." But then what value that has in terms of fomenting a more passionate, stronger, longer-lasting, or otherwise better relationship, well, it's not really stated. The books I referenced do a much better job of connecting the dots on that from a clinical perspective.
posted by limeonaire at 8:10 PM on April 5, 2017

clawsoon: I've been reading AskMeFi breakup questions, so I'm definitely primed to be amped up and annoyed I have to admit, so I'm trying to figure out what my 'best self' is right now. Also, I think that might have went over my head, I believe you actually re-linked your FPP article in your second comment. But I did chuckle at your new comment :)

To be honest, this might be more productive if I write an AskMeFi post to figure out how to stop blaming myself for my relationship failure, because I feel I'm starting to increasingly personalize other people's unique experiences to == failure to do well enough in relationships. I'm interpreting this article as "Well, I guess I didn't do enough to bring out my partner's best, so no wonder why he dumped me!" which seems really toxic.
posted by yueliang at 8:10 PM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Okay I'm back like 10-15 minutes later, after talking nicely to myself and challenging my best self to give pissed off 7:57 pm me some nice encouragement.

It makes sense that that of course in a relationship, being your best self is going to be immensely rewarding for yourself and the relationship. The thing is, the idea of being a 'best self' is still so nebulous and takes for granted several skills and a type of self-awareness that people with anxiety, depression, and abuse histories really take a long time to learn. (Why is why I am grateful AskMeFi exists.)

When you put forth your full effort at all times and you feel really good and rewarded in it, that is really lovely. But I think the idea of a 'best self' needs to be very balanced with focusing on a sense of self, and giving to yourself first and being that best self for you first, to make yourself happy and good. And then being very loving towards that self.

I now wonder if I have conflated 'best self' with 'best partner' in my previous relationship, in focusing too much on the relationship itself, and that's why the article deeply annoys me, because it doesn't allow for the nuances of a self within a relationship unit and how that functions.

Perhaps the most crucial relationship lesson is to give to myself first, 1) ask myself if my actions are making me happy 2) If I see my best friend do this, would I have been happy, told them to change their tune, or given different advice? 3) Check in with myself and ask what I really need in the moment.

I realize now too, how many times I've been reinforced by the message around me, "People are just going to do what they do, let them be, that's who they are don't say anything unless they ask, because they won't respond to it well." But I realize that has been a pretty self-defeating paradigm that is really passive. Is there a way to balance authenticity with moving towards a best self, in a way that doesn't diminish someone's self worth and their reaction to relationships? How can we give encouragement and support and loving in a way that allows people to be perfectly imperfect but also going towards their best self? There has to be a form of encouragement that makes sense for this way.
posted by yueliang at 8:37 PM on April 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think there are two different dynamics that can bring about a feeling of being a "better self" with relationships, at least in my experience. One is in the feeling of growing possibilities when one enters in to a positive relationship, where one, by dint of feeling oneself as gaining something so desired, it can bring out actions and attitudes that correspond to this new found feeling of success, or positivity. If I can find or maybe if I deserve such a wonderful relationship with this person I value so highly, then I too must have great value so as to be a match for them. The attitude itself can therefore lead to developing a better self in the sense of feeling limitations one previously imagined for oneself slip away and in providing a higher base of expectation and pleasure from which to work from that helps reduce feelings of annoyance and inadequacy elsewhere in one's life since you have the optimism of seeing and being seen as a valued person in your life, which can make more negative encounters feel aberrant rather than the norm.

At the same time, if a relationship does turn sour, if that personal growth or vision of a better self doesn't coalesce into a relationship of mutual benefit and continued well being, then the opposite can occur where everything seems flawed, damaged or otherwise sour as well. Your base of experience, the area of greatest impact, carries over to all the other experiences you have. So friendships can become more challenging as you rely on them for things you aren't getting in your relationship, casual encounters can seem more negative as they reinforce views of declining self worth that comes from being in a place where one doesn't feel valued or perhaps see value. At that point the tension between staying in the relationship and leaving balances on how you are viewing the troubles in your relationship, where it is easy to hold oneself to blame since the ideal of a relationship can remain strong, making any decision to end it feel like greater failure than staying in a troubled one.

Once the break up happens though, a feeling of great relief and renewed sense of self and possibility can return as you are no longer burdened with the problems of a unhappy relationship or skewed expectation, where you might be trying to be a person you don't wish to be as a way to keep the relationship together. Losing that faulty image opens your life to what you've been suppressing in an attempt to please and can feel freeing, natural, and "real" in ways that were impossible living for someone who didn't match your own trajectory for growth. That too is a feeling of becoming a better self again and should also be encouraged. It's only in holding the notion of growth in and out of the relationship as individuals that I find people can develop longer lasting positivity in relationships> Looking solely at the relationship to make you better limits individual growth which needs to be continually brought back into the relationship from the outside for it to flourish as both partners can find new areas of interest and excitement to share and learn from.

Or that's how I see it anyway having been on both sides of the situation more than once, always looking for that elusive better me.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:00 PM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yueliang I'm really sorry to hear about your rough time and I'm glad you are building a better self esteem and feeling.

One way of thinking about this that you could find useful is to approach it as a kind of exercise in virtue ethics , in that it's not about doing a particular action or actions, but rather about the mindset we take when acting.

Indeed, in some cases the action may not change at all, but it allows one to cease being reactive; to consciously act, as it were.

Gosh, this all sounds very hippy. I guess for me it came down to me asking, "why am I doing what I'm doing?" Answering that question gave me confidence to stop, continue, or start something new depending - but it's the attitude change that I really value. I was in a pretty bad place this time last year, but externally not that much would appear to have changed for me. Internally, however, I feel like a lot has changed, and part of that lies in consciously choosing to act the way I want to act. Paradoxically, I've found this allows me to also be more forgiving of myself when I miss the mark.

In honesty, I feel like I could have had more support from my partner in dealing with this, however my relationship with her (and my children) was a significant motivator to be a better person, and the support I did receive from her was very helpful, too.
posted by smoke at 9:24 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

That's the holy grail, right? Acceptance from one's partner for who one is, yet subtle, almost ambient encouragement or inspiration to be one's best self by dint of who one is and how you relate to each other. To me, the point is that a baseline of acceptance has to exist—to even be in a relationship to begin with, you should believe and trust that your partner is doing their best at the time (regardless of whether they have the potential for more and aren't meeting it—that's immaterial) and that their best (or even their average, more realistically) as it stands meets your needs, and vice versa.

There's a notion that's been expressed to me of "try-hard." That is, ideally, just by dint of being who one is, one would provide inspiration—as well as safety and welcome—to one's partner to try hard to meet their own highest ideals or goals, to be the self they know they can be if they actually try. That's when it works. When it doesn't work is when the notion becomes one of striving, of setting some kind of bar in terms of ideals that your partner doesn't necessarily share, yet harboring expectations that they meet them. Encouraging someone to meet an ideal you know they can reach but that they have no desire to reach is one of the more stultifying things that can occur in a relationship. And it doesn't work if you know you have potential to do something but you force yourself to do it just to be the person you want your partner to believe you are, despite your true inclinations and regardless of their actual desires. The only way this works is if you each ideally have your own ideals and know yourselves well enough to know where you stand in relation to them, then find yourself both wanting to meet those ideals and in a place where you're safe and supported to meet them in the context of your relationship.

So to answer your question, yueliang, I think the key component that enables what we've described is safety—feeling fundamentally safe and accepted and able to explore and grow and adjust while remaining secure in one's relationship, and fostering the same for our partners. If we can't feel safe to share ourselves as we are, getting to that next level may not be possible. That doesn't mean we demand that our partners accept every darkest thing about us as it stands, no questions allowed—if we have real pathology or issues, it's our responsibility as partners to respectively work through that for ourselves and attempt to bring our best, most supportive selves to the relationship. Just like you say, yueliang, self-care and putting on one's own oxygen mask before trying to support a partner is a baseline behavior here. But that of course doesn't mean that one has to achieve or even attempt an impossible perfection to be in a relationship—that would preclude any of us with any kind of real human emotions, much less anyone with a mental illness, from entering into a relationship and finding mutual support with a partner. That's ridiculous. To me, one just has to be willing to try, and keep trying, even through the darkest times—and have a partner who makes giving, respect, and trying mutual.

There's also a notion, I think from John Gottman's books, about the importance of shared narrative in successful relationships. And that speaks to how one can feel empowered in a relationship to attempt being one's true or best self as well. Ideally, two partners, imagining the path into being together, can form something greater than themselves—a partnership where support and safety and acceptance are the baseline conditions that allow both partners to become greater.

Given some of my own recent AskMe answers, you may want to take that idealism with a grain of salt—a strong narrative can also, unfortunately, blind us to harsh realities in our relationships. I guess that's another takeaway as well. Being a good partner doesn't always mean that we unquestioningly accept our partner's behavior—nor does it mean that they unquestioningly accept our behavior. Separating the act from the actor is kind of important, just as separating sin from sinner is an important notion in religious contexts. We can love and accept our partners as they are and still be well within our rights in a relationship to ask for and receive better behavior or treatment. And just the same, love is not enough—it needs to be backed up by a real willingness to own our respective contributions to the relationship, to own our feelings, our actions, and their consequences, and to do the sometimes hard work necessary to understand and support each other. Hard work in and of itself isn't enough either—and no amount of hard work will make up for missing chemistry or unsafe conditions (even just a lack of safety with regard to sharing one's emotions) in a relationship. But again, the will to do that work if necessary has to be there.

A dear friend used to have this in her email signature for years: "Hard work always beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." One can be totally talented in all the loving arts and still fall far short in terms of fomenting a safe, accepting environment where one's partner can soar and become their highest self. That's where the hard work of introspection, self-awareness, and respect for one's partner comes into play.
posted by limeonaire at 9:33 PM on April 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

The problem in addressing this issue also might come from the difficulty in even finding the words to locate the ideas of self being sought or appraised. To speak of an "actual self" versus an "ideal self" is inherently tricky as once one achieves something more "ideal" it becomes the new actuality.

I think one way to approach the thought is to perhaps think of "actual" as static self and "ideal" more as growing self that, at least internally, has no fixed end determination. The ideal, in that sense, is one of continued growth rather than seeing oneself as being limited or able to be defined in an absolute manner.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:57 PM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'll admit I haven't read the article yet, but I'm taking it as a given that whether or not a partner helps you find your "best self" depends on whether or not the partner is themselves a good partner for you. Because I can think of a couple relationships where that was the case - and a couple where it was not.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:29 AM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks to the article, I will endeavor to be not just a failure, but the most amazing failure ever.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:21 AM on April 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

EmpressCallipygos: I'll admit I haven't read the article yet, but I'm taking it as a given that whether or not a partner helps you find your "best self" depends on whether or not the partner is themselves a good partner for you. Because I can think of a couple relationships where that was the case - and a couple where it was not.

Aye. As philosopher Louis Armstrong proposed, it takes two to tango.
posted by clawsoon at 5:25 AM on April 6, 2017

This reminds me of my favourite Kurt Vonnegut Jr. quotation: "Pretend to be good always, and even God will be fooled."
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 6:44 AM on April 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Of course, both partners need to be on this "best self" trajectory. I can think of relationships where I've put myself forth as being on my best self trajectory, basically trying to fake it 'til I make it, and the other partner did everything they could to tear my good feelings down because they didn't feel good about themselves and could not buy into the idea of trying to be their best self.

Or, to put it another way, I guess we weren't really partners.
posted by vignettist at 8:36 AM on April 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Initially when I read this I felt a weird dissonance between these ideas and that old adage that "you can't change a person in a relationship." I think maybe people take the latter to mean "you picked me, and you can't change me, so therefore anything I choose to do should be acceptable to you." Rather than strive for some ideal, it's a race to the bottom. A better interpretation might be "others can't force you to change against your will, but they can support you in your own efforts to self-improve."

This study also explains the wisdom that you should always try to see the best in people you're in relationships with, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if they don't always deserve it (and let's be real, neither do you), if you keep your relationship on that higher level, it's going to lead to better outcomes (assuming the relationship lasts) than if you're keeping tallies and finding faults.
posted by mantecol at 8:38 AM on April 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

Initially when I read this I felt a weird dissonance between these ideas and that old adage that "you can't change a person in a relationship."

But most people are "really" a range of people. You're not going to fix an asshole or an abuser with the Power of Your Love, but those are the outliers.

Weirdly, I have felt this the most strongly with not human relationships, but dogs. I am infinitely more patient and compassionate with dogs than with people. I am frequently trying to figure out how to transfer that over to human relationships. It's tricky, because one of the reasons I can be so kind with dogs is that I know they don't act out of malice or obnoxiousness and that they actually have only limited control over their reactions to events. Which is not true of humans.
posted by praemunire at 9:29 AM on April 6, 2017

"dogs...actually have only limited control over their reactions to events. Which is not true of humans."

In my view, understanding that this is true of humans is the essence -- or at least the starting point -- of compassion and forgiveness.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 8:35 PM on April 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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