Human beings are social creatures. Sure, we value our possessions and our achievements but of all the things we value it is our relationships we cherish most. Meaningful intimate relationships give our lives meaning and bring us happiness like nothing else can. Unfortunately, problems in our interpersonal relationships can wreak havoc on our lives and bring us untold misery and suffering.
Everyone has had some sort of interpersonal conflict over the course of their lives. Some of us, however, have more difficulty with intimate relationships than others. Maybe we have trouble choosing the right people to trust. Perhaps we keep repeating the same mistakes in our relationships time after time. How do we get past the barriers that are preventing us from having fulfilling relationships? Ironically, we have to start with ourselves.
Intimacy occurs in a relationship when two people are able to be fully present with one another. The ability to be fully present with another person, however, requires the capacity to be fully present with yourself. In other words, in order to develop intimacy with another person you have to learn to be intimate with yourself. Self-intimacy means feeling connected to all parts of yourself and the full range of your experiences. To be self-intimate is to accept all parts of yourself, even those that you dislike or that make you feel uncomfortable, ashamed, or vulnerable.
Denying certain aspects of yourself or certain segments of your experience results in self-alienation or self estrangement. Terry Cooper (http://www.ptypes.com/) describes self-estrangement as the process of "gradually becom[ing] a stranger to ourselves." The more self-alienated we become, the less attuned we are to our real wants, needs, hopes, and dreams. It becomes increasingly more difficult for a self-estranged person to find real joy in life. Over time, life starts to lose meaning. This is a natural consequence of losing touch with our innermost desires; we no longer have any idea what might bring us a sense of purpose, meaning, or fulfillment. To be self-alienated is to be perpetually dissatisfied. You reach a point where you are so far removed from your real self that you no longer know what makes you happy.
And of course, self-estrangement causes problems in interpersonal relationships. People who lack self-intimacy find it uncomfortable to establish intimacy with others. They have denied whatever aspects of themselves they don't like and have hidden them outside of their conscious awareness. It is far more difficult, however, to hide these aspects from a person who knows us intimately. So in order to keep these parts hidden we erect barriers to keep people from getting too close. Or perhaps the disowned parts of ourselves interfere with the development of intimacy. Take, for example, a woman who is excessively jealous and controlling. When her boyfriend confronts her about these behaviors she denies that they are a problem and blames her boyfriend for not making her feel more secure. Or a man might be unwilling to share his feelings with his wife. When she tries to get him to be more open he gets angry and defensive and accuses her of nagging.
If a person is unable to accept and tolerate a given aspect of himself then he will probably react poorly when someone else exhibits that same quality. For example, a person who is not comfortable expressing anger might shut down when his partner becomes angry at him.
The key to developing satisfying intimate relationships with other people is to develop a satisfying intimate relationship with yourself. As with so many of the important things in life the way to do this is through mindful acceptance. Accept whatever part of yourself emerges in a given moment; pay attention to it without trying to push it away. As these moments of mindfulness accumulate you will come to know and love yourself.