How can we expect anyone to love us if we don't stay true to ourselves?
Often, we pretend to be someone we're not in order to gain the approval we crave from the people we like. We stifle our humanity—our real reactions and human feelings—for their love or acceptance. More often than not, this ends up backfiring. It sure backfired on me during a transitional time in my life.
I was forty-four years old and divorced after 26 years of marriage. It was Valentine's Day and I just agreed to marry a wonderful man named Ed. His two children were not happy about the news of our engagement.
"Congratulations. That's fine, just don't expect me to come to the wedding," his 11-year-old son, Michael, said. His reaction was an unpleasant surprise to his father and myself. In an effort to win his affection, I had been so sweet to this difficult child. I smiled all the time. I smiled so much that my face hurt! In the months that we spent time with him, I ignored certain behaviors that had me seething because I thought that he would warm up to me by letting him get away with it. I was being phony, trying to placate him and losing sight of who I was, while trying to mesh my life with this new family.
All my pretending wasn't working to change his mind about me. One day, Michael called to tell me he had purposefully declined a ride home from an arcade, thinking instead that I would come and pick him up so he could stay longer. It was already quite late in the evening, and by the time I would have gone, picked him up and brought him home, it would be well after midnight. He was well aware that I had to get up at 4am the next morning to give a sermon at church.
At this point I was so tired and grouchy that for the first time in months I couldn't contain my feelings. I let him know exactly what I thought of his inconsiderate attitude. "How could you?" I demanded. "You know what time I have to get up in the morning. Were you only thinking of yourself?"
Taken aback, he asked, "Who are you and what have you done with Mary?" He never saw me lose my temper. The Mary he knew was too good to be true and, in fact, he was right. All those months, I was pretending to be someone I wasn't with him. To make him like me I turned myself into what I thought Michael needed: Mother Nice. And now it was all unraveling.
On the drive to pick him up, I had to ask myself who I was and who I wanted to be with Michael. Did I want to continue pretending to be someone I thought he wanted? Or did I want to have a genuine and authentic relationship with him? When he got in the car, I told him I'd been trying so hard to make him like me that I hadn't been very real. I apologized for not letting him know when I was upset in the past, and that I would be up front with him in the future. I wanted him to be free to be real with me, too. This didn't change our relationship overnight, but it was a turning point.
The first Christmas we spent as a new family, Michael came up to me with his arms behind his back and said, "I have a Christmas gift for you. I want to start calling you Mom." That wouldn't have happened if I kept up the pretense of being Mother Nice. You cannot fake a relationship and feel right with yourself or anyone else. Changing yourself to fit what you think other people want doesn't work. Pretending to be someone other than who you are only broadens the distance between yourself and the person you're trying to establish closeness with.
Getting grouchy, losing patience or calling someone out on inappropriate behavior are all part of our human experience. I deeply wanted to love Michael and wanted him to love me, but he sometimes behaved in ways I didn't like. If I couldn't even share that truth with him, what chance did we have? We cannot pretend our way into a great relationship. I could not pretend to be an unflappable, all-forgiving saint and earn my stepson's genuine affection. I only became "Mom" by being me: a person who loves deeply and lets her human foibles show.
How to Improve Any Relationship With One Question
Getting over feeling scared or ashamed of our true selves isn't easy. Just as a person using an alias must constantly look over his shoulder for fear of being identified, we never experience freedom until we own up to who we really are.
Here's how to improve any relationship—whether with a romantic partner, a new friend, a coworker or a spouse—with just one question.
The next time you see or speak with that person, pause, take a deep breath and ask yourself, "What would Love do here?" And then listen. An idea will come to you, or perhaps a more compassionate feeling will arise. Then, act on that feeling.
Your rational mind may argue that this individual doesn't deserve your love. Your ego may protest, but this exercise is not about the other person. It's about discovering your own identity. At your core, you are not spiteful, manipulative or inadequate. You are a child of God, the essence of Love. The more you practice being authentically loving, the more your true identity will be revealed.