I’ve recently become a bit bitter about self-improvement. Or at least, about that part of it that positions “positive behavior change” as the central part of personal growth.
Habit building, morning routines, setting and achieving meaningful goals — all of these certainly have their place. But after five years of what I consider my deliberate “self-improvement journey,” I’m coming out with a powerful realization.
I have been in a lot of places during this time, both physically and mentally. I traveled, lived in the French Alps, Scotland, and different places in Poland — including my parents’ house. I worked various jobs and finally ended up as a freelance writer (for now).
Meanwhile, I tried to see all of that transient experience as raw material for personal growth and learning about myself. I read and wrote a lot of self-help content, practiced mindfulness, and also tried to “optimize” my life for success.
However, the most meaningful change I experienced during this time isn’t about becoming more productive, better at writing, or a more organized learner. It doesn’t have much to do with being able to intentionally structure my days, or understanding how to “boost my creativity.” Sure, those things have been helpful. But they’re bonuses — not the point of the journey.
The deepest change that occurred over that time is that I established a reliable channel of communication with myself. I created the type of self-relationship that I can rely on in both good and bad times.
This doesn’t mean that I’m always kind to myself or that I prioritize self-care without fail. Relationship with self is a rather intangible inner experience. It’s the most reliable source of support I have but at the same time, it’s so intimate and personal that writing about it feels almost impossible.
But in this article, I’ll try. I’d like to show you what may be possible when you become aware of how you relate to yourself.
What Is a Relationship, Anyway?
Let’s start with the basics. Before we dive into what it takes to have a conscious relationship with ourselves, we should first ask: what does it take to have a relationship with another human?
We meet a lot of people in our lives, but we don’t have a relationship with all of them. Some of them are one-off encounters — for example, talking to a fellow traveler on a train. Others, we call acquaintances — people orbiting around our lives of whose existence we know, but don’t interact often enough to call it a relationship. Think a high school friend you never speak to but who “likes” your Instagram posts once in a while.
The Cambridge Dictionary gives a very simple definition of a relationship, which applies to anything, not just humans. It’s “the way in which two things are connected.” The Collins Dictionary gives an explanation that’s a bit more specific: “The relationship between two people or groups is the way in which they feel and behave towards each other.”
We could go through countless phrases through which smart people tried to express the essence of a relationship. Most (if not all) of those definitions include this common denominator:
Duration through time.
To have a relationship with someone, you need to have memories of what happened between you and that person in the past — as well as an idea about what the future of it might look like. Because of that, you’re able to see relationships as living entities. There’s you, there’s your partner or colleague — and, there’s the relationship between the two of you.
Even though relationships are fluid, we (more or less consciously) attribute certain qualities to them. We may perceive them as “spaces” that we enter whenever we’re with that specific person. Those spaces can be tender, safe, exciting — as well as threatening, uncomfortable, unclear.
A relationship usually also involves expectations. I’m using this word with no negative connotation, only to point to another counterpart of relationships. Typically, this means having some kind of an idea of what might happen between you and the other person. In this case, expectations are the foundation of trust.
For example, you wouldn’t expect your partner to push you through the window in the middle of a fight. If you did, you probably wouldn’t choose to be with them. Your expectation of what could and couldn’t happen between the two of you has to be tolerable to you.
Then, if those expectations are more or less aligned with reality, that makes a relationship durable.
What a Relationship With Yourself Consists Of
A relationship with yourself includes elements analogical to relationships with others. The difference is, you are on both the receiving and giving end of the relationship. You are relating to yourself — it’s at the same time meta, profound, and a bit absurd.
Everyone already has a relationship with themselves, whether they want it or not. What we’ll talk about below is how to make that relationship a conscious one — i.e. become aware of the ongoing inner experience of self-talk, expectations, and attitudes towards yourself.
Just like in relationships with others, you’ll have three main “building blocks” here.
1. Duration through time
Otherwise known as consistency. Just like a friendship with someone else can’t be founded on one or two occasional coffee dates, the relationship with yourself also needs tending to. This means you “check-in with yourself” often enough to have a continuous experience of knowing what’s going on in your inner world.
A lot of people have had one-off “experiences with themselves” — an inside joke with themselves, a moment of awe during a mountain hike, a sudden realization of why their marriage isn’t working… Those are often powerful insights but, on their own, they don’t grant you a conscious self-relationship. Only when you can catch enough of those moments through time and tie them together into a coherent whole — that’s when you’re consciously relating to yourself.
2. The “vibe” you give yourself
Excuse the word “vibe” here — I don’t mean any “out-there” experiences with it. The second element of a conscious self-relationship is about being aware of your internal attitude towards yourself and your experience. It’s connected to how much compassion you have for yourself.
I look at it this way: there are two levels of inner experience. The primary level is that which happens involuntarily, as a direct response to the outer world. For example, you might see your partner talking to an attractive barista and feel jealous. There’s not much you can do about it — it’s just a spontaneous emotion.
The secondary level of experience is about how you’re going to receive the primary one. It’s either the self-talk that fires off in response to the primary experience — or another emotion that breeds upon the primary feeling.
In the situation with the barista, your secondary response may be feeling ashamed and criticizing yourself for being jealous in the first place. “Really, are you so insecure to care about something like that?!” — could be a self-critical thought you have in that moment.
A conscious relationship with yourself asks you to be aware of both the primary and secondary levels of experience. Notice that the experience doesn’t have to look in a certain way — i.e. you don’t need to always be kind to yourself for the self-relationship to exist. What’s important is that you know what’s going on in your mind.
When you do, this supports the third component of a conscious relationship with yourself.
3. Realistic expectations
The previous two elements combined already constitute solid self-knowledge. When you consistently observe your internal responses to all kinds of everyday situations — your spouse joking with a colleague, your kids being rude to each other, yourself failing or succeeding at what you attempted — you collect a lot of data points about yourself.
From there, you’re able to form realistic expectations about how you might handle specific situations in the future.
This grounds you in yourself and creates a sense of self-trust. Because you’re better at assessing what may trigger difficult emotions — and, conversely, what will bring you pleasure and fulfillment — you’re better at managing your life. You become more resourceful when it comes to facing challenges because you understand exactly what you need to cope.
You also have more fun because you let go of the idea of what “should” be fun for you — and focus on the things that you actually enjoy doing. For example, you may opt out of a dinner party with certain friends because you’ve noticed how bored and restrained you usually feel there. Instead, you can consciously choose an activity that you know will help you feel relaxed — going on a nature walk, drawing, or baking a pie.
A Conscious Relationship With Yourself Is a Starting Point to Self-Love
A lot of people advocate for self-love as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And maybe, in a utopian society, it is. Maybe it should be.
But in the society where you and I have been brought up, that’s rarely so straightforward. To love yourself unconditionally, you first need to grasp that all the “faults” you perceive in yourself aren’t really your fault. Usually, they’re just a by-product of the way you’ve been conditioned.
When you feel angry for seemingly no reason, it’s not because you’re a bad person. More likely, it’s a reflection of your past experience. The same goes for jealousy, laziness, sluggishness, and all the other feelings that stop you from loving yourself.
To really see this for yourself requires a high level of self-awareness — or, a conscious relationship with yourself. That’s what self-awareness is, in a nutshell: an ongoing awareness of the self and of how you behave towards it.
Becoming more conscious of these factors—of the self—gives you a better basis for deciding if something about yourself needs to change… or not.
What is your relationship with yourself like? Did you notice it evolving over the past months or years? What have you noticed? What kind of self-relationship do you aspire to?
I’m so curious about your perspective — please share it in the comments!