There is a poem written by Oriah Mountain Dreamer titled The Invitation. In it she expresses her desire for something more between herself and the world. The poem has spread across the internet and literally around the world. I’ve provided a copy of the poem for your convenience and consideration.
In her book by the same name, Oriah writes, “The Invitation” is a declaration of intent, a map into the longing of the soul, the desire to live passionately, face-to-face with ourselves and skin-to-skin with the world around us, to settle for nothing less than what is real” (The Invitation*, 1999, p. 5). She goes on to acknowledge that while the heart may feel the urge to accept and say, “Yes!” to The Invitation, the desire “…is not the same thing as actually making the journey” (p. 5). To live deeply engaged in the world requires, among other things, a willingness to take risks, to live with fear–but not let it stop us, to bear grief and sorrows alone and with others, to face anger, to delight in joys: In other words, to live aware of all our feelings, not to hide from them.
Oriah writes eloquently about what she wants to invite from others and, by implication, what she expects of herself. There are many things, though, that can get in the way of living out such intent. I’d like to address one aspect of that.
Even though we may have the best of intentions, we may unconsciously give off signals to others that contradict our desire to “choose life” and live fully. We may unknowingly communicate to others through our unconscious behaviors and habitual ways of doing things exactly the opposite of what we profess to want in our enduring relationships and day-to-day interactions with others. This occurs because our motivations for doing things are rarely pure. They are usually a mixture of our psychological defenses and our conscious goals, objectives, dreams and desires. While our psychological defenses are “designed” primarily to keep us feeling safe, our desires often lead us down paths that are filled with risk, anxiety and the potential for as much pain as pleasure, as much loss as gain. Our decisions and behaviors, then, are a combination of strategies to help us feel safe, on the one hand, and to pursue goals, etc, on the other.
We form our fundamental “conclusions” about ourselves, about others and our relationships to the world and people around us quite early in life. These coalesce to form an important foundation of what we call our personality or character and lead to habitual patterns of behavior. Most personality theorists suggest that our personality is essentially formed by late childhood, though aspects of it, in particular our character, may continue to develop throughout life. For ease of discussion in this article, I’ll use the terms personality and character interchangeably to refer to “our characteristic ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that are consistent over time and across various situations.”
Personality development occurs by the ongoing interaction of temperament (genetically determined traits), character (learned patterns), and environment (adaptations to our unique circumstances). It is important to remember that this is an unconscious process: We don’t chose our personalities from a list available to us in childhood. Once formed, personality tends to be very stable. When we think of the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive identity, when we recognize or remember who that person “really is,” we are identifying the essential or the essence of their character, that which makes her “who she is.” We expect this to be the same over time with others, friend or foe, so we are not continually surprised by who they are. We say we “know” our friends when we can predict what they’ll think, how they’ll feel, what kind of presents they will like, and so on.
For most people most of the time our defenses work sufficiently well so that we are able to contain, or hide, the “unacceptable” parts of our personality and show the world our acceptable “public self.” For example, most people with a mild to moderate degree of chronic anxiety lead productive lives and others generally wouldn’t guess they are suffering silently, and sometimes severely, on the inside. Individuals who live, for example, with a feeling that they are “not good enough,” or “flawed” in some fundamental way, or who carry some irrational guilt about the past still form friendships and hold jobs, but they may be plagued with worry that people will reject or abandon them if their secret is discovered.
So what does this have to do with what we invite from others? Most of us have heard of the self-fulfilling prophecy and accept its validity to some degree. Have you ever wondered, though, how this actually works? How does what we expect to happen influence what literally happens? And in our interpersonal relationships, how does the way we feel about ourselves, the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and the way we present ourselves influence the way others respond to us? In other words, what do we really “invite” from others?
It is usually easier to observe in others how the various ways they behave, their moods and attitudes, their “vibe,” has an impact on the way others respond to them over time. We sometimes excuse a friend’s or colleague’s occasional irritating or boorish behavior with an understanding, “He’s just having a bad day.” But the colleague who is too often rude or bad-mannered eventually runs the risk of alienating others permanently and we are not likely to chose or keep such a person as a friend.
It is generally harder to identify our own characteristic patterns and how these influence the ways people respond to us. If you stop to think about yourself for a bit, you may be able to identify, for example, that you tend to be a “fixer,” or that you tend to “focus on others’ happiness more than your own.” You may “see” that you present yourself as “ultra capable” or, conversely, as someone who is “indecisive and rarely expresses a strong opinion.” There are many patterns that will be identifiable if you take time to consider how you typically behave and how people respond to you in your own many relationships. Or you might think about friends and try to identify how they “characteristically” act in their relationships and how you respond to their various personalities.
Remember, these patterns are neither good nor bad. They are ways that we learned to “be” in the world and they “worked” to help us get along, thrive, cope, or survive in the circumstances we grew up in. I sometimes ask patients to stand up and assume a posture, including arm gestures and facial expressions, that symbolizes their “approach” to the world or “stance” in the world. By involving their bodies and noting areas of tension, placement of arms and legs, etc. they are often able to quickly “see” things that are difficult to identify when we are sitting and talking.
These patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving become so firmly established precisely because they worked better than any other pattern to help us feel safe, secure, attached and accepted when we were young. Our psychological defenses are usually incorporated into these personality patterns quite fluidly and seamlessly and help us negotiate the stresses of life quite effectively, but they exert a cost.
Each of these patterns is likely to elicit rather predictable behavioral responses from others. For example, the “fixer” may “invite” others to come with their problems and requests for help, the “ultra capable” person may invite dependence from others and foster an attitude of “let’s ask him/her to do it, they’re so good at it.” The “indecisive” presentation may “invite” others to ignore or marginalize. The skills of being a talented problem solver, a competent worker, or being able to withhold one’s opinion judiciously are wonderful, but if the skill becomes a dominant pattern that characterizes a person’s interactions over time and across situations, it will limit our capacity to choose, our flexibility, and possibly even our freedom in life.
It has been said that the strongest prisons are the ones we build for ourselves. While our defenses are designed to help us feel safe and “in control,” their very effectiveness cuts us off from feelings that make us too uncomfortable, behaviors that feel “out of the box” even if they are not for most of our friends, and ways of thinking that can seem dangerous or feel like “breaking the rules.” We may say that we want to live “more fully,” we want to be more alive and engaged with others, or we want more satisfaction and intimacy in our relationships. Many have experienced the frustrations involved in making the changes required for this to happen. We find ourselves repeating the “same old song” time after time.
The good news about all this, though, is that we are capable of changing, even our basic personality patterns. We don’t have to change everything about our personality in order to alter some of the patterns that keep us locked into unproductive behaviors and unsatisfactory relationships. It is not easy to make such fundamental changes, but it is possible. We are not just prisoners to our history, our genetics, or our learning. It is possible to identify our own characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving and to learn how these “invite” certain responses from others.
The “ultra-capable” individual, for example, may truly enjoy his or her competencies and the inherent thrill of doing something well. Beneath this layer, though, she or he may harbor the thought and fear, that others “will not accept me if I’m less than outstanding.” There is also the risk that he or she may develop an unspoken, or even unacknowledged, resentment from always “having” to work so hard to do things “just right.” It takes courage to risk challenging these deeper fears and conclusions and actually behave differently, i.e. less perfectly, not incompetently, but it is the only way to truly find out that our worst fears usually don’t materialize. There are many small, but necessary steps on the road to developing a new, more satisfying way of being in the world.
Just as it is impossible to see the outline of the forest when we are standing on the ground surrounded by tall trees, it can be maddeningly difficult to identify our own unconscious patterns without occasional help. If you try this type of change on your own and get stuck, don’t give up. Invite a friend, spouse, or life partner to make this journey with you. If you prefer not to start this type of change with someone you know, ask a professional for help. A spiritual advisor, psychotherapist or other professional may be able to provide the help and support you need to identify and successfully complete this type of change.
This approach requires that we take an attitude of observation and acceptance, not analyzing and criticizing. Remember, we developed our character attitudes and behaviors unconsciously for the most part. If we can accept that we did so to help ourselves feel safer and accepted, there is less chance we will condemn ourselves for behaving “so stupidly” or some other such criticism. Because so many people feel like they are not good enough, this is no small undertaking. It is worth the effort, though, if we want to respond to The Invitation.
*Mountain Dreamer, Oriah. The Invitation. HarperONE: San Francisco. 1999.