On the night I made the mistake, I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. I was clueless. Even arrogant. Within five or six years, though, I had grown enough — and learned enough about myself — that I had to apologize to someone for that night.
It was about 15 years ago. I was getting to know a woman who I’d recently met. We would go on to date seriously and almost marry. But on that night, we were still getting to know each other. She had graduated from college with an education degree and was about to start teaching. But I thought she was too smart and too capable for teaching school.
I don’t remember how I worded it, but I let her know that I thought she would be wasting herself if that’s what she did with her life. I let her know that she was capable of far more than that — and I subtly made it clear that I would prefer she did something more “impressive.”
I was more concerned that night with what I wanted her to be than with what she wanted. My mind was focused on how her choice would reflect on me. I was blind to my error at the time, but I’m ashamed of it now.
Fast forward about five or six years. It was during a time when I went through a lot of serious therapy with a good psychologist. I’ve talked before about how much painful change I went through at the time. It was when I first learned about narcissistic personality disorder and how my father’s narcissism had shaped me.
Learning about his narcissism had suddenly made my childhood make sense, but then it did something far more painful. It had forced me to see how close I had come to becoming just like him — and I had to look at the ways in which some of my behaviors had been unhealthy, too.
As I spent time reflecting on a lot of things I had done in the past — and reinterpreting them through the lens of my new understanding — I saw a lot of mistakes I’d made. And they were all mistakes which I hadn’t even recognized as errors when I made them.
I eventually reminded that woman of the conversation we had had — a few years after we broke up — and I apologized to her for it. She confessed that she had been hurt at the time, because it had made her feel that she wasn’t good enough for me.
I was reminded of that painful mistake this past week because I read something from the Enneagram Institute regarding one of the common failings of someone with my Enneagram Type 1 personality:
“When you relate to others from your Social Role as ‘the Teacher’ or ‘the Educator,’ you believe you must instill wisdom in the ignorant, uplift the fallen, and show others how to do something useful and productive with their lives,” the instructor had written. “Can you relate to others more authentically in the moment?”
The words were intended to be helpful, but they burned. They stung.
I’m far better than I used to be, but it’s still too easy for me to unconsciously slip into that role — when I need to teach others what they should do with their lives and how they should live. And it’s easy for me to use manipulation to try to get people to do what I want them to do.
I still hate that about myself.
When I had that conversation 15 years ago and made this woman feel lousy about herself, I was trying to mold her into someone who would be suitable for me. I’ve finally learned to take an entirely different approach — by asking the other person a question.
“Who do you really want to be?”
There are a thousand different ways to ask that. There are a million potential answers. A person’s answers will change constantly as he or she changes. But at any given point, there will be some honest answer — and if I can’t support a woman’s desire to become who she wants to be, she doesn’t need me in her life.
There will be people who want to become things which I don’t really like or agree with. In the case of a partner, I can either accept her desires for herself or I can choose to look for someone else. Manipulating her into making my preferred choice will always be toxic.
If a woman wants to be something which isn’t consistent with what I want, there’s nothing wrong in not choosing her. But if I want to choose a woman, it’s my responsibility to accept what she wants for herself.
Two emotionally healthy people in a long-term relationship are open and honest about the things they want. Each is concerned about the partner’s needs and wants. Each is the biggest cheerleader for the other.
An emotionally healthy couple walk together — as real partners who accept each other. People in toxic relationships are more concerned with how the other partner reflects on them, just as I was on that night when I was getting to know someone 15 years ago.
Do you know who you want to be? Do you have a partner who understands that? Do you have a partner who supports you and loves you through your efforts? If your partner isn’t living up to that, something has gone seriously wrong in your relationship.
There’s no shame in two people deciding they want different things and not choosing one another. Honestly, most couples I observe never seem to have been right for one another. But if two people do choose to love each other and become partners, they owe it to themselves — and to the relationship — to be supportive.
If somebody hasn’t asked you who you want to be — and then found loving ways to be supportive of you — you might be with someone who is just as emotionally lost and unhealthy as I was 15 years ago. And you deserve better than that.