We are obsessed with working out who we are.
The fascination with all the personality tests, from Myers Briggs to Strengthfinders, only furthers this pursuit of a greater awareness of our identity. The more helpful models, including the Enneagram, seem to point us towards gaining greater wholeness and maturity in and of themselves, and wise guides of these tools call for us to access the skills from the personality types that we are not, when that is what love requires.
While we can, by and large, identify with particular personality descriptors, there are other aspects which fluctuate more, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Even considering a single day, the range of emotions, feelings, thoughts and capacities we have, are extensive. Tiredness, hormones, hunger, stress and other demands impact us, and the ever-changing nature of our circumstances makes it genuinely difficult to locate any other answer than ‘I’m fine’ to most questions about how we really are.
We are a mystery to ourselves most of the time, let alone to other people. For those suffering with mental unwellness, that mystery may be even more profound to experience; it may also communicate itself as distance or an unknown-ness towards those who love them. Human beings are fascinating and mysterious - constantly challenging expectations and assumptions - and that is the beauty of being alive!
But we can come into real danger when we start narrowing our language into polarities.
While some people manage to nuance their language and outlook, many of us default to very ‘black and white’ language to describe who we are and how we are. Our culture loves to box and label us, categorising and therefore limiting the potential and variation that is essential to being human. And it gets into our heads.
We are strong or weak; popular or lonely; successful or a failure; clever or stupid; competent or incompetent; got it together or falling apart. Our society loves to prescribe us as one or the other, and rarely ever can generously embrace both.
What I’ve come to realise for myself is that I am often both, and sometimes at the same time! I am strong, and also vulnerable. I experience the warmth of deep friendship and the ice-cold reality of aloneness. I am successful, and routinely fail. I have much to offer and very little. I can handle what today brings and am a few disasters away at any given time from not handling it at all.
It is often a shock when ‘strong’ people are crushed by life to expose their ‘weakness.’ It is a shock when people who seem to have it all together then don’t. And whilst I think its always best to strive for wholeness, maturity and right living, perhaps we could be a little more embracing of the fact that most of us oscillate between the two poles we construct for ourselves on various things.
One of the hardest things about mental ill health in a marriage is owning and admitting to it; it can feel like the presence of mental unwellness automatically means that the marriage itself is not ok (and that might be the case, but not necessarily!). So often I have spoken to people who, in the middle of sharing about their loved-one’s mental unwellness, need to – in the same breath - reassert their other positive attributes. I totally understand the loving desire to construct a fair picture, but it gently highlights an assumption that in revealing a ‘weakness,’ I would then be blinded to their loved-one’s co-existent ‘strengths.’
For sufferers of mental health illnesses, I am aware that this can be a constant feeling of frustration and fear, that they will be written off as the sum of their illness rather than being embraced as the whole person that they are.
Assumption is usually dangerous, and a nightmare for relationships. But it also boxes someone in in our minds as the sum of our expectations. Let us be careful that, whatever end of the polarity someone moves towards, that we give them freedom of movement in our minds and relationships.
In the words of an old song: ‘grace means a little more freedom, love means room to breathe.'