The Thrill of Being “Mistaken!”
Growth Orientation in Relational Life: Turning “Relationship Mistakes” into Relational Progress!
An article originally published in the October 2011 NC-IEA Bulletin
Ronna Phifer-Ritchie, Ph.D.
“Spiritual enlightenment always involves finding out you were wrong about something.” (Werner Erhard)
An audience member came up to me after a women’s retreat I recently facilitated and tearfully exclaimed “I loved your workshop; doing those exercises with real people made me so uncomfortable!” I got such a kick out of how she tied those two statements together with such deep enthusiasm. We laughed together about the never-ending human journey of learning to respect, and even love, that kind of relational discomfort that signals us that we are at the edge of our personality’s comfort zone and on the brink of spiritual enlightenment. We agreed that, while real interpersonal connections were one of the richest sources for this brand of soul-expanding discomfort, riding that wave of the challenging relational moment all the way into important psychological and spiritual shifts was by no means automatic for most of us. Those moments of real Presence with another change us; but immediately before they change us, they provide us with something we have to develop a psycho-spiritual taste for: the discomfort of finding out that we could be mistaken about something.
When a relational encounter begins to challenge our ego’s assumptions and sense of being “right,” it takes consciousness to stay in the “open, accepting, and curious” triad of relational health identified by neurobiology of relationships expert, Daniel Siegel (Mindsight, 2010 ). Interestingly, in the Enneagram Institute Relationship Workshop (Don Riso & Russ Hudson), we engage our students in an ongoing conversation about these same three general aspects of relating well, just with different terminology. Staying present in the “body” (open to what is actually happening), in the “heart” (accepting and compassionate towards self and others), and in the “mind” (curious and non-judgmental) unlocks the potential of the I-Thou experience. Yet our personality spends a lot of energy mapping escape routes from that very potential. Truthfully, our ego has a point! Without some wise reframing from a higher perspective, our personal history is often not the best argument for moving toward relational discomfort. But if we avoid all relational discomfort, we avoid the psycho-spiritual growth crucible that only relationships can offer, and we miss out on one of the most potentially thrilling and transformative adventures of life. (Note: While there is not the page space to discuss the role of good boundaries in this relational growth crucible, it is important to point out here that they are an essential part of, and not a block to, this adventure.)
A big part of the reason we avoid this adventure is that we are frequently trained away from appreciating our own relational mistakes for the profound and reliable teachers they are. Stanford success researcher, Carol Dweck (Mindset, 2006), noticed that intimate relationships flourish when people get comfortable with one of the most valuable and reliable perks of participating in the relational field: the spotlighting of one’s possibly mistaken assumptions. When we learn to enjoy the thrill of the “Hmmmm,-I-might-be-mistaken-about…..” moment and respect its potential, we move into a kind of personalized curriculum for interpersonal genius. Dweck’s highly respected study on what she calls “the growth mindset” demonstrates that academic, professional, and relational success are universally tied to moving out of a performance orientation, and learning to normalize mistakes and enjoy challenges as the path to a great life.
Granted, Dweck’s findings only address one leg of Siegel’s relational health triad, “curiosity,” what Enneagram scholars would identify as “Head Center” work. A growth mindset helps people question assumptions regarding what it means, ultimately, to be “mistaken” about something, and encourages them to cash in on the growth opportunities at hand. However, relaxing physical tensions (“Body Center” work) and making contact with authentic feelings (“Heart Center” work) are always involved in making room in the mind for new perspectives.
One essential perspective shift for improving interpersonal life is learning to truly value another’s’ ability to shake up our belief in our own assumptions about who we are and what is actually going on in our relationships. In my own work with students and clients, I have observed that each of the nine Enneagram Personality Types tends to default to a certain flavor of unquestioned “relational assumptions” when relational discomfort arises. These assumption sets seem to emerge out of what Riso and Hudson (The Enneagram Professional Training) have identified as the Basic Fear for each Type, the central psychic unrest driving that particular Enneagram style of relating. This can block relational growth potential, in big ways or less significant ways, depending on the level of awareness with which those relational assumptions are held. Following are a few examples of these relational assumptions, each of which, in their own magnificent way, hold the great potential for igniting the uncomfortable, thrilling, and tremendously useful “I-might-be-mistaken” relational moment:
One: “This person is trying to make this my fault.” “You are condemning me!” “I need things to be more controlled in this relationship.”
Two: “This person does not find me lovable.” “You are not connecting with me!” “I need more relationship in this relationship.”
Three: “This person sees me as a failure.” “You are making me feel like a loser!” “I need more status from this relationship.”
Four: “This person doesn’t know my true identity.” “You don’t get me!” “I need to be understood more in this relationship.”
Five: “This person is going to overwhelm me and make me feel incompetent.” “You are too much!” “I need to understand more about this relationship.”
Six: “This person could undo my security.” “You are unreliable!” “I need to be safer in this relationship.”
Seven: “This person is going to limit my options.” “You are depriving me!” “I need more happiness from this relationship.”
Eight: “This person is trying to control me.” “You are going to harm me!” “I need more power in this relationship.”
Nine: “What this person is doing will cause me to be cut off from this group.” “You are going to keep me from what I love!” “I need more peace in this relationship.”
Do any of these relational assumptions remind you of some of your personality’s favorite escape routes from relational curiosity? There will likely be, for all of us, many interpersonal opportunities in the future to practice relaxing, and allowing compassion to guide our noticing of these assumptions. Then we can experiment with a little more curiosity about what else might be true in that relational exchange.
Using these moments of interpersonal discomfort well does not depend on other people’s level of relational genius as much as we tend to think it does. Enjoying the thrilling ride of a growth orientation in relationships depends primarily on our commitment to the relational genius curriculum, where we learn to value our mistakes, and trust that showing up for that enlightening brand of discomfort means we get to something we truly love on the other side of it: the next chapter in our own spiritual adventure.