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  • Steven Spotts, PsyD

Insight: One of 16 Essential Characteristics of Healthy Relationships

Updated: Jun 16, 2018



Before tackling the concept of "insight," lets review the first 10 characteristics of healthy relating we’ve covered so far.


The first three were pretty straightforward: "Love, work, and play." These are probably not that hard to understand or relate to. Most of us are aware of people who love too much or those who struggle to give or receive any love. We have all seen or been aware of workaholics or, on the contrary, 30-somethings who still live in their mother’s basement.


Problems with play may not seem as obvious but it can coincide with working too much (guilty as charged) or using “play" to avoid responsibility (or possibly failure). Some use it to compete and find worth when it is lacking, or sometimes just to control others. We looked at what all of these characteristics look like in a mentally or emotionally healthy person and how they each can contribute to healthy relatedness.

Next, I wrote about "secure attachment" and made the point that our while relatedness is essential for life, a healthy and committed relatedness is essential for psychological growth and maturity to occur. The full potential for this can probably be seen most clearly in a marriage reflecting a covenantal, loyal, and unchanging love.


Then we took a look at “agency” which has to do with being able to take responsibility for our own life, controlling what we control; and at “self & object constancy” which has to do with how our internal relational world is both shaped by and shapes our present external relationships.


The next two characteristics are related to how we perceive and project ourself. “Ego strength” has to do our resilience. Can we take life’s “punch to the gut” and still get back up? If you haven’t faced such things already, prepare yourself, they’re coming. Ego strength is important, but so also is having a "realistic and reliable self esteem." That is, how do we see and value our self? Do we have a right view of our self? Is it one that reflects our true value, without either artificially inflating it or falsely denigrating it?


From the discussion on how we value ourself, we turned to looking at our global set of values and whether those are "abiding values" which remain consistent over time and circumstance. A stable value system is critical to maintaining healthy connections to others because it creates safety and helps us build trust-filled relationships.


Next I wrote about “affect tolerance and regulation.” Put simply, this is about our “resilience” and the ability to maintain our connections even when life is difficult. Why is this important? Because life is difficult most of the time. By modulating the intensity of our own anxieties we can better contain the anxieties of others. These anxieties are the ones that surface most often when our closest relationships (i.e. our secure attachments) seem threatened.


One of the reasons I wanted to start with this brief review is that our next subject is “insight." The purpose in looking at each of these concepts is for all of us to do our own self evaluations. How well any of us are able to do that is what “insight" is all about.


It's why I also tell clients that therapy is about "walking in the light." It's helps us find our way.

In the same way that your eyesight is vitally important for your ability to navigate the external world, your “insight” is essential to find your way effectively in your internal and relational world. When we don’t see ourselves well, we put both ourself and our relationships at risk. It's why I also tell clients that therapy is about "walking in the light." It's helps us find our way.


While most of us might say we have an idea what someone is talking about who uses the term insight, psychologists don’t have a clearly (or at least narrowly) defined concept of what it is. Sometimes people think of it as an “aha” experience in which something we formerly failed to understand or see very clearly becomes clear in our mind. That’s part of it, but there are other ways to understand insight as well.

Have you ever made a link between your past and your present? Have you ever understood a problem in an entirely different way than you have in the past? It might be that new light is shed on something that was invisible to you before.


Insights can appear suddenly; but also, sometimes, can be a slow and gradual realization. They can be rather intellectual and rational or sometimes very emotional and intuitive. They can be new facts about yourself, or older facts, perceived in a new way.


Insights can include an understanding or both conscious or unconscious thoughts, feelings and internal processes or motivations for behaviors. It usually refers to the way we become aware of ourself and our troubles, recognize the true extent and consequences of those troubles, and understand some of how and why we became the way we are.


Insight is also about our ability to see ourself clearly from the position of an observer (an observing ego) and reflect on the self retrospectively, understanding how our past is interfering with our present.

In writing about insight, Steven K. Huprich (2010) says,

“Insight has been conceptualized in many ways, but the general consensus is that insight provides patients with a new way to understand their inner mental life, their interpersonal conflicts or troubles, or a new understanding of those factors that contribute to an individual's difficulties.”

The way I am thinking about it here is related to our capacity to look toward our own inner world truthfully, honestly, and as non defensively as possible. It involves linking what we know consciously to what we know unconsciously (this is partly the role of our intuition). It’s learning to tell the truth about ourself to ourself.

Unfortunately, this is all rarer than you might think. The reason? We all are prone to lie to ourselves. Sometimes this can be as simple as a blindspot, something we fail to see. But we also tend to point fingers, shift blame, cover up and conceal what is painful to look at. One of the great advantages of the psychotherapeutic experience is that it gives us a safe place in which we can honestly take a look at ourself.


Our most trusting and intimate relationships can really help facilitate this type of insight. When others are able to tolerate our worst characteristics without blaming or shaming us, we learn to be more tolerant of ourselves. But it is also insight that helps facilitate the trust and intimacy we all long for.


One of the great advantages of the psychotherapeutic experience is that it gives us a safe place in which we can honestly take a look at ourself.

However, even when we have relative safety, our propensity to resist the truth is so strong that we can hold on to the self we want to be rather than expose to others the self that we truly are.

Just now, in writing these words I have thought of several things that I am doing or have done to conceal the truth about myself to you the reader or to others in my life. It’s quite unnerving, actually, when one stops to do this and/or think about how prevalent it is.


When we begin to really search ourself, rather than focus our energies on dissecting what others are doing to avoid or resist responsibility, I believe we become more fully the human we were designed to be. It helps our humanity in a number of ways but none more so than it reminds us of our "nakedness." We are all so very limited, fragile, and complex.


Here is some theological speculation if you are so inclined. In the beginning, when humanity first appears on the scene, we are naked and unashamed. This all radically changes when we grab the opportunity to know and ultimately define good and evil for ourselves (This might be a good time to reread Genesis, Chapters 1-3).


A number of awful things start to happen to us at that time. We open ourselves to desire and temptation; we start to lie to ourselves, to God, and to each other. We begin to blame one another and distrust God and one another. We also become aware of our naked vulnerabilities (i.e. shame), become afraid and start to hide from each other. Finally and most aptly, we begin to die. Keep reading in Genesis and you can watch it happen in one story after another.


Now, you might be tempted to say that human life (i.e. Adam and Eve) lacked “insight” into all of these consequences but then God had already defined for us what was good and not good (key repeated word and phrase in Gen 1-2) and told us not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or we would surely die. In addition, we had an intimate relationship with the Creator in which we were entirely safe, having considerable access to this infinitely powerful and personal Being who loved us and who was a willing provider of all that we needed.

Resistance to truth remains in the human condition. We still want to define good and evil for ourselves and we often, maybe even usually, get it exactly backward. If you haven't noticed, it continues to lead us toward death rather than life.


The death in our intimate relationships comes about because what I define as good or bad does not necessarily correspond to what is good or bad for my partner, and vice versa. So we begin to mistrust what each other wants, believing many times that what he or she wants is not what is “good” for us. Of course, they believe the same.


This puts us in competition with each other rather than in cooperation. As a result, we become a threat to one another and subject to the temptation to deceive, blame, hide, etc. You get the picture. In extreme cases it can even lead to physical death as portrayed in many tabloid stories of spouses or formerly intimate friends and family members turning violent toward one another.


A seminary professor of mine once responded to the question of whether he would ever consider divorce, "Divorce? Never. Murder? Maybe! Surely this was in jest, but you get the point.


Resistance to truth remains in the human condition. We still want to define good and evil for ourselves and we often, maybe even usually, get it exactly backward. If you haven't noticed, it continues to lead us toward death rather than life.

Insight is the starting place for us in giving us what we need to choose a different and more hopeful path. Learn to tell the truth to yourself and see if it doesn’t change the way you relate to others, especially to those who know you well.


Begin with this list. Go back and reread the prior ten articles. Ask yourself again, “How do I honestly measure up?” If you are really brave, ask a close friend who knows you well to read them as well and help you evaluate yourself.


We have at least five more characteristics we will look at. They are, in order: The Capacity to Mentalize, Flexibility of Defenses, Balance between Self Definition and Self in Relationships, Sense of Vitality, and, finally, Acceptance. That will complete the list first suggested to me by Dr. Nancy McWilliams. I may eventually include a few more of my own that are occurring to me as I work through this list myself.


Thanks for reading. As always, feel free to leave comments here or email me privately at Steve@DocSpotts.com.

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