The Michelangelo Phenomenon

Angel (1494) by Michelangelo

Angel (1494) by Michelangelo on the Shrine of Saint Dominic, Basilica of Saint Dominic, Bologna, Italy (Photo courtesy: James Steakley)

“My dad thought you were drunk,” one of my students told me the next day. He tried to stifle a chuckle.

Sadly, I totally understood – his father had seen me shaking like a leaf and turning all shades of purple on “meet the creature” night. Even I had to admit that there was a delicious irony in this tea-totalling, school teacher being mistaken for sloshed because of my phobia. I felt like the only teacher alive afraid of speaking in front of adults.

Flash forward 5 years.

“Phew. Survived. I really don’t like speaking in front of adults,” I said to a collegue after giving a presentation at a staff meeting.

“Really? I wouldn’t have known. I enjoyed that. You should speak more often!”

What changed? How did I go from quivering puddle of goo to someone half excited to present on things I am passionate about? Without a doubt, I am the product the Michelangelo Phenomenon in action.

Michelangelo (the renaissance sculptor and painter; not the Ninja Turtle :] ) is quoted as saying “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Conceptually, we are all very much like that unfinished block of marble. Hiding within us is what psychologists call the “ideal self.” We all have things we’d like to bring out to the world – our dreams, aspirations and the skills we wish to acquire – but we are all still a work in progress.

While people sometimes achieve these goals through their own actions, research has shown that in our interactions with those closest to us – our “irreplaceable others” in attachment terms – we actually sculpt each other through our words and our behavior toward one another.

Without a doubt, it was a dear friend and colleague who helped me overcome my paralyzing fear of speaking in front of adults. She wanted to brush up on her computer teaching skills and, as such, sat in on my middle school Computer class for a full semester. As a friend, her presence was non-threatening, and her consistently kind words of affirmation about my lessons slowly built up my confidence. The fact that she is one of the best debate and public speaking coaches in our district, if not the Province, added weight to her words. She also helped me develop and expand the curriculum in a way that matched both of our skill sets.

The effect was dramatic. By the end of the term, I hardly gave a thought to the fact that I had another adult in the room. While I am still not totally comfortable speaking in front of adults, I am no longer paralyzed by it, and for that I will always be grateful. Through effective interdependence on another, I have moved closer to my ideal self in this one area.

Several concepts come out of the research that have significant implications for romantic gestures and happiness as couple. Frankly, I find the implications both amazing and terrifying.

Here are just a few. :

  1. Your words and behaviors sculpt your heartmate.  Seriously – think about that for a minute. It should scare the pants off you. What your heartmate becomes – whether they achieve their life’s dreams – is more than a little in your hands. In some ways this is a “big duh!” but it actually flies in the face of popular culture messages. It turns out that your heartmate is not totally the master of her own ship. The data does not support that. We are interdependent. Instead, you have the ability to either help or hinder your heartmate’s progress toward what they ideally want to become. You’re hand is on the rudder of that ship too.
  2. Affirmative words and actions are the key.  Do your words display faith in your  heartmate’s pursuits? Do your actions support your positive words? Think of the last time your heartmate tried to do something romantic for you, no matter how small. Did you respond with gratitude? Ignore it? Or did you act disappointed? Each response will have a different impact of the likelihood that a romantic gesture will be tried again and whether they will grow more romantic.
  3. Not all affirmative words are the same.  According to the research , the most beneficial effects occur when “partners are exceptionally positive with respect to attributes that are core elements of what each person ideally wishes to become.” Translation, complementing your wife on her dress is ok but complementing her on her fitness is even better if becoming more fit is her goal.
  4. Your words will have very little effect sculpting your heartmate if you choose the goal for her. In fact, that will cause friction. The related, so called “Pygmalion Phenomenon” occurs when you affirm qualities in your heartmate that are part of your ideal self. Bad move. Just because you want to become more outgoing doesn’t mean she does. Trying to affirm your partner in a direction that is not important to her is associated with negative couple well-being.
  5. Couple satisfaction is enhanced when heartmates move toward their “ideal self.” Personal growth leads to strength in the relationship. I suppose that in many ways this is related to the dating maxim “If you want people to be interested in you, be interesting.” Being each other’s ally in the pursuit of growth helps build the bonds between you.

King Solomon once said, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” It’s mind blowing to think about the awesome responsibility that holds for us all.

Has your heartmate helped you to grow? How have you helped your heartmate to grow? I’d love to hear how the Michelangelo Phenomenon has played out in your relationship.

1 thought on “The Michelangelo Phenomenon

  1. i wonder of the concept of a heartmate, is that a reality for all? is one limited to a single heartmate? over a lifetime? concurrently? simultaneously?

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