Recently I was having a conversation with someone in which they said something along the lines of “I love reading your blog posts and a lot of what you write about is really interesting but at the end I’m often left thinking ‘yes that’s great and I agree but HOW do I do those things?” I immediately thought, ‘you know what? That is such a valid point!’
Often we’ll read or listen to something that really resonates with us. It might be a quote that we come across in a book, or a podcast from an inspiring motivational speaker. We can see or hear the truth in the words that we’re reading or listening to but often where we get stuck is in the doing, the taking of what we know and translating it in to action. We get stuck because we don’t know HOW to make the changes we want to make to see the results we so desperately want to see in our lives.
So in honour of that this post is going to be my biggest, boldest, bravest one yet. It’s going to tackle something each and every one of us struggle with throughout our lives. It’s going to tackle what I personally have found the most challenging aspect of my life this year, the one thing that has pushed me to grow, that has humbled me, that has taught me that I still have so much to learn. It’s going to tackle something that can be a source of deep joy across our lifetime and something that can also be a source of pain, mess, confusion, and disconnection. That something is our relationships with other people.
Now, the first thing I need you to know is that I’m writing this post as much for me as I am for you. I’m not writing this because I’m a relationship expert who thinks you all need help with your relationships and I don’t. 2018 has been a massively challenging year for me in my relationships, and to use a term coined by Mel Robbins I am in need of a major #mindsetreset to ensure I don’t repeat the same patterns of behaviour in 2019.
I don’t know about you but constantly reacting to other people’s behaviour, feeling so easily hurt by it, getting angry and resentful when my expectations aren’t met, wishing they would change certain things about themselves – all of this is so exhausting. There has to be a better way right? A way that does not involve constant conflict, power struggles, bruised feelings, and ego battles. A way that doesn’t involve us all banging our heads against a brick wall feeling continually disappointed and disconnected from those around us. Well I’m here to tell you that there is and that we’re going to do it together.
The Relationship Rumba
Here’s what I want us to do first of all. I want us to think of relationships as being somewhat like dancing. Each dance, whether it be a waltz, a jive, or a tango, has very specific steps, movements, and rules right? Dancing is about structure and patterns, following the structure is what makes a dance successful, it’s what makes a waltz a waltz or a jive a jive. In addition to all of that you need two partners committed to following the rules of the dance and not stepping out of time.
Unlike me you may not bop along in your seat every season of Strictly Come Dancing with secret aspirations of one day being able to swivel your hips like the professionals, but each of us everyday is taking part in a different kind of dance – that of our relationships. Like dancing, our relationships also consist of an often unspoken set of rules, steps, and patterns but the problem lies in the fact that we often get trapped doing the same dance over and over and over again with the same partner without a) any awareness that we need to change our steps or b) without any clear idea of HOW we change our steps.
Ok so now that I’ve planted the dancing metaphor firmly in your heads I’m going to talk us through the steps we need to take to change our relationships for the better. Oh and by the way, I should clarify that by relationship I mean ANY relationship with another person. These steps do not just apply to relationships with a significant other, they are equally applicable to the relationships you have with your parents, siblings, children, friends, co-workers, neighbours etc. In short, these steps will benefit you in any relationship you want to improve.
Step 1: Changing Our Steps
You may be thinking right now ‘yes but it’s not me, it’s them, so why should I have to change my steps?’ There are a number of bear traps that we as human beings will often fall in to in our relationships with others and one of those is our tendency to locate the source of the problem in the other person. I am the first to admit that I have done this a lot and why, in that moment, do I see the other person as being the problem? Because I believe that my behaviour, my way of thinking is right, and theirs is wrong. I stubbornly get stuck in a pattern of thinking that if only THEY would stop or start doing something, if only THEY would sort themselves out, then our relationship would be fine.
There are several problems with this line of thinking. The first is that no matter how justified we may feel in holding the stance that we are right, let me tell you from my own experience that thinking we’re right can be one hell of a lonely place to be. If our conflict is with someone we love deeply then where does being right put us? On the opposite side of them. We create a situation whereby for us to win, they have to lose. There comes a time when we all need to decide which we value more – winning or our relationships, because we can’t have the former without severely damaging the latter.
The second is that by locating the problem in another we choose to place ourselves in the role of the powerless victim. We may replay the event and their behaviour over and over again in our heads like a tape recording that we can’t switch off, ruminating for hours, days or weeks at a time about something we cannot change rather than focusing on what we can change, which is our response.
Try this: Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl says that between a stimulus (in this instance someone’s behaviour) and our response there is a space. Next time you find yourself on the end of behaviour you don’t like try and catch yourself in this space and, if possible, pause before you respond. It’s in that pause that we have the greatest chance of overriding our automatic programming and stopping ourselves from doing what we are prone to doing, which is retaliating or becoming defensive. I know it sounds like a really little thing but pausing, and asking for a moment to gather your thoughts if you need it, can make all the difference. It’s something I’m going to be working hard to put in to practice in 2019.
Step 2: Recognise That People Are Mirrors
Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung said that ‘everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” I know that may sound a bit out there to some people so let me try to explain what I mean. When we are in conflict with another person it is not us as an individual fighting with them as an individual, it is our unhealed wounds fighting with their unhealed wounds. The people we have in our lives are not people we’ve just happened to stumble across by chance, they are in our lives because they are the people who are our greatest teachers in showing us exactly where our wounds are and where our learning lies.
Our challenge, if we want to grow, is to resist the temptation we have to turn away from the mirror those individuals are holding up for us, and to instead look in to it. This is no easy feat because in doing that we have to let go of our certainty that the problem lies within the other person and start getting curious about what the situation is trying to mirror back to us about ourselves. If we keep finding ourselves having the same strong reaction to someone, or to aspects of their personality or behaviour, then it is likely that person was brought in to our lives to help us heal certain wounds.
Try this: Next time you find yourself in conflict with someone, particularly if it is someone with whom you have historically had a challenging relationship with, get yourself in to a place of curiosity. Ask yourself ‘what is this situation trying to teach me?’ For example, I have always struggled a lot with assertive personalities and this year I realised that’s because I have never allowed myself to be assertive – those individuals are mirroring back to me a part of myself I have disowned and not allowed myself to express. Conflict is not always a bad thing, if we’re open to it conflict can teach us a great deal about ourselves.
Step 3: Realise That Conflict Is Rarely About What We Think It Is
When someone lashes out at us they are prone to thinking that we are the problem, that we are the cause of their behaviour. Conversely, when we lash out at someone we have a tendency to think they are the problem, that they are the cause of our behaviour. If only it were that black and white but humans are complex and it is rarely that simple. Lets look at the following example:
Sarah grew up with loving parents but her father worked as a miner, meaning he was often away for long periods of time. Sarah was very close with her father but found it hard that his work in another state meant he usually missed her birthday and important school events. Fast forward several decades and Sarah has been married for ten years to Jim, with whom she has three children. Sarah describes Jim as a good man but says they fight a lot about things Jim feels are ‘petty’. Recently the couple had a huge argument because Jim was late to their friends Christmas party, something that Sarah had been looking forward to for some time. Sarah accused Jim of always putting his needs ahead of her own and not caring about her, something that baffled Jim who was late to the party due to being held up buying Sarah’s Christmas present.
Okay so the above is rather simplistic I know but I’m using it because it highlights something important. Sarah and Jim think they’re arguing about him being late to their friends Christmas party but that is the surface issue. What Sarah is perhaps unaware of, and therefore not able to express to Jim, is that her anger is not really about the Christmas party nor is it really anger. If we were to dig a bit deeper what we would most likely find is that Sarah has a fear of abandonment, of being let down, of people not being there for her in the same way that her father wasn’t and Jim’s actions in this instance have triggered that fear.
Try this: Although it’s a very simple example, the interaction between Sarah and Jim is not uncommon. This sort of thing, where we project on to others our unhealed wounds, is happening unconsciously all the time. The secret to ending the pain and suffering we cause ourselves is to make the unconscious conscious, that is to become aware of why we react the way we do. It can be difficult to have this awareness in the heat of the moment so I’m not suggesting you seek this clarity while arguing but it can be helpful to reflect afterwards about what the real issue may be.
Step 4: Have Compassion
This is a big ask sometimes I know because when someone is lashing out at us, having compassion for them is often the last thing on our minds! Buddhist Monk Thich Naht Hanh believes that “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment, he needs help.”
When someone hurts us they are giving us a glimpse in to the pain that they carry inside of them. I realise that knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to be on the receiving end of it but perhaps it can help to know that you are not the cause of someone else’s behaviour, regardless of what they may try and tell you to the contrary! While it can be difficult, helping someone who is in pain can only come when we meet their pain with love and compassion, meeting it with our own anger means the cycle continues rather than being broken.
While having compassion for others is important, having compassion for ourselves is equally so. We are not always going to get it right. Sometimes we’re going to hurt people, and sometimes we’re going to retaliate when they hurt us, loving ourselves through this process is important because to paraphrase Maya Angelou we do our best with what we know with the understanding that when we know better we do better. All we can ever do is see every conflict as an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to use that learning to grow ourselves in to better versions of who we are.
Try this: This is no easy ask I know but when we find ourselves in conflict with others we need to try and understand that what we’re being faced with is someone’s inner child. Realising that what you’re dealing with is a scared five year old who’s in pain, and not the forty or fifty year old body that you see in front of you, can be helpful when trying to access empathy and compassion. It is especially important that you understand that you are not the cause of someone else’s behaviour, you are merely the trigger.
We must also ask ourselves this key question. “Regardless of how they are behaving towards me, what kind of person do I want to be in this situation?” Their disrespect towards us can never be a justification for us to turn around and disrespect them and as I myself am having to learn, it can also not be a justification for us to hold on to anger and resentment. Author Catherine Ponder states that when we do this we ‘are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel.’ It’s just not healthy for us to carry that around with us so we must find a way to put down the things that are heavy for the sake of our own wellbeing.
Where To From Here?
For those of you reading this thinking that I’ve left a lot unsaid or missed things out know that I’m aware of that and that I plan to address some key omissions in upcoming posts. Our relationships with others is a huge, complex topic that needs more than a few thousand words to even come close to adequately doing it justice. My aim in writing this first piece is merely to introduce this complexity and to hopefully get us all thinking a bit more deeply about why we as human beings behave the way we do.
I have so much work I want to do in 2019 around my relationships with others. My struggles this year have taught me a great deal about myself and as hard as it has been at times I am grateful for the insight and newfound awareness. My pride has often kept me locked in to thinking I am right rather than accepting that I think differently to others and that’s okay.
I know a lot of people will be making New Years resolutions right about now but I’m not really a huge fan of those purely because I feel that perhaps we often make resolutions that don’t have enough feeling or drive behind them and thus set ourselves up to fail. I think for a resolution to be successful it has to be something we want with every ounce of who we are, we have to feel that drive every day to want to push forward to achieve it. So one of my goals as we head in to a new year is to carry on getting to know myself better, and what makes me tick, because at the end of the day an ongoing commitment to growing my self-awareness is perhaps the greatest gift I can give not only to myself, but also to those I share relationships with.
Wishing you all a beautiful 2019, may you create the year you’ve always dreamed of.