Thank you for the feedback on my last post. It’s great to know that the suggestions for key phrases to say in a stressful moment resonated with so many of you. I’ve seen them work in so many different environments already– I can’t wait to hear how they help each of you.
This time of year can indeed be challenging. Even when there’s not direct conflict, it’s often difficult and draining to navigate the expectations of ourselves and others. What follows are 5 approaches that one can take in the face of a relationship that needs help.
Strategy #1- Give up hope
My spouse and I had a discussion just this morning about the age-old question of whether people can really, truly change. That’s what so many of us want—for “them” to change, to cease and desist from all the things we don’t like. We don’t think we are asking them to do any more than what is reasonable—any more than we are willing to do.
But expecting that others will act the way we want sets us up to jump right into the quicksand of relational despair. Instead, try taking a few moments to sit quietly and acknowledge what you wish they were like. Then prepare to accept them as they behave exactly the way they have behaved in the past. That way, at best, you may be surprised and discover that the others may in fact behave differently. At worst, you’ll be more healthfully detached from those that previously had too much control over you.
Strategy #2 – Set secure boundaries
Given that the other people will probably go on being their same old selves, you need to decide how much contact with them you really want. Are there certain behaviors you really can’t tolerate? Are there others you can handle in group settings but not one-on-one? Think like Goldilocks; how much is too much, how much is just enough?
It’s critical that we can answer these questions before we are with these people, not during the gathering or event. You want to think through various boundary options until you come up with a situation that you are as comfortable with as possible. Do you need to plan to leave after a certain amount of time, do you need your own transportation, do you need a friend to join you or to place a strategic phone call?
The point of thinking through your boundaries is not to harm or compromise your relationships, but to strengthen them. Once you have put the time and consideration into what you want and then can take action by setting limits that help you feel emotionally safe, you’ll find that the other people seem much more tolerable.
Strategy #3 – Lose control
A boss once used the Tour de France as a metaphor for telling me I would never be like Lance Armstrong (this was before he was exposed as a fraud). I’d never be a leader, never the one in charge, never win. It was a crushing conversation.
You may feel desperate to make someone recognize all you have accomplished. You’ll want to argue, to explain, to get right in there and force them to agree with you. Everything in you is saying that once they see what you see, they will finally embrace everything you are and offer.
Remember this: Any attempt we make to control other people actually puts us under their control. If you decide you can’t be happy until your boss finally promotes you, her decision-making process will rule your life. You could spend the next 20 years working 100-hour weeks and winning every industry award available, and she still might not. You could even do an end run around your boss and get transferred or promoted out of the department, but you’ll probably never hear that person say what you most craved hearing her say. You’ll never control her real thoughts and feelings. Same goes for former romantic partners, Facebook friends who “ghosted” you, and that friend IRL who stopped sending Christmas cards.
The only way we can avoid getting stuck in other people’s craziness is to follow codependency author Melody Beattie’s counterintuitive advice: “Unhook from their systems by refusing to try to control them.” Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to get other people to violate theirs. If you’ve become convinced of your own value, don’t let anyone else’s opposing opinion compromise that. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set others free to do the same.
If you have been deeply wounded by other people, you can stop trying to control them by accepting full responsibility for your healing. I’m not in any way suggesting that you shoulder all the blame; I am advocating for you to accept that you and only you have the ability to respond to painful situations by seeking cures instead of making it all worse. Whatever the situation, accepting that you can control only your own thoughts and actions will help you mend more quickly and thoroughly.
Strategy #4 – Become a Participant Observer
The social science technique called participant observation is when the observer/scientist joins groups of people in order to watch and report on whatever those groups of people do. People we might normally avoid become fascinating when we are watching them in this manner, and almost any group activity becomes interesting when you’re planning to describe it to someone later.
I had a college friend who was a gold-medalist at this. People would be losing their minds all around her, and she would narrate to herself (not out loud): “Oh, look. They seem to be really upset about this. How interesting. This is clearly very hard for them. Looks like it will take some time to process all that this decision means and how it will all play out. I wonder what next steps they will choose to take?” For. Reals.
The emotional distance described here is much easier said than done. Still, this is an area where our feelings can follow our behavior, if we don’t give up too soon. Try putting on your anthropologist hat/vest/monocle only in your mind, and see what happens.
Strategy #5 – Debrief
Whether or not you are able to implement any of these strategies, it’s essential to be able to debrief these kinds of situations with someone you trust. Connecting with someone who has an outside perspective and is in your corner can make all the difference. Be sure that you schedule plenty of time for it and do not compromise this essential element of taking care of yourself.
This may look different for different people– when I worked at a church, I made sure to have “safe people” who weren’t a part of that organization who could provide me with valuable insight. Same goes for offices, departments, friend groups, families, work teams. Looking at your relationship through new/other lenses may even prompt one of my all-time favorite expressions; “I’ve never seen it that way before.”
May 2017 be the year you experience true growth, peace and love in your relationships and your life.