Are you in any relationships that are destructive and life-sucking? How about energy-draining or critical? Why do you continue to interact with these people? If you’re like the rest of us, we allow ourselves to be in these relationships for numerous reasons: we tell ourselves we have no other choice, that the other person will never change, that it’s not ‘that bad’. We spend a lot of time making up stories as to why we stay in these relationships and take little action to change them. We live our days depleted by these people in our lives.
The benefit of being an adult is that there is no reason for these relationships to continue as they are. That doesn’t mean that you move away or disconnect your phone. While you can do that, that is no guarantee that that relationship will stop sucking the life out of you. How do we know this? Think of the people you know who still struggle even though one person in that relationship is dead. Daughters still waiting for approval from their deceased mom. Sons still trying to prove themselves to their dead father. Further, you can continue to be affected by someone you haven’t seen for years. The uncle who touched you inappropriately. The critical sister. What gives them power over us if we don’t interact with them? Our thoughts.
Why is it important to think about our current and past relationships? [tweetshare tweet=”The health of our relationships forms the backbone of our physical, mental, and emotional health.” username=”SusieBarolo”]. We are influenced by the people around us. In fact, research shows that, in addition to our emotional health, our financial, physical and mental health are an average of the five people we allow into our lives. They affect our spending and saving patterns, our self-esteem, our drinking and eating habits, even whether we are on prescription medications or not. It goes without saying, when you choose to live your life consciously, a piece of that must be consciously creating and maintaining healthy relationships.
The backbone of healthy relationships are boundaries. Boundaries are a way that we take care of and protect ourselves. Boundaries are not something that we create for other people. We create them for ourselves. Specifically They are clear requests with a precise consequence. A healthy boundary is not made from a place of anger and it is not an attempt to control the other person. Oftentimes the other person doesn’t even know there is a boundary unless they cross it. Imagine your house. Do you have a sign in your yard that says “If you break into my house, I will call the police”? No, yet, if someone does break in, you will call the police. In relationships, do you tell your dad: “If you criticize my husband, I will stick up for him”? No, yet, if your father criticizes your husband, you speak up. This requires two things: One, to be clear on what a healthy relationship means to you and two, to not make your dad’s behavior mean anything more than his own expression of his issues. If he criticizes your husband it’s because of an insecurity of his; it’s not about you. You are in charge of you and your dad is in charge of him. If he continues to cross your boundaries, it’s then up to you to clearly state your boundaries and their consequences. For example, you would tell your dad, if you criticize my husband at dinner, we will leave. Your dad can continue to act as he wishes, you’re not trying to control his behavior. You are acting in alignment with your values and your dad can do what he wants. This is very different than setting up a boundary from the emotion of anger as then we are doing it to harm the other person. Here are some more examples of healthy boundaries:
If you yell at me, I will leave the room.
If you criticize me, I will hang up the phone.
If you raise your voice to me, I will leave the dinner table.
If you are more than 10 minutes late for our coffee date, I will leave.
For all of these, you take responsibility for your actions and act in line with your values. You are not trying to control the other but leave the other person to do what they wish. If you have someone in your life who irritates you or causes frustration, a boundary is needed.There are several steps to making a healthy boundary but the first one is to step back as if examining the relationship from afar.
The following story has helped me make work through various relationships in my life, most notably the one with my birth parents. I was able to work through a lot of confusion, anger and resentment in order to have a better relationship with them today than ever before.
Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a cute dog tied to a tree. You approach the dog and pet it. It suddenly snarls and bites your hand. Your hand bleeds. You are confused and angry. You then notice the dog is caught in a trap. The situation is such that you can not get the dog out of the trap.
Do you keep going back to get bit? For years I did. I kept going back to the dog (my parents) expecting different behavior, expecting them not to bite me. However, I had only done half of the boundary homework. I had set the clear expectations but wasn’t following through with my action. I had said that if they yell at me I would leave but then I’d stay. I said that if they criticized me, I would hang up. I wouldn’t. I kept trying to pet that dog. I told myself that if I explained something one more time they might get it. I kept expecting them to act differently. Seeing that they were caught in the trap was the first part of the solution. Seeing they were caught in the trap allowed me to lose my anger and confusion towards them. However there were two more steps before I could heal. I had to understand that no matter what I said or what I did, I could not get them out of that trap. That was up to them. Further, I had to realize that is was my, and only my, responsibility to choose whether to keep petting that dog. No matter how many people told me I should continue to pet the dog or that I should pet it in a certain way, it was up to me to take care of me. Does my hand still hurt? Some days yes, most days no. When I think of my parents, I feel compassion for them and their situation. I can send love to that dog from afar while choosing to stay safe and out of the woods. I have not spoken to them for almost two years yet feel more at peace in my relationship with them and love them more than at any point in my life. They were the exact parents I was meant to have.
There comes a point in difficult relationships when you either decide to keep petting the dog or to retreat to a safe distance. This does not have to be as drastic as my situation with my parents. For some of you, this could mean less frequent phone calls or visits to your mother or mother-in-law. You can not control what that other person does but you always get to control what you do. If you don’t call your mom, she is in charge of her own thoughts about you not calling. If you decide to travel elsewhere for vacation, she is in charge of her thoughts about that. There is freedom in knowing that you can’t control another person because it’s exhausting to try. One person can change a relationship and, if you’re unhappy, it’s up to you. You’re responsible for your happiness, not this other person.The reason you’re frustrated and resentful is because you don’t have proper boundaries and you haven’t been speaking the truth. When you own that and you really take that on as your responsibility, then from that place, you can clean up those emotions.
Once I could see my biological family with compassion, I was able to drop any anger, sadness, or disappointment that I had. I can empathize that they are the way they are and, at the same time, powerfully live the life I’m here to live. In moving forward I am also choosing a different path for my children. I have drawn a line in the sand and I will not inherit dysfunction. I choose to teach my children that they are in charge of who they surround themselves with. I show them how I surround myself with like-minded people who fill my soul. My life has a lot less drama and a lot more peace. Setting clear boundaries is some of the hardest work that you will do but it will influence not only the quality of your life but also your length of life. As I often do, I encourage you to choose conscious living. Pause to evaluate your relationships. How are you showing up in them? If your relationship involves a parent or emotional or physical abuse, please don’t navigate this on your own. Get a coach to help you stop going back to pet that dog. I’ve coached many clients who set boundaries and their dog choose to get out of the trap on their own. Talk about freedom.
Here are some powerful questions to ask regarding relationships:
Are you feeling the way you want to feel when with this person?
Are you behaving the way you want to behave?
How do you want to be around this person?
What do you want to think about this person? About your relationship with him/her?