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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mindfulness - Relationships

JD Hancock, Flickr

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget 
what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 
(Maya Angelou)

These past two weeks, while D was on the other end of the planet (literally - he was in Japan), and then sick, I had to face a few crises on my own, including the loss of a loved one, two basement floods, an insect infestation, and car problems. In the midst of it I also turned 40.

Those events taught or reminded me of a few things:

  1. First, that in any difficult situation, taking a deep breath is always a good option.
  2. Second, that paying real close attention to what is going on (inside or outside of yourself) usually helps you cope with the situation at hand.
  3. Third, that we all have hidden sources of strength, resourcefulness, and resilience.
  4. Fourth, that the things we think are important really aren't that important in the face of a crisis.
  5. Last, but not least, that in most cases, others, and our relationship with them, make an immense difference.

If it hadn't been for wonderful family members, friends and neighbors, those two weeks and the events that punctuated them would have taken a whole other direction. More importantly, they would have felt much different for me, and not in a good way. 

That is not so surprising since, in this life full of good and bad surprises in equal measure, relationships are often what "makes it or breaks it".

Think of times in your life when you felt lonely, misunderstood, ignored, disrespected, unloved, rejected. Chances are it took over everything else, and made you feel miserable independently of what was going on in the rest of your life.

Now think of times in your life when you felt well-surrounded, validated, included, recognized, respected, loved. Chances are it made everything else easier to deal with.

This is how important relationships are: they change everything.

Indeed, happiness is closely related to the quantity and quality of your relationships. A Harvard study, presented in a TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, has demonstrated that relationships are the number one criteria for a good life. Feeling connected is crucial for overall well-being. I know that even in good times, when I don't need help or support, and despite my love of "alone time", a pleasant interaction with someone can be the most rewarding part of the day. I love the feeling that stems from helping someone, or simply from having a stimulating conversation.

This need for human connection is so important that researchers have now established that "the opposite of addiction is connection", suggesting that your relationships (or absence thereof) could prevent or exacerbate drug abuse. 

On top of influencing our well-being and whether or not we become addicted to substances, relationships have an effect on our physical health:

"When others betray us or we feel neglected, when we feel angry and sad at the way others have treated us, the power of our immune system declines dramatically." (Dalai Lama)

This is not to be taken lightly. Our interactions with others leave a trace. Some states of mind would even be contagious. For example, one can be exposed to "secondhand stress" and suffer the consequences. Don't you get tense around anxious or angry people, even when you have nothing to do with their negative emotion?

What this all means is that while we need to feel connected in order to remain healthy and happy, we also have to pay attention to the type of connection we have with others. To that effect, mindfulness is the best approach.

In my adult life, I have become aware of the nature of my interactions with others, and it has changed my approach drastically, in three main ways:

  1. I remain authentic no matter what - I stepped away from trying to gain approval and admiration, because too often, that means being untrue to yourself. I respect others and strive to treat them fairly, but I respect myself, my needs and my values just as much.
  2. I invest more in the interactions and relationships where both protagonists leave feeling good.
  3. I invest less in the interactions and relationships that don't feel so good.

The third case has been my main challenge, as I grew up thinking that I had to get along with everyone, and that no effort was too big to that effect. Consequently, in my younger years, I devoted time and energy to the wrong relationships, tolerated more than I should have, or tried to change others. Some relationships do deserve a certain amount of compromise, but there is a line to be drawn. If someone demeans you, uses you as their therapist (as opposed to mutual confidences and support, which feels very different), or tries to control you, it might be time to step away.

Now, one crucial aspect of stepping away is to do it quietly. There is not need to argue, confront, justify, or take all the blame. If simple, respectful communication has not worked, then it might simply mean that the individual needs and wants are not compatible. This is especially important in cases where something more powerful is at play, such as a personality disorder

The point is not to diagnose people, of course, but to realize that some situations stem from complex and stubborn factors that we would be wise to avoid fighting, lest we turn ourselves in some form of modern Don Quixote.

I take people as they are, focus on the positive, stop holding specific expectations about how they should treat me, do communicate how I feel, but definitely don't try to change them. Then if it turns out that the relationship feels draining, I can simply let it go, or at least take my distances.

If, on the other hand, I am pleasantly surprised by the direction a relationship is taking, I know it would be wise to nurture it. These two past weeks made it impossible to ignore the love, generosity and kindness I am surrounded with. I feel very, very grateful for that, and I hope that I will be able to respond in kind. 

Mindfulness this Week

How do your interactions and relationships affect your daily life and your overall state of mind?

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  1. Relationships, above all things, are what we are here for. Relationships can be only as stable as the people within them. That is, none are perfect. Friends, family, coworkers, are our most important relationships.

    Few relationships we share are 100% reliable. In my life, I have only one person I trust completely, and she feels that way about me. We are each other's wing man in good and tragic times.

    I give people; friends, family, and business relationships a great deal of credence, but all are suspect.

    As to your recent situations and challenges, you survived and did not do it alone. That says much. That you are 40, nah -- I don't believe it...

    1. Thank you for the nice comment, Roy... I guess relationships are like food: the right ones bring energy and well-being to your life, the wrong ones bring you down. Choose wisely! :-)

  2. I get by with a little help from my friends! That's from the Beatles. Life is like Buck-Buck. If you link up with the right people, you can make it through. That's from me :-)