Frustrated with colleagues? Disappointed by your partner? Annoyed with your mother? Or maybe you’re pleased with everyone in your life at the moment – in which case, congrats! Wherever you’re on the topic of relationships today, I welcome you to just take a moment to let any concerns fall away and just appreciate all that’s going right with the relationships in your life, all the harmony that’s already there. Sometimes we forget to really acknowledge ourselves for all the fun, connection, and flow we’ve already allowed into our lives and how beautiful that is. Our relationships can enrich our lives in so many ways – inspire us, enable our creativity, make us laugh, and help us relax and connect with who we really are.
At the same time, as we all know, relationships can offer us our greatest challenges. People often don’t behave how we’d like them to. Or don’t live up to our expectations. They do things that frustrate us, anger us, annoy us, disappoint us, make us feel crazy. Especially because it all can feel so out of our control. We want people to change their ways, understand things our way, shape up or grow up or do their part. But trying to get others to change is an uphill battle. And in most cases doesn’t work. And even when we end relationships that frustrate us, other problematic relationships can pop up in their place, and we can find ourselves playing out the same old patterns with new people.
With all this, we just want relief. And, like eating a whole bag of chips, it can feel good in the moment to vent about what a jerk someone is or to tell ourselves the story of someone else’s faults. But on a deeper level, it just might not serve us so well. When we see the other person as the bad guy, and ourselves as the victims, we might be comforted for a time, but not ultimately empowered. After all, if we have no responsibility for someone’s effect on us, we can’t do anything to shift the situation. What’s more, harboring negative emotions toward someone – even the smallest grievance – instead of solving anything, ends up stressing us out and taking a major toll on our wellbeing. Not to mention making harmony in the relationship hard to come by.
But what if we have more influence over our experience of relationships than we think? What if instead of trying in vain to get others to change (and losing energy to resentment when they don’t), we turned our attention to the part of the equation we really can affect: the way we’re interpreting and responding to others?
See, we can claim that we’re annoyed with someone because they’re doing something objectively annoying. Or that we’re disappointed with someone because their behavior is simply disappointing. But let’s take a deeper look. There are lots of strange behaviors and different ways of being and doing, and plenty of them are just fine with us, even if they aren’t what we’d do. But certain behaviors in other people really get to us. You might say they trigger us – meaning, they resonate with deeper pain in us and, so, cause us to have a strong reaction – anger, frustration, sadness, so on. And so, usually our reactions to people are about much more than their not calling us back or their showing up late or even more serious missteps. Our reactions end up being not so much about what others have done but about what their behavior means to us – that is, how we interpret it, as well as what we conclude (based on our own beliefs and experiences) from that interpretation.
This may sound a little complex, but basically, the idea is, if we take a closer look at how we came to be upset with someone, we can get to something much sweeter the revenge we may be fantasizing about: powerful self understanding, a retrieval of our precious energy, and – often – magical newfound harmony in the relationship.
I really learned the power of examining the source of distress with others by coming into contact with a little exercise called The Work by Byron Katie. The Work has you question why you’re really upset with someone, if it’s definitely true, how it feels, and what it would be like if it weren’t on your mind at all. Then it asks you to play with your original complaint to see if there’s another message in the situation for you. It gives you a chance to see why this might be a trigger. Does that person reflect something in yourself you want to change? What does the incident bring you back to at a deeper level?
I’ve done it over a hundred times myself and use the process regularly with my clients. What it shows us is just how quick we are to jump to conclusions – we assume people have done certain things, often without solid evidence. Then we decide what it means, conclusions that often corroborate negative beliefs we hold about ourselves.
For example, the conclusion many of us reach based on a wide variety of behaviors is “So-and-so doesn’t respect me”. But is it really true? It’s a hard one to confirm. Normally, we’ve gleaned this from someone giving us a certain look or making a particular comment or just by a feeling we have about it. But do we really know this? Usually not. In fact, I can’t think of a case where we do. Even if they’ve said it, we don’t know for sure that they didn’t say so out of their own pain. In my experience with this, when I cook up the idea that someone doesn’t respect me, anger follows, but right behind it is sadness, with some shadowy underlying doubt triggered about if I am respectable or valuable. If you play with the belief and flip it around it can become “I don’t respect that person” (often worthy of consideration) or “I don’t respect myself”. This last one is always true, because fixating on grievances is, indeed, not respectful to your own wellbeing. It’s draining, distracting and exhausting.
When you’re not so sure anymore about your own judgments of others and turn your attention to your own behavior instead, it lightens things up and loosens your grip on your grievance. You can even become inspired to appreciate that other person more or, in the case of my example, to treat them with the respect you’d wanted to be treated with.
It can change your attitude in amazing ways. In one case, the respect issue came up with someone from a company I was working with. When I really looked at what was going on I could see that I’d made up a story – based on very little evidence, a few scheduling mixups – that she didn’t value me or my time, which made me angry, and then a shade despairing, as it brought up deeper feelings of pain all the way back to childhood conclusions of not being cared about or valued. When I saw that I’d concocted this, it opened me up to see the bigger picture: that what she’d done likely didn’t mean anything like that, but probably had to do with all she had going on in her own life. She was probably doing her best. And maybe even the opposite was true, that she really did care about me and value my time. As soon as I considered this, I found ample evidence for how she did – her support, her positive emails, her friendly demeanor. And within a few minutes, I found my attitude completely turned around, and was actually feeling really grateful for her. When we got on a call together shortly after that, it was amazing. There was so much mutual appreciation, understanding and support. We even strayed into chatting and learned new things about each other. Having that kind of relationship with colleagues can make working together a true pleasure. Simply questioning such assumptions has created huge shifts for me and clients of mine in relationships of all sorts – with partners, friends, family. These days, I pause to inquire anytime I catch in myself with the slightest irritation.
In some cases, we can get irritated when we deem others lazy, unhelpful, boring or unkind. And once we see the thought, it can be enlightening to simply flip it on ourselves. Is there some way I feel I am being lazy? Unhelpful? Boring? Unkind? It might resonate in some ways. These could certainly resonate on one level. Because bumming ourselves out with resentment of others is all those things. It takes our energy away from what’s so much more fun: our passion projects, our creativity, enjoying our lives and the people in it. And what can happen when we play around with our beliefs of others in this way is that we can find our own instructions for being the person we really want to be. And when we’re being that person, we can see the bigger picture, we have compassion for ourselves and others, and when we face challenges, we know how to find our center.
Looking to bring more harmony into your life and relationships? Learn more about Tatyana’s work at www.krimgoldcoaching.com
Tatyana Krimgold is a Transformational Coach for Life, Work, & Relationships, helping people who’ve had enough with stress, to transform so they can enjoy peace, presence and purpose in all they do.