“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” ~Dalai Lama
Though Valentine's Day is coming up next month, this is not a post about romance. It's about any relationship—with your brother, your mother, your coworker, or your friend.
And I admit I am not an expert.
I've made a million and one mistakes in relationships. I've expected too much. Or not asked for what I needed in fear of rocking the boat. I've been competitive. I've been suspicious. I've been dependent. I'd like to think what redeems me from all these mistakes is that I've also been honest.
Being self aware, in my opinion, is far more valuable than being perfect—mostly because the former is attainable and helpful, while the latter is neither.
Relationships are not easy. They mirror everything we feel about ourselves. When you've had a bad day, the people around you seem difficult. When you're not happy with yourself, your relationships seem to be lacking.
If you've ever gotten in a fight only to find yourself wondering what you were really upset about, this post may help you. If you've ever been disappointed because someone didn't meet your expectations, this post may help you, too. Feel walked on and unheard? You guessed it—there's likely something in here that will help you change that.
We don't live in a vacuum. We have thoughts and feelings that can be confusing. Other people do too. And just like in the movie Crash, they don't always collide smoothly.
When I apply these ideas, I feel confident, strong, compassionate, and peaceful in my interactions. I hope they can do the same for you.
1. Do what you need to do for you.
Everyone has personal needs, whether it's going to the gym after work or taking some alone time on Saturday morning. If someone asks you to do something and your instinct is to honor you own need, do that. I'm not saying you can't make sacrifices sometimes, but it's important to make a habit of taking care of yourself.
Someone once told me people are like glasses of water. If we don't do what we have to do to keep our glass full, we'll need to take it from someone else—which leaves them half full. Fill your own glass so you can feel whole and complete in your relationships.
2. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
It's tempting to doubt people—to assume your boyfriend meant to hurt you by not inviting you out with his friends, or your friend meant to make you feel inadequate by flaunting her money. People who care about you want you to feel happy, even if sometimes they get too wrapped up in their own problems to show it well.
Sometimes they may be hurtful and mean it—let's not pretend we're all angels. But that won't be the norm. It will likely be when they're hurting and don't know what to do with it. Odds are they'll feel bad and apologize later. If you want to get good will, share it by seeing the best in the people you love. When we assume the best, we often inspire it.
3. Look at yourself for the problem first.
When you feel unhappy with yourself, it's easy to find something wrong in a relationship. If you blame another person for what you're feeling, the solution is on them. But this is actually faulty logic. For starters, it gives them all the control. And secondly, it usually doesn't solve the problem, since you didn't actually address the root cause.
Next time you feel the need to blame someone for your feelings—something they did or should have done—ask yourself if there's something else going on. You may find there's something underlying: something you did or should have done for you. Take responsibility for the problem and you have power to create a solution.
4. Be mindful of projecting.
In psychology, projecting refers to denying your own traits and then ascribing them to the outside world or other people. For example, if you're not a loyal and trusting friend, you may assume your friends are all out to get you. It's a defense mechanism that allows you to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging your weaknesses. There's no faster way to put a rift in your relationships.
This comes back to down to self awareness, and it's hard work. Acknowledging your flaws isn't fun, but if you don't, you'll continue seeing them in everyone around you. And you'll continue to hurt. Next time you see something negative in someone else, ask yourself if it's true for you. It might not be, but if it is, identifying it can help create peace in that relationship.
5. Choose your battles.
Everyone knows someone who makes everything a fight. If you question them about something, you can expect an argument. If you comment on something they did, you'll probably get yelled at. Even a compliment could create a confrontation. Some people just like to fight—maybe to channel negativity they're carrying around about the world or themselves.
On the one hand, you have to tell people when there's something bothering you. That's the only way to address problems. On the other hand, you don't have to let everything bother you. When I'm not sure if I need to bring something up, I ask myself these few questions:
- Does this happen often and leave me feeling bad?
- Does this really matter in the grand scheme of things?
- Can I empathize with their feelings instead of dwelling on my insecurity?
6. Confront compassionately and clearly.
When you attack someone, their natural instinct is to get defensive, which gets you nowhere. You end up having a loud conversation where two people do their best to prove they're right and the other one is wrong. It's rarely that black and white. It's more likely you both have points, but you're both too stubborn to meet in the middle.
If you approach someone with compassion, you will open their heart and mind. Show them you understand where they're coming from, and they'll be willing to see your side. That gives you a chance to express yourself and your expectations clearly. And when you let people know what you need at the right time in the right way, they're more likely to give that to you.
7. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable.
There are all kinds of ways you can feel vulnerable in relationships: When you express your feelings for someone else. When you're honest about yourself or your past. When you admit you made a mistake. We don't always do these things because we want to maintain a sense of power.
Power allows us a superficial sense of control, whereas true, vulnerable being allows us a sense of authenticity. That's love: being your true self and allowing someone else to do the same without letting fear and judgment tear it down. It's like Jimi Hendrix said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”
8. Think before acting on emotion.
This one is the hardest for me. As soon as I feel hurt, frustrated, or angry, I want to do something with it—which is always a bad idea. I've realized my initial emotional reaction does not always reflect how I really feel about something. Initially, I might feel scared or angry, but once I calm down and think things through, I often realize I overreacted.
When you feel a strong emotion, try to sit it for a while. Don't use it or run from it—just feel it. When you learn to observe your feelings before acting on them, you minimize the negativity you create in two ways: you process, analyze, and deal with feelings before putting them on someone else; and you communicate in a way that inspires them to stay open instead of shutting down.
9. Maintain boundaries.
When people get close, boundaries can get fuzzy. In a relationship without boundaries, you let the other person manipulate you into doing things you don't want to do. You act out of guilt instead of honoring your needs. You let someone offend you without telling them how you feel about it. The best way to ensure people treat you how you want to be treated is to teach them.
That means you have to love and respect yourself enough to do that: to acknowledge what you need, and speak up. The only way to truly have loving, peaceful relationships is to start with a loving, peaceful relationship with yourself.
10. Enjoy their company more than their approval.
When you desperately need someone's approval, your relationship becomes all about what they do for you—how often they stroke your ego, how well they bring you up when you feel down, how well they mitigate your negative feelings. This is draining for another person, and it creates an unbalanced relationship.
If you notice yourself dwelling on pleasing someone else or getting their approval, realize you're creating that need. (Unless you're in an abusive relationship, in which case I highly recommend getting help.) Instead of focusing on what you can get from that person, focus on enjoying yourselves together. Oftentimes the best thing you can do for yourself and someone else is let go and give yourself permission to smile.
What do you do to create peaceful, loving relationships?
Photo by Mr. Theklan. This post was originally published in 2010.