Given that humans are social animals, I’m amazed at how little attention we give to who we relate with—who our friends, associates, and partners are. Because we seem to be “running on autopilot,” most can’t really explain why they hang out with the people they are with.
Being a Zen guy, I work hard at paying attention, part of which is having a clue about my choices. However, as I think back to my young adult years [a LONG time ago] I see how often my choices were not choices.
I ended up in a lot of relationships because:
- someone showed interest in me, or
- I was physically attracted to someone, or
- I was in proximity [a group, club or a team]
After much agony over what turned out to be ‘bad’ choices, I decided to really think about who I wanted as friends, as clients, and especially as my principal partner. I invented what I call The List of 50 [which can be downloaded free from my website], a method for identifying what I want in my relationships.
OK, so here’s the point.
Living life on autopilot is deadly. Yet, thinking about associations, many of the people who are in our lives are there for ‘no apparent reason’. We have a history with them, but as we get older, fewer and fewer commonalities. Strangely, we just keep hanging out with them, and when we think about it, these relationships are draining.
So, why do we hang on?
We’ve been trained to not make waves, and to ‘suck it up’. I hear stories from people, who describe quite weird behaviour from friends or lovers, and the next thing out of their mouths is, “But that’s just how they are. I just put up with it because I can’t do anything about it.”
Which, of course, is true. You can’t change another’s behaviour. But that’s not the whole story. I will ask, “So, what are you getting out of the relationship?” Puzzlement. Then, “Well, s/he’s my friend!” And then another description of weird behaviour: the person expects unlimited attention, or never wants to do what my client wants to do, or is verbally abusive [a distressingly common one.]
I repeat, “And what are YOU getting out of the relationship?” Sometimes I have to ask a half dozen times. Then, the light goes on.
“I’m supposed to be getting something from my relationship?”
Of course you are!
And this is only possible if you’re awake enough to notice what you are accepting, or getting, in terms of every experience, especially from your friends.
Let me toss in a caveat: employment is a special case. We differentiate between personal and political, and work is a political environment. By that I mean that work operates as a hierarchy. The point of work is to “perform tasks that ‘sells’ whatever the business considers its product.” It’s not designed to be a place for personal relationships. So, the rules your mom taught you—play nice, share your toys and so on—work fine at the work place.
Many people get all confused about this, and focus in on ‘the personal’ when at work. Despite spending eight hours a day with these folk, the point of the gathering is not to create friends. It’s to get the job done.
That said, what goes on outside of work is fertile ground for working on you. And this applies to all personal relationships—spouses, friends, even acquaintances. Friends provide a mirror for who you are and how you operate in the world. And you provide a mirror for them—through honesty, openness, and trust.
The real issue
So, how much do you trust your friends, and how deep can you go with them? You are a reflection of your friends, and vice versa. Others definitely see the company you keep and, fairly or unfairly, evaluate you on the basis of that. But that’s really a side issue. The REAL issue is this: we don’t have a long time on planet Earth, and there is much to experience, to learn, to share, and to use as building blocks for our character. Our friendships ought to feed our desire to dig deeply and share openly. No doubt, we discover who we are through interaction. And reflection.
The other side of the coin
Being a Zen guy, I’m all for meditation, and other ‘solo’ activities designed to help us to see the workings of our minds. The other side of the coin is my willingness to bring what I am discovering ‘into the world’, as I interact with others. For that, the people I choose to be intimate with pretty much need to be on the same path as I am. Otherwise, time is wasted and nothing is learned.
To say it again, most of the people I come across have blocked themselves from ever having such relationships. Intimacy and honesty is both revealing and scary. Trusting another enough to show that person your growing edges can be frightening. Many people are so fearful that they surround themselves with people who are quite happy to keep things superficial—and at the end of the day [or night], feel alone in the presence of another.
Time we took a closer look
- Have a look at your closest relationships. Ask yourself: what am I getting out of this relationship? Do I feel warm and close to this person? Am I willing to share myself with this person? Is this person interested in my personal development, and am I supportive of theirs? Is s/he honest and trustworthy?
- If some of your relationships have been rocky, ask yourself: What is in this for me? What am I learning about myself and the world? Am I receiving encouragement, or am I being “guilt-ed” into doing things I regret later?
- Make a list of relationships:
- that are positive and growth-affirming.
- that need work.
- that are ‘past their prime’ and require ending.
- Work on a strategy to end the relationships on the third list. This requires honesty and firmness.
One at a time, sit down with people on the second list, and be truthful about what you want in the relationship.
Talk about honesty, sharing, and growth, and see if the person is interested, or would rather keep things superficial. If the latter, consider the cost/benefit of maintaining the friendship [all relationships cost us something in time and energy, and we have limited resources of both, so choose wisely] If the former, you now have a friend to hang out with occasionally.
This ‘going through the list’ thing may seem strange, but it’s important—it gets you past passively accepting your current state of affairs. This process means that you are choosing your friends and choosing the ‘look and feel’ of your relationships.
Lastly, for your first category—positive and growth-affirming relationships—again have a conversation. This time it should be about taking the relationship deeper—so, talk about being more open, honest, and vulnerable. Check with each other about successes and failures, listening with empathy and caring. Needless to say, your principal relationship needs to be in this latter category.
This was first published in the August 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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