The Prerequisite for Transforming Personal Relationships
Many clients who I work with want to improve their relationships. This could be an intimate relationship with a spouse, a relationship with a close family member, a friendship or even at the workplace. Relationships are hugely important in our lives. I believe that connection is a need and not just a preference or a want. Maybe you want to feel a greater sense of closeness, intimacy or connection in an existing relationship. Maybe you want a new relationship that is not currently present in your life. Or possibly you want to heal a relationship that is strained.
I can bet that if you’ve attempted to improve or transform a personal relationship in your life, you’ve asked yourself some of the following questions:
What do I need to do?
What new action do I need to take to change this relationship?
What do I need to say or do to make the other person change their mind or treat me differently?
All of these questions shine the spotlight on your behavior toward another person or situation.
While this might be important, I believe something else must come first. Let’s suppose that focusing on our behavior in the external environment is similar to looking at the fruit on a tree.
Trying to change the fruit that grows from the branches will not change the inherent nature of the tree. Instead, for a new fruit to grow, one would have to look at and change the roots of the tree.
As we begin to explore and look at the relationships we want to improve and transform in our lives I believe there is a step that precedes doing something in the outside world- in relationship with the other person.
We must first look inside ourselves before we make any changes to the external environment or with another person.
This is the deep work that is often ignored or overlooked. It involves building awareness, taking accountability and looking inward at our implicit beliefs.
The World as a Mirror
Another way to understand this is to view your external relationships (with other people) as a mirror for your internal relationship with yourself and your communication with yourself.
To unpackage this, let’s consider something that Charles Horton Cooley said over a hundred years ago:
“I am not who you think I am. I am not who I think I am. I am who I think you think I am”
It took me 3 or 4 times of reading it slowly to really begin to understand what he was trying to communicate.
In a world that is very much focused on the image and appearance of things, we can find ourselves constantly looking to others or the world to give us feedback on how we’re doing.
It is easy to look to our relationships to supply us with feelings of affirmation, approval and acceptance. It is easy for us to believe that these good feelings are actually coming from “out there” and that we must go to other people to get them.
The difficult thing with this implicit belief structure is that it sets us up to be at the mercy of others opinions and behavior. When we get treated a certain way we allow ourselves to feel good and we get treated another way we feel bad.
This tends to create a deadly game and vicious cycle of “impression management”.
In this mode, one spends their energy and time doing things to manage the impression they are giving off to others and by doing so, they attempt to change and impact others behaviors and opinions.
If we are honest with ourselves, this pattern only results in feeling powerless.
We have relinquished any sense of personal responsibility for how we feel about ourselves and how we communicate with ourselves and instead, have handed it over to others and the outside world.
The answer does not involve trying to change our behavior toward others with the hopes of eliciting a different reaction out of them. Rather one must become aware of the beliefs they hold about them self.
One must become responsible for their own meaning making. Just as Charles Horton Cooley stated in the quote above, we are not defined by other’s opinions and beliefs about us, but rather our own opinions and beliefs about ourselves that we project onto others.
For example, we create the story that we’re unlovable or there is something wrong with us and we then pretend that those in our lives are the ones treating us in this way.
In other words, the very beliefs we hold about ourselves set the stage for what we experience in our relationships. Martin Rutte conveyed this simply when he said,
“You train people how to treat you by how you treat yourself”
By getting clear about our own conclusions and beliefs about ourselves, we can begin to feel differently- irrespective of the environment or others opinions and behavior.
This allows us to focus on what is within our control (our own internal self-talk, beliefs, wants, needs and values) and automatically frees us from trying to control all that is outside our control (the environment, other people’s opinions, beliefs and behavior).
In my work with clients, I have found a ton of value in focusing on one’s own internal communication and their relationship with themselves before attempting to go out into their lives and change their relationship with others.
This internal work can be quite powerful because it is about accountability and puts the focus on changing and transforming the roots, rather than the fruit. In fact, quite often, relationships with others are automatically healed and transformed as a result of this internal work.