Tag Archives: relationship

Leave It Better Than You Found It

I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.

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This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.

This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.

So, what does that mean?

If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.

Been there, done that. Not doing it again.

If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.

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Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.

Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.

Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.

I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.

If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.

Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.

We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”

An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.

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Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.

Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:

  • Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
  • Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
  • Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
  • Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
  • Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
  • Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
  • Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
  • Do I have expectations of others?
  • Am I highly invested in the outcomes of choices that others make?
  • Am I being honest about who I am and giving freely from my authenticity?
  • Can I be wrong? Do I know how to say I’m sorry? Do I take responsibility when I’ve hurt someone? Can I accept an apology? Can I practice forgiveness?
  • Can I be honest about my feelings?
  • Do I use my power to make others bigger or silence and diminish them?
  • Do I keep my word?
  • Am I able to give and take gracefully and equally?
  • Do I value the needs of others as much as I value my own?
  • Can I bless the ground between us?

I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.

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We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.

Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.

As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.

Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.

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Sharing Happy

Is it possible to share our happiness? More specifically, is it possible for me to share the things that make me happy with others? I ask because my immediate answer to the first question is yes, of course. My immediate answer to the second question is no. Well, rarely. Let’s say rarely.

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Martin Seligman makes a statement in his book, Authentic Happiness, that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. He writes that seeking out others to share our happiness with, and telling them how much we value the moment “is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.”

I’ve struggled all my life with an intense desire to share my happiness with loved ones and an inability to do so.

It works well the other way. For me, one of the joys of connection is allowing myself to become enlarged by the presence of others. I’ve always loved being exposed to what those around me enjoy: new music, new movies, new books, new ideas and new ways of doing things. All my close relationships have made me bigger and contributed to who I am in this moment, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

But I rarely seem to find reciprocity. Or flexibility. Or curiosity. Or something. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Is it that the things that make me happy are stupid, or inappropriate, or boring? Is it something about me? Is it that some people don’t value sharing emotional experience and joy and I have a genius for wanting to connect with those kinds of people?

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Maybe some people have no happiness to share?

My inability to share my happiness and enjoyment with others has left me with a painful feeling of guilt, as though it’s disloyal or a betrayal if I enjoy something others can’t. Or won’t. Guilt turns me inward; I pursue my happiness in secret, stifling my longing to share it, struggling with feelings of rejection and resentment. I show up in their lives to share. Why don’t they want to with me? Am I needy? Demanding?

Around and around I go as I think about this, getting nowhere useful.

When I encounter a hairball like this in my life, I look at it through the lens of power dynamics. The fact is I know what makes me happy. I value experiencing the happiness and delights of others. Both are entirely within my power. I do long to share my own happiness, but sharing requires the participation of another, and that is not in my power.

Guilt and shame are not useful burdens to carry around. My happiness takes nothing away from anyone else. Making myself unhappy doesn’t ease someone else’s unhappiness. Hiding my happiness doesn’t seem like a useful choice. As for resentment, holding on to that only hurts me.

Another problem with my strong desire to share my own happiness is that it reinforces people pleasing. I tie myself into knots thinking about exactly the right timing and approach in order to get someone else to be interested in sharing something I enjoy. Or I tie myself into another kind of knot trying to optimize what I think makes others happy, regardless of the personal cost to myself. If we can’t share happiness, and if something other than what I have to offer gives someone happiness, I disappear as much as I can so there’s maximum room for whatever I think is most wanted.

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It sounds so easy. Find someone to share our happiness with. Tell them what the moment means to us. Enjoy the pleasure.

What am I doing wrong?

As I think about this, I wind up in a familiar place—with myself. Exploring happiness during these last weeks has made me newly conscious of my experience. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve gradually learned to befriend and care for myself, replacing old habits of self-destruction and self-loathing. I see now that much of what I’ve done for myself, rather than waiting for someone to read my mind and do it for me, or give me permission to do what gives me pleasure, have been the same things that make me happy. It’s just not a word I’ve felt very friendly with or applied to myself before.

I’ve thought about all this during my Thanksgiving break. I spent hours and hours cutting greens and making holiday decorations. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. I enjoyed it because I love working with my hands, giving gifts, and sharing (there’s that word again) the glory of our evergreen trees and the spirit of the season. It was stressful and uncomfortable because I feel so much anxiety about sharing those things that give me such pleasure. Would I be making people uncomfortable, imposing a gift return obligation? Were the decorations ugly or inappropriate in some way? Would people already have wreaths and decorations and have no use for them? Were they too much? Too little? People probably can and have made or bought something much better.

This is familiar territory, as it’s always the background to posting on this blog. I push through it when I’m writing, but I usually talk myself out of giving spontaneous creative gifts. I decide whatever I want to do is a dumb idea, a waste of time, and, frankly, it’s too scary to be that vulnerable and risk rejection, misunderstanding, or making someone uncomfortable.

It’s too scary to share the things that make me happy.

Sigh.

Working with Seligman’s book and thinking about happiness has changed things. I decided I was going to do something I love to do, share my enjoyment with others, and damn the consequences, or, better yet, completely let go of outcomes. Even if what I made gets thrown directly into the fireplace, what have I lost? My enjoyment of gathering, making, and giving remains intact. My happiness and expression of love are still free in the world instead of hidden and imprisoned in my own heart.

Sharing happiness. My daily crime.

Visual Noise

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Visual noise is a term I’ve been looking for all my life. I’ve always hated shopping, even as a child. I’ve always been overstimulated and overwhelmed by too much auditory noise (is that redundant?). I’ve never liked crowds or being in crowded places. One of the most joyful experiences of my life was creating a home for just me. For five years I had complete control of visual (and other) noise in my living space.

Now, looking back through the lens of my practice of minimalism, even that home seems, in memory, crowded and visually noisy, and I’ve let go of much of what I had in that space.

For most of my life, though, I’ve lived with others, and done my best to negotiate a workable compromise between my stuff and their stuff. With adolescent boys, the problem was simple. I reminded myself it was not forever and closed their bedroom doors. Firmly. I could still hear the mutter and growl of what was behind the closed doors (and I’m not talking about the boys), but I could live with it. For a while.

With partners and husbands, my strategy has always been to take on complete responsibility for cleaning and homemaking, thereby retaining at least some control of our shared space and what was in it. Husbands got a private room of their own, like an office, that I stayed out of. I took care of the rest.

Living with someone is give and take, we all know that. I don’t mind cleaning and I love making a home, so I’m accustomed to taking responsibility for most of the housework, especially those tasks I know any given roommate cares nothing about. I’ve even come to terms with my efforts largely being ignored or invisible. I’m clear that I’m working for myself. (Thank you, self!)

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On the other hand, housework is easily dealt with and doesn’t take much time if our home is uncluttered and organized. Every single object we have requires energy, space and time for care. As the clutter builds up, so do dirt, dust, time wasted looking for things, and the burden of housework. Home becomes one more stressor to deal with rather than a haven of rest and peace.

Visual noise, like everything else, occurs on a sliding scale. My current home is much less cluttered than it was when I moved in, and I’ve pushed a camel through the eye of a needle for every bit of that improvement (improvement as defined by me, of course!). I’m still not where I want to be with it, but I’m closer. Still, I periodically feel exhausted by the struggle and apathy looms as my patience and sense of connection to what’s important in life are ground away by my constant battle with stuff.

It also means I’m chronically inhabiting a mindset I suspect many women are familiar with: Am I being ridiculous? Demanding? Controlling? Oversensitive? Unloving? Why can’t I just ignore the clutter? Why can’t I be different, or get over it? Why can’t I focus on the long list of what’s good and does work in my life?

It’s a miserable mindset, and the more I try to control myself and not feel what I feel the more resentful I get.

Ugh.

I’m well aware that not everyone struggles with this. On the other hand, I’m not making it up. Visual noise is A Thing for some people, and I’m one of them. I’d find life much easier if I wasn’t one of them, but there it is. Furthermore, we know that clutter causes stress and takes a mental toll, at least for some people.

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How do I explain my struggle to someone who doesn’t experience any problem at all with four filthy old remotes for vanished audiovisual equipment sitting on a cluttered, undusted living room shelf?

The worst thing about the whole issue is that I feel hopeless about finding a solution. Of course there are always choices. I don’t have to live in any particular place with any particular person, after all. The thing is, I don’t want to live anywhere else. I just want to have more power to control my space. Not all the power, but equal power.

Ever since I learned about needs I’ve come back to this point. If my needs conflict with the needs of someone I’m close to, whose needs get taken care of? How does that get negotiated? How do we manage power around sharing space, or raising children, or dealing with extended family over the holidays, or a depressingly long list of other life experiences when there’s a conflict of needs?

I confess I’m exhausted by the prospect of such negotiations. I already feel like I’m shouting as loudly as I can and can’t get heard. It’s a thousand times easier to suck it up, say nothing, and exercise my excellent self-control. In other words, I roll over. Yikes. I hate admitting that. In many ways I’m a stalwart warrior, and if someone demanded I roll over, I’d die before I did it. But when gentle remarks or pushes about clearing shared space gets no response, I just give up for the sake of peace. For the sake of relationship. For the sake of connection.

This is exactly like enabling. In the moment, the easiest thing to do is go with the flow. In the long term, though, I wind up resentful and burned out. The relationship suffers; I just delayed it a little. Visual noise builds and builds until it obstructs my feeling of connection with others and myself and distracts my focus and attention. I can’t hear or see anything else. I begin to feel as though I’m fighting for my life. Here’s what visual noise sounds like to me:

  • Manage me or don’t manage me. I’ll use you up either way.
  • We objects are more important than you and real life; you cannot possibly compete with us.
  • There’s no room for you; you don’t belong here.
  • You cannot escape us; you’ll be gone before we are.
  • You are powerless.

I have no answers. Perhaps the issue of visual noise is under the heading of Relationship Challenges that many of us experience and is not solvable. I wish with all my heart I could be different, and neither notice nor care about piles and shelves and cupboards of stuff.

Dealing (not very well) with visual noise. My daily crime.

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