Let me start by telling you a story. A man is walking on the roof of a 40-story building when he accidentally trips and falls over the ledge. As he passes the 17th floor, a person inside yells out to him, “How's it going?” To which the man waves and answers, “So far, so good.”
You may find this story amusing. Why? Because you know what’s coming. The ground!
The moral of the story is that we all are falling — you too. The ground is coming all too soon. One moment you're alive, the next dead. This is probably the most sobering fact of conscious existence.
The bottom line: You have a finite amount of time in your life. In an average lifetime of 75.5 years, that translates into roughly 2.4 billion seconds, a fraction of the wealth accumulated by Warren Buffett. So, you would be wise to squeeze as many positives into your life as you can, while also eliminating as many negatives as possible.
This applies especially to your relationships life. Sadly, I all too often work with patients who contaminate their happiness by befriending people they discover to be not good for them. Worse, even after finding these people to be pernicious, they frequently continue the relationship. I work hard to empower them to make sound, rational decisions about whether or not to keep these difficult people in their lives, with their own happiness and well-being at the forefront.
Take, for example, 53-year-old Sally. Her toxic relationship is none other than with her mother. This mother has a history of being ugly to and critical of Sally, sometimes even resorting to physical violence. As a result, Sally has struggled with issues of self-worth, fears of disapproval, and depression for as long as she can remember. Chore one in her therapy focused on disconnecting her worth from her mother’s approval and repairing her sense of self. Chore two focused on Sally deciding whether or not to continue this relationship. What do you think would be the best thing for her to do?
Another example is Bob, a 67-year-old man married to a woman whose anger outbursts are as volcanic as they are frequent. He is reluctant to throw in the towel after some 40 years of marriage, especially since he suffers from medical conditions that make a live-in relationship beneficial. But, assuming this woman is not going to change, the question he would be wise to ask is, “Are the benefits of this relationship worth the costs?” What’s your opinion?
Closer to home, I think of my 16-year-old son, Gabriel. The fact that he's homeschooled, plus living in a neighborhood where there is not one kid his age, makes the friendships he's cultivated extra-precious to him. A while back, one particular friend got a burr under his saddle about Gabriel and took to ragging him – making cutting remarks, excluding him from group get-togethers, not returning cell calls. In addition to not letting this tarnish his sense of self, Gabriel also has the decision as to whether or not to continue a relationship with this individual. Right?
I think you'd agree that these three people face the same important questions. What do I do about this difficult person? Do I confront him or her with the hope of bringing about a desired change? Do I eliminate him or her? The answers to these questions are, of course, an individual matter, but they each would be wise to approach their decision by adopting the “Be The Shopper” mentality I describe below.
Be The Shopper
A metaphor I use to empower my patients to take the responsibility to make sound relationship decisions is that of the grocery store shopper. I tell them they can take the mentality of the product or the shopper. I instruct them to picture themselves sitting on the shelf, the product, like say, a can of soup, resting there, hoping to be purchased, but having little or no say in the matter. I show them how desperate and disempowering this mentality is and urge them to shift to the shopper mentality. In this mentality, I urge them picture themselves walking the aisle, being the active chooser of whether or not to buy the can of soup, consciously checking out the ingredients listed on the label to see if they’re nutritious, only purchasing what one finds likable.
This shopper mentality I urge on you. Remember that this whole blog series carries the umbrella title, “Happiness On Purpose; Strategies To Create A Life You Love To Live.” “On Purpose” are the operational words. To take the mentality of the shopper, I offer you the following five principles. These can anchor you to take charge of your life decisions, including those about who and who not to include in your life. Each one is itself powerful, but taken together, they empower you to be the shopper.
Principle 1: This Is It. This is the one and only life we know for certain you'll ever have. Not only that, your time on this earth is limited. You'd be wise, therefore, to hold each day precious and not waste even one single second with poisonous people or circumstances.
Principle 2: Life’s purpose is happiness. This is what such learned people as the philosopher Aristotle, the spiritual leader The Dalai Lama, and the great psychologist Albert Ellis have concluded. Once you accept this, it only makes sense to systematically build into your life who and what makes you happy, while concurrently eliminating who and what doesn't.
Principle 3: It's up to you. Nobody is put on this earth to insure your happiness. It's 100% your responsibility, no one else's. If others and the universe cooperate, you get a bonus. Follow the wisdom of St. Francis of Loyola: “Pray as if it all depends on God, for it does; but work as if it all depends on us, for it does.”
Principal 4: Honor yourself. While you are no more important than anybody else in this world, you would be wise to make yourself at least a bit more important to you than others are to you. This will insure that you do not fall into the self-sacrificing trap whereby you automatically defer your happiness in favor of others. To avoid selfishness, though, you concurrently put a few select others a close second — your loved ones, your dear friends, those trusted to your care — so that you also consider them in your decisions. The bottom line, though: place yourself and your happiness at the top of the heap.
Principle 5: Choose friends and lovers wisely. Include in your life only those people who aid and abet your happiness. Sure, you sometimes have to tolerate difficult people, hopefully using the strategies I have shared in previous blogs to do so with grace and aplomb. But, you want to minimize your contact with such people and only sustain relationships that advance your life’s happiness.
Once you align behind these five principles, you can then employ the following five strategies to choose your lovers and friends with care and wisdom.
1. Conduct an honest inventory. Scan the people in your life. These could be intimate others, work colleagues, or even relatively minor figures. Regardless, honestly acknowledge those relationships that are fraught with difficulty, ones that pose for you the same type decisions faced by Sally, Bob, and Gabriel. By identifying such people, you are now positioned to do something constructive about these relationships.
2. Shed your fear. Understand that fear can block you from confronting or ridding difficult and/or toxic people from your life. Search out and destroy the flawed logic that create these fears: (1) fears of disapproval — “this person must not be upset with me.” (2) fears of making a mistake — “I must not make an error as I make this decision.” (3) fears of discomfort — “I must not experience the discomfort of dealing with this person or this situation.” Ridding your fears will free you to act on your own behalf.
3. Ask two questions. Here are the two power questions to help you decide whether to enter into or continue with a relationship: (1) Do I like, care about, love, or in some ways find value in this person? If the answer to this question is “no,” then either rid this person from your life or minimize your contact to the barest necessity. (2) Is this person good for me? If the answer to this second question is “no,” then also rid this person from your life, even if the answer to the first question might be a “yes.” After all, we can like or care about all kinds of difficult, even destructive people. None of this precludes, of course, holding a heart-to-heart with this difficult person, explaining the problems his or her behavior poses for you, and letting the person know you will only continue the relationship if things change. Then it's in the other person's court, as you wait and see if changes are made.
4. Refuse to feel guilty. Do not make yourself feel guilty about the decision to not enter into or terminate a relationship with someone you find toxic. There is no universal imperative that commands you to relate to any particular person, nor is your judgment that it is not in your best interest to connect with someone a bad thing. Your responsibility is first and foremost to yourself, regardless what the other person wants or how he/she feels.
5. Water and fertilize your good relationships. Once you have shopped wisely, put energy into making the relationships you’ve chosen as vibrant and rewarding as possible. Follow the cognitive strategies I’ve laid out in my five previous blogs and the four blogs to follow that all focus on creating happiness with others.
To be happy requires, in part, for you to be happy in your relationship life. In addition to holding healthy relationship perspectives (see my last few blogs), it also involves choosing carefully whom you will have a relationship. It's your choice. Do so wisely.
Until the next blog, live healthy, happy, and with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose, and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.