There is a popular view of relationships floating around that goes something like: “No one has the power to make you feel anything.” Or, “Nobody can make you feel bad without your permission.” Is this true or a setup to feel bad when we are affected by people?
Ok, I get it. There’s a kernel of wisdom in this advice, as shortsighted as it is. Someone hurls an insult, spits in our face, or thinks we’re despicable. How do we react? If there is no strong self to meet these assaults, we might have a shame attack—concluding that there is something wrong with us or that we deserve such treatment. Ruled by such beliefs, we see others as powerful and view ourselves as helpless victims.
However, what we feel is what we feel. Still, our initial experience of shame, fear, or hurt doesn't need to spin out of control. We can learn to relate to current events in a more empowered way. We can cultivate self-acceptance and self-love. We can practice self-soothing and self-regulation, perhaps through meditation or some activity that calms us. We can create a boundary that protects us from insensitive people. Their unkind words say more about them than us.
But what we cannot do, unless we’re the Buddha, is to have no initial bad feeling when someone says or does something hurtful. Striving to protect ourselves by being ruggedly independent and separate is not how we’re wired.
Modern neuroscience and Attachment Theory suggest that radical self-determination is unrealistic and promotes an inflated view of our power. We are an intimate part of the web of life. Rather than strive for a questionable independence, our challenge is to find freedom and empowerment by weaving our autonomy with the intimacy we long for.
The research behind Attachment Theory offers compelling evidence for how we thrive when we’re connected. We can get lost in the semantics of whether or not we can “make” each other feel anything. But the truth is that we unavoidably affect each other with our words, our tone of voice, and our actions.
Our sensitive nervous system is attuned to our environment. When real or imagined danger lurks, we fight, flee, or freeze. When we feel safe, we relax and relish warm connections with our fellow humans. Our emotional and spiritual well-being invite us to drop our defenses and enjoy rich connections that nourish us and boost our immune system.
We are human beings with sensitive hearts. Striving for an existence where we are unaffected by other people is to create a defensive structure and armoring that protects us not only from pain but also from life’s tender joys. The resulting sense of isolation creates anguish.
We have the power to hurt each other or support each other. Maturity means taking responsibility for how we affect people. The path toward a more fulfilling life is not to withdraw into an inner fortress. It is to allow ourselves to be touched by our interactions—to be mindful of the emotional reactions that relationships trigger in us and to engage with our inner experience in a gentle, friendly way.
Living in relationship invites us to practice the art of dancing with fire, as I entitled my book. Our way forward is not to strive to be unaffected by people and view that as strength and maturity, but rather to navigate through the fiery emotions that relationships bring up in us. We find our way toward each other as we stay connected to ourselves and skillfully respond to each other in an authentic way. The key to fulfilling relationships is to notice how we’re touched by each other, hold those feelings gently, soothe ourselves as necessary, and communicate our inner experience in a non-blaming way.
We affect others; others affect us. The good news is that we don't have to berate ourselves with the belief that we should be unmoved by unkind words or acts. We can honor what we feel and communicate our feelings and needs in a way that balances our autonomy with a vibrant and alive intimacy.
© John Amodeo
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.