None of us were taught how to have healthy relationships. In fact, most of us learned unhealthy relational skills from our parents or primary caregivers, television and media, and elsewhere. While we're all doing the best we can, as adults we need to learn new relational skills in order to create the amazing, healthy relationships we long for.
The good news is that you have a lot of agency over how your relationships feel and how healthy they are, once you learn the relational skills you need. Then, you’re not dependent on others or the universe to improve your relationships; you’re not helpless and things aren’t hopeless. The more healthy relational skills you learn and practice, the more you can create relationships that feel deeply connected, nourishing, reciprocal, and secure.
You can’t change others no matter how relationally skilled you are. But when you change how you participate in your relationships, you change your relational system. That means you can make a huge difference in the health of all of your relationships just by changing yourself.
The following is a list of common relational patterns that cause distance and disconnection with others. These patterns make relationships feel much more painful and difficult than they need to. All of these relational patterns require you to take responsibility for your part and to work on changing yourself internally and then changing the way you engage with others.
- Blaming the other instead of taking ownership of how you are co-creating the unhealthy dynamic. Most people are much more aware of the other person’s actions, perceived intent, and hurt feelings than of how they themselves are participating in creating a dysfunctional dynamic. If you focus solely on the other person, you’re going to feel stuck. If you shift to focusing on your actions instead, you’ll find ways that you can engage in a more productive way. Your power to improve lies in yourself, not in the other.
- Projecting. It's important to be aware of your projections—the assumptions you make about what others are thinking, when it’s actually your thoughts that you are attributing to others. For example, you may think all of your colleagues think you’re stupid. Maybe they do, but maybe they’re too wrapped up in themselves to think much about you at all. We can’t know what they think. We do, however, know that you think you’re stupid, or you fear that you’re stupid. You’re projecting that belief onto others, but it’s coming from you, not them. If you don’t become aware of your projections in your relationships, they lead to pain and disconnection.
- Making up stories and treating them as facts. Anything you make up about the other that you have not checked out with them is a story. Until and unless you check your stories out with the other, you don’t know what is true for them. You don’t know what they think, what their intent is, why they are reacting a certain way, why they did or didn’t do something, or anything else about them (unless you ask). It’s a relational mistake to make up stories and believe them without checking them out with the other. When you do this, you feel hurt, angry, anxious, and more., based on something that you don’t really know is true. That leads to disconnection with your partner both because you feel hurt by your stories and because you’re not involving your partner in understanding them. That’s not relational. You need to include the other in understanding them and your experience of them. If you don’t involve them, you’re having a relationship with yourself (and a painful one, with stories and assumptions that hurt you).
Now that you’re aware of some of the common relationship mistakes people make, pay attention to yourself in your relationships. Notice whether you make any of these mistakes.
The first step to change is always awareness. If you are making these mistakes, you can begin to practice healthier relational skills so you can create more nourishing relationships.
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