"Nothing is more important in life than our relationships. A great relationship boosts your immune system, opens your heart, and keeps you vital and creative." — Terry Real
Relationships are at the very core of our well-being. But how do we cultivate a truly great relationship—a relationship that supports us and nourishes our souls?
We are complex creatures; relationships with others doubles that complexity. On my own path of becoming more skilled at relating, I have discovered that a healthy dose of self-reflection, self-awareness, and an understanding of my own foibles are required if I am to be truly accepting and affirming of another. Taking an honest self-inventory is hard work—no small feat on the journey to improved relational health.
The process of self-inquiry is necessary to develop a deep understanding of our own tendencies and vital to staying true to ourselves. The ultimate goal is to remain authentic in our relationship to ourselves while making room for true acceptance of our loved ones. This, of course, is much easier said than done.
We often get caught in a cycle of judgment toward one another—how do we let go of the judgmental and critical assumptions we make about ourselves and others? The stories we tell about good and bad, right versus wrong, are developed in childhood. Many of us were exposed to criticism, rejection, blame, neglect or unrealistic expectations from parents, teachers, or other significant figures in our lives.
Hardwired as a survival mechanism, risking a relational rupture and loss of connection with a parental figure is often a threat too unsafe to bear. Even when exposed to harmful behaviors, it is safer to align with the parent than to lose the connection. We choose to give up parts of ourselves in order to remain connected to the significant adult/attachment figure—at the expense of self.
We learn to operate from a mindset riddled with stories (often negative ones) about others and ourselves. We become aware of the consequences of these limiting beliefs as they begin to manifest in the form of physical pain, emotional turmoil, and difficulties in relationships.
Learning who we are and how to stay true to that self could be the way to relieving physical or emotional pain. But will we ever fully know who we are? And do we need to?
What if seeking authenticity is a lifelong process, a peeling away of layers, like an onion—on the journey toward—rather than an absolute knowing. What if this process is actually about letting go of story after story, on a quest toward acceptance? Clearing the lens so we can see with purity and clarity. With clearer vision, we can truly see and relate to those we love in a healthier way.
How do we let go of stories and the perceptions that feed them?
I am aware that my stories intensify under stress. This is why I have found it helpful to examine how I respond when life gets challenging. What do I feel in my physical body? Is my heart rate rising? Do I feel pressure, tension, or numbness? How about my emotional state? Are my thoughts spiraling, calling up past experiences and wounds? What do I actually do? It is always helpful to slow down. Tune in. Get present. Only then can I take a moment to ask, "What can I do differently right now? Can I be honest and vulnerable?" As I develop the willingness to be vulnerable, sowing compassion for myself and for others, I am more capable of overcoming hurts, remembering we are all at various stages of learning and growing.
I like to imagine we all carry an invisible backpack that contains all our past and present hurts and struggles. Rather than react when a loved one activates a wound I carry in my backpack, I can choose to slow down and take a breath, remembering they also carry a backpack. At times our packs are heavy, laden with unresolved challenges. A little compassion and gentle regard for the weight we all bear goes a long way in attempting to love and accept unconditionally. When I am willing to interrupt old patterns, I am more capable of creating change.
Most, if not all of us, have experienced relational wounding of some sort. The path to relationship mastery is one of trial and error, where small victories and setbacks teach us to practice flexibility, take inventory, and repair quickly. In slowing down, we can repattern—creating new patterns, one micromovement at a time. We are works in progress, and I believe that well-being can be measured by the quality of our relationships.