26 April 2011

Health: Relationships and Social Obligations

In our formative years, we are subject to relationships with people we did not consciously choose. We are at the mercy of our families or guardians. Eventually, other relationships develop: teachers, babysitters, friends of our parents or guardians, etc. When we finally make it to school, we have autonomy for the first time in choosing our friends from amongst our peers. 

What criterion did we use to choose those first friends? Did we have interests in common? Did we share a similar sense of humor, cultural background or socio-economic status? Or did the people we count as friends simply make us feel good?

Soon, our relationships begin to grow more complex. The onset of puberty seems to mark a significant increase in confusing and often conflicting feelings about our friends, our families and other people in our lives. Many of our expectations become unspoken assumptions and we find ourselves crushed emotionally when others don't seem to share our sense of how relationships should work. We find ourselves having to negotiate our emerging sense of self, our values and our boundaries with what we were taught at home versus our own experiences.

As we enter adulthood, some of us may create families of our own along with an assortment of other kinds of relationships. We now have co-workers and colleagues, managers, landlords, financial advisors, and the strange, impersonal relationship with companies and service providers.

The issue that all these relationships have in common, regardless of the particular stage of life we are in, is the balance of power and obligation. When we are children, we have little, if any power over the people in our lives. We are subject to the authority of our parents, guardians, and eventually, other adults such as teachers and coaches. One of the beautiful freedoms of reaching the age of majority is that we can exercise much more personal agency in the choosing of people in our lives; but it can also be frightening to realize that degree of responsibility in choosing relationships wisely.

The overculture teaches us that some relationships remain sacrosanct, even when there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Adult children are still shamed if they decline to remain in contact with a parent who is abusive. Frequently, being a "good" family member means coming to all holiday and family events bearing gifts, in spite of travel costs or other factors. Being a "good" friend often means supporting or giving lip service to behaviors you find self-destructive or offensive. Similarly, being a "good" family member means biting one's tongue when elderly relatives make sexist, homophobic, racist  or otherwise offensive comments or jokes.

Why do we feel obligated to continue these relationships? What are we getting out of tolerating the intolerable? Why do we continue to subject ourselves to people who make us heart sick?

The root of the problem is, I believe, fear. We fear being seen as ungrateful to our families of origin. We fear being seen as judgmental, self-righteous or arrogant. We fear loneliness. It takes great courage to stand up for yourself and eliminate destructive relationships. 

Ask yourself if you feel energized, inspired and loved by your friends and your family. Do you feel supported? Do you look forward to seeing them? If your relationships make you feel tired, drained or taken advantage of, you need to reconsider the relationship. In some cases, the relationship can be renegotiated - but it requires the other person or persons being open to changing the balance of power. Other relationships are best culled.

The people in your life - especially the people you choose to surround yourself with - won't be perfect, but they should make you feel good. They should share your core values and support your efforts to live your best life and make the most out of opportunities. They should foster an atmosphere of mutual caring, consideration and self-improvment. Life is complicated enough - your relationships should be a port in the storm, not another drama with which to deal.

Imagine how much less stressed out you would be if you spent your holidays doing what you really wanted to do and with people you really wanted for company. How much more full would your wallet and bank account be if you ceased buying gifts out of obligation and instead, gave gifts because it brought you joy to give someone you loved something they would cherish? How much more relaxing would your holidays be if you didn't have to drive or fly for hours? How much happier would you be if you spent your time socializing with people who "got" you? Whom you weren't merely tolerating out of obligation?

Spend some time thinking about the relationships in your life and notice how your body feels when you consider the people in your life. Does your chest constrict? Do you feel panicked or tired? Do you feel happy, or anticipatory, or do you feel anxious? The feelings typical of stress: quickened heartbeat, tightness, especially in the chest, anxiety, fatigue, shortness or shallowness of breath - are all indicators that the relationship to that person should be reconsidered. Be courageous - choose to surround yourself with quality people!

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