Looking At Your Relationships And Applying Mindfulness
So how have you done so far? Are you paying attention to yourself? Are you noticing things that might be getting in the way of having the relationships you’d like? Especially if you’ve been practicing the skill of being mindful that you learned in previous article , you may have gained some insight into and awareness of what’s preventing you from being effective in your relationships; but if you haven’t had any aha moments yet, don’t worry—in this chapter we’re going to take a closer look at what some of those problems might be. Hopefully you’ll be able to relate to some of the issues you read about here, and will come to see how these issues can get in the way of healthy relationships.
Relationships: Healthy or Unhealthy?
When you think about how you’d like your relationships to be, what comes to mind? I think the defining word for me is “balance,” which for many things is almost synonymous with “healthy.” So let’s take a closer look at what we mean when we say we want our relationships to be balanced, or healthy. Along the way, you’ll meet some teens who have a variety of problems in their relationships.
In any relationship—whether it’s with your friends, your parents, your teachers, or others— communication is key. If you don’t communicate properly, you’ll find yourself in all sorts of trouble. Think about a time that happened to you. Perhaps you were speaking to a friend and said something she misunderstood, and she became angry with you; maybe you sent a text or e-mail that was misinterpreted and resulted in hard feelings. When you’re communicating with others, it’s important to be as clear and concise as possible and to check your own perceptions of what’s happening\ in order to avoid misunderstandings. Let’s look at Carter’s story as an example of how ineffective communication can have negative consequences for relationships.
Carter is seventeen years old. Ever since he can remember, he’s had problems with anxiety and anger, and he can become very aggressive when he’s trying to get his point across. It doesn’t help that he has a hard time expressing things to the people he cares about because he worries they’ll become angry with him; the result is that he tends to stuff things down and ignore his emotions until a situation becomes too much for him to bear, and then he blows up. He’s been known to throw things when he’s angry, and Merrin, his girlfriend of two years, recently told him that if he doesn’t get his anger under control, she won’t want to be with him anymore. She admits to being fearful of him when he gets angry.
His anger has also affected Carter’s friendships. He used to be in a band with three other guys his age; they had been playing together for about two years and were doing well, and had even done small tours the last two summers. One night the four of them got into a fight. Carter’s anger got the better of him; he broke some of their equipment and said some really hurtful things to his friends related to issues he had avoided addressing, rather than talking to them before his anger and resentment built up. Carter’s friends ended up telling him they wanted him out of the band, and they haven’t spoken to him since. Not only did he lose his band and the equipment he broke, but he lost three good friends as well.
We’ll take a closer look at how to communicate in a more balanced, assertive way next articles; but for now, ask yourself: do you communicate effectively, or do you think poor communication might be getting in the way of your ability to be effective in your interactions with others?
Healthy relationships involve balanced limits, which means that you give to, as well as take from, the other person. Sometimes people get into a pattern of taking all the time—for example, expecting your best friend who just got her driver’s license to drive you to school every day or your mom to have dinner ready for you the minute you get home from band practice. When you regularly count on another person to give to you, you often begin to take that person for granted. You might forget to express appreciation for what the person is doing for you, and your attitude might become one of expectation rather than gratitude. Usually, when this is the case, that person starts to feel unappreciated and resentful, which can cause problems in the relationship in the long run.
Can you think of a time when you were on the receiving end of this attitude? When you felt taken for granted by people in your life, when they seemed to just expect you to do something for them? Doesn’t feel very good, does it? And that’s the other side of this coin—when you’re giving all the time, you’ll start to resent the other person for taking, even if you’re the one who made the decision to do the giving in the first place. Take a look at the following story as an example.
Rebecca was thirteen when her parents separated two years ago, and she’s been struggling with her emotions since then. Her connections with both parents have been chaotic. They’ve been arguing a lot; Rebecca often feels that neither her mother nor her father understands her or even tries to, and she disobeys them frequently, which results in her being grounded and even more arguing. Now, two years later, her mom has a new boyfriend, Tom. Rebecca’s having difficulty accepting Tom; her mother has always put Rebecca’s needs first, and suddenly she can no longer count on that to be the case. Rebecca feels a lot of anger toward her mother and is resentful of the fact that sometimes her mom is spending time with Tom when Rebecca would like to spend time with her. Because she’s feeling so angry, Rebecca’s been having a hard time communicating with her mother about these issues.
It seems that Rebecca takes her mother for granted; in the opposite direction, she has a hard time setting healthy limits with her friends. She’s always giving more than taking, and she often ends up feeling used by people. For example, she bought a friend a cell phone because her friend’s parents wouldn’t get her one; now Rebecca is stuck with a monthly bill she can’t afford, and the friend no longer spends time with her. Rebecca’s friends have also gotten into the habit of coming over to her house on weekends; they know they can drink and smoke there because her mom is usually at Tom’s house. Rebecca worries that her mother will find out and she’ll get into trouble, but she doesn’t assert herself with her friends because she worries that if she does, they’ll stop wanting to spend time with her.
Rebecca’s story is a good example of how people get stuck in a trap of giving because they think that’s what they need to do in order to make others like them. But in a healthy relationship, there’s a balance of giving and taking, and neither person feels taken for granted or obligated to give. Instead, you give because you want to give, because it makes you feel good to do something for the other person. Do you think you have healthy limits, or is this something that contributes to your difficulties in getting along with others?
What exactly does it mean to have healthy self-esteem? It means feeling good about who you are and loving yourself as a person. It’s about recognizing your strengths, as well as acknowledging the challenges you have and realizing that you’re still a good person even if you make mistakes, do things you regret, fail a math test, disappoint your parents, and so on. It’s understanding that who you are is separate from what you do, and that even though you sometimes do things that you or others may judge as bad or wrong, you can still love and respect the person you are.
It’s also important to emphasize that having good self-esteem doesn’t mean that you feel you’re better or more deserving than others—rather, it translates into having a healthy respect for yourself and for others.
If you have poor self-esteem, it will usually be more difficult for you to connect in a healthy way with others. If you don’t love yourself and see the goodness in yourself as a person, it will often be difficult for you to believe that you are deserving of healthy relationships and of the respect that comes with them. You’ll probably believe that you don’t deserve to be treated well and that you always have to give in order to make someone want to continue to be your friend—like Rebecca. In reality, the more you feed into these beliefs by continually giving and by staying in relationships where you’re allowing others to treat you disrespectfully, the more your self esteem will suffer.
On the flip side, some people with low self-esteem are the ones who become bullies and treat others poorly, because that makes them feel better about themselves. Michael’s story is an example.
Michael is fourteen years old and has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He’s always felt that he’s been treated differently by teachers in school, and he is aware that he’s disrupting his class at times, but he can’t seem to help himself. Over the years, his selfesteem has suffered, and he often judges himself and feels down. He has problems at home and usually doesn’t get along with his parents, and that just adds to his loneliness and his feeling of being misunderstood. Michael has found, however, that he’s funny, and that by using his sense of humor to pick on some of the less popular kids in school, he’s been able to make some friends. His sharp tongue seems to keep his friends in line—they know that if he decides to target them, life will be miserable, at least for a while, so they do their best to stay on his good side. While Michael still doesn’t feel good about himself, and in fact often feels guilt and shame for the way he treats others, at least now he has friends and doesn’t feel like a loser at school anymore.
You can see from Michael’s story that bullying is a way for some people to try to feel good about themselves and fit in. Just as with giving too much, though, the more you put others down to try to make yourself feel better, the more other emotions will build up (in this case, guilt and shame), and you’ll end up making the situation worse. Many of the skills we’ll look at throughout this article will gradually help improve the way you feel about yourself. But ask yourself now, is this something that might be getting in the way of your ability to have healthy relationships?
Depression and Anxiety
Sometimes what contributes to low self-esteem, and makes it difficult for people to have healthy friendships, is depression or anxiety. If someone is feeling depressed, she’ll experience a low mood or sadness. Often her motivation to do things and her energy level decrease; she may have trouble sleeping, and she won’t want to go out and socialize because she doesn’t feel like it. She might feel like she doesn’t have anything to say to others, and she might fear that her friends will see she’s not her usual self.
If someone has anxiety, she may overthink things and begin to worry a lot. Her worry thoughts —What if I make a fool of myself? or People will think I’m weird, or What if no one likes me?— will often prevent her from going out and socializing with friends, or meeting new people.
Do you experience these problems? Do you find yourself feeling depressed or anxious, and notice that the thoughts associated with these feelings prevent you from doing things? Do you let these thoughts and feelings get in the way of your interactions with others? Caitlyn’s story can help you get a better idea of how such problems might be affecting your relationships.
Caitlyn is eighteen years old. She’s been bullied all through school and at some point gave up on making friends. She’s decided it’s not worth it, because she can’t trust people and they’ll inevitably end up hurting her. Caitlyn has low self-esteem because of the bullying she’s experienced, and in fact, she’s developed something called social anxiety—a fear of being in social situations—which causes her to avoid any kind of social situation as much as she can. Her worry thoughts get in the way of her even trying to meet people or make friends; for example, They’ll just end up hurting me, or I can’t trust anyone, or People don’t actually like me, so why bother trying? Caitlyn has no friends, and she constantly feels sad and lonely.
You can see from Caitlyn’s story that problems with relationships (for example, being bullied, not having friends) can certainly contribute to feelings of depression or anxiety, and that depression and anxiety can feed into problems in connecting with others. Again, many of the skills we’ll look at in this article will help with feelings of depression and anxiety, but if you think you’re depressed or anxious—and especially if you ever have thoughts of hurting or killing yourself—it is very important that you reach out to someone who can help: a parent, an aunt or uncle, or a sibling; a teacher, coach, or guidance counselor; or even the parent of a friend. You don’t have to go through these things alone, and it can help to have someone who understands what you’re experiencing.
By the way, having depression or anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean you have unhealthy relationships. If you have these difficulties with your mood and you have people you trust with whom you talk about these problems, you can still have healthy connections with others, although those connections may at times be negatively affected by your depression or anxiety. But if you don’t have people to turn to when depression and anxiety worsen, and instead you let these emotional problems control you, they will definitely contribute to unhealthy relationships.
Lack of Social Skills
“Social skills” as a category is a little more vague than the others, and it may be more difficult for you to figure out on your own whether you’re lacking in this area. One of the reasons for this difficulty is that many people feel socially awkward even though others don’t perceive them that way; in other words, their self judgment doesn’t actually fit with reality. Caitlyn, for example, tries to avoid social situations as much as possible and so probably doesn’t get much practice socializing; this, coupled with her anxiety and her history of being bullied, probably leads her to judge herself as socially awkward, even though to others, she might simply seem somewhat shy or standoffish.
Some people, however, truly haven’t developed the skills most people have in terms of interacting with others. Sometimes this is related to a mental health problem (for example, severe anxiety or even a mild form of autism); often it’s less serious, and related to factors like poor selfesteem or a lack of practice or opportunities to learn how to be appropriate and comfortable in social situations.
So what do we mean by social skills, exactly? People who are lacking social skills or who are socially awkward often say things or behave in ways that are considered inappropriate by the people they’re interacting with. They may crack jokes that seem tasteless to others or laugh at things that others don’t find funny; they may bring up subjects that don’t seem appropriate given the people they’re speaking with; they may spill their guts about all their problems to people they don’t know very well. People lacking in social skills often don’t pick up on the social cues being given to them by others, such as body language and facial expressions—for example, they may stand too close to others when they’re speaking; not pick up on someone else’s discomfort regarding a certain topic as other people might, which would likely lead to a change in subject; or regularly interrupt others while they’re speaking, and so on.
Again, because whether you’re socially awkward is something that’s often difficult to determine on your own (either because you’re overly sensitive about it and your self-judgments cause you to think you’re socially awkward when you’re not; or because you simply have no awareness that you indeed do have difficulties in this area), it’s a good idea to check it out with someone you trust. Explain to a parent, sibling, friend, relative, coach, teacher, or someone else you trust that you’re trying to learn skills to help you improve the relationships in your life, and ask if that person can give you any feedback about why you might have troubles in this area. Does she see you make mistakes she can point out for you to learn from? Knowing you in whatever way she does, is there any advice she can give you that might help you improve your social skills? You can also ask her to give you feedback if she notices problematic things you’re doing as you interact with her. And try to remember to not judge yourself if this is an issue. Instead, congratulate yourself for your openness in discovering at least part of the problem, so that you can begin to work to change it.
Variety of Relationships
Something else that contributes to the health of relationships is the variety of personal connections you have in your life. Some people don’t have anyone they would consider a friend, often because depression, anxiety, or low-self-esteem has prevented them from putting themselves in situations where they could meet people with whom they might develop friendships. If you don’t have many friends in your life, you’ll be more reliant on the family or friends you do have, which can take a toll on those people. The more people you have in your life, the less you have to rely on any one person, and the healthier the relationships you have will be—you won’t have the same tendency to take any one person for granted, but instead will value the time you spend together.
Do you ever notice that you have people in your life who get on your nerves? That when you spend too much time with them you start to annoy each other? That’s a good sign that you need a break from those people—but it’s hard to take a break from one person if you don’t have others in your life with whom you can spend time. Connecting with others is very important to us as human beings, and isolation actually has negative consequences—not only for our emotional health, but also for our physical health. So consider the relationships you have in your life currently—not just how healthy or balanced they are, but the number of them. Do you have enough to satisfy you in your life? In fact, it’s not a bad idea to actually list the people you have in your life in each of these categories:
- Family supports (family members you rely on and know you can turn to for support when needed)
- Close friends (friends you can count on and confide in)
- Social friends (friends you may not be very close with, but with whom you do social activities and whose company you enjoy)
- Mentors (people you look up to, role models; for example, coaches, teachers, family members)
- Community supports (for example, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, or leaders of groups you belong to)
Don’t worry if you repeat some names in certain categories; this list is simply meant to help you assess the relationships you have in your life. Also, remember that everyone has different needs socially, so your list might not look the same as a list your best friend or your sister might make. What you need to keep in mind, however, is that if you don’t have enough people in your life (whatever “enough” looks like for you), the relationships you do have will suffer, and so will your emotional and physical health.
Hopefully you’ve been thinking about how much—or how little weaknesses in these areas might be contributing to your relationship difficulties. As you can see from the teens you’ve met in this chapter, people often have more than one of these difficulties, and that makes having healthy relationships extra challenging. To help you further identify what problems in your life might be holding you back from being the person you’d like to be in relationships, make sure you’re putting the techniques and skills in this article into practice. Working your way through this article while practicing the ideas you’re learning is the best way to get the most out of this experience.
Applying Mindfulness to Your Relationships
Once you’ve been practicing mindfulness for a while and are starting to get the hang of it, you can begin to bring mindfulness to help even more with the question of the problems in your relationships. This is a bit of formal and informal practice put together. Following are some guidelines to help:
- Choose an interaction to practice with; having a conversation with your parent or sibling, or with a good friend, is usually a nice, casual way to start.
- While you’re interacting with the other person, notice your own physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Be mindful of your body language (for example, are your arms crossed or your fists clenched? What’s the expression on your face?) and the words you’re using to communicate, as well as the tone and volume of your voice.
- Pay attention to the other person’s responses to you—her body language and facial expression as well as the words she’s using to communicate with you, her tone of voice, and so on.
Because this practice takes a lot of concentration, it can be helpful if you first choose someone who knows about the work you’re doing on yourself. You could even tell her you’re doing an experiment and ask for her assistance, so that after the interaction you can compare notes: What did you observe in her, and what was her actual reaction? And what did she observe in you during the interaction? Getting this kind of objective feedback can be invaluable, so much so that you may even want to take this one step further and make a video recording of the interaction so that you can see for yourself what happened: How did you look, what did you sound like, and what was the message conveyed? Did you notice things about the person, in reviewing the video, that you hadn’t noticed during the interaction? If you don’t have anyone you trust with whom you can be open about an exercise like this, just do your best to use your new skills to remain in the present moment and accepting while interacting with others. Remember, the goal right now is just to become aware of anything that may be hindering your ability to have healthy relationships with others, so pay attention!
Your Next Steps
Since slow and easy does it, your practice for this chapter in addition to the exercise just outlined is simply to continue doing the same things you’ve been doing since chapter 1: practicing mindfulness formally and informally, becoming aware and accepting of whatever you happen to notice about what’s getting in the way of healthy relationships for you.
As you interact with others, it’s important to continue to observe yourself. Notice as best as you can what your experience is during interactions, and what things are preventing you from interacting effectively. Here are some questions to think about in order to identify the problems in your life that are getting in the way of relationships:
Are you expressing yourself clearly and getting your point across?
Are you shutting the other person down in conversation by being interruptive, judgmental, blaming, or negative in other ways?
Do you have a tendency to give more than you take in a relationship and then end up feeling resentful of the other person for taking advantage of you or using you?
Or do you have a tendency to take more than you give in a relationship, so that the other person expresses feeling taken for granted and unappreciated?
Are you judgmental of yourself?
Do you feel unworthy of being treated respectfully in a relationship?
Do you worry that if you try to be more assertive about getting your needs met in a relationship the other person will no longer want to be friends with you?
Are you feeling anxious or depressed?
Are you experiencing worry thoughts or making assumptions about how the other person is going to respond?
Do you feel—or have you been told—that you’re socially awkward, not picking up on social cues the way others seem to?
Do you feel as though you don’t have enough relationships in your life?
It’s important that you have at least some ideas about what the problems might be—ineffective communication, unhealthy limits, low self-esteem, depression or anxiety, problems picking up on social cues, or a lack of relationships—before you move on to the next chapter, where we’ll begin looking at some other skills to help you improve in these areas. So if you’re still unsure about what’s preventing you from having fulfilling relationships, spend some time really thinking about these questions. Practice lots of mindfulness. If you can, ask a person you trust for input. And remember, although some of these things may be difficult to acknowledge within yourself, and to hear from someone else, identifying the problems you face is the first step in changing them.