Our ability to relate with people is actually a skill that needs cultivating.
Many people assume that they know how to be in relationship with people. They know how to be in relationship with their kids, their parents, their co-workers, etc. They don’t need an instruction manual.
But oftentimes, when the mind is left unchecked, relationships can become strenuous.
Notice that I said it’s when your mind is not challenged that relationships become hard. It’s not because the other person has acted outside of the norm. It’s because your ability to relate with that person hasn’t been challenged.
Here’s the main point I want to convey with this: you must consistently develop your ability to relate with people.
Don’t assume you automatically know how to have healthy relationships. It’s actually easier to have unhealthy relationships than it is to have healthy relationships. Being in relationship with people is a skill you must cultivate if you want healthy, life-giving relationships.
Before you can start developing this skill, however, you need to challenge your mind with truths you might’ve not heard before.
In a deep study of joy, I discovered three mind-bending truths that will forever change how you view your relationships. Once you learn these three truths, you will be on the path to healthy relationships.
Consider these mind-bending truths about relationships:
1. We are hardwired for empathy and friendship.
UVA psychologist, James Coan, conducted a study that proves we are hardwired for empathy. It also contains something shocking about the role of relationships in our lives.
Coan and his colleagues took a number of participants and put them in an fMRI machine to monitor their brain activity while they faced the threat of an electrical shock, to themselves first, and then to others.
As expected, the parts of the brain associated with threat response lit up when they received the threat of shock. When the strangers received the threat of shock, nothing lit up in the brain for the person in the fMRI machine. That’s because humans are heartless…just kidding.
Everything changed when Coan and his colleagues introduced the research participants’ friends into the picture. When the friends received the threat of shock, the exact same parts of the brain associated with self threat response lit up.
What does this fascinating study show? People close to us get mapped to our sense of self.
When they’re in danger, we’re in danger. The brain is naturally hardwired to practice empathy.
There’s something beautiful to this truth, and also something potentially harmful. This brings us to the second truth.
2. We can’t love others more than we love ourselves.
If people we love get mapped to our sense of self, then we can’t love others more than we love our self.
In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown argues that we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. This sounds like a controversial truth, but with the study above, it makes sense.
As parents, we love to say we love our children more than we love ourselves. But if we love our children, and hate ourselves, we’re not loving them well. Why? Because then, our children are meeting a need in us. And if they’re meeting a need, we can’t love them unconditionally. They have to meet certain conditions in order to meet those needs in us.
But if they have no effect on our self-esteem, then we can love them unconditionally.
Here’s what we can learn from this…
Those we love are attached to our sense of self. So if we don’t love ourselves well, we cannot be in a healthy relationship with them.
This means we must not only learn to give love. We must also receive love.
Love is a connection nurtured between two people. It cannot only travel one way. It must be travelled both ways. This means you can’t be the martyr in your relationships. You’re starving yourself of love, which means, you can’t allow others to see the full potential of the love you have to offer.
In the Bible, Jesus says we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Turns out, the brain is hardwired to do this. But the second call to action here is to actually love ourselves. Healthy relationships with others means we must have a healthy relationship with our self.
This brings us to the third truth…
3. Other people are not responsible for your emotions.
Just because those you love are mapped to your sense of self does not mean they are responsible for how you feel. You are responsible for how you feel and you can only control what’s underneath your own skin.
This is a revolutionary truth that can solve many relationship dramas.
In relationships, we have expectations for how people should act with us. But those expectations shouldn’t belong in the relationship because we cannot control what other people do. They control what they do. We control what we do.
Oftentimes, we blame others for how we feel. But they are entitled to do what they want to do. We control how we feel.
Here’s what this means practically…
If your co-worker does something that makes you angry, it is not their fault. Yes, we hold them accountable for wrong actions, but their action is not what made you angry. It is your thought or perception of what they did that made you angry.
When you realize this truth, you reclaim power in your life. No longer do other people become in control of your emotions. They hold no power over how you feel. You have all the power.
We must learn to share ourselves without losing ourselves.
We are designed to be in relationship with others and have empathy with them. But once we lose ourselves in our relationships and have expectations over how people should act in our lives, then we have forfeited all of our power to other people.
We must be in relationship with others without having those relationships steal all of our power. By loving ourselves well and realizing where we end and others begin, we can keep our power and maintain healthy relationships.
Applying the Three Truths about Relationships
Here’s how these three truths can redefine our relationships: we must allow people in, give and receive love, and share ourselves without losing ourselves. These are the marks of healthy, secure relationships.
But how do we practice these truths in real life? What is a practical way to be in healthy relationships with people?
First of all, embed these truths deep in your soul. Write them down as affirmations and read through them often. Let them be reminders to love yourself, love others, and not put others as being responsible for your emotions.
Then, write down a list of relationships you want to invest in.
University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist, Robin Dunbar, found that the human brain can only handle being in relationship with 150 people. Before you go writing down 150 names, catch this… Dunbar then began to reduce this number based on the strength of our emotional ties.
Dunbar discovered we can handle 50 close friends (people we might invite to dinner), 15 people we can confide in when things get tough, and 5 very best friends (the people who would do anything for you).
We need people in this 15 if we want to share ourselves and have healthy relationships. So write down a list of 15 names, and a list of 5 best friends. If you can’t come up with exactly 15 or exactly 5, that’s okay. I encourage you to write down as many as you can, even if a person is not your best friend yet. Here’s why…
By simply writing down the name of someone in your best friend category, you’re priming your brain to see that person differently. This means, you open yourself up to be more vulnerable with them and invest in that relationship more.
When we get clear on who is in our top 15, we can enjoy deep relationships that keep us primed for joy.
But here’s the trick of doing life with these 15 people… they will become mapped to your sense of self, but that does not make them responsible for how you feel. Remember, you must share yourself without losing yourself.
There’s also another challenge with these 15 people. In today’s social media world, we’ve replaced conversation with connection. This is the main argument of clinical psychologist and sociologist, Sherry Turkle.
Dr. Turkle reminds us that connection on social media is not the same as face-to-face conversation. We grow in intimacy with others when we actually talk to them, not when we like their status.
With your 15 people, you must be diligent about actually talking with them. This is how we grow these relationships.
Your Relationships Will Not Automatically Give You Joy
Many people have a self-serving view of relationships. They believe people need to call them. People need to pour into them. People need to be there for them. They shouldn’t have to reach out and always be the one pursuing a relationship with people.
But the more we hold onto this idea, the less able we are to have healthy relationships with people.
To have healthy relationships, we must be intentional about our relationships. Healthy relationships are not something that automatically happen to us and give us joy. We must work at it.
- Invest in your 15 people.
- Give and receive love.
- Don’t look for others to fulfill a need in you.
- Share yourself without losing yourself.
- Have actual conversations with people that deepen your intimacy with them.
Doing actions such as these will give you healthy relationships that produce joy. But reading these truths are easier than living them out. Challenge yourself with the truths in this article, and keep growing your capacity for healthy relationships.