It is well established that the quality of our relationships with others is a key factor to our mental health and overall wellbeing. With this in mind, we can all benefit from reflecting on this important domain of our lives by identifying what inhibits us from enjoying even more intimacy and connection with other people. Of course, the barriers to deeper and more satisfying relationships vary from one individual story to the next, but two helpful themes to consider are habits and shame.
When it comes to habits and daily routine, many of us orient our lives towards efficiency and productivity rather than presence and relationship. This is understandable as the strong current of our hurried, individualistic culture pulls us in these directions. An anxious employee might find that eating lunch in her cubicle allows her to worry less about the unrealistic expectations of her superior, but the practice comes with a significant relational cost. The headphone-wearing college student who lifts weights by himself misses out on the camaraderie of group fitness classes. The person who spends most evenings drinking in isolation certainly is not maximizing their sense of belonging and connectedness. The adjustments needed may be drastic or subtle, but we can all consider how we might form new habits that are more conducive to relating and connecting with others.
Shame is an even more fundamental and pervasive obstacle to intimate relationship. As we hide parts of ourselves from others out of fear of judgment and rejection, we build self-protective but isolating walls between us and the people around us. As many others have noted, vulnerability is an antidote to shame. By voicing our shortcomings or even simply acknowledging our areas of pain to safe people, we deepen our relationships and lighten the heavy burden of carrying these things by ourselves, freeing us to connect with more ease. With less shame on our shoulders, our topics of conversation tend to expand beyond the weather and sports. Practicing vulnerability is an uncomfortable but very worthwhile endeavor as it decreases shame and increases connection.
Taking an hour out of your week to be open with a psychotherapist is an excellent way to begin addressing both the areas of habits and shame that may be keeping you from enjoying more satisfying relationships and a more fulfilling life in general.
Sometimes we resist making changes that we know would be good for us. For example, the person who struggles with substance abuse continues to drink despite experiencing multiple consequences. The business executive who feels overwhelmed by work repeats her pattern of neglecting self-care and rest. The young adult avoids breaking up with their significant other, although the relationship clearly is not working out. Our stories come with unique challenges, but resistance to change is a common thread that runs through many of our struggles. So, why is change so hard for us?
One aspect of our resistance to change has to do with self-preservation. As Lori Gottlieb writes in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, “We can’t have change without loss, which is why so often people say they want change but nonetheless stay exactly the same.” Change involves losing what we know in exchange for something we do not yet know. Richard Rohr expresses a similar idea in Breathing Underwater: “Surrender will always feel like dying, and yet it is the necessary path to liberation.” We often prefer to remain on the path we know in order to maintain a sense a safety and control, even when that path does not lead to the destination that we actually want for ourselves.
As with any adventure into unknown and uncomfortable territory, we need to truly believe that the path of change is better than the more familiar path of stagnation and comfortability. Highlighting the benefits of making the change as well as the consequences of not doing so can increase our motivation to actually carry it out. Also much like journeys into foreign lands, our efforts to change are enhanced by the company, support, and accountability of others. By more clearly seeing our need for change and opening ourselves up to the support of others, we are much more likely to make and maintain important changes that allow us to live lives that more closely align with our values. We can make those difficult changes, even when it is hard.
This time of year is special as we both reflect on the past and look ahead to the future. What did we learn about ourselves, including our strengths and shadows? What changes did we make that give us an increased sense of hope? Where do we want to go from here?
We can ask ourselves these questions any time of year, but the turning of the calendar year naturally lends itself towards meaningful reflections and conversations.
Instead of jumping to establishing new goals (e.g., new year resolutions), a more effective way to focus our year-end reflections is to consider our values and assess how closely our lives align with them. In accordance with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), by values I mean “global qualities of ongoing action” that point us towards the lives we would want to live if nothing were standing in our way. They are the kinds of phrases we would like written on our epitaphs (i.e., “She loved her friends and family with patience and kindness”; “He played music with joy and creativity”’; “She led her business with self-awareness and generosity”).
Some of us have not paused to reflect on what we truly value in different domains of our lives, which can lead towards a feeling of lostness or “going through the motions”. Others of us know what we want in life, but we find ourselves getting off track due to our avoidance of difficult thoughts and feelings, addictions, and unhelpful beliefs about ourselves and the world. This can be quite frustrating, disheartening, and shame-inducing.
It is only human to drift away from values, but perhaps the most truly human thing we can do is carefully assess them and take intentional action towards realigning with them. With an increased awareness of our values and what keeps us from living them out, we can better navigate life and approach the potential and purpose that we long for.
Sometimes it is helpful to conceptualize alcohol as a person with whom we have a relationship. Many heavy drinkers and people in recovery are already accustomed to thinking about alcohol in this way. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like, “Alcohol was my constant companion, until it turned against me”. Think about the Brad Paisley country song titled, “Alcohol”.
Much like we evaluate the people in our lives and the ways we are shaped by them, we can do the same with alcohol. For many casual drinkers, alcohol is like an acquaintance whose company is enjoyable, but life would not be disrupted if they moved to another city. We rarely take time to reflect on the nature of our relationships with these people, and we certainly don’t anticipate ever experiencing conflicts with them.
Others have built more of an intimate friendship with alcohol over the years. You got into some trouble together during the college years, but these days the friendship is conducive to the responsibilities, goals, and values that you carry with you in life.
And yet for others, alcohol is like a secret lover with whom they only relate behind closed doors. For them, alcohol has taken priority over the things they truly care about the most: their marriage, spirituality, and career. Perhaps this secret lover has even showed up to their workplace unannounced.
Maybe I have overextended the metaphor a bit, but I hope my point has been clear: We can all benefit from taking a moment to reflect on the nature of our relationship with alcohol. Many people have taken decisive action to change their relationship with alcohol, and you can too if you are not satisfied with your current relationship.