Ask people what THEY want, and assert your role in relation to that
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
We KNOW (either deep down from experience, or because practically every psychologist or coach will say it) - the only person we have a right to "control" is ourself. We can support others, we can assist them, we can help them - and part of our input may be part of their own change - but their choices, their decisions, their desires ultimately remain under their esteem.
This is something people in rocky relationships always raise as a concern "I've done so much for them - I can't bear the thought of some other person benefitting." The first question to reflect on is - why did you focus on a "fixer upper"?
Any partnership will ultimately grow and blend, and often, especially in healthy relationships, both parties can have a positive influence. However, the choice to love, to live - to take action within their own life remains that of the other...and that is the same for you too.
Often we may be attracted to those who need a bit of "smoothing out around the edges" if we ourselves are seeking something (and perhaps do not believe we have it in ourselves to find it.) By "Helping others" we may gain a sense of focus and purpose. However, if you take a moment to re-read and understand this paragraph - you will see that in this particular instance, helping others is actually for ourselves not them...although they may benefit from the lessons, or perhaps financially, or perhaps from our gifts of emotion and generosity. When, perhaps, as that relationship comes to an end we begin to say "I gave everything and you gave back nothing..." we sometimes need to remember that we did not negotiate that sort of contract at the start of the relationship - and it DOES NOT FOLLOW NATURALLY that just because your focus is kindness and generosity that theirs is too.
I am also not saying that they will necessarily be malicious or be deliberately holding back love or gifting - but simply that perhaps that is not natural to them, or it's not what they really desire, or it's not what they believed was expected of them. (Perhaps they even did return the love you showed, but in a way that felt natural to them*).
*I have previously written about the "5 Love Languages" by Dr Gary Chapman, and you can do the test to discover yours here: www.5lovelanguages.com This approach suggests we have a preference for one or more of the 5 ways of expressing and receiving love:
- Acts of Service
- Quality Time
- Words of Affirmation
- Touch and intimacy
...and of course those we love (partners, family and so on) may have different ones. For example, I enjoy gifts - both giving and receiving, my husband scores 0 on that, but is high on acts of service...now I recognise that his fixing my car is in fact a loving gift; and rather than buying him dinner - cooking a nice meal can be even nicer! Again, this doesn't mean that we forego our desires for each other - but we recognise when love is being expressed and communicate our own needs and preferences.
Perhaps you were put off by my use of the word "contract" earlier? Yet, this is arguably one description of the implicit negotiation both my husband and I use - resulting in explicit discussion.
Being explicit with your wants is helpful for two reasons:
You both know the realistic starting point and aren't second guessing
You can decide what your own input is going to be...or perhaps how much you are willing to give
This open line of communication means that you are able to better navigate the ups and downs of life together and do so in a way that isn't the threatening "we have to talk"...because you talk anyhow!!
Another benefit with asking "What do you want?" or "what outcome are you seeking" with anyone with whom you are in a team, is so that even if you are gifted in planning, organising, managing - you are not labouring under a misapprehension, and in fact sometimes you may find you have no need to labour at all. Perhaps someone just wants you to be a friend, not a problem solver!
So this week try this:
If you feel a little stuck in a relationship because perhaps you feel your efforts are going unrecognised and are simply exhausting you - ASK those you care about "What do you want" or "What outcome are we focused on"?
BUT - and this is the real crux - THEN YOU NEED TO DECIDE ON YOUR ROLE IN RELATION TO THAT. There is no point asking if you simply think "Whatever they say - I know best."
And what find, as I am learning to do this more regularly - I have far less to "worry" about as I know where I can help I will help, as well as what is needed. AND if, sadly, some relationships have had to dissolve because I don't fit or no longer have a role - it gives me much more space for the ones that I cherish.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.
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