Our relationships have a powerful effect on everything from how we feel to how we see ourselves to what our days look like.
In other words, our relationships are paramount to our mood, energy levels, sense of self—and, of course, our lives.
But how often do you take the time to think about how your relationships are affecting you?
Maybe you think about a specific relationship when you’re upset with that person, or when you’re happy with them. However, if we don’t have a particularly strong reaction, one way or the other, we usually just go about our days.
Psychotherapist Linda Graham, MFT, has an excellent exercise in her new thoughtful, thorough book Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty and Even Disaster that helps readers examine our relationships with all sorts of individuals.
As Graham writes, “Just as the brain regularly clears out atrophied neurons to make room for new healthy neurons, just as we clean out our closets or the garage to make room for new things, just as we temporarily clear our calendars to travel and experience something beyond our daily routine, so, too, it is useful to consciously prune the relationships we have accumulated over time, letting go of those that no longer nourish us or support our resilience. Just as gardeners prune trees, shrubs, and flowers to make room for a new season’s growth, we honor what has been, choose what to continue and make room for the new.”
Consider trying Graham’s invaluable exercise to explore your relationships with the individuals that surround you:
- List all of your current relationships, which you might organize in this way: family and friends; neighbors and acquaintances; colleagues and coworkers; and business and service providers.
- Recategorize everyone by the following: the joy and delight that you experience from interacting with them, even if the interactions are infrequent or rare; the meaning you derive from your interactions or from giving or receiving care; the loyalty in the relationship, such as the history, memories, obligation; and the benefits of the relationship to you and to the other person.
- Take out a large piece of paper, along with different colored pencils, markers or crayons, and draw a mind map. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes to complete this step. In the center, draw a bubble that represents you. Next draw bubbles representing the other individuals. “You’re not judging them or the relationships, just playing.” Create different shapes, colors and sizes of bubbles for each person.
- Take some time to reflect on your map. “Notice the size of bubbles for various people, their proximity or distance from your bubble, and whether the bubbles are bright or muted colors. Let this map of current connections soak into your unconsciousness.”
- Use your map to help you make deliberate decisions about these relationships, such as: “which relationships you want to nourish, set limits around, or let gently fade into memory.”
Even if you don’t do this exercise, get curious about your relationships. Think about how they’re affecting you. How do these individuals lead you to feel? Why?
Are these relationships adding to your life? Or are they creating stress and overwhelm? Are they taking time away from what really matters to you? Where do you need to set boundaries? Where do you need to say no—or say yes?
You also can explore your own role in these relationships: Who would you like to reconnect with and spend more time with? Who would you like to support and encourage more? What relationship issues can you take responsibility for, and work on resolving? How can you communicate your needs more clearly? How can you listen better? How can you empathize?
Relationships are ever-evolving. Because we are ever-evolving. Because life is ever-evolving. Which means that it helps to think about them from time to time. It helps to check in with yourself about how you’re feeling about those relationships. It helps to better understand your own role in the way those relationships are functioning. And it helps to examine whether these relationships are a source of support—or the exact opposite.
Because once you have a better, maybe even deeper, understanding of the state of your relationships, you can start taking helpful actions. Actions that nourish the connections that are meaningful. And actions that nourish the meaningful connection with yourself.