The Key to Happiness? Prioritizing Your Relationship
The results are in; research has confirmed that human beings are biologically and physiologically wired to connect to others and exist in relationship with others. The science confirms something we have known intuitively to be true for some time: that to be truly seen and heard, and to feel that we truly exist, we need healthy relationships with others, whether it be with family, friends, or a romantic love partner.
In fact, Harvard Medical school’s ongoing 75-year Grant Study, the longest running study of human development in history, found that the single biggest predictor of life satisfaction is not money, power, or possessions. No, the results showed that the key to happiness is, in fact, love and connection, and warm human relationships.
What’s more, further research has demonstrated that those of us in relationships live longer and experience better health, both physically and emotionally.
So why does it still feel so hard at times to relate, to communicate, to love, and to stay in love? Here are some tips to help you take care of the most important part of your life: Your relationships.
Want an Amazing Relationship? Dig a Little Deeper…
If you want a truly exceptional relationship, the place to start might be with your personal history. The first and longest relationship we experience is usually with our parents. We absorb whatever they model for us in their relationship. You could say that when I work with a couple, I actually have six people in the room with me: the couple and each partner’s parents!
For example, if one member of a couple had parents who fought all the time, they may bring a volatile, argumentative style of communication (Read: How to Handle An Angry Partner) to their current relationship. Alternatively, they may tell themselves that they want to avoid the hostility they witnessed between their parents at all costs, so they may be excessively accommodating with their own partner. (Read: How To Communicate With a Partner Who Shuts Down). Either way, by knowing our own and our partner’s history, it can help us understand and break the relational patterns we repeat over and over without even thinking, giving us more choice in how we respond to one another in the present.
Once we understand our history and its effect on who we are now, the next goal is to foster quality communication, which helps to deepen bonds and enables people to turn toward each other instead of away when things start to heat up.
Cultivating Communication That Connects: Understanding Your Feelings
The most important skill needed to communicate more effectively is to be able to locate within ourselves what is happening for us inside—our core feeling—so that we can express it. After all, it’s never about the dirty dishes in the sink (which can be annoying!), but rather what feeling lies under the experience. Maybe the feeling is disrespect, and under that a lack of caring, and under that a core belief, “I must not matter.”
Self Awareness is Key to Healthy Communication
When we understand what’s happening inside of us, and can slow down, we can use “I statements” (“I feel disrespected when you don’t help with the dishes.”) rather than “you statements” (“You always leave the dishes for me!”). Speaking with “you statements” and accusations often makes others feel attacked so they get defensive, which is a sure fire way to shut down that all-important communication.
Instead, when a statement comes from a place of feeling, from your heart, it has more impact. I suggest that my clients always address the feelings first before they dive into other matters. It can also be helpful to listen carefully and paraphrase what you heard back to your partner.
Improve Your Communication: Expert Tips To Put Into Practice Today
Let’s put this into practice and check out the two very different conversations:
- You’re ignoring me again, like you always do after work! You’re so selfish! (“you statements” and accusations)
- No I’m not, I just had a busy day. Sheesh, why are you always on my case? (defensiveness)
- If that’s the way you feel about it, why do you even bother coming home? (escalation, denial of desire to connect)
- Fine! If you don’t want me here, I’ll leave!
Boy, that didn’t go very well. Those partners are both really feeling hurt, and are having such a hard time connecting. How might they try this differently?
- I’m feeling hurt because I felt ignored by you when you came home today. (“I statement,” identifying the feeling, no accusation)
- You’re feeling hurt because you think I was ignoring you? Is that right? (paraphrasing)
- Yes, I felt really terrible. (conflict is de-escalating)
- I see. I’m so sorry, it wasn’t my intention. (addressing the hurt feelings) I’ve been feeling worried about the big budget meeting coming up. (shares a feeling also)
- Oh, you were thinking about the meeting! (paraphrasing) I totally forgot about that. I know it’s a big deal, but I wonder if we can find a way to connect when you get home, because I miss you. (invitation for intimacy)
When we speak from the heart, understanding can begin, and that fosters connection. The truth is, we all want to be loved, appreciated, and valued in our relationships. However, this isn’t easy. After all, a good relationship takes work, but the rewards are tremendous: emotional balance, physical well-being, and the knowledge that we truly matter.
You Shouldn’t Follow Every Feeling
I’m a big fan of feelings. Feelings carry important information. Feelings help us understand ourselves, have empathy for other people, and feelings can help us live a values-based life. However, some kinds of feelings are more complicated than others. Sometimes we need to figure out if our feelings are worth listening to and taking guidance from, or if we need to override them in order to be our best selves.
Like feelings of depression or anxiety, guilt is one of those potentially confusing feelings. Believe it or not, some types of guilt are actually healthy and good; healthy guilt can help us be better people. However, some types of unhealthy guilt are not at all useful or constructive, and can even trap us in bad situations; stealing our voices and our power.
Unhealthy guilt, and it’s even nastier sidekick shame, can lead you to beat yourself up for everything. Or take responsibility for things you shouldn’t. Or heap more and more onto yourself until you buckle under the pressure. Or fail to set boundaries with people who want more from you than it’s healthy for you to give.
So figuring out the difference between healthy and unhealthy guilt is essential, in order to stay in a good place mentally and emotionally. How can you tell whether your feelings of guilt are something you should listen to, or whether you should push them away?
Understanding, and Embracing “Healthy” Guilt
First of all, what is Guilt? I think of “guilt” as being that sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you’re wrong. You’re out of line. You screwed up. And sometimes… it’s right. We all mess up sometimes.
Healthy guilt is the voice of your conscience, letting you know that you need to do better next time. In fact, responsible, caring, hardworking people tend to feel guilty on a regular basis. Conversely, people who don’t struggle with guilt often don’t have inner emotional brakes that tell them to “stop.” They may even have difficulty empathizing with others. As they sail through life, guilt free, they may never fully understand the consequences of their actions…. and hurt others in the process.
So, in that sense, guilt can be a very positive thing. Guilt helps us monitor ourselves and do well by others. However, that’s not the whole story. In addition to good, appropriate, or “healthy guilt,” there is also inappropriate guilt.
Understanding Unhealthy Guilt
Did you have one or more parents who tended to blame others for their problems, or make other people “responsible” for their actions or feelings? Blamers tend to raise children who are little guilt-factories. Even if your parents were lovely, at some point in your life you might have been involved in a relationship, or social system that was highly critical of you — leading you to doubt yourself or blame yourself for everything.
Another thing that can be true is if you are a highly conscientious, responsible, and competent person, you may tend to take on more than you can carry. When you inevitably fail — because you’re trying to do more than anyone possibly expects of you — you might feel guilty that you couldn’t do it all. (And if this is sounding familiar please oh please listen to my “perfectionism” podcast.)
If you’ve lived through these life experiences: having blaming parents, critical partners, or just being a supernaturally competent person, you may be more likely to feel inappropriate guilt, accept inappropriate blame from others, and criticize yourself for things that are not your fault.
The Consequences of Unhealthy Guilt
Toxic, unhealthy guilt bubbles up when you feel responsible for other people’s feelings or misfortune even when, logically, you have no control over the situation at all. This kind of guilt leads you to “help” others by trying to solve their problems or sacrificing your own needs in favor of theirs. Unfortunately, this only serves to enable bad behaviors, which paradoxically perpetuates long-term suffering.
Inappropriate guilt disempowers you and can lead you to stay in abusive or unhealthy situations. Guilt can tell you that standing up for yourself or setting healthy boundaries is “being mean.” Guilt can tell you to try a little harder and heap more on yourself, even in situations where you are being mistreated.
In fact, guilt and depression often walk hand in hand. This team can easily trick you into believing that everything is your fault and that you are a terrible person. Guilt may even metastasize into shame.
This kind of negative self-talk can breed an avalanche of consequences because when you genuinely feel like a horrible person you will make choices that will often lead to negative life experiences. Then when you get “evidence” that you are awful, inappropriate guilt and depression become that much harder to fight back against and a downward spiral of shame begins.
But Brene Brown is here to save you from shame. Seen her amazing TED talk about shame yet? Check it out:
Healthy Strategies to Handle Unhealthy Guilt
Don’t let unhealthy guilt grow into soul-crushing, toxic shame. Instead, try these strategies to bounce unhealthy guilt out of your life for good:
Get Some Perspective: One trick that works well is to think about the guilt-inducing situation as if it were happening to a close friend. Imagine your friend living through the same experience, and how you would feel about your friend under the same circumstances.
Would you feel legitimately annoyed with your friend for doing what they did? Would you want them to try a little harder next time? Or would you look at the situation they’re feeling bad about, and think to yourself that they didn’t do anything wrong and they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves?
When in Doubt, Ask For Perspective: This might sound weird, but there are situations where it can be confusing to figure out if you’re in the wrong or not using the above strategy. Uncertainty about whether your guilt is legitimate or not is more common when you feel guilty a lot; it’s hard to know if you’ve actually messed up, or if you might be taking responsibility for something that you shouldn’t. In this case, run it past a friend, your coach or therapist, or anyone who you trust to give you truthful, yet non-judgmental constructive feedback.
Cultivate a Growth Mindset: When you really do mess up (and not if, but when — we all do) do not engage in inner verbal abuse, and beat yourself up. That’s not constructive. Instead, recognize that mistakes are precious learning opportunities, and give yourself the same reassuring or motivating pep talk you might give your friend.
For example, help yourself to learn and grow by saying “You can do better than this.” Or, reassure yourself by saying, “You did the best you could, and it really, genuinely wasn’t your fault.” Good guilt will have done its inspiring job and led you towards positive change, and unhealthy guilt will be shown the door. Either way, you get to say good-bye to guilt, and start feeling better again.
Work on Boundaries: Lots of people are very pleased to hand over their issues, feelings, bad habits, expectations, and needs to a competent, loving person like you… and have it all be your problem to fix instead of theirs. If your guilty feelings are usually attached to having to be a certain way or do things to make sure that nothing upsets someone else in your life, you might want to do some personal growth work around boundaries.
Learning how to set healthy limits with loved ones is good for you, and it’s also really good for them too. Especially if you’ve been “over-functioning” to compensate for someone else’s “under-functioning.” When you lay down the load you’ve been carrying on their behalf, they’ll be more motivated to pick up what’s theirs and start moving forward under their own steam. And YOU, my friend, will be released of your unhealthy guilt. (Cue choir of angels).
There’s light and dark in everything. Though it often feels unpleasant to be in a state of “guilt” it’s an invitation to evolve. You’re being challenged to do better next time, or become more compassionate towards yourself. Either way, you grow.
All the best to you on your journey!
xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
We live in a culture where bad feelings are the enemy. From the time we were toddlers, we were shushed, shamed or even punished if we gave voice to our displeasure about something. The curated FaceBook feeds we see show us good times and good friends, not the loneliness, anxiety or despair that research informs us is experienced by about twenty-five percent of the population at any given point in time. There are very few socially-acceptable spaces for our darkness— even tortured creative types can only get away with flopping around in self-pity for so long. We are supposed to be happy, so if we are feeling irritated, sad, jealous, resentful or guilty there must be something wrong with us, right? The attitude towards dark feelings seems to be that if we could only get rid of them, then we’d have all blue skies and nothing but happiness in our lives. So let’s take that anti-depressant and practice our positive affirmations and just close the door on anything that doesn’t feel good.
We put so much energy into denying, disowning, and suppressing our bad feelings that we often miss the easiest strategy for actually feeling genuinely better: Listening to them. I know— it sounds crazy and counterintuitive, but it’s true. (And it’s something that the happiest and most emotionally resilient among us are often quite good at). When you can slow down and “lean in” to the pain you are feeling, you are able to take guidance from it. Your pain becomes inner wisdom that will take you by the hand and lead you to true happiness.
For example, say you touched a hot stove with your hand. You would feel pain, and that pain would inform you to remove your hand from the hot stove because you were being burned. Simple enough, right? But although our emotions often work very similarly, giving us information about our world — what feels good to us and what feels bad — we override them. We assume that the reason we feel bad is because there is something wrong with us, and throw ourselves into bad-feeling situations over and over again. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely hate their jobs. Hate them. Get tied up in knots of anxiety on Sunday night dreading their return to work, come home in the evenings feeling stressed out and irritated, and it saps much of the pleasure from their lives. When I gently suggest that perhaps their feelings are telling them that their occupation is not a good fit for them, and that they may be happier in a different situation, it’s like I just told someone that they were switched at birth. They have been so focused on the “wrongness” of their feelings, that it never occurred to them that their feelings might be guiding them to make other choices.
You can insert so many things for “job” in the above anecdote— a draining relationship, the consequences of your lifestyle choices, the presence of unhelpful core beliefs, or a gnawing pain that is telling you that you are living in a way that is fundamentally disconnected from your values. You can transform the bad feeling into meaningful guidance by asking yourself this simple question, “What do I need right now to feel better about this situation?” When you let in the answer, and start turning the wisdom provided into meaningful action, you will feel happier, stop spinning your wheels, and start making positive change happen in your life.