by Leatrice Evanne Asher
One of the beautiful elements of friendship is the compassionate clarity a friend can bring to situations that may leave us feeling overwhelmed. Most of us have had times when we feel consumed by the sensations of pain that we can barely function. At those times, when we feel stuck, another person – a personal friend, intimate coworker, or caregiver – can often help us return to clarity.
“A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” -Anonymous
A most difficult aspect of pain is the sense of profound isolation it may bring. During these times, good friends can often provide empathy, clarity, or perhaps some form of practical assistance. Beware, however, that not all offerings of help are healthy, just as not all friendships are healthy. It is not healthy, for example, for a depressed individual to seek one who merely seems to encourage your state by being overly sympathetic or validates your worst feelings. On the other hand, it is equally unhealthy to be around individuals who merely want to deny your feelings and emotions and instead encourage states of denial.
The helpful friend will support your process, have a deep regard for your inner journey, and assist you in getting back on track in areas where you may have strayed. A helpful friend may encourage you not to try to avoid your pain. Such a relationship is one of equals, for, in other circumstances, you may provide the same support and corrective insights for that person. Of course, not everyone faces the same level of challenges. Some individuals may be especially capable of helping you because of advanced understanding in an area you are still working on; others may still be grappling with issues you have already faced, in which case you may assist them.
Friends of this kind are kindred spirits with whom we share compatible views about life, perhaps reinforced by compatible interests and activities. They are also valuable because, at any moment, they are not likely to be involved in the same dramas as we are since the subjective contents and patterns of each of us are unique. We not only share similar values with our friends, but we also trust them. Therefore, we can accept their gifts for what they are. Such friends are not common, but if we have at least one person like this in our lives, one with whom we share a deep alliance and regard for the inner journey, we are fortunate indeed.
All relationships have the potential of being a valuable source of information, not just our friendships. This includes people we have the most difficulty with in our lives – rocky relationships with our parents (or children), a difficult marriage or partnering, trying coworkers, even outright “enemies” – those who may wish us harm.
“Enemy” is a word we use to refer to those people whom we feel disturb and disrupt our lives or whose perspectives differ so significantly from ours that they may be perceived as a threat. But people who “ruffle our feathers” can be our greatest teachers. Anyone who makes us feel uncomfortable, even to the extent that we may want them out of our lives, must have something to show us about ourselves – otherwise, we wouldn’t be reacting to them!
When we have a strong adverse reaction to another individual, we usually associate it with that person. We could create a laundry list of all the things wrong with that individual. Even though many of those things may be true, it still begs the question – why are we so reactive to them? If you think it’s only about them, consider the fact that you probably know of – or even personally know – many individuals who may have worse qualities but to whom you are much less reactive. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because you are less identified with those to whom you do not have this visceral reaction.
People who elicit such strong responses from us will continue to be part of our world until we understand the reason for our response to them. When we can shift our focus from zeroing in on qualities that we dislike in others toward examining our reactions to these people, our understanding will grow – freeing us from the habits and patterns that cause us pain.
If you are unhappy about your associations and relationships, the first step is to remind yourself that you attract the exact conditions and people you need for your growth, your particular journey. These people are part of your learning environment (as you are part of theirs). They have the potential of teaching you about yourself, your projections, your prejudices, your fears – all the thought patterns that make up your relationship to the world “out there.”
Of course, some relationships are not merely unpleasant. Certain relationships, which we appropriately call abusive, involve the acting out of truly pathological tendencies by one individual upon another. Most of us have probably, at one time or another, been in, or at least been in proximity to, such a relationship. Often such relationships seem to present an extreme power imbalance, with all the power in the hands of the abuser. And yet, if we step back and examine the dynamics of such a relationship, we will discover a universal law: a relationship pattern persists or is strengthened to the extent that both (or all) parties in such a relationship feed on its energy. If you stop consenting to play the role your abuser demands you play, the abuser will no longer have power over you, and he or she will no longer be able to play the part so effectively. Imagine a play in which only one person was acting the assigned role, and everyone else refused to read the script; how long could such a situation continue? Eventually, the one person acting the part would no longer have the power or the support system to continue playing the role. Something similar occurs in the context of relationships.
None of this is to say that it is easy to walk away from such a situation. Indeed, toxic relationships of this kind are one of many potential life-circumstances in which we seem to be challenged beyond our capacity. But while such a situation is often very difficult to extricate ourselves from, the universe gives us such experiences precisely because we must go beyond them, ultimately finding clarity and even peace in the midst of them. Far from empowering the abuser to continue in their role, such actions on our part are the only way to render the abuser impotent. We must ask ourselves what we learn from envisioning ourselves so powerless that we have no choice but to live at the mercy of someone or something else.
So what is the attraction? Perhaps such individuals help us to complete our negative self-image by giving us what we (in some sense) feel we deserve. This concept may be hard to ace[t and may even fly in the face of our conscious interpretation of the event. But if we were mindful of the nature of our thinking and desiring, would we participate in creating the need for such a situation to begin with? Even if it seems physically impossible to remove ourselves, once we recognize our role in it, we are no longer defined by it – and our “adversaries” have less opportunity to reinforce their self-definition. We are meant to develop inner beauty and strength and learn kindness and regard for others and ourselves. This means we do not abuse others, nor do we let others abuse us.
As mentioned, extricating yourself from such a relationship may be one of the most difficult things human beings can do. You may wish every moment that the situation would change but not know how to accomplish this. Anyone who abuses another must certainly be held accountable. And yet, the temptation to get even with the one who hurts you results from continuing to envision yourself as the victim. These actions can result in further empowering your adversary – and thus condemning yourself to a continued state of self-limitation, perplexity, and pain. By not recognizing your involvement, you not only are empowering the other, you are subscribing to a weakened version of yourself. You are saying, in effect, “I cannot take responsibility for anything because my outer circumstance has all the power over me.” And yet, once we see our role in the “play,” we stop capitulating to the “script,” and the temptation to get even is avoided.
Many may recoil at such a way of thinking, viewing it as weak or a symbol of defeat. But if we observe how we perpetuate our pain (and thereby dis-empower ourselves), we will eventually be forced into the opposite conclusion; Not reacting is often the only courageous option. We can begin to change our mindset by opening up to the possibility that we are not as powerless as we seem. Without blaming ourselves, we can try to discern how we may have participated in creating this situation.
For now, we may have to take this possibility on faith until it becomes progressively more apparent and unquestionable. Simply admitting to this possibility is the first step toward expanding our self-perception, and even this small step can be immediately empowering. The light of wisdom will fill our dark spaces. We might then look back to see if a recurring theme emerges, such as continually gravitating toward possessive and controlling partners – and we might then notice what we are doing to bring these individuals into our lives. Often a particular dynamic with a father or mother is the basis for these recurring themes.
This change of mindset is a huge step. It takes tremendous courage and strength to shift and move out of our familiar habits and patterns of thinking. If you can make this shift, you will then have a place where you can bring all your fear, shame, anger … anything that arises, and investigate it in-depth, not just through your sensory experience of it. By doing this, you will find a strength you didn’t think you had. Another outcome of this inward-looking is that tenderness and compassion may even open you up to people who previously you would have summarily closed off from your life.
We can’t control other people. If each of us were attentive to our lessons, our thinking, and responses and left it to others to create their destiny, the world would become far saner overnight. It takes real courage to recognize that every such incident in our lives is there to teach us – and having recognized this, to then let go of one’s habituated responses. This recognition and letting go occurs during a situation in which every cell of our body – even our sense of “justice” itself – seems to demand we enter the fray. If we allow ourselves to let go at those times when it seems almost impossible to let go, something extraordinary happens. The pain of our situation dissipates, the threat posed by the other diminishes, and we have reclaimed our power. If we do this often enough, we develop the courage and strength to deal with future encounters more easily.