In Tough Times, Relationships Can Make The Difference
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
One of my clients, Ryan, was going through some hard times. There was a recession going on, and his small business was just in survival mode after a number of years of doing very well. His wife had to return to work and leave their three children with her mother, just to make ends meet. He had five employees and didn't want to cut their pay or let them go, but he was concerned that he might have to do so. The business couldn't take much more.
Now you might think that he was seeing me for depression, considering all that was going on in his life. You'd be wrong. He was one of the most cheerful, upbeat guys you would ever expect to meet.
He told me his secret: "When I was about ten years old, my Mom and Dad were having some problems. I never found out what they were, but it was clear my Mom was very worried and anxious. One day, I ran into the house excited about something that I'd done at school. I was yelling, 'Mom, Mom -- guess what!' She had just put down the phone and I startled her. Whatever it was she heard in that phone call was pretty bad, because there was an expression of disappointment and anger on the face she turned to me, not to mention the tears running down her cheeks. She opened her mouth, I was sure, to scold me for running and yelling in the house. I must have looked fairly scared and guilty myself, after seeing that face, because she immediately changed one hundred percent. She wiped her face and smiled. 'Honey,' she said, 'I'm sorry. I'm not upset with you. Sometimes grown-ups just worry about the silliest things. We forget that our main job, the happiest job, is to be with our kids and love them and help them. So, I can't guess what. Tell me what happened that's so exciting.' And so I told her."
"What I've never forgotten is the feelings of relief and safety I felt when my Mom turned away from her own concerns to treat my little, momentary excitement as if it were so important to her, because she loved me. And, even at the age of ten, I knew that it was a comfort to her -- something real and important that she could do for someone she loved -- to put aside her distress and just be with me."
"Much later, when my wife and I were going through tough times in our first year of marriage, we found ourselves bickering over the smallest things, because we couldn't do anything about the big things. It wasn't the relationship that was causing the problems, but how we handled the problems. Then it happened: I had just gotten a call that made me so angry I punched the wall. And my wife walked in at exactly the same time, talking about something exciting she wanted to share with me. When she looked at my face (and my now-swelling hand) her expression must have exactly matched the one I had in the incident with my Mom."
"That did it. I suddenly understood exactly what my Mom told me. What I think, say and do, even down to the expressions on my face have a measureless impact on everyone around me. There are many problems I can't control; many I can't even influence. But there are problems and potential problems that I can control completely: the ones that I'm causing."
"So, I did what my Mom did those many years ago. I smiled at my wife with the thought in mind about how important she is to me. I apologized for my immediate behavior. 'Sorry,' I said, while putting my unhurt arm around her. 'I'm supposed to be grown up, but I'm still acting like a kid. Let me put some ice on this hand, while you tell me your good news.' After she told me her good news -- which, by the way, solved the problem I'd just been dealing with on the phone -- we also had a long talk about my disappointing behavior over the prior three months. I promised her then that I would work at getting a whole new way of thinking about what I said and did."
"I've kept that promise. I constantly check to see what my influence is in every problem that arises. I constantly think about what I can say and do that makes people feel good when I deal with them. I figured out that although we say relationships are fifty-fifty, my relationships with others are one hundred percent me. It doesn't make any difference what anyone else thinks or does. I have to choose what I do. I have to think about the impact of my words and deeds. That's what I can control."
"And since that time, I've found out that if I stop and think good thoughts and behave well, it's usually all I need to avoid or resolve problems in relationships. Everyone seems to respond well to the guy who looks and acts as if he cares for them and thinks they are important. It works with family, friends, employees, customers and even potential enemies. It works because in my mind, my relationship to each and every person is more important than the petty details of the daily ups and downs of life. I don't sweat the small stuff, I just treasure the beauty of good human interaction. As a result, no matter what else is going on, I feel safe and loved in all the important ways."
If you are worried and anxious about all that's happening to you in tough times, take a page from Ryan's book. Are you doing what most people do? Do you take your worries out on your friends, family or co-workers? Do you complain a lot? Snap at your kids? All of that is a downward spiral into bitterness and, sometimes, depression. It certainly results in loss of comfort, support and feelings of safety in relationships. If you're feeling as if people don't care for you as much as they use to, you're probably right. Who wants to be around you when you're so miserable. You've rejected them and they're staying away from you.
If you focus on building strong, positive relationships, you feel immediately uplifted. You begin to realize how powerful you are by virtue of your effect upon others. You don't have pretend, or fake it 'til you make it. You simply have to be true to your best, strongest feelings of love and gratitude for the folks who are important to you. You have to treat them with consideration and kindness. You don't have to wait for them to return the consideration and kindness -- most of them will do so immediately -- because just the act of doing good to others makes you feel good regardless of their behavior. The more you behave this way with people who are already important to you, the more you understand how every relationship, including transient ones, are important.
Some people will tell you that the world is all about money. But it is, in fact, all about relationships and power in relationships. The most powerful relationships are positive. They feel good.
C.S. Clarke, Ph.D. is a psychologist/coach who publishes Superperformance.com: Human Performance and Achievement Resources, providing a wide range of content and tools for improving human performance and productivity. Dr. Clarke also publishes EverydayDelight.com, a website on positive psychology, positive thinking and everyday happiness. Superperformance ® is a trademark.