I was at a conference late this week and had the good fortune to speak about relationships and attachment with other clinicians. It was quite impressive because there were thousands of clinical (and just life experience) hours in the room. The attendees were from all over the world, ranging from Australia, Italy, the UK, to local folks from other parts of Canada or from the US.
Here are the top 2 gems from my time with these wonderful people…
- Up to the age of 7 yo, it is our job as parents to LOVE and TEACH our children. After that, they have already largely formed their sense of who they are in this world and what to expect from it, and our job becomes to LOVE AND ACCEPT THEM AS THEY ARE.
This does not mean we stop teaching them. It just shifts the emphasis to the loving and accepting part, as we begin our journey increasingly towards having influence vs power. This sounds simple, but unfortunately…
After all, we have our own survival maps and values that we use BECAUSE we think they are the best and safest, most effective ones to use. Understandably, when other people use different ones, most people will unconsciously devalue them (ie. judge them) or make them an exception (ie. “that works for them because they are different from me…they didn’t grow up how I did, they have money, a partner” etc). These are thinking coping strategies, so we can hold onto our survival maps and still feel safe and confident they will work. This is understandable when we realize that when we lose our survival map, it is like having the rug pulled out from under us, all of a sudden we don’t have a map to stay safe in the world and have our needs met. So of course we are motivated to hold onto the maps we have. For more on Survival maps, click to watch this quick video.
So how does this impact relationships?
- In friendships, romantic partnerships and even with our parents, people often struggle with being approving or validating when we have a different survival map than them, which often leads to us feeling rejected or only conditionally loved.
- This usually stirs up any “not good enough” stuff we have lying around and other times we have felt rejected. We then either lean into those feelings to process them (I recommend this one, if you need some help, watch the All about Feelings, More about Feelings, and Dealing with Feelings videos) or we start to avoid those feelings using defenses again (ie. drink, spend, distract with work or Netflix, eat, get prickly to reject them before they can reject us, etc). Which one of these we CHOOSE changes how the relationship goes.
POWER vs INFLUENCE
- POWER: the ability to direct the behavior of others or a course of events (often “Position power”, usually there because of the person’s title or position, and/ or their ability to provide rewards or punishments)
- INFLUENCE: the ability to have an effect on others or a course of events (often “Personal power”, usually seen as an expert or having greater experience of knowledge on a subject AND are seen as being caring and holding their best interests at heart)
When there is a difference in the level of investment in a relationship, this causes a power imbalance.
There are also imbalances of power in relationships when there is a difference in who has access or control over a desired commodity (like affection, time, conflict avoidance, resources like money or access to something or someone – including children or other family members). The degree of how much the other person wants/ needs access to the desired commodity determines if we have power (like a parent who completely controls access to food or screen time for a 6 yo) or influence (like when we tell people what we would like from them).
As parents, we often have power early on, and struggle to accept that by their teen years, we shift to having influence. We still get to share our own values, opinions and spell out potential consequences for certain behaviours, but we can’t really MAKE them do what we want for the most part.
So how does this impact relationships?
Healthy adult relationships, friendships and partnerships, tend to be similar, in that we can INFLUENCE our friends and family, but we can’t MAKE them do what we want.
When there are big enough imbalances that adult relationships have POWER differences, we tend to have strong mixed feelings about them and they tend to trigger and stir up past times we felt small, dis-empowered, vulnerable, or helpless. If we are sufficiently triggered, we even start unconsciously interacting with that person using the same survival maps (see video for reminder about survival maps and review old brain/ new brain) we learned to use with other people.
Example #1: If we learned to be compliant and people pleasing with our parents, we may assume the same survival pattern at work or in close relationships, or both. This may not be a problem for long periods of time, but if I am people pleasing, I need to stay focused meeting other people’s expectations. In order to do this, I become detached from my ability to focus on my own needs, or even recognize my own needs, which makes us unwell emotionally and physically in the long term.
Example #2: Alternatively, if I learned to hyper-control the situation and take charge when things get scary, I may start being bossy and telling people what to do and how to live their lives, giving people unsolicited advice, which tends to cause interpersonal problems. When people don’t do as we tell them, we feel we are loosing control and can become passive- aggressive, hurtful or use them as our emotional trash can to unconsciously punish them for messing up our plans and get rid of all of our angry energy.
So in your closest relationships, with the people who you interact with the most…ask yourself:
- Am I loving them where they are at, for who they are- unconditionally?
- Who has power or influence in my relationships? Does it feel healthy?
Have a great week!