Daniel Dowling nails the big reason we become unhappy in relationships and presents a plan to change it.
I think most of us remember that infamous line delivered by Darrel in Thelma and Louise. It epitomizes frustration and forehead vein-throbbing rage, which we’ve all felt to some degree with our partners. Darrel is extreme. He gushes misogyny and contempt to such a degree that we find it hilarious, and thankfully, most of us fall short of that caricature. How we respond emotionally to our partners might not be as crazed and comical as characters in the movies, but it can be equally destructive.
Some of us become piqued and shut down communication, allowing a problem to fester; this is what turns molehills into mountains. Others turn their emotions into the proverbial pebble, and they feel it dig into their heel with every step; this is where incessant nagging and bickering originates. Rarely, in this culture at least, do people take full ownership of their emotions.
People are afraid to own their emotions because we’ve been conditioned to fear them. But here is the deal: Anything you feel from another person has every bit to do with your perception, which is yours.
It is natural to be agitated by our flaws. If our flaws didn’t move us in some way, we’d become complacent and rot. Other people are the greatest tools in helping us assess our flaws and improve them, yet we’ve all fallen victim to cultural amnesia. Instead of seeing others as the reflection of our internal world, we’ve placed all of the blame for how we feel on them. And it goes both ways.
Praise and Blame: Two Sides of the Same Coin
Allow me to make a personal appeal.
I once entangled with other people’s emotions, bodies and chemicals; I called these things relationships for lack of a better term (entanglement).
I would determine relationship potential based on how another person made me feel rather than what they actually did, or what I contributed. Big mistake. Then, after the honeymoon phase was over, after the love chemicals receded from my synapses, I continued to attribute my feelings to my partner. When the honeymoon was over, all the praise I had for my partner morphed into blame. Has that ever happened with you?
“I’m just totally, totally bored with her (yeah, I talked like a bro).” “Everything she does disgusts me and I just can’t stand to be around her.” “Why can’t she just make me happy like she used to—what’s wrong with her?” “I can’t deal with this anymore–I’m out!”
I entertained similar thoughts throughout most of my relationships, save for that brief honeymoon phase. The honeymoon phase went a little something like this-
“I feel like superman when I’m with her.” “She makes me feel alive!” “I feel like I can do anything when I’m with her.”
These two sets of dialogue don’t seem similar at face value, but they are opposite sides of the same coin. That busted and rusty coin only continues to circulate in relationships because we allow ourselves to be fooled. It has no value because the end story is always the same: The power is outside of me.
During the honeymoon phase of relationships nobody would ever presume to blame his or her partner for the good feelings that are happening. We call it praise when it benefits us. So we praise and praise our partners until we hit the oxytocin wall and there is nothing left to take. From that point we start the blame-fest. (As a side note, relationships that generate intimacy are not subject to praise and blame. (Read this for more on relationships vs. entanglements.)
“You forgot my great aunt’s second cousin—twice removed—‘s birthday, DICK!” “ You peeled the Brussels sprouts like a total asshole!” “I told you to call me at 2:00, not 2:00:0000001 !”
The place of praise is a tough role to fill, because praise never belonged to that person in the first place. Every time you feel a certain way around a person, you are allowing yourself to feel that way. When that person ceases to elicit the same chemical high as yesterday, you are allowing yourself not to feel the same way as you used to. Either way, you are in complete control of your responses to emotions, whether you realize it or not.
Claiming ownership of your feelings with a mirror
Love is detachment. Wait … that sounds sterile and cold, like love is something you’d find in between empty hospital beds. Allow me to rephrase—love is unconditional. Meaning, your interest of how others make you feel is not the driving force.
Taking ownership of your feelings and seeing your partner as a mirror to your inner world is the only way to have a real relationship; this is the mirroring effect. (oooooooh) All other relationships are forms of coveting, expectation, and conditional love.
“She makes me happy, so I have to keep her close. Screw that … I can’t let her out of my sight … Better yet, I’ll just get a leash.” Coveting and possession. C&P all day, baby.
We’ve all been there. We all know what it feels like to want something so badly that you would do anything to keep it, even if that meant restricting your growth. I call it hell. It’s surely not a relationship, because relationships are what we give and grow through.
It’s like catching that awesome frog or toad when you were a kid and then accidentally suffocating it because you didn’t want it to escape … Modern relationships in a nutshell.
If, however, you claim ownership of your feelings right off the bat, the story changes dramatically. You know that little butterfly is the most beautiful thing you ever did see, but instead of catching and laying claim to it (hell, it could have been a moth for all you knew), you let it be. You let it be. You allow it to exist and appreciate its company all the more because you are not attached to an emotion you think it gives you. You see it for what it actually factually is. You love the butterfly, and you give it freedom to love you unconditionally as well.
My Girlfriend, My Heroin
Have you ever been hesitant to dismiss a relationship when a person was awful (pardon my slang), all because of the happiness the sometimes “made” you feel? I’ve been there, and it is goshdarn arful. It’s settling for so much less than what you or I am capable of, but it’s comfortable because it is known. I think this modern form of romance is the most elaborate form of drug use there is:
“I fully know that you are no good for me, but I won’t allow myself to internalize that truth because, my dear, I am addicted to the way you make me feel.” (Read this for more on love vs. addiction.)
Woah!!! That’s not what relationships are about! But until you make it your business to fully own all of your emotions in and out of your relationships, you will suffer the same fate over and over again. (Insert infamous line from ‘The Sandlot’) FOR EV-ERRRRR.
I’m about to sum up modern relationships in 30 seconds, so buckle up
“Nice to meet you. Blush. Oh, that’s what your bed looks like. We should probably lie down in it again. Ecstasy and external praise. Chemical high. Attachment. Chemical peak. Waning chemicals. Warning! Warning! Bad behaviors. Blame. Blame. Blame. Bad brussell sprouts. More blame. Cheating. I can’t quit you. Begging. You’re the best I’ll ever get. You’re a flaming dickmonster. Your Brussels sprouts aren’t that bad, forgive me. I can’t let you go. Be gone, he or she- devil.”
That was an exaggeration for sure, but it accurately portrays the lifecycle of a relationship on that busted coin we discussed earlier. In this fake relationship currency, everybody expects everybody to cheat and nobody expects anything to last. Why? Because you don’t have control; because you don’t have a say in it; because of human nature.
Lies, all of them.
The real reason is because we haven’t owned our emotions.
How do I take ownership?
First: Look at yourself in the mirror and say this every day until you believe it:
You are beautiful beyond comprehension, you are worthy beyond validation and you are perfect- just as you are. You are worthy of discovering and of exploring. You are valuable and capable of unlimited growth. You have so much to give, and are needed just as you are.
It’s a lot easier to see yourself in others when you are accustomed to saying nice things to yourself.
Okay, you can stop looking at yourself in the mirror now.
Second: Start taking credit and blame when they both are due, which is all the time. This requires a period of intensive reframing. Go back through your semi-charmed relationships and call the spade a spade. It wasn’t love; it was convenience.
You allowed yourself to feel happy around that person. You attributed your happiness to that person, so you became attached. When the feelings faded, the attachment stayed strong and you subjected yourself to emotional abuse that no one should have to endure (all your choice).
Here is the big part: Remember all of those feelings of blame, frustration, anger, resentment and boredom? That’s yours chief, happy birthday! Now do something positive with those feelings! It has been said that there are no negative feelings, only negative responses. Acknowledge the lemons, then make lemonade. Or see the shit and sell organic fertilizer. Your pick.
Yes, it’s a big ass horse pill to swallow, claiming your faults and deficiencies. But I’m telling you, if you don’t, you’ll be trapped in that endless circulation of the rusty penny that nobody wants but continues to accept for lack of a better option. Now you have a better option—can I get you a glass of water?
Thirdly: Train yourself to question all of your emotions all of the time. That might sound a little tedious, but once you ingrain the process it becomes second nature, like driving a manual (If you aren’t driving a manual, you aren’t actually driving in my opinion).
This internalized questioning is what separates your BS projection of other people from the actual person they are. Once you claim your own BS, you’ll see that it’s is never the other person “making” you feel a certain way, but only you. Once you recognize the BS is yours, you are free to do with it whatever you’d like. Once I claimed mine, I decided to change it to something that benefitted me, like personal growth.
Instead of expecting others to change to accommodate my feelings, I looked at how I could change to respond positively to the situation. 9.9 times out of 10 when I would feel disappointed or angered, it had everything to do with faults I perceived in myself. After that point I realized that responding negatively was hurting my relationship with myself and with the people around me.
When you question your emotions, you ditch the habit of automatically assigning blame (or praise) to someone who may not in fact deserve it. You deserve the benefit of the doubt, and so does everybody else. You’ll be able to see people for what they actually are and do, and not just for how they made you feel. You’ll find that you pick the winners for your relationships because you are choosing based on a new scale.
This scale factors in actual value, and not the inflationary feelings that end up expanding and bursting your relationship bubble. You’ll find that your relationships actually increase in value and intimacy, and that they never stop growing. It seems counterintuitive, but our happiness, intimacy, and longevity in relationships are only limited to our personal growth. And personal growth is only limited to your willingness to see your faults in relationships, and improve on them.
When people are mirrors, you can’t attack them without attacking yourself
After you give this process a test drive, you’ll start to notice pleasantly strange things. You’ll feel empowerment and hope as you grow and as you see the best in others. You’ll see everyone you meet in a new light, and you will be more appreciative of them for what they actually bring to the table; how they help you grow. You will start to see everyone around you, and most importantly your mates, as a direct extension of you: as a mirror to your inner world.
When that day comes, you can’t cuss other people because you know damn well you are only cussing your own damn self, damnit. Instead, you will find yourself admiring, appreciating and respecting others for helping you to see yourself honestly. You will relish the adventure of improving yourself in any way you can, and you will thank those around you for their help. In all ways, you will be more useful to yourself and everyone around you. You win. Your partners win. The community wins. Yes.
Just imagine how intimacy with your partner will be impacted. Instead of cussing them and resenting them for the little things, you’ll admire them and cherish them for helping you to become the best person you can be. The difference is night and day, but it takes some work to ingrain and perfect. As usual, my most helpful tools are questions:
Questions that will help you master the mirroring effect
- What inside of me is making me feel this way?
- Am I upset about them, or am I upset at seeing my faults in their behavior?
- Will responding this way help me to know and appreciate the innermost of my partner and myself?
- How can I respond in ways that respect the other person while expressing my genuine feelings?
- If I respond as I plan to, have I responded like this before? If so, has it benefitted me or my relationships?
- Which people do I have the most issues with in relating? What about them is similar to me? Is there anything about them that I’m afraid of admitting similarity to? What about them do I want to change? Is there anything I can change in myself that would change the way I perceive them?
- Do I have a habit of responding defensively and aggressively when my behavior is called into question? Do I really need to attack others to protect myself? What do I have to protect? What can I do to humble myself and improve myself?
- Do I have a history of attacking others when trying to express myself (e.g. “You always do this!” Or, “Why can’t you do this?”
- How can I grow through my response?
Benefits of Mirroring
All of these questions are miniature trips to “The Balcony,” as master negotiator William Ury likes to say. Rather than automatically engaging, which contributes to escalating attacks and violent language, stepping to the balcony with some time for questions will help you to diffuse tension and bring out your most constructive responses.
The main benefit of mirroring is how it gives you insight into your innermost world. Instead of responding to things externally and critically, mirroring brings attention to the only real power you have: the power of changing yourself.
You can’t change a single thing in another person, but when you hold up your mirror you can always change how you respond. When you start to respond positively to the people around you, they will notice how awesome it makes them feel and start to mimic your behaviors. It’s contagious like yawning, but much less boring.
A man who has mastered himself has no desire to control anyone else. When you practicing mirroring others, you are really practicing self-mastery. When two masters of self come together in a relationship, or at least two people seeking self-mastery, those foolish games of jealousy and control fall away as they build intimacy and success with one another.
Thank you for reading!
Thanks for hanging out with me; it was fun! If this inspires you, resonates with you, or feels totally backwards, please feel free to let me know. I value your opinion, so please join the discussion!
My experience with the mirroring effect has been nothing short of life changing in the way I relate to people and in my personal growth. Whether you are a woman or man, give it a shot and see what it can do for you and your relationships.