Whether in romance, family life, friendship, or even the workplace, we all love to believe we have the power to influence how others behave toward us. This idea is deeply embedded in Western culture, from the Golden Rule of “Do unto others…,” to the principles of behavioral psychology (reward the behavior you want someone to continue, and reject or remain unresponsive to behaviors you want to squash).
Growing up, the message was conveyed to me through the maxim, “You teach others how to treat you.” And until very recently I never thought to question it, even if it hasn’t always yielded the desired results. But then my therapist made a comment that stopped me in my verbal tracks.
To set the scene: I was telling her about my latest interaction with a friend whom I care for deeply but who periodically blindsides me with behavior that is hurtful, confusing, and sends my anxiety skyrocketing. Unfortunately, this pattern is one I have experienced before with others, including the first boy I truly loved. I wondered aloud to my therapist, “What am I doing that gives these people the message that it’s okay to treat me badly?” And I recited my trusted adage.
At this point, she looked me straight in the eye and told me politely but in no uncertain terms that this premise was seriously flawed. Yes, she said, of course we can explicitly tell or quietly model to others how we feel we should be treated, and that can often be effective and even empowering. But believing it will stop them from mistreating us implies a level of control we simply don’t have in our relationships.
“Sometimes people will treat us really badly, and there is nothing we could have done to stop it from happening,” she said.
At first I didn’t know why this was so hard for me to hear. After all, most of us would never accuse a survivor of abuse of somehow signaling that those violations were okay. So why are we so quick to resort to second-guessing our communications skills and engaging in negative self-talk when we encounter less extreme mistreatment in our own relationships?
I think my therapist was correct — it’s about control, and our unquenchable thirst to have more of it, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. There is something deeply appealing about believing if we broadcast the right messages to our partners about what we will and won’t tolerate, and how we want to be loved, they will follow the script.
It also creates false hope in dysfunctional relationships when we’re not yet ready to move on: Maybe if I send a clearer message, I’ll receive the treatment I deserve and desire from this person.
The more I let my therapist’s critique sink in, the more I saw that clinging to “You teach others how to treat you” was a way of trying to solve a puzzle in certain relationships that can’t be solved. For me, at least, the only thing worse than feeling hurt by someone I care about is feeling like I have no control over whether it will happen again, aside from cutting them out of my life entirely.
But maybe there’s some eventual peace to be found in acknowledging that relationships follow a course we can’t entirely predict or dictate. At the very least, there’s an opportunity to stop taking ownership of the behavior of others. At some point, someone we love is going to treat us terribly. It’s a fact of life we can’t control. Where we do have power is in recognizing and expressing our hurt, and deciding what we need in order to heal.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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