The Empathy Workout

I can’t say I always enjoy cardiovascular exercise. I don’t think anyone does. Oh, I’ve seen those infomercials featuring models whose granite abs and manic smiles become even more sharply defined at the very sight of workout equipment. But as we all know, these people are from Neptune. Being an Earth-human myself, I strongly resist abandoning my customary torpor to participate in perky physical activity of any kind. Nevertheless, I do cardio pretty regularly. I do it because I know my heart was designed to handle such challenges, because once I get started, I feel that it’s doing me good, and because if I stop for very long, my health begins to atrophy.

There’s another form of cardio that works much the same way, though it affects the emotional heart rather than the one made of auricles and ventricles. This workout consists of deliberately cultivating empathy. To empathize literally means “to suffer with,” to share the pain of other beings so entirely that their agony becomes our own. I know this sounds like a terrific hobby for a masochistic moron, but hear me out.

The reason to develop a capacity for empathy, and then exercise it regularly, is that only a heart strengthened by this kind of understanding can effectively deliver the oxygen of the spirit: love. 

Emotional Cardio

Love requires connection between lover and beloved, and empathy is the quiet miracle by which this connection is forged. When you share others’ suffering, you also share their experience of receiving your gift—the gift of being accompanied into grief or anguish rather than bearing it alone. Naturally, almost involuntarily, people will love you for this. If you’re in a state of empathy, you’ll feel their love for you as your own emotion, thus coming to understand what it means to love yourself. This will make you love the other person even more, and of course you’ll receive that love even as you give it, which makes it even deeper, and…well, you can see where this is going. Become an expert at it, and soon your life will be absolutely lousy with love. 

I know one wise old man who has been working at empathy every day since becoming a meditation master early in his life. He matter-of-factly describes a state of complete empathic fitness as a “continuous emotional orgasm.” Who’s with me now? All right, then. Let’s talk about your exciting new cardio workout—but first, a crucial warning. 

Caveat Empathor

Many people, especially those of us who’ve had a little bit of therapy, fall into an emotional trap Buddhists call “idiot compassion.” At first glance, this looks like empathy, but it’s actually projection. It encourages us to condone harmful behavior by assuming that the perpetrator is acting out of pain and helplessness. 

“I know he’s just a hurting little boy inside,” says Jeanie, whose boyfriend, Hank, has just beaten the living tar out of her for the umpteenth time. “He’s so sensitive. His mama abandoned him. He even cries when he talks about it.” Because Jeanie herself would become violent only in the grip of intolerable torment, she thinks she understands Hank’s motivations—and so she excuses his behavior. Real empathy is not based on this kind of projection but on close observation. If she were a true empath, Jeanie would notice that Hank, while “so sensitive” to his own misery, never notices others’ distress. 

When Jeanie understands that no one who cares for her could act as he acts, she’ll drop the idiot compassion and get the hell out of Dodge. At that point, she’ll realize that real empathy doesn’t put us in harm’s way. It protects us. That’s just another reason to implement one of the following exercises: 

Exercise 1: Learning to Listen 

If you want to feel that you belong in the world, a family, or any relationship, you must tell your story. But if you want to see into the hearts of other beings, your first task is to hear their stories. Many people are gifted storytellers. Only the empathic are true storyhearers. 

To become one of these people, start with conversation. Once a day, ask a friend, “How are you?” in a way that says you mean it. If they give you a stock answer (“Fine”), repeat the question: “No, really. How are you?” 

You’ll soon realize that if your purpose is solely to understand, rather than to advise or protect, you can work a kind of magic: In the warmth of genuine caring, people open up like flowers. You’ll be amazed by the stories you’ll hear when you use this simple strategy with your children, your next-door neighbor, your aunt Flossie. You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew. 

Even if you’re not in the company of people, you can work to increase your storyhearing techniques. Here’s a snippet from English teacher Jane Juska’s wonderful memoir, A Round-Heeled Woman, in which she describes teaching creative writing to prisoners in San Quentin: 

Suddenly Steve, silent until now, speaks: “…when we used to have a really fine librarian here, he gave me this book. It was Les Misérables…. That book changed my life. It gave me feelings, gave me empathy…Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.” He is wrapping up this gift and holding it close. It is his forever. 

Books, movies, songs—stories told in any artistic medium can give you an empathy workout. To grow stronger, find stories that are unfamiliar. If you read, watch, or hear only things you know well, you’re looking for validation, not an expansion of empathy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but to achieve high levels of fitness, focus once a week on the story of someone who seems utterly different from you.

Exercise 2: Reverse Engineering

Some mechanical engineers spend their time disassembling machines to see how they were originally put together. You can use a similar technique to develop empathy, by working backward from the observable effects of emotion to the emotion itself.

Think of someone you’d like to understand—your enigmatic boss, your distant mother, the romantic interest who may or may not return your affections. Remember a recent interaction you had with this person—especially one that left you baffled as to how they were really feeling. Now imitate, as closely as you can, the physical posture, facial expression, exact words, and vocal inflection they used during that encounter. Notice what emotions arise within you.

What you feel will probably be very close to whatever the other person was going through. For example, when I “reverse engineer” the behavior of people I experience as critical or aloof, I usually find myself flooded with feelings of shyness, shame, or fear. It’s a lesson that has saved me no end of worry and defensiveness.

I train life coaches to use reverse engineering in real time, by subtly matching clients’ body language, vocal tone, even breathing rate. It’s so effective that clients often think the coach must be psychic—how else could anyone “get them” so quickly and completely? Elementary, my dear Watson. The body shapes itself in response to emotion, and shaping one’s own body to match someone else’s is a quick ticket to empathy. 

Exercise 3: Shape-Shifting 

In folklore, shape-shifters are beings with the ability to become anyone or anything. As a child, I was fascinated by this concept, and used to pretend that I could instantaneously switch places with other people, animals, even inanimate objects. What if I woke up one morning in the body—and the life—of my best friend, or a bank robber, or the president? What if, like Kafka’s fictional Gregor, I suddenly became a cockroach? (You could find people who think I’ve actually done this.) My point is, what would it feel like to be them? How would I cope? What would I do next?

I still play this game, especially in public places. I recommend you try it, soon. See that strange man in the orange polyester suit putting 37 packets of sweetener into his extra-grande mochaccino with soy milk? What if—zap!—you suddenly switched bodies with him? What would it be like to wear that suit, that face, that physique? What impulse would lead to sugaring a cup of coffee like that, let alone drinking it?

I can feel this shape-shifting developing my empathy. It gives my heart a stretch, makes me entertain unfamiliar thoughts and feelings, leaves me with the sensation that I’ve completed a stomp session on an emotional StairMaster. And if I want to ramp up my workout, it’s just a short hop to some practices that work even better, and have been tested for centuries.

Exercise 4: Metta-tation 

World-class empathizers like my friend the meditation master (he of the continuous emotional orgasm) conduct a daily regimen of metta, or lovingkindness, meditation. This involves focusing all of one’s attention on a certain individual and offering loving wishes to that person with each breath you take, for several minutes at a time.

Classic metta practice starts with your own sweet self. For five minutes, with each breath, offer yourself kind thoughts (May I be happy, may I feel joy, etc.). Taking these few minutes every day can put you on the road to complete, uncritical acceptance—the foundation on which all empathy is based. (Reaching that point, admittedly, takes years for most of us incomplete and self-critical people.)

Then switch the focus of your kind thoughts onto a friend or family member. When you feel a sense of emotional union with that person, target someone you barely know. As a final, black-belt exercise, project metta thoughts onto one of your worst enemies until you can begin to feel for them. Don’t rush this process, or (God forbid) fake it. You’ll only become a saccharine pseudo-empathizer, wearing the plastic smile of a fitness model from Neptune. 

The Payoff

The thing about cardio is that once you get used to it, you can feel it making you stronger, calming you down, improving your quality of life. Regular empathy practice keeps you on the edge of your emotional fitness, but the benefits are enormous: an awareness of union that banishes loneliness, a natural ability to connect and relate to others, protection from idiot compassion, a wider, deeper life. As your empathy grows, you’ll find that it’s infinite and that through it, you transcend your isolation and find yourself at home in the universe. I promise, it’ll do your heart good.

Heartbreak Academy: How to Make it Through

In her illuminating writing manual, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recounts the story of a woman who goes to the zoo and sees a male gorilla sleeping against the bars of his cage. The woman is so entranced by this magnificent beast that she reaches out to touch him, whereupon the gorilla wakes up, grabs her arm, and mauls her half to death before zookeepers can intervene. Days later the woman is still in the intensive care unit when a friend comes to visit. “God, you look like you’re in a lot of pain,” says the friend sympathetically. “Pain,” says the injured woman, “you don’t know pain. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write….”

Ah, yes, the exquisite agony of heartbreak. We who have experienced it know that romantic love is a fall-in, crawl-out proposition: When you’re bonding with that special someone, everything is wondrously effortless; when the relationship hits the skids, getting through an ordinary day feels like climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen. But every instance of heartbreak can teach us powerful lessons about creating the kind of love we really want. 

Mind you, just having your heart broken won’t get you a degree in love-ology. If you learn nothing from heartbreak, you’ll keep repeating the same old painful subject matter in one bad relationship after another. If you refuse to love at all, you will guarantee isolation and pain, rather than preventing them. The only way to graduate from Heartbreak Academy is to really master the material, and that means absorbing crucial lessons about your true self, your true needs, and the nature of true love. 

Course offerings from the Heartbreak Academy of Emotional Pain

There are many ways to get your heart broken, all of them highly educational. Breakup 101 will teach you all about the discouragement and guilt that set in when you end a relationship that just isn’t working. In Situational Heartbreak 165, you’ll learn about the pain that occurs when you and your loved one are separated by circumstances such as geographic distance or (God forbid) death. Then there’s Advanced Conflict 206, a combat-training course you enter when you and your significant other become locked in a war of wills. Most unpleasant of all, in my opinion, is Unilateral Torture 262. This class starts when you’re deeply in love, investing full trust and openness in a relationship, and suddenly your partner calls the whole thing off or simply stops calling at all. It’s like getting hit by a truck, only way slower and more humiliating. 

Study Guide: How to Make It Through Heartbreak Academy

I was in my first semester of Unilateral Torture 262, a class I’d taken three or four times already, when I stumbled across a concept in a psychology textbook that finally allowed me to learn my lesson and move on. I don’t remember anything else about that book, but I recall one crucial sentence perfectly. “Some patients,” it said, “mistakenly believe that their loneliness is a product of another person’s absence.” I stopped and reread this maybe ten times, but it still baffled me. I could have sworn that my loneliness was a product of my ex–significant other’s absence. If not, then what on earth was it? 

Finally, slowly, over the next several days, weeks, years, the light dawned: My loneliness, and the antidote to it, did not come from the significant others I’d loved and lost. I’d been emotionally isolated before I ever fell in love. Something about certain people helped me lower the drawbridge over the moat that separated me from the world, but in the final analysis I was the one who’d actually done the trick. The power to bring me out of solitude—or to push me back into it—had never belonged to any other person. It was mine and only mine.

This realization is the most important thing you need to get through Heartbreak Academy with minimum effort and maximum positive effect. Realizing that your heartbreak is not a product of the other person’s absence brings the pain into an arena where you can work with it, instead of riveting your attention on some missing lover you may never see again and could never really control. Each time you find yourself longing for the love that was, asking yourself the following study-guide questions will help you learn the lessons of heartbreak and move on to a relationship that works. 

Study Question #1: How Old Do I Feel? 

Most often, heartbroken people are unknowingly grieving a loss or trauma rooted in childhood or adolescence. That’s because we tend to fall in love with people who remind us of those who cared for us—even badly—when we were young and totally vulnerable. We become childlike when we feel securely adored, letting go of all inhibition. The failure of adult relationships is often caused by the dysfunctions we internalized as children, and the devastation we endure when we’re rejected almost always opens ancient wounds, making us feel as bereft as an abandoned little kid.

If you ask yourself how old you feel when you’re in the worst throes of heartbreak, you’ll probably find that a surprisingly low number pops into your head. Whatever the age of your grieving inner child, it’s your job to comfort her, as you would help a toddler or a teen who had lost a parent. Do small, practical, caring things for yourself: Listen to a song that helps you grieve, schedule a play date with your best friend, wrap a soft blanket around yourself and let the tears come. Most important of all, give your childish self the chance to talk. Open your journal or visit your therapist, and let yourself express your anger and anguish in all its irrational, immature glory. 

As you do this, you will almost certainly find yourself grieving losses you suffered way back when, as well as the one you’ve just endured. This is good: It means that you are finally progressing beyond ways of thinking and acting that didn’t work for you early in your life and still aren’t working today. Acknowledging and comforting that younger self is absolutely essential to easing your pain, recovering from your wounds, and finding new sources of healthy love. 

Study Question #2: What Did My Lost Love Help Me Believe About Myself? 

Look back on the time when you were falling in love, and you’ll realize that though much (or some) of your time with your lover was fabulous, the relationship made you happy even when the two of you were physically apart. The really potent part of love is that it allows you to carry around beliefs about yourself that make you feel special, desirable, precious, innately good. To graduate from Heartbreak Academy, you have to learn that neither your ex-beloved nor the fact of being in love invested you with these qualities. Your lover couldn’t have seen them in you, even temporarily, if they weren’t part of your essential being. 

Make a list of all the things you let yourself believe when you saw yourself mirrored in loving eyes. Write them as facts: I’m fascinating. I’m beautiful. I’m funny. I’m important. Realize that you chose to believe these things in the context of your relationship, and now that the relationship is over, you have another choice: either to reject a loving view of yourself or to believe the truth. 

But, you may say, what if these positive things aren’t really true at all? What if the truth is that I’m hopelessly unlovable? Well, let me remind you that when you believe you’re an insignificant bird dropping on the sooty gray pavement of life, you feel unspeakably horrible. On the other hand, when you opt for believing what love once taught you about yourself, the core of your despair is replaced by sweetness, however bitter your subsequent loss. I say, use what works. Self-concept is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we let ourselves believe that we’re wonderfully attractive, we act wonderfully attractive. By letting yourself believe the most loving things your ex ever said about you, you can get rid of the bathwater but keep the baby, honoring and preserving what was precious in your relationship, while letting go of the pain. 

Study Question #3: What Did My Relationship Give Me Permission To Do?

Being in love is so intoxicating, that special person so compelling, that lovers often drop some of the obligations and rules that dominated their lives before they met. When you’re in love, you may forget that you don’t usually allow yourself to splurge on perfume, or write poetry, or be wildly sexual, or say no to invitations you’d rather not accept. When your relationship is over, the bleak prospect of going back to the rules can drive you to the brink of despair, making you pine obsessively for your lost love to return and free you again. Eliminate the middleman. Free yourself. 

You can start by making another list. This time write down all the forbidden things you allowed yourself to do when you were madly in love with someone who was madly in love with you. Now give yourself permission to do all those things anyway. 

Nothing can make your trip through Heartbreak Academy easy or painless. Grieving will always hurt, but it is not mindless torture. It’s more like panning for gold. Recurrent floods of sadness and anger gradually wash away the rubble of the defunct relationship, leaving only the bits of treasure: the remembered moments of real communion, a new understanding of your own mistakes, a clear picture of the dysfunctions you will never tolerate again.

Letting these precious things emerge naturally means that you will retain the real love you’ve received, even as you let go of your former lover. And realizing that you hold the keys to your own healing will keep sadness from becoming despair and help you master the lessons a broken heart can teach. It means the relationships you create after that will be more trustworthy, the unavoidable losses less devastating. 

“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway once wrote, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” A broken heart is simply a heart that has a chance to become stronger. It’s a heart that is more self-sufficient, more open to the truth, and more capable of lasting love. 

The Comeback Kid: How to Handle Verbal Attacks

“Don’t worry, hon,” said Theresa’s husband, Guy, when she failed to extinguish all her birthday candles in one breath. “A woman your age has to be in shape to make wishes come true. You just don’t have the lung capacity.” Guy chortled. Theresa’s face turned scarlet. The rest of us chuckled nervously. We were used to Guy, to the jocular way he planted and twisted stilettos between his wife’s ribs. Like most of Theresa’s friends, I’d always found him just charming enough to be tolerable. But as I watched him serve Theresa’s cake, something dawned on me: Guy was a mean person. He’d intentionally humiliated his wife, and he did such things often. It was like that moment in a horror movie when you understand that the rogue car, rather than simply straying off course, is actively pursuing children and puppies.

I recall an urge to kick Guy in the throat, which I controlled by reminding myself that it was both illegal and difficult to pull off in heels. I was studying karate at the time, and though it didn’t occur to me then, I would eventually realize that the basic principles taught at my dojo could be used to fight evil not just in action but in conversation as well. I think of it as martial arts of the mind, and if you’re subject to subtle stabs, deliberate snubs, or cutting remarks, you might find these techniques an effective defense against the Guys of your world.

Principle 1: Find Your Fighting Stance

Every form of martial arts requires a fighting stance that’s fluid, flexible, and centered. Standing this way makes you much less likely to lose your balance, and if someone jumps you, you can quickly duck or dodge in any direction without falling.

Physical fighting stances involve balance, alignment, weight distribution, and posture. A psychological fighting stance is all about emotional balance: self-acceptance, abiding by your own moral code (something you’re probably doing anyway), forgiving yourself for failing to reach perfection (this is rarer), and, finally, offering yourself as much compassion as you’d give a beloved friend (I suspect some of us need work in this department). Simply put, you must never be mean to yourself.

This works because cruelty, to be effective, has to land on a welcoming spot in the victim’s belief system. Guy mocked Theresa’s age and lack of physical fitness because he knew she hated those things about herself. If she hadn’t already believed his insults, they would have left her feeling puzzled but not devastated—the way I was when I learned that calling someone a “turtle’s egg” is a horrific insult in China. She would have seen Guy as the pathetic head case he was. And that may have led her to our second principle.

Principle 2: Practice the Art of Invisibility

I once purchased a book that promised to teach the ninja’s fabled “art of invisibility.” I was crestfallen to read that the first step in a technique called vanishing was “Wait until your opponent is asleep.” The whole book was like that: Get your enemy drunk, throw dust in his eyes, thump him on the head with a wok, then tiptoe away, forever. Well, I could’ve told you that.

Nevertheless, I recommend these ninja techniques for dealing with mean people. Get away from them, full stop. Sound extreme? It’s not. Cruelty, whether physical or emotional, isn’t normal. It may signal what psychologists call the dark triad of psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian personality disorders. One out of about every 25 individuals has an antisocial personality disorder. Their prognosis for recovery is zero, their potential for hurting you about 100 percent. So don’t assume that a vicious person just had a difficult childhood or a terrible day; most people with awful childhoods end up being empathetic, and most people, even on their worst days, don’t seek satisfaction by inflicting pain. When you witness evil, if only the tawdry evil of a conversational stiletto twist, use your ninjutsu. Wait for a distraction, then disappear.

“But,” you may be thinking, “what if you’re stuck with a mean family member, co-worker, or neighbor? What’s poor Theresa supposed to do?” Well, Grasshopper, that’s when the martial arts of the mind really come in handy.

Principle 3: Master Defensive Techniques

All martial arts teach strategies to deflect different attacks. For instance, I was taught to defend against a lapel grab with a punching combination called Crouching Falcon, follow that with a multiple-kick series known as Returning Viper, and finish with the charmingly titled technique Die Forever. (I prefer my own techniques, such as Silent Sea Slug, which entails lying down and hoping things improve, or Disgruntled Panda, which is mostly curling up and refusing to mate.)

I also learned this closely guarded martial arts secret: Although there are countless techniques, most fighters need only a few. For instance, judo star Ronda Rousey has clobbered numberless opponents using the Arm Bar technique. Her opponents know she’s going to do it, but that doesn’t keep her from snapping their elbows like dry spaghetti. Each good technique goes a long, long way. The following are a few that I highly recommend, in order of degree of difficulty.

Yellow Belt Technique: Trumpet Melodiously

I’m a lifelong fan of “Japlish,” English prose translated from the Japanese by someone whose sole qualification is owning a Japanese-to-English dictionary. One classic Japlish instruction, which I picked up from a car rental company, advised: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”

I borrowed the phrase “trumpet him melodiously” for your first anti-meanness technique. It’s meant to nip hurtful behavior in the bud. Use it when someone—say a small child or an engineer—makes a remark that may or may not be intentionally cruel: “You smell like medicine,” “I can see through your pants,” “Why don’t you have a neck?”… You can trumpet him melodiously by saying, “Hey, dude, that’s kind of mean. Back off, okay?” If the behavior continues, tootle him with vigor by saying, “I’m serious. You’re out of line. Stop it.”

Practice these lines until you’re saying them in your sleep, with clear delivery, calm energy. Then, when you use them in real life, a normal person will react by immediately ceasing all hurtful behavior, and even mean people will be taken aback by your directness. They may even begin to behave themselves. Mission accomplished.

Brown Belt Technique: Zig-Zig

As a martial artist, you’ll need to get used to doing the opposite of whatever your enemies expect. For example, if someone were to push you backward, you might push back for a few seconds, then abruptly reverse, and pull your assailant in the direction he’s pushing. He’d be toppled by his own momentum.

This is zig-zigging. It works beautifully on mean people. They expect a fight-or-flight reaction from their victims—either angry pushback or slinking away. The one thing they don’t anticipate is relaxed discernment. Scuttle their plans by zigging instead of zagging, cheerfully accepting any accurate statement they might make while ignoring their malicious energy.

You can observe this technique in the movie Spanglish, when a young wife, played by Téa Leoni, lashes out at her mother, “You were an alcoholic and wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years, so I’m in this fix because of you!” As the mother, Cloris Leachman nods and says pleasantly, “You have a solid point, dear. But right now the lessons of my life are coming in handy for you.” This response stops the daughter cold, partly because it’s true and partly because it contains not a whiff of pushback. The mother zigs when the daughter expects her to zag. The result is peace.

Black Belt Anti-Meanness Technique: Wicked-Kind Parent

If you keep a balanced stance and surround yourself with normal people, you’ll eventually master the black belt skill I’ve named Wicked-Kind Parent. Mean people are adept at adopting the tone of a critical parent, making others unconsciously regress into weak, worried children. To use this defense, refuse to be infantilized. Instead, use the only thing that trumps the emotional power of a bad parent: the emotional power of a good one. This is what happened at Theresa’s birthday party. As Guy served cake and cruelty, Theresa’s older sister Wendy spoke up.

“Now, Guy,” she said, in precisely the tone Supernanny uses with kids on TV, “that kind of petty meanness doesn’t become you. Show us all you can do better.” Guy tried to laugh, but a glance around the room silenced him. Wendy had called on her good-parent energy to tap a great resource: normal people. Kind people. Outplayed and outnumbered, Guy slunk away, leaving Theresa to enjoy her birthday. This is virtually always the outcome when a mental martial artist encounters a Mean Guy. If you choose the way of the warrior, it will happen for you.

Principle 4: Walk the Way of the Warrior

Being a martial artist is a way of life. You can’t use your skills in an emergency unless you practice them every day. And such daily practice may lead to unexpected adventures. You’ll no longer watch helplessly as some Mean Guy emotionally abuses his wife—even if you happen to be the wife in question. Where your prewarrior self would’ve simply wilted, your warrior self will speak up or, if you’re the wife, walk away.

This may require drastic changes in your life. Are you ready for that? Well, you are if meanness has pushed you to the point of anger or despair. You are if you want to be the change you wish to see in the world. You can begin today. Adopt the stance of dauntless self-acceptance, avoid combat when possible, and practice your techniques until they become second nature. Though it might be helpful to remember that it really does help to wait until your opponent is asleep.

The New You: Handling Change-Back Attacks

Imagine this: You’re putting together a nifty jigsaw puzzle—say, your favorite Elvis montage painting on black velvet—when one of the pieces suddenly morphs into an entirely different shape. Aside from the unnerving quantum-mechanical implications of this event, you’ve got a problem—the surrounding pieces no longer fit. You could try to alter those pieces (a troubling prospect, since it will require distorting all the ones around them) or give up on the puzzle entirely—unless, of course, you could get the little sucker to resume its former shape and size.

This sort of situation arises in every human life. We live in social systems—families and neighborhoods, offices and nations—that call for continuous, complex interconnection. Any person who undergoes a dramatic shift creates a ripple effect, requiring change from others around her. The fact that you’re reading this suggests that you’re inclined toward personal growth. I’m guessing you’ve been this way for years, whether it’s a trait you celebrate every day or a dirty secret you ruminate over while churning butter with your Amish kinfolk. The problem, as you may have noticed, is that not everyone you know, love, or work with is overjoyed to tread the path of change along with you.

Because we are a species that fears the unknown, most people reject the continuous transformation that is human reality and try to lock others into predictable behavior. “Promise me that you’ll never change,” lovers whisper to one another, though only a model from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum could keep such an enormous promise. In short, anyone who thinks new thoughts or does new deeds is likely to garner disapproval and criticism from someone. 

How to Handle a Change-Back Attack

Women who are undergoing changes are likely to experience “change back” messages from their nearest and dearest. The messages come in many forms: sabotage, cold silence, shouted insults, refusal to cooperate. But all convey just one idea: “I don’t like what you’ve done. Go back to being the way you were.” This might seem baffling in the face of positive achievements like losing weight, falling in love, or learning new ideas.

But change-back attackers aren’t really thinking about the person they’re pressuring. They’re fighting for their lives—or at least life as they know it. These people are motivated not only by their own fear of change but by the pressure of other “puzzle pieces” that surround them. The force of a change-back attack has the weight of all those relationships. Resist successfully, and you may end up affecting people you’ll never meet.

First, a basic attitude adjustment: Most people who are on the receiving end of change-back messages go into fits of guilt or defensiveness, then revert to familiar behaviors. This, of course, is exactly what the disgruntled party wants. Part of every personal evolution strategy should be a determination to greet these messages with pride and joy, as a sure sign you’re making progress. Call a friend, a therapist, a fellow self-improvement devotee, and report the good news: “Guess what? I just got six blowbacks in one conversation! I must really be making progress!” Once you’ve made this attitudinal shift, you’re ready for a systematic defense.

Begin Your Systematic Defense

Step 1: Pay respectful attention.
When someone launches a change-back attack against you, refrain from resisting or submitting; just pay attention. Remember that whether you realize it or not, your actions may be forcing this friend to either make personal alterations or give up on “fitting” with you. Noticing their fear may calm you, and this may go a long way toward calming them.

If someone comes at you with a direct, obstreperous argument, try these unexpected, attentive responses: “Tell me.” “I’m listening.” “I hear you.” “Say a little bit more on that.” Attentiveness is a mobile, fluid stance that allows you to observe and respond without sustaining much damage. As Mark Twain said about doing right, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Step 2: Take time to find your truth.
So you’ve paid attention. You know that the bag of bacon cheeseburgers on the table is just evidence that your loving husband is afraid he’ll lose you. You’ve listened calmly as your angry teenager or judgmental parent lambasted you for your new achievements. Find a private moment for yourself. Now breathe and relax. Recall the chain of events that motivated your metamorphosis in the first place: the fat, the loneliness, the illumination. Honestly consider the feedback you’ve just received. Maybe it feels absolutely right; if so, reverse course. Maybe it’s partly right. Fine, alter your direction. Or maybe the complaint is just plain wrong. In that case, you must keep going, trusting that the best gift you can offer others is the resolute embrace of your own truth.

Step 3: State your position for the record.
If your change-back attacker is sober and in a reasonably receptive frame of mind, you may want to respond to her argument. Even when you’re dealing with a nasty, non-communicative person, stating your position may be a powerful step in your own development. It may not make the slightest impression on your unrelenting foes, but hearing the truth spoken in your own voice can clear your head and buoy your heart, at which point you’ll have won the battle. 

Vanquish Your Change-Back Attackers

Step 4: Unconditional Love
There’s a secret weapon in the change wars, one that can fill the gaps and soften the edges of our constantly morphing identities—and I don’t mean leaving your whole social system or forcing others to conform to you at every moment in time. The answer is unconditional love, and I encourage you to use it with ruthless abandon.

You’ll know you’ve vanquished your change-back attackers when you can love them completely without agreeing with them at all. You can’t force this feeling—it will happen naturally when you’re ready—but when it strikes, express it, without acquiescing to others’ verbal jabs. Doing this cheerfully and unabashedly will confound your average saboteurs by giving them nothing to oppose.

At best, this approach will cause your adversaries to stop, ponder, and perhaps feel less scared of making their own improvements. At worst, it will render you flexible, able to fit in with many people and social systems without getting stuck in any one position. The more you claim your own destiny, the easier it will be to love unconditionally. The more you love, the more comfortably you’ll fit in with all sorts of people. Ultimately, situations that once brought on horrendous change-back attacks, that once appeared to you as utterly unworkable puzzles, may end up barely fazing you at all. 

Good Friend, Bad Friend? Make Your Friendships Blossom

When my friend Riley and I met for coffee, I was feeling somewhat gloomy, looking forward to a little emotional support. As I sat down, however, Riley recounted a harrowing tale. Only hours before, as she was chomping happily on some caramel corn, one of her front teeth had snapped off, right at the gum line! Her dentist glued it back in, but I mean… The horror! The horror!

My bad mood disappeared as I grilled Riley about every detail, told her it was perfectly normal that the incident upset her more than global warming, and affirmed that her teeth looked great (they did). After a while, Riley drew a deep breath, exhaled, and relaxed.

“Now,” she said, “what’s going on with you?”

Immediately, my previous unhappiness resurfaced. Riley did some heavy therapy on my private psychological issues, which was no doubt recorded and posted on YouTube by the bored baristas. No matter—I felt worlds better by the time we parted. So, she said through her totally normal-looking teeth, did Riley.

To me, this was friendship at its best. Riley and I spontaneously and easily switched roles, taking care and being taken care of. But not all relationships (certainly not all of mine) flow this smoothly. Many friends have unspoken but ironclad rules about which person will do what share of the emotional and logistical work.

Right now, scan your mental files for friendships where the roles never change: She’s the talker, you’re the listener; she’s the star, you’re the screwup; she never calls you, you always call her. Imagine what this friend’s response would be if you stopped playing your part or stepped into hers. Would she be shocked or angry? Would she ice you, scold you, drop off your social calendar? If so, I’m afraid that particular connection isn’t exactly a friendship. Rigid roles enforced by social pressure add up to something else—something I call a naiad dyad.

What the Hell’s a Naiad Dyad?

Naiads are mythological nymphs who ruled the rivers and springs of ancient Greece. One of these watery demigoddesses had a famously handsome son named Narcissus, who attracted many admirers, none more admiring than himself. He fell so madly in love with his own reflection that he did nothing but stare at it. Narcissus’s friends found this daunting—all, that is, except for another nymph named Echo, whose curse (naiads were highly curse-prone) was that she couldn’t voice her own thoughts, only repeat words spoken by others.

In their twisted way, Narcissus and Echo were ideal companions. Both were obsessed with the same person (him), and both expressed the same thoughts, ideas, and opinions (his). I’m sure the next-door satyrs thought their relationship was perfect. Not so much. In one version of the story, Narcissus, unable to work out the logistics of being in love with himself, plunged a dagger into his heart and was transformed into a flower. Echo, devastated, wandered off to haunt canyons and glens, repeating random sentiments shouted by strangers.

Question: Do you see any similarities between your rigid-role “friendships” and the Narcissus-Echo relationship, or do I have to bash you over the head with them? Answer: Too late. Brace yourself.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, unhappy friendships are all different, but those inflexible relationships almost universally signal the psychological dynamics of narcissists and their echoes. On the surface, these friendships look idyllic—as Jennifer Coolidge’s dim character says of such a relationship in the film A Mighty Wind, “It’s almost as like we have one brain that we share between us.” Since no two individuals are identical, such unanimity is always an illusion; the “one brain,” or at least the dominant will, belongs to the person both friends implicitly agree is more important. The echo voluntarily surrenders personal needs, ideas, and even rights in exchange for the narcissist’s “love,” which is actually directed at her own reflection. “Enough about me; let’s talk about you,” she says with words and actions. “What do you think about me?”

Such relationships exist because narcissism is a basic factor of human consciousness, beginning in infancy. Tiny babies literally can’t focus on anyone but themselves. As children grow, however, they realize that others have feelings, needs, and rights. They learn to share and care.

Usually.

There are some individuals who never outgrow infantile self-obsession. Throughout life, they take without giving and expect others to give without taking. Even when they have their own children, they can’t focus on anyone but themselves. One woman told me quite seriously that her 3-day-old son was “a selfish brat” because “he cries when he knows I’m trying to sleep.” Extremely narcissistic parents often have echo spouses, who limply accept unfair treatment from everyone, including their children. “Don’t mind me, sweetheart,” sighs the echo parent. “Here’s money for cocaine—I’ll stay here, knitting you a sweater from my hair.”

Children raised by such parents grow up unconsciously assuming there are only two possible relationship modes: Some become thoroughgoing narcissists, others eternal echoes. (Some bounce between these two states, acting oppressively in some of their relationships but groveling in others, like the middle manager who trashes subordinates but toadies up to the boss.)

When two people who fall into this kind of dyad meet, they bond instantly, like Krazy Glue. “I feel as if I’ve known you all my life,” they say, basking in the familiar narcissist-echo energy. There are no arguments, no awkward uncertainty about who should do what, because the echo immediately begins reflecting the narcissist. She stops listening to rap, catching her new friend’s polka fever.

Even more important, the echo assumes all the subtle work of friendship: initiating contact, arranging activities, offering compliments and other forms of nurturing. She doesn’t mind things being one-sided; she’s just grateful—ecstatic—that she’s being adored by a replica of the parent who couldn’t love her. And the narcissistic friend really is adoring—not of the echo, as they both mistakenly believe, but of her reflection in her new friend’s eyes. It’s all fun and games, right up until someone gets stabbed.

The Bitter End

I’m devastated,” whispered my echoey client Naomi. “My best friend just…dumped me. I don’t understand; we’re so close. We went to each other’s weddings. We talked every day. Then out of the blue, she tells me I’ve changed, I’m getting selfish, she’s done with me. I don’t think she’ll ever speak to me again.” Baffling as it may seem if you don’t understand narcissism, Naomi is probably right. Her long-standing friendship is likely over.

This is how naiad dyads often end. For instance, when Naomi the echo finally became so unhappy she hired a coach, she began to see herself as worthy of reciprocal friendship. She started drawing boundaries and making small, gentle requests. Her supposed friend, a true narcissist, saw this as a selfish betrayal of their implicit arrangement.

Even if Naomi had kept echoing like an empty cistern, this naiad dyad would probably have ended. Because narcissists don’t give love, which is half the equation of a genuine emotional connection, they always become increasingly unhappy over time (remember Narcissus’s suicide). Many blame their echoes: “You’re not making me happy anymore!” Whether the echo gets better or the narcissist gets worse, the relationship may suddenly and completely fracture, the Krazy Glue bond breaking as quickly and completely as it formed.

Real friendship never does this because it’s extremely flexible. Friends take turns performing and receiving “friendship maintenance” tasks, from making phone calls to buying presents. When Riley’s tooth broke, she got my immediate attention: I “echoed” her. Then we switched roles, and we discussed my problems. This simple turn-taking is what naiad dyads lack, and it leads to catastrophic failure. If you suspect that one of your friendships is actually a naiad dyad, try one of the following fixes.

Let’s say you’re in a rigid friendship where you call all the shots and do none of the work. You might be a narcissist, which probably means you don’t care and won’t change. My only advice? Avoid daggers.

On the other hand, if you’re disturbed by receiving one-sided VIP treatment, you might want to talk to her and explain that her excessive selflessness is troubling, that you need to give as well as receive to feel like her friend. I’m haunted by the fact that I never had this conversation with a college buddy who years later committed suicide. Maybe I could have helped by insisting she learn to receive as well as give. You can’t force a confirmed echo out of her role, but it’s worth trying.

And what if you’re playing the echo role? You could ask your friend to do something that’s usually “your” job: “You know, I’d love it if you’d drive over to my place today, since I always drive over to yours.” A normal friend may be surprised, but she’ll comply. A narcissist will go cold, angry, or passive aggressive. This won’t immediately end your inner child’s adulation for her, but it will horrify you enough to begin seeing reality and disengaging.

If you can’t just end a naiad dyad—say your friend is also a co-worker—there’s another option. You can train her like a sea mammal, as author Amy Sutherland reported in her New York Times article “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” Narcissists hate being ignored—and crave praise. A combination of indifference and adulation can powerfully shape their behavior. When your co-worker shouts that the coffee you made is too hot, don’t react at all. Later, when she’s calm, spontaneously exclaim, “You’re projecting so much authority!” or “You look great!” The narcissist will react like a junkie inhaling opium and probably increase the behavior you’re rewarding. Is this healthy? God, no. But it’s better than helpless echoism.

Making Friendship Blossom

These methods can get you out of truly sick naiad dyads and improve marginal cases, moving them away from strict role division toward reciprocity and flexibility. The more fluid and balanced your relationships become, the more you’ll see that friendship, unlike Narcissus, can flower without anyone’s getting hurt. As someone who’s been blessed with marvelous friends, I can assure you this is worth the effort. But enough about me. What do you think about…you?

The Art of Apology: When and How to Apologize

I was a mere child when the classic tear gusher Love Story hit theaters in 1970, but I wept along with the adult audience as the dying Ali MacGraw told the darling Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Two years later, I saw another movie, What’s Up, Doc?, in which Barbra Streisand’s character repeated the very same line to the very same actor. This time, however, O’Neal had an answer. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” he said.

For me, that was a light bulb moment. I’d been swept along by the romance of Love Story, but even as I’d watched it, I’d felt an uncomfortable tickle in my brain. Young as I was (practically fetal, I swear), something was telling me that real lovers say they’re sorry quite often. Sincerely. Fervently, even. This is not because dismal feelings like shame and regret are necessary components of a relationship, but because without apology no relationship would be free of them. Everyone does things that bother or hurt others; a bit of inconvenient procrastination will do it, or a grumpy comment made in a stressful moment. When we lack the ability to say we’re sorry, minor offenses eventually accumulate enough weight to sink any relationship. But the simple act of apologizing can reestablish goodwill even when our sins are much, much graver. Of course, it must be done right. A lame, badly constructed apology can do more damage than the original offense. Fortunately, the art of effective apology is simple, and mastering it can mean a lifetime of solid, resilient relationships.

When to Apologize

I’ve heard many clients discuss and anticipate the “perfect moment” for an apology, claiming that premature contrition would just be too darn hard on the person they’ve wronged. Here’s what I think: The perfect moment to apologize is the moment you realize you’ve done something wrong.

This seems obvious when we’re contemplating somebody else’s sins, but in the harsh light of our own guilt, we often try to protect ourselves from shame or censure by waiting for the heat to blow over. We may try to postpone apologizing or avoid it altogether by lying, blaming others, making excuses or justifying our actions. The impulse to go into such a stall is a big ol’ signal. When you really don’t want to say you’re sorry, it’s almost certainly time to do so.

On the other hand, you may be one of those people who apologize when they haven’t done anything wrong. This is as false as failing to say you’re sorry when circumstances warrant it. If you frequently apologize, it’s time to stop. This kind of pseudo-apology may ease awkward conversations, but it’s a form of crying wolf—it distracts attention from real issues and weakens meaningful apologies when the time for them arrives.

How to Apologize

Apologizing is rarely comfortable or easy, so if you’re going to do it at all, make it count. Aaron Lazare, MD, a psychiatrist and dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has spent years studying acts of contrition in every context, from interpersonal to international. He has found that, to be effective, most apologies need to contain the following elements:

  1.  Full acknowledgment of the offense. Start by describing exactly what you did wrong, without avoiding the worst truths. Once the facts are out, acknowledge that your behavior violated a moral code. It doesn’t matter whether you and the person you’ve hurt shares the same ethics: If you’ve broken your own rules, you’re in the wrong. Accept responsibility.
  2. An explanation. A truthful explanation is your best shot at rebuilding a strong, peaceful relationship. The core-deep explanation for your behavior is your key to changing for the better. Explanations help you and your victim understand why you misbehaved and assure both of you that the offense won’t recur. Excuses merely deflect responsibility. Leave them out of your apology.
  3. Genuine expression of remorse. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the comment “I’m sorry you feel that way” knows the difference between sincere regret and an attempt to avoid responsibility for bad behavior. Few things are less likely to evoke forgiveness than apology without remorse.
  4.  Reparations for damage. An apology includes real repair work: not just saying “I’m sorry.” Often there will be nothing tangible to repair; hearts and relationships are broken more often than physical objects. In such cases, your efforts should focus on restoring the other person’s dignity. The question “What else do you want me to do?” can start this process. If you ask it sincerely, really listen to the answer and act on the other party’s suggestions, you’ll be honoring their feelings, perspective and experience. The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds. 

After Apologizing

When you really apologize, you should feel good about yourself. An effective apology is, as Lazare puts it, “an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage.” But there’s no guarantee that the other person involved will share your warm fuzzies. The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.

Anne Lamott refers to forgiveness as “giving up all hope of having had a different past.” The same words apply to apologizing. An apology is the end of our struggle with history, the act by which we untangle from our past by accepting what it actually was. From this truthful place we are free to move forward, whether or not we are forgiven. Apologizing doesn’t make us perfect, but it shows our commitment to be honest about our imperfections and steadfast in our efforts to do better.

It reminds us of what Ali MacGraw’s Love Story character died too young to learn: that love means always being willing to say you’re sorry. 

Who’s the Boss: Lessons in Leadership

Few things incite a frothing, wild-eyed rage like asking people to talk about bad bosses. People aren’t just annoyed by poor leadership—they sputter and snarl as they describe their superiors, lusting for the chance to hit that bad boss with a perfect, withering insult. Or perhaps a truck.

It’s a little scary, then, to realize that we’re all likely to occupy a leadership role, from motherhood to mogulhood, at some point in our lives. When we blow it, our imperfections will be magnified by our authority. Leadership is simply too complex to do perfectly. I believe that the key to being a better boss lies in accepting that fact. Ineffective leaders expect their role to be easy and think—no matter what—that they’re doing the job just right. Although good leaders often begin with similar expectations, convinced they’re natural-born chieftains, they soon run smack-dab into a little thing called Monday morning. The best leaders let go of the fantasy and become fully present and responsive to the complexities of each new situation. They’re the ones—the few, the proud, the downright worshipped—who earn their followers’ respect. To become one of them, you need to turn bad-boss behaviors on their head to find your way toward good-boss techniques.

The View from Below

Bad-boss self-concept: As a leader, I’ll be a higher-up.
Good-boss self-concept: As a leader, I’ll have to go lower down.

The bad-boss tales I’ve heard include many stories of managers demanding the undoable, responding to objections by simply reiterating that it had to be done. This creates nothing but hostility. “If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them,” said the philosopher Lao-tzu (who is my favorite management consultant, despite having been dead for centuries). That doesn’t mean you become a slave to your followers’ whims. Great bosses acknowledge their own ignorance and ask questions of everyone to gain a better grasp of two important things: What’s going on? What needs to be done?

Eliminating Moving Targets

Bad-boss target setting: Now that I’m the boss, I give orders to others.
Good-boss target setting: Now that I’m the boss, I bring order to what others do.

Many people thrill to giving orders or critiques, but have unclear, uninformed or ambivalent ideas about what they’re actually trying to accomplish—that is, they know what they want this second, but the big picture is as fuzzy as a winter mink. Leading well means forming a crystal clear image of what must happen and communicating that precisely. After giving an assignment, ask that person to describe the task in their own words. If they can’t, or if the account they give doesn’t match what you were trying to convey, you need to try a new tack. The first step could be as easy as clarifying your directives—or you might have to rethink your org chart and who reports to whom.

Where We Go Wrong

Bad-boss position on feedback: Now everyone must tell me when I’m right.
Good-boss position on feedback: Now everyone must tell me when I’m wrong.

Most humans go through the world trying to elicit validation. Al Preble, a leadership consultant for Cambridge Leadership Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says this isn’t the way to go. The most powerful way for leaders to communicate, he believes, is to use just three simple steps. When a problem arises:

  1. Clearly tell your subordinate what you really think
  2. Describe the facts that led you to this opinion
  3. Ask to be disconfirmed; in other words, honestly request that people tell you where you’re wrong.

Taking the Hit

Bad-boss protection strategy: As a boss, I’ll be protected from taking blame.
Good-boss protection strategy: As a boss, I’ll protect others by taking blame.

The successful bosses I interviewed emphasized that a good leader helps her followers feel safe from the dangers that come from both inside and outside the organization. An incompetent supervisor, on the other hand, feels that the best way to secure her position is to appear faultless, and works mightily to make clear who fouled up or even to lay blame on a scapegoat. But that behavior turns people into twitchy, record-keeping, blame-tallying masses of ectoplasm.

Once More into the Breach

Bad-boss problem solving: Being the boss means I can avoid problems.
Good-boss problem solving: Being the boss means I must seek out problems.

You can tell if you’re making mistakes as a leader, because things go wrong—not just one catastrophic computer snafu but repeated errors. Bad bosses turn away from these realities. They don’t discuss problems; they just hunker down and hope the issue will go away. It won’t. Untreated, a minor concern becomes a major issue becomes a catastrophe.

This is the core of good leadership, whether you’re managing a corporation, your immediate family, or just your own life. Lao-tzu puts it this way: “When [the Master] runs into a difficulty, she stops and gives herself to it. She doesn’t cling to her own comfort; thus problems are no problem for her.” Embracing the fact that you’ll encounter many obstacles—and that this is all right—allows you to understand, listen, give clear instructions, invite negative feedback and protect those you lead. You’ll be comfortable with leadership, even when it’s uncomfortable. And that will make you an easy act to follow.

How to Know It’s Real Love

In a folktale that has been retold for centuries in many variations (one of which is Shakespeare’sKing Lear), an elderly king asks his three daughters how much they love him. The two older sisters deliver flowery speeches of filial adoration, but the youngest says only “I love you as meat loves salt.” The king, insulted by this homely simile, banishes the youngest daughter and divides his kingdom between the older two, who promptly kick him out on his royal heinie. He seeks refuge in the very house where his third daughter is working as a scullery maid. Recognizing her father, the daughter asks the cook to prepare his meal without salt. The king eats a few tasteless mouthfuls, then bursts into tears. “All along,” he cries, “it was my youngest daughter who really loved me!” The daughter reveals herself and all ends happily (except in King Lear, where pretty much everybody dies).

This story survived throughout Europe for a very long time because it is highly instructive: It reminds listeners that in matters of love, choosing style over substance is disastrous. It also helps us know when we’re making that mistake. Salt is unique in that its taste doesn’t cover up the food it seasons but enhances whatever flavor was there to begin with. Real love, real commitment, does the same thing. 

Each of the following five statements is the polar opposite of what most Americans see as loving commitment. But these are “meat loves salt” commitments, as necessary as they are unconventional. Only if you and your beloved can honestly say them to each other is your relationship likely to thrive.

1. I can live without you, no problem.
“I can’t live,” wails the singer, “if living is without you.” It sounds so tragically deep to say that losing your lover’s affections would make life unlivable—but have you ever been in a relationship with someone whose survival truly seemed to depend on your love? Someone who sat around waiting for you to make life bearable, who threatened to commit suicide if you ever broke up? Or have you found yourself on the grasping side of the equation, needing your partner the way you need oxygen? The emotion that fuels this kind of relationship isn’t love; it’s desperation. It can feel romantic at first, but over time it invariably fails to meet either partner’s needs.

The statement “I can’t survive without you” reflects not adult attraction but infancy, a phase when we really would have died if our caretakers hadn’t stayed close by, continuously anticipating our needs. The hunger for total nurturing usually means we’re in the middle of a psychological regression, feeling like abandoned infants who need parenting now, now, now! If this is how you feel, don’t start dating. Start therapy. Counseling can teach you how to get your needs met by the only person responsible for them: you. The “I can’t live without you” syndrome ends when we learn to care for ourselves as tenderly and attentively as a good mother. At that point, we’re ready to form stable, lasting attachments that can last a lifetime. “I can live without you” is an assurance that sets the stage for real love. 

2. My love for you will definitely change.
Most human beings seem innately averse to change. Once we’ve established some measure of comfort or stability, we want to nail it in place so that there’s no possibility of loss. It’s understandable, then, that the promise “My love for you will never change” is a hot seller. Unfortunately, this is another promise that is more likely to scuttle a relationship than shore it up.

The reason is that everything—and everyone—is constantly changing. We age, grow, learn, get sick, get well, gain weight, lose weight, find new interests, and drop old ones. And when two individuals are constantly in flux, their relationship must be fluid to survive. Many people fear that if their love is free to change, it will vanish. The opposite is true. A love that is allowed to adapt to new circumstances is virtually indestructible. Infatuation relaxes into calm companionship, then flares again as we see new things to love about each other. In times of trouble and illness, obligation may feel stronger than attraction—until one day we realize that hanging in there through troubled times has bonded us more deeply than ever before. Like running water, changing love finds its way past obstacles. Freezing it in place makes it fragile, rigid, and all too likely to shatter.

3. You’re not everything I need.
I’m a big fan of sexual monogamy, but I’m puzzled by lovers who claim that their romantic partner is the only person they need in their lives or that time together is the only activity necessary for emotional fulfillment. Humans are designed to live in groups, explore ideas, and constantly learn new skills. Trying to get all this input from one person is like trying to get a full range of vitamins by eating only ice cream. When a couple believes “We must fulfill all of each other’s needs,” each becomes exhausted by the effort to be all things to the other and neither can develop fully as an individual.

It amazes me how often my clients’ significant others feel threatened when the clients revive childhood passions or take up new hobbies. I encourage people to bring their spooked spouses to a session so we can discuss their fears. The hurt partners usually come in sounding something like this: “How come you have to spend three hours a week playing tennis (or gardening or painting)? Are you saying I’m not enough to keep you happy?” The healthiest response to such questions is “That’s right, our relationship isn’t enough to make me completely happy—and if I pretended it were, I’d stunt my soul and poison my love for you. Ever thought about what you’d like to do on your own?” Sacrificing all our individual needs doesn’t strengthen a relationship. Mutually supporting each other’s personal growth does.

4. I won’t always hold you close.
There’s a thin line between a romantic statement like “I love you so much, I want to share my life with you until death do us part” and the lunatic-fringe anthem “I love you so much that if you try to leave me, I’ll kill you.” People who say such things love others the way spiders love flies; they love to capture them, wrap them in immobilizing fetters, and drain nourishment out of them at peckish moments. This is not the kind of love you want.

The way you can tell real love from spider love is simple: Possessiveness and exploitation involve controlling the loved one, whereas true love is based on setting the beloved free to make his or her own choices. How you use the word make is also a tip-off. When you hear yourself saying “He makes me feel X” or “He made me do Y,” you’re playing the victimized, trussed-up fly. Even more telling are sentences like “I’ve got to make him see that he’s wrong” or “I’ll hide what I really think because it would make him angry.” You are not the victim but the crafty spider, withholding and using manipulation to control your mate’s feelings and actions. Either strategy means that someone is being held too close, wrapped in spider silk.

Getting out of this sticky situation is simple: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Begin by taking responsibility for your own choices—including the choice to obey the spider man who may have you in his thrall. Then communicate your real feelings, needs, and desires to your partner, without trying to force the reaction you want. If your relationship can’t thrive in the clear light of honesty, it is better to get out of it than to sink further into manipulation and control.

5. You and I aren’t one.
Perhaps you are neither a spider nor a fly but a chameleon who morphs to match the one you love. Or you may date chameleons, choosing partners who conform to your personality. Either way, you’re not in a healthy relationship. In fact, you’re not in a relationship at all.

I used to tune in so acutely to my loved ones’ wants and needs that I literally didn’t know my own. This denial of self ultimately turned into resentment, poisoning several close relationships. Then—once burned, twice shy—I went briefly to the opposite extreme. I found myself having a lot of lackluster lunches with folks who hung on my every word and agreed with everything I said. Narcissistic I may be, but Narcissus I’m not; hanging out with a human looking-glass, no matter how flattering, left me lonely.

If you’re living by the “We are one” ideal, it’s high time you found out how terrific love for two can be. Follow your heart in a direction your partner wouldn’t go. Dare to explore your differences. Agree to disagree. If you’re accustomed to disappearing, this will allow you to see that you can be loved as you really are. If you tend to dominate, you’ll find out how interesting it is to love an actual person rather than a human mirror.

~~~~~~~

Buddha once said that just as we can know the ocean because it always tastes of salt, we can recognize enlightenment because it always tastes of freedom. There’s no essential difference between real love and enlightenment. While many people see commitment as a trap, its healthy versions actually free both lovers, bring out the flavor of their true selves, and build a love that is satisfying, lasting, and altogether delicious.

Projection: What You Spot is What You’ve Got

“There are two kinds of people I can’t stand,” says Michael Caine’s character in the epically low comedy Goldmember, “those who are intolerant of other cultures, and the Dutch.” I love this line, not because it slams the Dutch (for whom I feel great admiration) but because it slams hypocrisy—specifically, the baffling double standards of people who condemn in others the very offenses they themselves are committing. My fellow life coach Sharon Lamm calls this the “you spot it, you got it” syndrome. In other words, whatever we criticize most harshly in others may be a hallmark of our own psyche; what I hate most in you may actually be what I hate most in me. 

This style of thinking is so illogical, you’d think it would be rare. Because of the peculiarities of human psychology, though, it’s actually more the rule than the exception. Understanding the “you spot it, you got it” phenomenon requires some focused thinking, but the effort will bring more peace and sanity to your relationships and your inner life. 

Why We Spot What We Got

Hidden AlligatorLet’s start by replicating a little thought experiment devised by psychologist Daniel Wegner: For the next 30 seconds, don’t think about anything connected to the subject of white bears. Don’t think about bears of any kind—or the Arctic, or snowy terrain, or white fur coats, etc. Ready? Go. 

You probably just had more bear-related thoughts than you typically would in a month of Sundays. They’re still coming, aren’t they? You may distract yourself for an instant, but then another pops into your mind—see? There’s one now! 

This is a universal truth: We invariably experience more of any thought or feeling we try to avoid. Why? Because when our brains hear the instruction to shun a certain topic, they respond by seeking any thoughts related to that topic, in order to escape them. (After all, if you decided to throw away every blue thing in your closet, the first step would be to go looking for blue items, right?) Wegner calls this search the “ironic monitoring process,” which has the perfect acronym: “imp.” When we try to repress awareness of anything, we activate a mind imp that zeroes in on every memory, every sense impression, every experience related to the forbidden subject. 

The “you spot it, you got it” phenomenon occurs when we do things that are in opposition to our own value systems. To feel good about acting in ways that are reprehensible to ourselves, we must repress our recognition that we’re doing so. Our imps go into high gear; we become hyperalert to anything that reminds us of the behavior we’re denying in ourselves, focusing with unusual intensity on the slightest hint of that behavior in others, or imagining it where it doesn’t even exist. 

This is why people can, without irony, say things like “So help me, Billy, if you keep hitting people, I will slap you into Thursday!” Or “I only lie to him because he’s so dishonest.” Condemning others for our worst traits turns us into ethical pretzels, hiding from us the very things we must change to earn genuine self-respect. Articulating such false logic is the key to resolving it—but this is always easier when we’re talking about someone besides ourselves. So let’s start there.

Project And Reject: The Hypocrite’s Two-Step

When we’re the ones doing the spot-it-got-it tango, we don’t see the paradox; we simply feel an unusually ferocious antipathy to someone else’s actions. When someone else is perpetrating the very acts they claim to despise, we may feel confused, sensing that there’s something crazy going on, unable to pinpoint exactly what. I have some recommendations. 

Be Suspicious. Be Very Suspicious. 
One of the friskiest babysitters I ever hired was a sweet little grandma I’ll call Beulah. Despite her age, Beulah had endless energy; she could keep up with my three preschoolers far longer than I could. She was also touchingly concerned that my children not become “addicted” to anything: Sesame Street, ice cream, pop music. She volunteered to police my bathroom cupboards and remove any leftover medication the children might consume. Even so, she worried constantly that they would get drugs somewhere. 

One day I came home from work to discover that Beulah had wallpapered half my daughter’s bedroom with hideous paper she’d found at a discount store. She’d also single-handedly moved our piano to a new location, and (though I wouldn’t discover this until weeks later) ordered four hundred dollars’ worth of Girl Scout Cookies at my expense. As Beulah gave me a disjointed, rambling explanation at a rate of approximately 900 words per minute, I noted her many small scabs and that her pupils were dilated. I recalled an article that mentioned these were symptoms of crystal meth abuse. The light finally dawned: Beulah was a speed freak. 

As I regretfully fired my babysitter, I realized that her obsessive talk about addiction had always been a “you spot it, you got it” behavior, and it should have been a signal to me that Beulah herself was a drug-stealing addict. Everyone makes comments about other people from time to time, but those who focus on one topic continually, irrationally, and inexplicably are often describing themselves. When someone seems unduly preoccupied with a certain flaw in others, it’s time to do a once-over to see if it’s taken root in Mr. or Ms. Obsessed. 

Sidestep Mind-Binds 
If you want to experience insanity, observe a relationship with a hypocrite: the unfaithful lover who sees endless evidence of a partner’s nonexistent infidelity; the rude, hurtful coworker who expects to be treated with kindness and respect; the political extremist who violently opposes violence. Opposite moral imperatives that come from the same person, called double binds, are so crazy-making that they were once thought to induce schizophrenia. If you try to have a close connection with someone who vehemently attacks flaws in others while demanding that you accept, overlook, or excuse those same flaws in him or her, you will feel a blend of anxiety, extreme bafflement, self-blame, anger, and hopelessness. When you see people abiding by a big fat double standard, step outside their duplicitous perspective by telling yourself that the craziness you feel is coming from the critic. Once you’ve had this perceptual breakthrough, you may be able to use it on the one person whose behavior you actually can change: yourself.

See It And Free It

The impish nature of our psychology ensures that we all occasionally spot what we’ve got. However, we rarely see our own delusion; we just find ourselves ruminating on the vices of others. If Joe weren’t so lazy, we think, he’d always bring me breakfast in bed. Or Chris is such a miser. Expected me to split the check for coffee—like I’m made of money! When these thoughts become especially dominant, there’s a high probability we’ve got what we spot. But we can turn our own unconscious hypocrisy into a wonderful tool for personal growth. Here’s how: 

Phase One: Write Your Rant 
To begin, list all the nasty, judgmental thoughts you’re already thinking about Certain People. Who’s offending you most right now? What do you hate most about them? What dreadful things have they done to you? What behavior should they change? Scribble down all your most controlling, accusatory, politically incorrect thoughts. 

Phase Two: Change Places 
Now go through your written rant and put yourself in the place of the person you’re criticizing. Read through it again, and be honest—could it be that your enemy’s shoe fits your own foot? If you wrote “Kristin always wants things her way,” could “I always want things my way” be equally true? Could it be that this is the very reason Kristin’s selfishness bothers you so much? If you wrote “Joe has got to stop clinging and realize that our relationship is over,” could it be that you are also hanging on to the relationship—say, by brooding all day about Joe’s clinginess? 

Sometimes you’ll swear you don’t see in yourself the loathsome qualities you notice in others. You spot it, but you ain’t got it. Look again. See if you are implicitly condoning someone else’s vileness by failing to oppose it—which puts your actions on the side of the trait you hate. You may be facilitating your boss’s combativeness by bowing your head and taking it, rather than speaking up or walking out. Maybe you hate a friend’s greediness, all the while “virtuously” allowing her to grab more than her share. Indirectly you are serving the habits you despise. Your rant rewrite may look like this example from one of my clients, Lenore: 

Phase One: The Rant 
“My kids take me for granted. They expect me to drop whatever I’m doing and focus on them, anytime. I’m sick of them taking me for granted.” 

Phase Two: The Rewrite 
“I take me for granted. I expect me to drop whatever I’m doing to focus on my kids, anytime. I’m sick of me taking me for granted.” 

This exercise was a watershed for Lenore; once she realized that by devaluing herself she was teaching her children to devalue her, she could begin getting respect from them by respecting herself. 

We can often learn such priceless lessons by remembering the “you spot it, you got it” dynamic. Recognizing this impish quirk of human thinking helps us peacefully detach from crazy-makers who might otherwise drive us nuts, and jolts us free from the places we get most stuck. We automatically become freer, less caught in illusion, less obsessed with other people’s flaws. That’s good, because there’s nothing worse than people who are always talking about what they hate in other people. Boy, do I hate them. 

 


 

P.S. “You spot it, you got it” syndrome also applies to positive qualities or traits that can incite jealousy or envy of another, specifically when we aren’t acknowledging these qualities or traits in ourselves. Ever been jealous of someone else’s success? Chances are you aren’t owning up to the fact that you, too, can create that kind of success if it’s something you really want.

Video: Coach 4 2day- Divine Discomfort

In this video, Martha addresses the concept of “Divine Discomfort” and then speaks to how to act and react when you feel”powerless” to another’s choice.

[Can’t see the embedded video above? Watch it online!]