Okay folks, we’re at Week 3 of what could (but won’t) be a 52-week series! We’re going to tackle the key bits of any relationship and how to make yours hum in 6 weeks (or so). This week we’re specifically going to explore flags in a relationship.
If you’re not into this series as it’s just not where you’re at or what you’re needing at this time, I highly recommend you spend the next few weeks reviewing the “Complete Recovery Series.” This is a series I wrote that lays out the key tools you need to begin to experience healing in your relationship with food. You’ll find a listing of all the articles on the left hand side of the blog.
If you’re following along with this series however, you’ll have experimented a bit last week with providing for others and for yourself that which you have been expecting or looking for from them. I’ll bet you learned a great deal and that already you have greater empathy for yourself and for others.
Last week, I asked you to review the list of traits that define an abusive relationship. This is important because the hard truth is that if you are in an abusive relationship, none of the basic tenants and practices of building a healthy relationship apply. Meaning, don’t bother trying to have a logical, rational discussion with an abuser; and don’t bother trying to be understood by them; they don’t understand respect and love and can’t create a safe environment for you.
An abusive relationship is a broken one. If we are abusing someone or they us, it is a profound statement of disrespect for themselves and for us, and a very confused perspective on love (love is kind, generous, and respectful, and not just when it suits us or when others are watching) that takes time and a giant 2 X 4 to the head to remedy. I don’t encourage you to stick around while the other person sorts out their stuff. If an abusive relationship ever has a chance to become a truly loving and healthy one, it has to come to a complete end as it is now, the two people need space from each other to identify their role in the abuse and to heal and to create the safety and security they need within themselves so that they will never again stand for mistreatment from another. Only from that place of genuine self-respect can we truly love and respect others.
This week I wanted to talk about flags; red ones, yellow ones, and green ones. But I realized that in order to talk about flags and for you to be able to make use of this discussion, you have to be at a place in your own healing journey where you can tell the difference between what feels good and what feels bad: i.e. what makes you feel open, safe, warm and loving, vs. what makes you feel insecure, ashamed, loserish, judged, etc.
If you can identify those two different states when they arise in you, AND, if you are willing to commit to responding appropriately to them, then it is safe for you to be in a relationship with others (whether friends, colleagues, family or significant other).
If you are, at this point, unable to identify when you’re feeling comfortable vs. when you’re feeling unsafe (because you’re so accustomed to disconnecting from your emotions or because you jump so quickly to focus on food or body image when you’re anxious) or if you don’t trust yourself to respond appropriately (or even know what the appropriate response is) when you do feel at all insecure or unsafe, it isn’t wise to enter into any new relationships, and I highly recommend that you take a break from others as much as you can until you get this piece figured out.
This series of articles is intended to show you why you might have found yourself in the relationships you’re in/have been in and what you can do to create relationships that inspire trust, mutual respect, safety and peace. Before I discuss the Red/Yellow/Green Flag concept with you, I want to first help you to remove any blocks to identifying what you’re feeling and to respond appropriately to those feelings and needs.
Following these guidelines will mean that it won’t be long before you’re not only able to know what feels good and what doesn’t, but you also will know what to do to take good care of yourself in any relationship.
Now, that’s the crux of the issue right there actually: Knowing what to do to take good care of yourself in any relationship.
How on earth would you know that if your role models (care givers, past partners, etc.) only (or mostly) modeled co-dependence?
Co-dependence is the pattern of behavior where we either feel obligated to compromise ourselves for others, regardless of our needs, in order to be loved and accepted and to not be rejected, and/or we feel that others are obligated to intuit/guess what we need without us having to ask for it, and if they don’t, it means they don’t love us or care about us. It is irrational; it is immature; it is what we’ve been taught, and it is a huge part of why you use food to cope; it is a major contributor to your insecurity, to your negative self-talk, to your need to distance yourself from your emotions and therefore to your need to focus on food and body image as a distraction from what is not feeling good in your life.
- You can’t be in a co-dependent relationship and have good self-esteem.
- You can’t be in a co-dependent relationship and practice good self-care (you’ll be thwarted or feel guilty and you’ll need to numb out in some way to your emotional distress).
- You can’t be in a co-dependent relationship and feel peaceful, cherished, free to express yourself authentically, and genuinely and consistently loved.
So, sorry folks. If you’re thinking that you can heal and be the best you can be without dealing with the connections in your life that are stifling you, maintaining insecurity, and leaving you feeling unloved or like you have to walk on eggshells, you can’t.
That doesn’t mean you have to end them. Only the abusive ones have to end immediately. The co-dependent ones can be healed, if you do your best and if the other person is willing to do their best.
In fact, the good news is, in 17 years as a specialist I have found, that in over 80% of cases, even in co-dependent relationships that are 30 and 40 years old, when you are clear with yourself and the other person on what you need and what you will and won’t accept, and you hold yourself accountable to the same criteria, the other person steps up and walks with you. Problem solved!
This is incredibly significant because it means that you have always had, and always will have, the power to influence the health of your relationships with all but the abusive people (and no one can influence them). It also means that if you just get clear on what you want, and focus on building your own ability to trust that you are deserving of what you want, even long-standing patterns of relating to each other will change quickly and your co-dependent connection will shift to a healthy interdependent one.
The all-or-nothing or assumptive thinking that is at the root of your use of food to cope will typically lead you to assume that you will end up alone and abandoned or that if you try to get what you need you’ll fail and you’ll have to leave your relationship or cease communicating with that sibling, parent or friend. That is an erroneous assumption. In fact, as I said, over 80% of the time you will find that the key people in your life are more than willing to respect your wishes and meet your need once you clearly articulate what you need and why it is important to you.
From your old co-dependent training you were never shown how to respect your needs, rather you were shown how to ignore them, judge them, feel selfish for having them, and compromise them to make others happy. As such, you’ve likely not done a stellar job of letting the key people in your life know what you need, how they can meet that need, and why it is important that they do. And that means, that you’re making huge assumptions about what kind of a relationship you can have without even checking to see if that assumption is accurate and without realizing that you have played a large role in not getting what you need thus far in this relationship.
Another way of saying that is this:
Until you clearly and respectfully articulate your needs to someone and let them know, clearly and concretely how they can meet them, if they are willing, you cannot even begin to know what kind of a relationship you can have with this person.
Until you communicate in that clear, direct way, you truly don’t even know what that person and that relationship are capable of offering you. So how on earth can you make an intelligent decision to stay in it or to leave it if you haven’t even given that person a chance to show you what kind of a friend, sibling or partner they can be because you haven’t even told them what you need in a certain situation and how to meet that need for you?
Clearly, you can’t. And that’s how you know that that old approach to relationships doesn’t work, never will, and that it’s all based on old co-dependent training and all-or-nothing assumptions.
You might be thinking now of times you feel you’ve asked for what you need and it didn’t happen.
Well, consider this:
- How clear was your request?
- How exactly did you let this person know that this was important to you?
- How well did you articulate for them how they could meet this need if they were willing?
- Did you get their agreement to do so?
- Did you hold them accountable for doing so?
- If someone communicated a need to you in this way what would your response be?
If, after asking yourself those questions, you’re at all questioning your performance in these areas, then you haven’t actually given this person a chance to show you what they are capable of and it’s unfair to judge them or your lovability based on past failed attempts to communicate.
Remember, we have this story, from our co-dependent, fear-based training in life, that if we have to ask for something, not only does it make us selfish, narcissistic even, but it also means that if we get what we ask for, it doesn’t mean anything because we had to ask for it.
That is the biggest load of relationship crappola ever and it is, without a doubt, the cause of most of your past relationship stress.
Let me put it this way:
If you are connected to your body and the physical and emotional cues it sends you and you respond appropriately to them by identifying what you need and take appropriate action to meet that need; and
If you communicate openly, respectfully, directly and clearly about what you’re feeling, what you need and how that person could meet that need if they were so inclined;
You are, without exception, going to find that most of the time you get exactly what you want, exactly as you want it. Sometimes, you’ll get what you want but it will look a little different based on the availability and needs of the other person, but still, you’re getting what you want. And on very, very, very (I can attest to this) rare occasions, you won’t get what you want because the other person is incapable of meeting that need or because they don’t care to meet your need.
If they are incapable, you won’t take it personally, you’ll understand and you’ll either meet it yourself, look for someone who can or accept that that need won’t get met and truly be okay about it. If they don’t care, you get to find that out quickly because you’re communicating openly regularly and you don’t get invested in a relationship that is one-sided and will never be anything but a pain in the butt. But remember, a VAST majority of the time you will get exactly what you ask for simply because you’ve asked clearly, made a reasonable request, and because people generally do want to help others.
That is the true outcome of asking directly for what you need. You get what you ask for!
The belief that others will see you as selfish is not true actually and you can prove that to yourself right now by simply asking yourself how you view those men and women around you who ask respectfully (don’t demand but ask) for what they need. Are they selfish? No. In fact, it’s likely you have great respect for them. So why wouldn’t others feel similarly about a you who asks for what she/he needs?
If you’re thinking of people who may have called you selfish in the past, ask yourself, were they healthy? Did they have a grasp on respectful communication and healthy boundaries? If not, they’re in the co-dependent camp and naturally didn’t like you asking for what you need because they don’t feel like they’re allowed to say no and feel burdened by your request. That’s not your fault or problem. It’s theirs. And it doesn’t, in any way, imply that “they were right and you were wrong.”
And if you are thinking of some folks who ask for what they need and whom you feel run over by, ask yourself:
When this person asked me for X, did I say no, clearly and solidly, and they kept pushing? (If so, this person is not respecting your boundaries and goes into the abusive relationship pile).
When this person asked me for X, did I feel (from my co-dependent training) like I couldn’t say no and so I said yes, or gave them reason to think I was okay with it?
If so, guess whose responsibility that is? Not theirs. Yours. They asked for what they needed, you said yes, or hmmmmm, or some other, non-clear thing, and they went off happy and you built resentment unfairly.
Again, until you clearly ask for what you want, tell that person how to meet that need, and hold them accountable for doing so, you can’t begin to really know who that person is, what kind of respect and caring they are truly capable of having for you, how safe and loving this relationship truly can be and therefore, whether you’re wise to stay connected or not.
Communicating about what you need is key for your own self-esteem and for the development of healthy relationships in all areas of your life.
So this week, yes, you guessed it, homework!
Your homework is:
- To identify some key relationships in your life where you feel overrun or insecure or that you can’t ask for what you need and as such feel dissatisfied, unloved, etc.
- Then identify one or two recent situations where you did not get what you needed from that person/situation.
- Then ask yourself what you actually did/said to let that person know what you needed (how clearly did you communicate your need and why it was important to you and how they could meet it);
- How you got their agreement to meet that need (if at all);
- What happened when they didn’t follow through?
You might be noticing a theme here in this series on relationships: Relationship work starts with you. Not with “them.” (That’s the old co-dependent belief….they need to change etc., in order for me to be happy and get what I need. Not so, actually.)
I promise you that when you are able to hold yourself accountable to the same criteria and expectations that you have of others, and when you learn to respectfully and directly ask for what you will need, you will find that many of your current relationships magically transform into truly loving and supportive connections.
Next week, flag time!