As I discussed in an article about our happiness and relationships, most of our happiness in life comes from our relationships with others…around 70%. To the extent that we have strong, positive relationships with others, we will tend to be happy. If we are in conflict in our relationships or feel alienated from others, we will tend to be unhappy. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who is unhappy who has many close, positive relationships with friends and family. Conversely, it is challenging to find someone who is in constant conflict in their relationships or is socially alienated/isolated who is blissfully happy. We need to be in close relationships to be happy. If you reflect on your own personal experiences, you are likely to find that your happiest and most difficult times in life have revolved around the quality of your connections with others.
This begs the question – how do we develop and maintain strong, positive relationships with others? Thankfully, there are some basic principles that we can follow that can help in this regard. Much of my thinking on this subject has been influence by Dr. William Glasser’s work, particularly his book, Choice Theory.
OUR NEEDS FOR POWER AND CONTROL
We all have the psychology needs for power and control. The perception that we have power and control helps us to feel happy. It is critical our sense of well-being to believe this. When we don’t think that we have control, it can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety…feelings of being trapped or stuck. In psychology, this is referred to as “locus of control.” People with an “internal locus of control” believe that they can take actions that can affect outcomes. People with an “external locus of control” believe that they cannot really influence outcomes…that external factors (e.g., a boss, the economy, parents, bad luck) dictate the outcomes.
There is a lot of research to support the idea that when we believe that we are in control of a situation and can affect the outcome, we feel happier. Dr. Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” and conducted numerous studies to show that a belief that we cannot affect an outcome can result in feelings of depression. Think about this in terms of your own life. Have you ever been in a work, school, or a relationship situation in which you had little control? How did it make you feel? Chances are that the perception that “what I do doesn’t matter” or “I can’t make a difference” weighed heavily upon you in such situations. Emotionally, it is tough to feel like a leaf in the wind – as if we are being tossed about and have no control of how things turn out.
THE DANGER OF POWER STRUGGLES
Now, here is a critical caveat. We can control our own lives to a great extent. We cannot control other people’s lives. Our attempts to satisfy our psychology needs for power and control run directly into other people’s needs to satisfy their needs for control and power. Other people don’t want to be controlled by us…they want to control themselves. MUCH frustration in life comes from trying to control other people who do not want to be controlled. They get frustrated from trying to be controlled and we get frustrated when they do not submit to our controlling behaviors. This conflict is at the root of the proverbial “power struggle.”
Reflect upon your own life to see if this is true. Have you ever had a boss or instructor that micro-managed? Did it drive you bananas? How about the rebellious teenager or child who does exactly the opposite of what you ask? The harder that you try to coerce, the harder the other person pushes back. Attempts to restrict another person’s freedom often result in that person behaving in rebellious ways to reinstate their autonomy. In the field of social psychology, this is known as “psychological reactance.”
We see this all the time in the world around us. It happens with kids and adults. Very restrictive parenting can result in rebellious teenagers. Ever heard of the “preacher kid” syndrome in which the teen kids of preachers have rebellious teens? How about the allure of the “forbidden fruit”? I see the principle of psychological reactance present with my 2 boys all of the time. Here’s a specific example: At bedtime, when I pick out my son’s pajamas…even when they are his favorite ones…he will say, “NO! I don’t want those!” (Of course, I have learned to just let him choose his own now). It’s fascinating to me how, even when I’m “right” (I’m getting his favorite pajamas, they are clean, and a matching pair), he will not accept my “right” suggestion just to get his own way.
I think back to a friend in high school who would always try to make some fashion statement with the clothes that he wore, his hair style, and so on. We would try to tell him not to wear whatever it was, and I think that, objectively, we were often “right” about his fashion missteps. However, the more that we tried to convince him to change to what we thought was right (even if objective information supported our position) he would dig in his heels and flagrantly continue to wear what he wanted, when he wanted. There were many conflicts and lots of frustration over these minor things. Ironically, he would have been more likely to change had we left him alone!
LETTING GO OUR NEED TO CONTROL OTHERS
So, we can influence others, but we can’t control them. It is immensely liberating to us (and to others) when we give up the idea that we can completely control other people. Importantly, our leverage to influence others is directly proportional to how positive our relationship is with them. When we have a close, positive relationship with someone, they are more likely to listen to us. When we are in a lot of conflict with someone, it is much less likely that this person will heed our suggestions. In fact, when we are in a conflictual relationship, it is often the case that the person will do the opposite of what we suggest!
For our own happiness…and the happiness of others, it is essential that we try to control what we can (our actions and thoughts) and give up trying to control others. Our happiness is inextricably linked to our relationship with others. Our need for control often comes into conflict with our need to connect with others (and their own need for control).
A CRITICAL QUESTION TO ASK OURSELVES
Since it is our own best interest…as well as the interest of others…to develop and maintain positive relationships with one another, we need to be mindful of how our words and actions can affect others. A simple yet powerful question to ask ourselves: Is what I am about to say or do likely to bring this relationship closer together or push it further apart? Let the answer to that question guide your words and behavior. If what you are going to say or do will bring the relationship closer together (or not harm it), go ahead. However, if what you are about to say or do is going to cause a rift in the relationship, then avoid doing/saying whatever it is.
BE A GRACEFUL DANCER
This doesn’t mean that we should be a doormat to others. We need to be assertive at times and ensure that others are not mistreating us. Our challenge in those circumstances is this: In what way can I say this so that they are most likely to truly listen and not be hurt/upset? If we choose our actions and words carefully (something that we can control), we can increase our chances of influencing (but not controlling) the other person.
Interestingly, when we are in good relationships with others, they are more likely to listen to what we say and comply with our carefully worded requests. Thus, we are most likely to have a positive influence on others when our connection to them is strong. This is not the main reason why we should try to form good relationships with others. That would be manipulative. Rather, it is an acceptance of the fact that our happiness is inextricably linked with the happiness of others. We have to mindful not to let our emotions or need for control cause us to act in ways toward others that harms the relationship. It is an intricate dance. If we dance gracefully, everyone ends up happier for it.
Mike Brooks, Ph.D.