Manipulation gets a bad rap. In The Two Truths About Love: The Art & Wisdom of Extraordinary Relationships, as well as in my counseling sessions with clients, I explain how each and every one of us has 99% control of every relationship. Upon occasion, a client will remark, "Oh, but I don't want to be thought of as controlling." What a travesty! Such a person has yet to awaken to the limitless rewards that come from being manipulative. My goal, as a therapist, is to change this.
Life lessons can be found in the most unexpected places sometimes. This particular one comes from a cooking show on The Food Network called Chopped.
In each episode, four chefs compete with one another to impress a panel of judges. At the start of each of the three timed rounds that will ultimately determine a winner (appetizer, entrée, dessert), the chefs are given a basket containing four “mystery ingredients”. Once the clock starts, the chefs open their baskets to see, for the first time, which—usually quite peculiar—ingredients they must somehow include in their dishes. Thus the culinary improvisation begins, as time steadily dwindles.
My two-year-old son, like your average American child, rarely goes a day without viewing television, and often quite a bit of it. He watches a show or two when he wakes up in the morning, maybe a full-length animated film in the afternoon, and another program sometime in the evening. With a one-year-old to manage simultaneously, it's not uncommon for my wife and I to occasionally entrust one of our many animated allies with briefly babysitting our toddler. Of course, neither Nemo, Lightning McQueen, nor Buzz Lightyear can change a diaper worth a damn, but they certainly are adept at keeping kids from sticking forks in electrical outlets, which is a plus.
My wife and I understand that our sons will be constantly learning from everything they're observing and hearing, so we don't choose our cartoon caretakers lightly. We carefully select only those that will not only entertain and amuse, but will also promote our values of kindness, cooperation, and non-violence. Minimal pushing, shoving, hitting, fighting, shooting, killing, that sort of thing. We aim for sweet, gentle, innocent, nurturing. Too bad we didn't, until just recently, know about The McGurk Effect.
One of my fondest memories is from one night in Thailand. I was at a café on the banks of the Mekhong River, looking across into Laos on the other side. The weather was perfectly clear where I sat but, over in Laos, a storm was moving slowly along the edge of the river. Peacefully, I watched the storm safely from afar, the moon overhead, and marveled at the storm’s many lightning strikes as it crept, like a mythical goliath, across the far off shore. It was a truly beautiful hour of my life.
This is an intentionally brutal statement, although it just so happens to be true. Guessing seems benign enough, so how can something so seemingly timid as guessing actually kill a relationship? Well, when we guess, specifically when we guess the meaning behind what another person is thinking, feeling, saying or doing (or has done in the past), we choose “thinking we know” over actually knowing. Then, once we assume we know something, we invariably halt our efforts to discover the truth. Instead of seeking to learn more, we may find ourselves reacting to something that may not even be reality. Why? Because we guessed.
Guessing blindfolds us. We interpret the behavior of someone and guess what it means. Maybe we’re right in our assessment, but maybe we are not. If we do not inquire, if all we do is guess, we will not know for certain. We may simply react to what we think is true, assuming that we know, assuming that we could not possibly be wrong. That’s not only arrogant, but dangerous. We never want to be so sure of ourselves that we are not open to the possibility that we could be wrong. Yep, we can always be wrong. Wisdom readily and willingly admits this.
The issue of boundaries has long been a hot topic in the field of interpersonal psychology and, over the course of the past several decades, much has been written about this important subject. Questions about how to understand and define one’s personal limitations and to communicate these effectively to others so that these are respected and honored are valuable ones to answer. As such, the idea I am going to share in this article is not intended to completely contradict or undermine notions of “healthy boundaries”, but rather to develop this concept one step farther—toward the place where even “healthy boundaries” can be replaced with something, well, even more extraordinary.
Our internal friendship is a reflection of our self-image, the opinion we have about ourselves. If we do not like someone, we are not likely to have a very close relationship with them. Why would we want to? Similarly, if we do not like ourselves, we are not likely to have a strong and vibrant internal friendship. “How we think about ourselves” (our self-image) is really no different from “how we speak to ourselves”.
Our internal communication is what constructs our self-image. Communication is what forges relationships. That is why the way we speak to ourselves is so important. Our internal language is always effecting our internal friendship.
Imagine that you have this great idea for a party. You plan the most resplendent décor and exquisite cuisine, lavish flower arrangements, and only the best in lighting and live music. You’ve diligently prepared every detail. Unfortunately, your party isn’t going to be much fun if you skip one essential step: sending out your invitations.
Most people value honesty and recognize it as an important aspect of healthy relationships. However, it takes some wishful thinking on our part to assume that others are always going to be honest with us—our closest friends, family members, and partners included—simply because we want them to be. This would be like expecting all our favorite people to attend our party without inviting them to it first.
Most people believe that an apology is a kind and considerate way to take responsibility for one’s past actions. It is common practice for individuals to seek apologies from those by whom they feel wronged, or to apologize when others feel wronged by them. This stems from the notion that apologies have a certain reparative effect, that they have the power to heal emotional wounds.
In actuality, this is true. Apologies do heal. However, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to apologize. Unfortunately, most people apologize in an unhealthy way, a way that, although it may ease some tension within the moment (and therefore seems helpful), actually injures the long-term vitality of the relationship. And this injury far exceeds the benefit. It is like placing a Band-Aid on a scratch, only the Band-Aid is laced with lethal toxins. Since this idea—that an apology can be harmful to relationships—goes mightily against the grain of normal thinking, let me further explain.