As an introduction to this chapter, I must share with you an insight I got quite late in life. This insight will set the tone for further reading as well as it will serve you as a guide in building and maintaining your relationships in life. The insight itself is very simple:
All relationships are in your head.
To explain this, let me start with some fundamentals.
You have an ego, an identity, a persona — a certain conception of self comprised of numerous notions of who you are, your understanding of your place in this world, and your self-perception.
Likewise, your mind stores the images of other people — one conception for every person you have a connection with. This conception in its turn is also an amalgam of multiple impressions — the physical appearance of the person, the way he speaks and acts, the way he holds himself, his habits, dreams, goals, behavioral nuances, and aspirations in life.
There is a constant interaction between the conception of self (your ego) and the conception of another person which continues even in the absence of the physical contact. Every time you think about a person you trigger that interaction investing your mental energy into it. That interaction is the relationship.
Thus, a relationship with someone we hold dear doesn’t end even after his death. A mental conception — a phantom, if you will, still lives inside us and our relationship with it continues. The relationship lasts through distance and time.
There are many things that exert influence on the way the relationships are formed. Peculiarities of perception, cultural and familial backgrounds, the level of intellectual, emotional and spiritual development in a person — all these factors determine a unique set of conceptions of self and others. Just as you have a conception for everyone in your life, each person who knows you has his own highly specific conception of who you are in theirs.
Finally, the insight lies in a deep realization of the fact that your own understanding of what others think about you will never come close to the conceptions of you that actually exist in their minds. You are intrinsically incapable of fully grasping what’s going on in the heads of other people. The only thing you are capable of doing is to try to engineer additional hypothetical conceptions of how you might be perceived by others.
What you think of yourself and others, what others think of you and themselves, and all interactions between these conceptions — everything exists only in your mind.
Your relationships are a form of existential experience forever encapsulated within.
The moment I got this was a moment of epiphany. It gave me clarity that increased my effectiveness as a human being. An ability to see that all relationships are in my head leads to a number of very liberating implications.
#1. The way you treat others is the way you treat yourself.
Conflicts disrupt your inner balance. By engaging in a conflict situation, you take away your inner peace with your own hands. Did you get yourself into an argument? You’ve placed an argument in you. You had a fight? Now, you host a fight in your soul.
The only way to secure your inner peace is to keep your relationships with other people on an even keel. Be compassionate and thoughtful. A genuine concern for the well-being of others is not necessarily a manifestation of unconditional altruism. Unselfishness could be the most selfish thing. Ultimately, taking care of the people around you is taking care of yourself. It is a manifestation of self-love.
So, love yourself. Embody the deep realization that all relationships mirror the relationship you have with yourself. Cultivate kindness and cherish it in those who are kind. Lead by example to show that being kind is the most intelligent way of living.
#2. People will not reciprocate. And that’s ok.
When it comes to a relationship between two people views of these two people on the nature of the relationship may differ. What one sees as a friendship may not be perceived as such by the other. Miscommunication may further aggravate misunderstanding.
The second implication of the insight states that the way another person is perceiving the relationship is absolutely irrelevant to the attitude you choose to adopt toward that person. You can’t control what’s in another person’s head. What you can control is your own narrative of the relationship. The relationship exists only in your mind. You are the one to decide how the relationship will progress and you are the one in control of its dynamics. Such interpretation is liberating since it shifts the responsibility to you. If things go wrong, there is no place for blame, only for self-analysis and self-reflection.
#3. No one will ever understand the depth of you.
Your feelings and your thoughts, your inner turmoil and the slightest movements of your soul — everything is forever conserved within. You will never fully grasp what people think about you. They will never entirely understand how much you care about them. That is an intrinsic part of being a human. It is important to accept it and make peace with it. And once you do it, it liberates you. First of all, you start to care less about what others think — what’s good in worries about the opinions of people who can’t possibly understand the depth of you? Secondly, you become more selective about people you surround yourself with and attentive toward your own feelings. You understand that real actions is the only indication of their attitude.
#4. Create stress.
Athletes create stress by forcing muscles to work until failure — a point where the muscular system is no longer able to produce sufficient force to overcome a workload. Application of overloading stimulus creates micro-tears in the muscle fibers which are subsequently repaired during the recovery period resulting in so-called overcompensation — improvement in strength, tone, and size of the muscle.
In a similar fashion, strive to create an overloading stimulus that will expand your worldview. Develop a constructive perception of stress, which includes two components. First — identify the sources of stress that have destructive nature e.g. work-related distress, second — adopt a mindset that certain types of stress are, in fact, beneficial if you choose to exert them on yourself deliberately. Seek those types of positive stress as they will build your mental toughness and spiritual fortitude.
As an illustration of this point, let’s look at mitochondria production. A mitochondrion is a key organelle that is responsible for the energy production for the cell in the form of ATP and the regulation of the cell’s metabolic activity. Interestingly, it was discovered that the mitochondrial biogenesis is triggered in situations of energy deprivation, specifically, nutritional, thermoregulatory, hypoxic, or exercise-induced stress. This particular finding is only one of many examples of positive stress that laid the foundation for the practices reviewed in this chapter — fasting, cold showers, breathwork, and intense physical exercise.
#4. You determine the level of attachment.
The realization that all of your relationships are in your head gives you the clarity to see that the value you place on a relationship is entirely up to you. You are the one who determines how much importance the relationship carries. Reflect on your expectations from the relationship and detect the drawbacks of it, invest in the relationship or distance yourself, gravitate or attract. Being cold-minded doesn’t mean being cold. It is way more practical than drowning in thoughtless emotions.
#5. Practical intelligence is not mercantilism.
The realization that the way the relationship is perceived by another person differs from the way you perceive it increases your practical intelligence. Seeing the relationship from the perspective of another person lets you understand the motives behind people’s actions and possible incentives that would set them in motion executing the desired scenario. An ability to empathize with their point of view is a quality that is crucial for people mastery.
Making people do what you want is not a manipulation. It’s a science of gently guiding people toward finding their own rationale behind the result you intend to achieve. Practical intelligence is about helping others accomplish their own goals while simultaneously fulfilling yours.
The design of relationships is an important part of life design. The insight we discussed will qualitatively change the way you nurture your relationships. You will reframe each of your relationships from seeing it as a strictly interpersonal interaction to seeing it as a constant dialogue with self. This conversation will open the whole new dimension of possibilities.
In relationships that are not working it will challenge you to look for the reason within. In relationships that work it will reveal you the ways to optimize them. You will become more self-observant, poised, and perceptive. The way of designing and studying the relationships in your head will forever remain a way of constant self-improvement and self-discovery.
Thank you for reading my book “Meditations of the Millennial”.
If you want to support me on my mission, please, share this book with someone you love. Maybe they will find what they seek on its pages.