There’s a lot of relationship advice out there.
The modern spiritual and self-help communities in particular seem to have come to a recent consensus about what constitutes empowerment in relationships, and a few common recommendations have emerged to reflect it.
This would all be well and good -- of course we want to help one another find strength and peace with other people -- except for the fact that these popular pieces of advice are all myths.
Almost completely so.
Like any good myth, they’re enticing. They sound good. They make us feel strong, and relieved. We feel better the moment we enact them, and maybe even for some time after. Plus, they’re easy to understand and quickly, confidently execute the courses of action they recommend.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, in order to carry them out they require you to embody an energy and an attitude that is directly opposed to your stated goals. Repeat the actions this kind of advice prescribes enough times and with enough vigor and you may actually find yourself feeling more lost, lonely, and confused, not less. This confusion will be compounded by the fact that this advice was supposed to help you not feel this way ever again.
Don’t fret though. A better understanding of these underlying dynamics will help you make more informed, truly empowered decisions in your relationships and your life moving forward.
So let’s do some myth-busting, shall we?
1. Relationships can only be healthy if they're reciprocal.
There’s this idea floating around that relationships can only be worthwhile if you’re getting as much as you’re giving to another person, and that any relationship where this exchange is out of balance is by definition unhealthy and not something you really want to be a part of. (Not if you’re a self-respecting person anyway.)
But the indicator of a healthy relationship isn’t an even exchange. It’s your ability to make an empowered, integral choice about your desire to participate in it, and on what terms. This is what will make you feel abundant, joyful, and free with the other people in your life, even when things get hard. Because if you’re clear with yourself that your desire to give to someone else comes from deep within your own heart, it won’t matter if they can give an ounce back to you -- and you will not experience their inability to reciprocate as a lack. It won’t make you feel like you’re being cheated. You’ll be nourished in that moment by your own overflowing heart.
A quick word to those who might worry that what I’ve explained here could leave you open to abuse: that may well be true. It’s also true that if you’re being completely honest and clear-eyed with yourself that giving to someone who’s taking advantage of you will by the very nature of the interaction feel less and less abundant over time. Listening to your heart is always the remedy.
2. You have to love yourself first before you can be in a romantic relationship.
While it’s true that the ability to give and receive love is a good skill to have in a romantic relationship, and it’s also true that we tend to relate to other people on the same level that we can relate to ourselves, what’s too seldom talked about is how receiving another person’s love is a great way to learn how to love ourselves -- especially when the fact that we’ve deemed ourselves unworthy of love is one of the biggest barriers to us learning how to do so in the first place. Here is a lover, standing before us, giving us their love. We are suddenly worthy of it due to the simple fact that it’s arrived. This alone has the power to break the dam and let our own love flow forth -- to the other person, and to ourselves. Learning to love ourselves doesn’t have to happen in a vacuum (though it is possible to for that self-love to develop in the stillness of quiet contemplation). And we don’t have to achieve some sort of relational perfection before we can fully and faithfully participate in relationship. So let us not be convinced that seeking the love of another first is foolish, destined to fail, not how it should be done, or indicative of some kind of weakness on our part. It’s just not the case.
3. The only thing you can do about the toxic people in your life is to cut them off unceremoniously and without delay.
If you’ve been following my work for a long time you’ll know that this myth is one of the nearest and dearest to my heart. Because while ending your relationship with a toxic person is certainly one choice that’s available to you, it’s not the only one. There are plenty of things you can do, and the realization that this is the case may be especially handy for you if the difficult person is not someone you can easily drop from your life -- a family member, colleague, or close friend.
It’s absolutely true that “toxic” people can be a lot to handle, and that interacting with them can be exhausting, confusing, violating, maddening, and upsetting. We spend so much time and energy trying to mitigate their behavior that it’s natural to think the best course of action would be to simply end that investment altogether. And on some level that’s quite true. But that doesn’t mean we have to disengage from the relationship. Because when you stop investing all of that energy in them, you can start pouring all of that energy into you. You can attend to hurt feelings, communicate your needs, set firm boundaries, develop your power of discernment, find other sources of joy, comfort, and ease in your life, grow your capacity for kindness, compassion, and mercy, and learn to forgive others for their failings -- all while keeping them around. All it takes is a small adjustment on your part in your attitude and aim -- not a big adjustment regarding the relationship as a whole.
4. Beware of energy vampires.
Similar to “toxic people”, so-called “energy vampires” are people who have the unique ability to drain your energy. As the recommendation goes, this is unfair to you (clearly), so you have to be on the lookout for these interpersonal parasites and defend yourself against them.
But here’s the catch... energy vampires don’t drain your energy. You do. You do! Through the way you relate to them. The leak in your energy system is not their behavior, but your inability to remain authentic to yourself in your response to their behavior. It’s the part of you that gives when you don’t want to give. That says yes when you want to say no.
We’ve been tricked into thinking that other people have ultimate control over our energy system, and believing this myth is the first and only thing that makes it true. In that instant we give all of our power away. It’s up to us to mature to the point of true dominion and self-possession so that we can be in the company of the most toxic, vampiric person on the planet and not only not be unmoored by the experience, but actually use it to demonstrate -- once and for all -- that we are the ones who call the shots around here where our health and happiness are concerned.
5. You attract the negative people (and experiences) in your life.
This myth is an offshoot of the Law of Attraction, which is in my opinion one of the most misused and misunderstood spiritual/self-help principles being circulated today. It does a lot of harm. If you’re not familiar with LoA, it’s the idea that the Universe brings you experiences that are a match for your “vibration” -- a measurement of how spiritually evolved you are as demonstrated by your thoughts, words, and actions. As the saying goes, all those negative people and relationship challenges you face? Yeah, they’re your fault because you’re just not developed enough to attract -- to manifest -- more positive outcomes.
I call BS.
As human beings we are endowed by our Creator with the power of free will. So yes, we have the power to make choices about our lives that contribute to our experience of them. But guess who else has free will? Guess who else is making choices? Every single other human being on the planet! And the ramifications of those choices do sometimes bleed over into our domain in a way that hurts, confuses, or disappoints us. Does that mean you deserve that hardship? That you’re somehow responsible for it? Or does it simply mean that someone else made a choice that you’re now going to have to decide how to respond to, without needing to personalize it before you do?
6. You are the product of the five people you spend the most time with.
This is a really popular piece of advice these days. You see it everywhere -- in psychology, business, personal growth, etc. And it’s compelling, right? We all want to feel truly and deeply inspired, nourished, and supported by the people in our lives. And it’s true that life does seem to flow more naturally when the people we interact with day-to-day don’t cause too much trouble for us.
But the risk with this piece of advice is that it reinforces a fundamental relationship posture that stakes your health and happiness on who other people are. Extend this advice to its logical, fully-actualized expression and you’ll find you’re using other people’s flaws -- even minor, terrifically human ones -- as an excuse to distance yourself from them because they supposedly hold you back.
As we’ve touched on above, you’ll only be at the mercy of other people if you give them authority over you. If you let them tell you who you are. If you interpret their quirks and character flaws as statements about your worth. If you adopt the limiting beliefs they’ve accepted for themselves as your own. Not for nothing, but these are all choices you are making.
So let us turn the tables. Let us not exist as hapless sponges absorbing the lived realities of the people we come in regular contact with. Let the five people who spend the most time with us be so bowled over by our determination, our devotion to ourselves, our authenticity, our self-expression, and our sense of the boundless potential for our lives that they can’t help but live more that way too.
7. Anything that costs you your peace is too expensive.
No! Anything that costs you your peace is an opportunity to grow to a place where it doesn’t anymore.
(Are you sensing a common theme by now?)
8. Positive vibes only.
This maxim is a relationship myth not because setting an intention of what sorts of emotions you expect in relationships isn’t good per se, but because it isn’t true -- it doesn’t reflect the actual range of human experience. In order to ascribe to it you must suppress half of your emotions -- feelings that are just as worthy of your time, attention, appreciation, and care. It may be fashionable nowadays to pretend that the purest among us are simply untouched by sadness, disappointment, anxiety, and despair -- that it is even possible to achieve such a state -- and that any similarly self-respecting person would be as adamant about the emotional attitudes they allow in their presence. But this isn’t honest. It isn’t empowering. It’s not virtuous. It’s madness. And it will only create more of the same.
So there you have it. A thorough examination of the prevailing recommendations of the day. I’ll have much more to say about them at some point, namely taking an even closer look at the energetic undercurrents that are common throughout, positing some of the possible reasons we find these axioms so appealing, and further outlining what the path to true empowerment looks and feels like. But these are conversations for another day. For now consider how swiftly integrated and deeply ingrained these myths -- and others like them -- have become in your life without so much as a second thought. Pay attention to the posture they require you to take towards other people (and towards yourself). See if you can tune in to how they make you feel, deeper down. Think about the impact they’ve had on your relationships, and what outlook on life they require you to adopt in order to put them into practice. And then ask yourself if it might be worth trying another way.