Any time you try to control anyone’s relationship with someone else you will end up with the stress, anxiety and resentment of that relationship. And any time you try to control someone else’s relationship to an issue, idea, goal or problem, you take on the stress that should be theirs.
That’s the easy part, and I’d bet that everyone reading this has noticed it in their own lives. As far back as when you were a kid, if you tried to take emotional responsibility for your parents’ relationship, you ended up with their stress.
Here’s the hard part: people will try to drag you into their relationship with something or someone else, because lots of people would love to give you power or control so that they can avoid responsibility.
Here’s the clearest example. When someone tries to get your “advice” about their girlfriend or boyfriend, watch out. There is a reason I adamantly refuse to give dating advice. People aren’t looking for advice when they talk to me about their significant other. They’re looking for an ally. And if I’m foolish enough to become one, I will end up with the stress of their relationship.
Here’s another example. Every time I’ve had a goal that wasn’t well thought-out, you know what I tried to do? I tried to convince someone else to help me reach that goal. Whether I consciously realized it or not, I tried to get someone to join me in my quest because then they’d be stuck with some of the stress that should be all mine.
Now when my goals are clear and worthwhile, do I need to convince anyone to do anything? No. They often enthusiastically say yes. In fact, they sometimes volunteer before I can even ask.
And the reverse situation is similar. When someone asks me to do something, and I feel like saying no, usually that feeling occurs because the other person is trying to drag me into a relationship that I ought to stay out of. And yes, usually it is their relationship with another person. But sometimes they are trying to drag me into their relationship with their own ideas, problems, issues or goals. Either way I will end up with more anxiety and they will end up with less responsibility, which means we both will suffer.
Let’s apply this to a real world question that a young woman recently asked me: “How do I know the difference between enabling someone and supporting them as they try to change?”
Here is where self-help actually works. When you feel anxiety, you are enabling. When you feel resentment, it means you are saying yes when you ought to say no.
See, believe it or not, anxiety and resentment aren’t always negative emotions. They must have some positive purpose or we just wouldn’t have them. They serve as excellent signals that boundaries are being violated. Listen to those signals instead of blaming yourself for feeling bad, and the emotional environment surrounding you will begin to change.