“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free”
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m one of those people who ends texts to close family and friends with “Love you!”…except that nine times out of ten, I accidentally type “Live you!” Fat fingers? Typing too quickly? Freudian slip?
I don’t know. But lately it has made me stop and question how I interact with others. Do I truly “love” them? Accept them as they are: nuanced human beings making their own ways through life and allow their choices to be different than mine? Or do I “live” them? Secretly (or not so secretly) wanting to manipulate their outcomes and “help” them make choices I approve of?
I will own this truth: I’m an awful lot like Lucy in the Peanuts cartoons. Some in my family even jokingly refer to me as Lucy. The way I see it, Lucy may be pushy, but she has a big heart. She’s not purposely trying to hurt people; she just believes she knows what’s best for them. And they’d be really smart to listen to her and heed her commands…um, suggestions! But Lucy misses the mark when she offers help and advice without being asked to.
Loving others is complicated. We want to feel close to those we love and care for. We want to be involved in their lives. Yet people sometimes make decisions we feel uncomfortable about or unable to support. People also desire autonomy, freedom, and acceptance in their lives and relationships. To be truly emotionally healthy, we need to examine our relationships frequently and ask certain questions: What are appropriate boundaries in these relationships? Where does cohesion become unhealthy enmeshment, hindering growth in relationships? And how do we achieve the goal of interdependence in our relationships?
Boundaries are basic building blocks in good relationships. We need to feel emotionally safe with others in order to deepen bonds. We need to put limits on what we are willing to do and how available for others we are willing to be to avoid feeling resentful and drained. Boundaries need to be expressed clearly to all people you are in relationships with. Emotionally healthy people look for and respect the boundaries of others, as well as enforce and respect their own boundaries. Each relationship is unique and so is each set of boundaries.
Enmeshment and cohesion are also part of the boundary “dance.” Enmeshment means too much fusion in a relationship, inhibiting development and independence. Cohesion, on the other hand, is healthy, shared affection, helpfulness, support, and caring. It is giving people their space and allowing them to make choices that are right for them. Enmeshment is trapped; cohesion is joined. Big difference. But many times what we label as “helpful” is actually overstepping boundaries and being enmeshed in another’s life. Why is that? Maybe we want to help because we want to be validated or praised by others. Maybe we have a need to feel needed. Maybe we are simply being nosy. Regardless of the reason, we are robbing the other person of growth opportunities and the chance to stand on their own. And we are hurting the relationship through this boundary violation.
Many times I have attempted to help and wound up feeling resentful, unappreciated, and hurt because it wasn’t appreciated. I have over-organized, extensively researched and planned vacations, for example, when I wanted my family to have the perfect experience. I crammed too much into too little time, then struggled with my perception of my family’s lack of enthusiasm and excitement and gratitude. I have also offered too much advice to a friend going through a divorce, assuming her feelings and needs were exactly like mine during my divorce. At the time I couldn’t see that she was having her own experience in her marriage and her life…she wasn’t reliving mine.
Achieving interdependence should be the goal of all relationships. Interdependence results when we are healthily joined together with another…loving them, not living them. Allowing for their uniqueness to shine. Interdependence is a positive state where we lean on another, but are not totally dependent on them. In this interdependent state, asking for help and advice is beneficial to both parties.
Basic steps to check for interdependence in relationships:
- Noticing others. Are they leaning into the relationship or away from it? If they are leaning away, are you overstepping their boundaries? If they are leaning too far in, have you encouraged them to be enmeshed with you by not holding strong boundaries?
- Energy allocation. Energy is a finite resource. Where are you putting your energy? It is much easier to focus on other people’s issues than to fix your own. We seem to be able to see just what others need to do to improve their lives. But owning our own “stuff” is freeing: no energy spent hiding or denying. Yes, working on ourselves takes effort, but it is worth it for better emotional well-being.
- Anxiety. Are you feeling out of control and want to control someone else’s behavior to calm yourself? Do you take ownership of other people’s business out of a need to soothe yourself, denying them opportunities for growth and development? Check your intentions before offering “help” to others. If they can manage, let them. Have they even asked for help? Wait until they do!
In Peanuts cartoon strips, good ol’ Charlie Brown often asks Lucy for advice. That’s when she is justified in helping and offering her services. So, I will be more cognizant of waiting for family and friends to ask me for help. I will “love” them, instead of trying to “live” them, as I have before. The Doctor Is In…that will be 5 cents, please!