Every day I talk to people about the problems they’re having with their relationships—with spouses, children, friends, coworkers, and more. Although the content has infinite variations, the most common fears are these:
- I’m afraid for someone else: what can I do to help them, I feel helpless, they are in so much pain, and more.
- I’m afraid of how someone sees me: they’re mad at me, they will be mad at me, they don’t like me, they’ll disapprove of me, and so on.
What is the solution? Oh, love is always the answer, but sometimes words help. I offer two principles that help me consistently in my relationships with others.
1. I care deeply about people, but I am not responsible for their happiness.
When I truly care about your happiness, I am motivated to listen to you, accept you, and sometimes give you my time and attention. This is freely given and joyful.
When I feel responsible for your happiness, on the other hand, often I am motivated by guilt and obligation, which both of us can sense. The whole process becomes exhausting.
2. I care deeply about people but not their opinion of me.
Caring about you is highly desirable, but the moment I care about your opinion of me, I will begin to manipulate your opinion to be positive. Now the focus is on me, and then I will no longer give freely but instead will invest my attention in you for my own benefit. Ironically, if I “succeed” in this manipulation, it becomes an endless and unhappy cycle. If I fail, I will feel less worthwhile.
When I don’t care about your opinion of me, I can still care about you, but now I’m free. I can be myself without fear that you will think badly of me if I don’t behave in ways you approve of. I’m free, and I can give to you from who I really am.