Let It Begin with Me

There’s a popular hymn, often sung at Christmas, that goes,

Let there be peace on Earth
And let it begin with me.

When I’m frustrated with someone, I sing a different version in my head.

Let there be maturity in this room
And let it begin with me.

Though less lyrical, these words remind me of an important principle. It’s the idea that better relationships start with changing the only variable I can manipulate—myself.

We all have great ideas about how others could improve our relationships. Your partner could be more sensitive to your needs. Your parents could stop trying to manage your life. Your boss could calm down a little bit so you can focus on work. When your focus is on another person, it’s easy to forget that you control 50% of how a relationship functions. 

People usually agree that working on yourself is more useful than trying to change others. But it is incredibly difficult to activate this idea when others are distressed, annoying, or critical. Our focus almost immediately shifts back to how we have been wronged or how others must change.

It’s not that people don’t try to be more mature. But they sometimes believe that if they can manage to stay calm and not shout for 30 seconds during a disagreement, that a switch will flip and the other person will rise to the same level of calmness. But there’s nothing magic, or instantaneous, about maturity. In fact, initial efforts to be calm and reasonable will trigger pushback from those closest to us. They may say things like:

“Who are you? I don’t even know you anymore!”
“Don’t you care about me at all?”
“You think you’re better than I am!”

This pushback often drags people back into the immaturity. They’ll keep fighting, avoiding them, or trying to control them, because they now believe that staying calm just doesn’t work. Or it simply doesn’t feel fair that they’re the one putting in all the effort.

Dr. Murray Bowen believed that in a difficult relationship, if one person could keep practicing maturity without avoiding or trying to control the other person, then the relationship could eventually calm down. KEY WORD: EVENTUALLY. The idea is that focusing on being responsible for yourself in a relationship creates enough space for everyone to grow.

I once had a client from a small town, whose mother worried nonstop about her safety in the city. Her strategy for dealing with this was to not tell her mother the details of her life, or to give in (after much fighting) and check in with her mother daily. These strategies did little to lower the overall level of anxiety in their relationship.

This woman began to take small steps to begin to calm down and share her thinking with her mother. One day, she said, “I’m going out tonight, but I want to let you know that I’m not going to call you when I get home. I’m an adult, and I don’t need to check in with you whenever I go out.”

Can you guess how her mother responded. “Don’t you love me at all?” she pleaded. “You want to hide your life from me.”

Nine times out of ten, statements like this would suck her the daughter back into conflict. But eventually, she was able to say, “Mom, I love you. I’m going to keep calling and telling you about my life, but I won’t be checking in every night.”

Now her mother knew what to expect, even if she wasn’t happy with it. Her daughter wasn’t going to disappear, but she wasn’t going to give into her demands either. She’d have to find some other way to manage her worry about her daughter than their constant check-ins. Maybe she relied more on her husband to reassure her. Maybe she started calling her son more. Maybe she actually learned to calm herself down a little bit. Regardless, this young woman was a little bit freer to think and act for herself around her mother.

This week, I’d like to think about all the times you’ve abandoned efforts at maturity because they weren’t a magic fix to the anxiety in a relationship. How can you remember that these efforts are likely to increase anxiety in the short term, so you won’t be surprised by people’s reactions? How can you stick with it until people get a chance to adjust to the change?

Change in a family, a marriage, or a workplace can begin when one person is willing to express their own maturity without avoiding or controlling others. Are you interested in being that person?

News from Kathleen

Last week my newsletter was featured in the Russian online magazine Wonderzine. Welcome to all new subscribers!

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