Topic

Relationships

Navigating the challenges and joys that arise in our relationships with others.

Vulnerability

What lies at the heart of our most meaningful relationships? If we understand the answer to this question, we can more proactively connect with those around us as we move through life.

A willingness to be vulnerable is the basis for trust and love. And trusting, loving relationships are a key part of what brings meaning to our lives.

An experiment to try if you're looking to build closer connections: Make a point of being the person who goes first. Disclose just a little bit more about yourself than you might normally and look to see if the other person reciprocates. If they do, you can continue to gradually open up.

It requires a willingness to risk rejection if the other person remains closed off. But that potential rejection is a small price to pay in exchange for the possibility of significantly stronger relationships.

Of course, you should be aware of where your boundaries are when you do this and avoid overextending yourself. So how do you know where they lie? Prentis Hemphill has an answer: "Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously." If you remain cognizant of that distance, you can navigate each relationship with greater ease.

It's easy to think that the secret to fostering meaningful connections is to simply act nice to those we encounter in the world. Niceness alone is not enough, though. It may lead to many surface level connections, but we are seeking depth here, not quantity. Rather, the quality you want to bring to each of your interactions is kindness.

Kindness comes from a place of understanding – of empathizing with the other person enough to know how to support them.

Sarah Jones Simmer draws this distinction between kindness and niceness on a recent Knowledge Project episode. She argues that a kind person will point out that you have a piece of spinach in your teeth, while a nice person would simply ignore it.

It might feel like we are criticizing the other person when we point out an imperfection like this. But in fact, we're simply giving them a gift by making them aware of something they likely want to know.

Personally, I can't remember ever being upset at someone for pointing out a minor flaw in my appearance like that. But I can definitely remember feeling uncomfortable when deciding whether I should mention something to that affect to others.

This willingness to be uncomfortable is often what enables you to be more vulnerable. Since discomfort is so often the primary thing between you and what you want, it can serve as a kind of North Star. Once you embrace this idea, discomfort can guide you in the right direction.

It becomes not something to shy away from, but something to lean into. And the more you can lean into it, while respecting your boundaries, the more you can embrace vulnerability in your relationships.

You may soon discover that your life is all the more rich for having done so.

Hat tip to @Malcolm_Ocean for the Hemphill quote.

Humor and Difficulty

Adding humor, when appropriate, can make difficult conversations easier to have. And depending on the topic and environment, some topics can only be brought up in a joking way.

Great comedians understand this. Comedy helps us navigate challenging topics, and a skilled humorist can serve as a sort of secular truth-teller – a guide through the areas we're not comfortable addressing directly on our own.

We laugh for a lot of reasons – to connect with others, enforce social norms, let off steam, and more. Critically, laughing provides an outlet for stress.

And when we're less stressed, we're able to face social challenges with more grace.

Duct Tape

When something breaks, duct taping it back together is the easy way out. The end result is worse than it was originally, though at least it's functional again.

But if you duct tape and patch over everything that breaks, you'll be left with a world of half-fixes that are liable to come apart.

Alternatively, you can find the right kind of glue (or thread, or screw...) and mend the object in a way that attempts to restore it to its original condition, hiding the damage as best you can. This approach sets you up for the long term, if you can put in the effort today.

And then there's Kintsugi.

Kintsugi is the Japanese concept of making pottery better in the process of repairing it.

By letting the history of the item's damage and repair shine through – literally, by mixing valuable metal into your adhesive – you're left with an object that has a beautiful story to tell:

A blue pottery bowl with gold flowers and gold seams where it was repaired
Ruthann Hurwitz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You've probably guessed the metaphor by now: This concept applies to much more than just physical goods.

Every time something cracks – a mug, a plan, a relationship – we have an opportunity to make it better.

See also: Wrong Notes

Public vs. Private Selves

We tend to talk about our public or online selves as something separate from our private selves. The latter, we often suggest, is somehow the most genuine version of us.

But many people spend more time each day acting as their public selves than they do as their private self. Perhaps your outer and inner life are equally authentic extensions of you.

When we bring our full selves to our work, and encourage others to do the same, the result is better, and we are richer and more fulfilled for having done so.

Reality is an Illusion

Drew Coffman shares a mindbending optical illusion:

In the video, a distorted window frame appears to oscillate back and forth, even though it's turning in circles. When a pen is inserted through the middle of it, the object does appear to rotate, but that causes you to perceive the pen passing through the center of the window.

We tend to act as if our perception of the world is the objective truth. But the reality is that we are merely piecing together predictions of our environment based on a range of stimuli.

Truth is subjective. And other people's experiences are completely valid even though they may be in direct opposition to ours.

We can understand that fact on a conceptual level, but illusions like this humble us by throwing it into sharp relief.

They remind us that we are flawed, which in turn keeps our mind open.

The Relationship With Yourself

We tend to focus on our relationships with others, but we also have a relationship with ourselves.

That relationship is informed by your personal successes and failures. Consciously or not, you keep score with yourself over time.

But problems arise when we start to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we hold others. Once you realize you’re doing this, you can start to change the narrative.

Ask yourself: Would I talk to someone else this way? How quickly would I forgive them? And how would I navigate this inner tension if its source was external?

Because if you’re in conflict with yourself, you’ll lose every time.

Not Yet

"Yet" is one of the most powerful words. There is a huge difference, for example, between:

"I don't know how to do that."

And:

"I don't know how to do that yet."

"Yet" is about optimism. About how the status quo doesn't have to be this way. And when we add it to the end of our observations about the world, we open ourselves to untold opportunities.

If you have the privilege of getting to choose who you spend your time with, pick the people who see the boundless possibility in that word.

Gifts

Gifts are a medium for expressing our appreciation or love.

They're a powerful way to convert that affection into surprise, delight, and joy for the other person.

For nearly all of human history, gift giving has been a universal language exclusively dedicated to saying "you matter."

Not all gifts come in boxes.

Recipe for Friendship

Research has long shown that three conditions are essential for forming strong friendships:

  1. Close proximity
  2. Regular, unplanned interactions
  3. An environment that allows for vulnerability

This is why so many friendships form in school – it's a recipe for each of these ingredients. It's also why our social lives were thrown into such disarray by the pandemic. Zoom doesn't exactly encourage any of these elements.

The third condition is the most intangible and perhaps the most important. When we give ourselves grace and the freedom to be imperfect, we're able to be authentic with others.

The strongest relationships form through increasing levels of reciprocated vulnerability. This means someone has to go first and confide in the other, without knowing if their gesture will be returned.

But the reward for that courage can be a genuine connection: someone who is thrilled to see you for who you are, and equally comfortable letting you cherish them.

Measuring Life

Our lives are increasingly quantified. From the amount in your bank account, to the average speed of your most recent run, to the grades on your annual performance review, it can feel like there's a number assigned to everything.

So the question becomes: Which of these numbers do you spend most of your time trying to change? Are those numbers the most important ones?

And how do you really measure a life?

Maya Angelou had a clear answer to that question: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away."

Perhaps the most vital things in life can't be quantified at all.

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