All relationships require compromise.
This is true for friendships, work relationships, and romantic partnerships. When we are genuinely committed to an outcome, whether it be a work-related result or maintaining a healthy interpersonal dynamic, we are required to be flexible in our expectations.
Sometimes you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable in a relationship. You notice that your willingness to compromise has been feeling more like sacrifice. You are giving more than receiving. You want to be supportive, but somehow the expectation, from someone else or even from yourself, has become too great. You feel resentful, or shamed, and you do not understand why.
Supporting and Contorting
I often have conversations in my work about the difference between supporting and contorting. The idea is that supportive relationships are a good thing. You can lean on one another for input and reassurance. Support can even call for a well-intentioned challenge to try harder or aim higher. Your supportive relationships encourage you to be yourself, enhance your strengths, and more fully realize your potential.
By contrast, contorting, which literally means “to bend out of the normal shape,” characterizes those relationships which, to put it simply, feel bad. If you feel like you have to contort yourself to suit someone else’s values or their emotional or physical needs, this is a sign that the relationship needs to be handled differently.
I often have people coming to me to talk about their frustrations with people or situations in their life. One of the first signs I listen for as we begin to consider how to address the situation is whether the relationship is supporting or contorting.
Can this person be themselves in the relationship? Or do they feel like they need to try and be someone else in order to belong?
I usually listen for 3 specific signs to help me understand how the relationship is operating, and how my client is functioning within the relationship. If you are not sure whether you are in a supporting relationship or contorting to keep the relationship going, here are some things to ask yourself:
1. Do you feel energized or depleted?
Supportive relationships are invigorating. Even when someone challenges you, the challenge will leave you feeling motivated to do better. If you are feeling supported, you will want to invest your energy and time into creatively solving problems in ways that are uniquely yours. That is one of the reasons psychotherapy is so popular as a source of support. A seasoned therapist will help you uncover your own solutions to a problem and follow through with confidence, as opposed to telling you what your next steps should be.
In a contorting relationship, often someone will be directing you to behave in a certain way, either explicitly or by implying you should be doing things how they see fit. When you are contorting yourself to another’s preferences, you may notice you feel tired when thinking about that person or being in their presence.
2. Do you feel authentic in this dynamic? Or do you feel like you have to be someone you are not?
This is the crux of so much work in psychotherapy. Think about your interactions with very young children. They are often deeply invested in you knowing exactly who they are. Most children make their preferences known in very clear ways, verbally and nonverbally.
You can’t ever change someone else’s behavior. You can only adjust your own.Something happens to many of us over time as we mature. We indeed become more flexible and willing to compromise than most young children. But through that growth process, along with the need to belong in social groups or society as a whole, we begin to lose our sense of self.
The key to creating supportive relationships is having a sense that you can be your truthful self. That does not mean you behave like a small child of course! But it does mean you develop language internally, and in your interactions, where you know your innate preferences and stay true to them.
If you find yourself in a relationship or dynamic in which you feel like you have to talk, dress, or behave like someone other than you, it is time to ask yourself if you are contorting. If so, my next questions for you is whether this is really necessary? Have you tried to be yourself in this relationship, or have you been too anxious to take the risk? If the relationship would fail without you contorting, you need to reevaluate your involvement.
3. Is the relationship sustainable or temporary?
Supportive dynamics do not tend to lend themselves to questions of longevity. Of course life changes, needs evolve, and people move on from relationships or jobs all the time. But in general, if a relationship is supportive, you will not find yourself preoccupied with whether this interplay will persist or how it could end. Sustainability is a given when support is mutual and rewarding.
Contorting relationships often have a sense of temporariness to them. There is a feeling that if you do not contort yourself to suit someone else’s preferences, the relationship does not have a chance to endure. If you feel distracted or concerned that being yourself and making your needs known in a relationship would lead to the relationship ending, you are contorting yourself. It may work to keep the relationship going for a limited period, but neither you nor the relationship will thrive.
Make the Adjustment
When considering how you want to address a relationship in which you are contorting, I invite you to keep in mind one of my key phrases to live by: You can’t ever change someone else’s behavior. You can only adjust your own.
As you make the necessary changes to steer the relationship out of contorting territory into a more self-assured, supportive direction, your counterpart will also have to adjust in response. And you really have no way of predicting how that will go. Their response may not be what you were hoping for, or it could be better than you expect. But their changes will often reveal to you your own next steps as you strive to change a contorting relationship into a more supportive one.
Sometimes relationships hit bumps in the road. Misunderstandings can happen. There may even be betrayals that cause deep wounds. But if you find yourself consistently having an interpersonal problem and merely venting about it is not helping, my guess is you are running up against a situation demanding that you contort. Consider your feelings as a red flag, a warning sign that you are leaving a supportive zone. You are being invited into a situation that does not lend itself to acknowledging or appreciating your true self and preferences.
Compromise is a part of life, and it is something we do in ways large and small every day. That is the nature of a supportive environment. Yet sacrifice, while necessary at times, is not recommended as a way to live in a healthy, functioning relationship over time.
A compassionate therapist can help you bring your authentic self into your relationships. Remember that your needs matter. There is no shame in needing support.
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