Our daughter and her husband have a St. Bernard. And even though their St. Bernard isn’t as huge as some of the breed, she is still a very BIG dog. It’s really interesting to watch other people approach the dog when out on a walk or at the park.
Some people, especially children, will rush up eagerly shouting, “Look! It’s Beethoven!” They’re referring to the lovable St. Bernard featured in the 1990s family movie series.
Others aren’t so excited to be around a canine of this sort. They cross to the other side of the road or visibly shrink back and try to give the dog plenty of space. Perhaps they’re remembering the classic Stephen King horror novel-turned movie “Cujo” in which a gentle St. Bernard contracts rabies and viciously attacks a neighborhood.
What’s most intriguing about watching these reactions is to see how they affect the dog.
Depending on whether people treat her as a “Beethoven” or a “Cujo,” our daughter’s pup will play the part. Of course, she’s never ever bitten or hurt anyone, she does bark and lunge at those who are obviously nervous and fearful around her. Conversely, when people respectfully approach with confidence, the dog is happy for the attention and soaks in the petting and praise.
What’s all of this dog stuff have to do with your relationship?
A whole lot!
Most of us aren’t fully aware of what our expectations are when we approach the ones we love. We allow past experiences, assumptions, stereotypes and beliefs about ourselves and others to dictate how we are in any situation.
This shapes what we see and also what we get.
If you enter a room feeling bristly, defensive and certain that someone isn’t going to approve of your idea or plan, this dooms the conversation before it even begins.
If you’re certain you’ll be rejected, that will come through in your body language and your tone of voice and you’re more likely to hear a dismissal or a “no” even if that’s not exactly what the other person says.
We walk into a situation sure that things will go a certain way and, when they do, that expectation is cemented in our minds as “this is the way it has to be with this person or under this set of circumstances.” We don’t see the role we played or consider that a different approach might yield different (clearer and more favorable) results.
The tricky thing about this is that expectations are usually built on real experiences.
Your partner has a habit of yelling when you make a mistake.
Your teenager usually argues when you make a request.
Your co-worker has let down you too many times to count in the past.
You’re not making this stuff up!
But it’s even more difficult for the people in your life to actually follow through, to cooperate, to treat you with kindness, love and respect when you’ve already written the scene in your mind before it’s had a chance to unfold.
The way you propose your idea or ask for what you want is already transmitting to the other person that you won’t be surprised when he or she repeats the past– even if there were other occasions in the past that were actually different.
And here’s where so many of us sabotage our relationships…
We hyper-focus on the disappointments, the hurt feelings, the “bad” times and overlook the examples of the ones we love supporting us, keeping promises and treating us with consideration and respect.
So, if what you see is what you get and you’re not getting what you want from your relationships (and your life), isn’t it time to consciously change your view?
Clear yourself for what’s next.
Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple yet powerful meditations are well known. Everyday activities can be a place for breathing and mindfulness. And presence. He recommends pausing before you pick up the phone, for example, and taking a moment to breathe in, breathe out and smile. After this, then you will be ready for the conversation with whomever is calling.
Apply this practice to any interaction you have with loved ones. Clear your expectations with a few slow and deep breaths and invite in a smile too. Experiment with this and see what happens.
Focus on what you do want.
It’s okay to gently hold in your mind an image of the experience you’d like to have with this person. You can remain open and hear what he or she has to say while also keeping alive what’s most important to you about the specific situation and about your relationship too.
Reach for an image of what you want that feels believable and is desirable. You might not know exactly how you and your partner will resolve a disagreement, but you can see in your mind the two of you communicating with love and cooperating in a pleasing way.
Cultivate this openness and focus on what you do want (instead of on what you’re afraid of) and watch the way this shifts your view of what’s possible…and what actually happens.