Nothing reveals the maturity and wisdom of a relationship, and the two inside it, than a very difficult conversation. While sitting over coffee last week, a close friend and I found ourselves amidst the potentially thorny landscape of such a conversation. To our mutual relief we not only survived our talk, but emerged closer, wiser, and more open.
I reflected upon it later, remembering similarly scary conversations with others in the past, and how they either didn’t go well, or, out of fear, they didn’t happen at all. For a moment I entertained the idea that I was becoming more clear and courageous. I was just about to indulge in a short round of self-congratulatory back-patting, when a realization hit me: it wasn’t just me that brought me clarity and courage, it was our relationship, and it was her.
Forged through years of self-inquiry and mutual support, our relationship had become one of safety, contemplation, believing in one another, and the fierce uplifting of one another’s true expression. It was this ‘field’, that allowed our talk to happen. My friend’s openness, vulnerability and trust was as responsible for the outcome as my courage.
Through that exchange I realized the power of the company we keep. We are, in fact, an expression of those with whom we surround ourselves.
Systems theory reveals that a system (for example, a friendship, family or company) is influenced, either positively or negatively, by its parts. But there is a kind of irresistible gravitational pull towards lower performance. For example, take a small class of adults—if the instructor’s expectations are that each person do their projects, and he or she upholds that expectation, the class will for the most part fall in line with that expectation.
If, however, one person does not do their project, and the instructor gives no overt consequences, then the entire class will begin to slide into the vortex of that low performance, in spite of their individual high standards. Over a few days, most will not complete their projects, regardless of their intention to succeed. Systems are very powerful.
The same is true of the system of people with whom you surround yourself. If you surround yourself with lots of engaged, accountable, wise people, but also have a few hangers-on around you, your life will remain compromised. It’s just physics.
You know the ones I’m talking about. They constantly complain you are not there for them. They whine about how their life never changes. They find subtle ways to put you down. They criticize you when you take a risk. They don’t quite ‘get’ you. I have a word for these people—sandbags. And they hang over the edge of the basket of your hot air balloon, keeping you from flying into your adventurous life.
You know these people by how they make you feel about you when you are around them. Here’s a little experiment to try. Imagine someone with whom you feel completely at ease and content. It doesn’t even have to be a person. It could be pet. It could be a dead person. Hold them in your mind, close your eyes, and feel what it is like to be around them. There, that feeling you feel is your baseline, and that person or pet is your baseline reference. Use your reference person or pet as a metaphorical line in the sand. Anyone who consistently evokes less than that level of comfort and safety needs to go.
Sure, you are going to have challenging moments with people who are close to you that may make you feel unsafe or threatened. Or you may be a caregiver to someone challenging due to illness. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about examining your overall experience of being around certain chosen friends, partners and colleagues.
Now that you’ve drawn a little imaginary line in the sand, using your reference and baseline as your guide, next, make a list of all those around you who drop below that line. These are your sandbags and it’s time to snip the string to each and every one of them.
‘Oh, but a few sandbags are ok,’ you might say, ‘they keep us from flying off into the ethers; they keep things realistic and reasonable.’ Hmmmm. Well that depends. How limited do you want your adventure? How small you want your life?
Conversely, you know how beautiful someone is, by how beautiful you feel in their company. Time for a new list. A fun list. Write down the names of those who you feel not only beautiful with, but joyful, inspired, and positively challenged. These are people who believe in you, and who hold you marvelously accountable to your best dreams and values.
I suggest you even expand the list to those who you don’t know so well, but you sense this is possible with them, and that because they are at the edge of their game (whatever that is), they’ll inspire you to be at the edge of yours. They say ‘yes’ in face of obstacles, and strive to live outside boxes. You know who they are. You look at them and say, ‘wow’.
All these people are your ‘good company’. Cultivate your relationships with them. They’ll help you reach your dreams. David Whyte wrote an apropos poem about good company called Sweet Darkness, and the last part goes like this:
…Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
Good company sees you. And being seen is incredibly powerful. Keeping good company will create joy, levity, inspiration and creativity in your life. Are you ready for lift off?