Many people intuitively grasp the idea that if someone is bothering you, you are just like that other person. When I was young, my sister bothered me all the time and my mother’s response was often to say: you are just like that. I used to think that was a horrible response: I wanted my mother to change my sister’s behavior, not turn it back on me.
I am calling a person who bothers you and shares the same relationship style as you your reflection. The premise is that you are unconsciously contributing to having this person in your life because you have the same kind of relationship style as she does. In order to improve your relationship with that negative person or help her float out of your life, you need to see how you share the same qualities she has and change. I will start by sharing a few simple examples of this method and then go on to one more complicated example.
Not long after I had the intuitive insight about negative relationships being energy exchanges, I applied it for the first time to someone else’s life. My wife, Alice, and I were living in Southern California in 1979. One of our roommates would often scream and yell at my wife even though she hadn’t done anything to provoke his anger. My wife was five months pregnant and did not know how to handle these outbursts, and she would become very emotionally upset. Our roommate would then say my wife was so out of control emotionally, she should be put away in an insane asylum until she learned how to control her emotions.
Trying to discuss the problem with our roommate got us nowhere; he kept insisting his behavior had nothing to do with my wife being upset, and she just needed to learn to control her emotions. Needless to say, this upset my wife even more. Since we couldn’t see why we deserved these angry outbursts, we thought he was a complete jerk.
After our roommate got so upset he almost punched my pregnant wife in the stomach, I thought that we could no longer just put up with the situation. We did not have enough money to move out, so we were stuck in the same house with him.
I thought about why this situation was happening to us and my earlier insight that all relationships are an exchange of energy. I realized that for my wife to be receiving our roommate’s mean outbursts, she must think in the same or a very similar way as our roommate did. So he must be an external expression of a voice within her that thought emotions were awful, and the goal was to live above these emotional storms by controlling them.
The way to deal with our problem in this case was not to try to convince our roommate of Alice’s saneness (which was not possible as he was absolutely convinced he was right), but to deal with the part of Alice that saw her emotions as so troublesome. If she changed her view of emotions, he would no longer be able to yell at her.
I told my wife about this and she said it made total sense to her. What our roommate was saying was exactly how she thought about herself: she thought she was an emotional volcano that spewed forth emotions for no reason at all, and she wished she could control her emotions as our roommate advised.
I told Alice she needed to stop thinking of emotions as storms; she was not being beset by storms that came over her for no reason. Her emotions were a valid, though inappropriately expressed, response to negative emotional energy that our roommate was sending out and which she was not consciously aware of.
My wife did change her attitude, and our roommate immediately stopped bothering her. It seemed he was now sheepish about how he had acted. Then we moved across the country a month later and have never seen him again.
It was not random that our roommate stopped yelling at my wife. I have seen the same thing happen many times in the thirty years since then. If you do not have the matching relationship styles with the corresponding matching energy openings, then the negative relationship cannot happen. It is that simple.
A common example of people meeting their reflection is their relationship with their romantic partners. In chapter twelve I discuss in detail Michelle continually meeting her reflection in many different romantic relationships. She did not have her first good romantic relationship until she faced up to the idea she was like her reflections and changed. Here I will give a quick run through of her experience.
When Michelle was 32, she realized she was a bi-sexual and attracted to women. Her first significant lesbian relationship was with a teenager who was a professional tennis player. It did not bother her much that this person was selfish, manipulative, self-centered and continually talked about the things she was going to do to improve her life without doing them because this person was a fun, summer fling who soon moved across country.
Michelle’s second significant lesbian partner had the same negative qualities as her first relationship, as well as being a drunkard. This relationship did not end as pleasantly as the first one.
When Michelle asked me why she was meeting this kind of partner, I said they were almost assuredly a reflection of her way of relating to other people. She thought of herself as kind, warm and giving, so this answer made no sense to her.
She then had two more longer-term relationships with the same kind of people. The third one hurt her a lot, but the fourth one destroyed her. She was left with a big debt from helping her selfish partner and was so depressed she stopped dating for years.
I kept telling her she was meeting people who were reflecting the same qualities she had, but she would not face up to it. Finally she did and made major changes in her behavior. When she was 38, she started dating again, this time men. The first three dates were not very positive, but she quickly learnt how she was like them. Then she met a man she fell for. For the first time in her life, she had found a good romantic relationship.
She was able to do this because she had learnt to see the troubles in her relationships as reflecting back to her negative relationship qualities she had. This meant she did not blame the other person and make the situation even more negative. Instead, she defused the situation by changing.
It is not surprising that her relationships would improve. By becoming less self-centered, less manipulative, less selfish and other things, she was becoming an easier person to be around. Other people would then want to be around her.
The last example is much more complicated, but it reveals some important techniques in how to apply this method.
One day in 2010 I awoke at three in the morning and my thirty year old son Tim was still up, looking very heartbroken. He just had a very distressing discussion with his girlfriend of six years. He was about to go to Germany for a year for a job, while she had a serious job in NYC. She was wondering if they should break up. He was not sure whether they should break up or try to save the relationship.
I asked if he had any problems or issues that got in the way of seeing whether his girlfriend was his long term romantic connection or not. He was not sure. Considering this was the only serious girlfriend he had ever had, and he loved her, and they were an appropriate match socially and culturally, it seemed to me she probably was his romantic connection. So I asked him what were the things that held him back from wanting to be with her?
My aim was to get a list of the ways she treated him that he did not like. Then I would ask him how he shared the same qualities. I had discovered that getting the list is the easy part. All I had to do was ask someone what the other person did that bothered him and give him non-judgmental space to be really honest about it.
Tim’s relationship with his girlfriend was one of the most significant relationships in his life. It was also in bad shape. From my experience with people, the more important a relationship, and the more screwed up it was, the more factors there were involved. In Tim’s case, for something this important, the list would probably have at least five elements on it. I would keep asking for things to put on the list until we had at least that many.
Once I asked him the question, the things he did not like about her came streaming forth. It took us less than half an hour to make a list.
1) She did not intellectually energize him enough. Tim was extremely interested in political and academic issues, but she was not. He needed other people to give him energy about intellectual things and she could not do that.
2) She was dictatorial in a stupid way. He would not have minded if she was controlling and forced him to do things, but she did it in an extremely unskillful way. She would not give him reasons why he should do something, but just tried to force him to do things her way. This would even have been okay if her way was a good way, but it was not.
3) She wanted Tim to give up his promising career as a professor while he still had a very good chance of getting an excellent job. Instead, she wanted him to take a supposedly high paying job teaching high school in New York so they could be together. I said this was stupid as he was totally unsuited personality wise to be a high school teacher; he would fail at it. He said she did not understand him and his abilities and needs because she was so centered on her needs (having him live near her) and trying to get what she wanted.
4) She was thirty two and knew her biological clock demanded she have kids very soon. He was willing to have kids with her and take care of them at least half the time. But she was asking for too much sacrifice by wanting him to take jobs that he was unsuited for. She did not understand him and how much he needed intellectual stimulation and intellectual energy in general. If she could not provide him with intellectual stimulation, he needed it from his job, and being a high school teacher could not give that to him.
5) She wanted him to be more like her father in terms of giving more structure to their mutual activities. She wanted him to take care of planning and details and arranging things.
6) Through his inattention, one day he had lost her most precious childhood things. These things were her teddy bear and other survivors of the New Orleans flood. Now she would never let this go and kept bringing it up all the time.
My strategy was to use this list as a reflection of ways he also did things in the world. Considering these qualities were messing up one of the most significant connections in his life, they probably were a manifestation of deep personality tendencies. Thus, even if he was committed to becoming a different person, it might take years for him to change these qualities. In the meantime, he would have to continually look at this list and see if he was doing any of these things in any relationships in his life.
People generally do not like facing their reflections and will try to wiggle out of it. So I got him to state again the list contained all very important things that continually bothered him about her. This insured that later on, he would have a harder time wiggling out of it when I said he had the same qualities. Of course this did not stop people from wiggling; all he, or someone else, had to do was deny a basic idea of my approach that his negative relationships were a reflection of qualities he had.
I had had many previous intellectual discussions with Tim about my approach to problems and connections in general. He understood my approach, but to him it did not make sense that I could have had an insight into the nature of all relationships. Previously I had told him that he should give the approach a try, but the theory had never made enough intellectual sense for him to do that. Now that he was having big trouble at 3:30 in the morning, he was willing to give my approach a try.
I knew he would not like it if I came out and asked how he shared the same qualities as his girlfriend. So I asked him the same question in a softer way: I said is there anyone else saying similar things about him that he was saying about his girlfriend?
A few weeks ago he found out that his teaching evaluations at his last professorial job were so mediocre that he lost a chance at getting the job back again. That had torn him up as he needed good teaching evaluations if he was going to get a secure job. So he started wondering about whether his students in their evaluations and comments were saying things about him that were like his complaints about his girlfriend.
Looking at this, first he said that his students wanted him to give them more structure and control, just like his girlfriend wanted. He saw controlling their education as being monarchial, but he realized now they just wanted to be told what to do. He did not like doing this as it was hard, and he had to be more prepared and organized in order to do it well, but he said he could do it.
He then said that he was like his girlfriend in not being sensitive enough to what his students were like and could do. (Number three on the list.) They were not the kind of people who could have the level of intellectual concern that he wanted them to have. Like his girlfriend, he was not facing up well enough to what they were actually like and what he could legitimately expect from them.
He quickly had found two things from the list that he did in his job. Because we were this successful in linking the list with this other important area of his life, I said we should continue looking at his teaching and see if he acted any other ways towards his students that bothered him the way his girlfriend did.
So I checked the list of complaints about his girlfriend. The first one on the list was that she was not intellectually stimulating enough. So I asked if he could be like his girlfriend and not be intellectually stimulating to his students enough. He said his students complained about that on his evaluations, and so he must be like that.
I read the list out loud, again and he said he treated his students in a way that combined one and three together. He wanted intellectual stimulation from his classes and was teaching too advanced and difficult material in order to try to get it. He was trying to get students in introductory classes to understand professorial level material. Now he realized that his students just did not have the ability to stimulate him intellectually. He was not facing up to the fact that it was beyond their abilities, and he should not try to get his intellectual stimulation from them. Instead he should just teach them more basic, simple material that was appropriate for their level.
I had been futilely trying to get him to change his teaching style for over five years. All the changes I had been trying to get him to make were things he was now talking about. No matter what I had said previously about his teaching style, nothing had penetrated and he never changed. Now, for the first time, the personality factors that were tying him to his poor teaching style were being unraveled. Because he could see the bad effect these personality factors were having on his life, he realized he needed to change his teaching style. None of the things I had been telling him before had penetrated because I was only dealing with the external level of what he did. He needed to have the personality factors that were tying him to a poor teaching style unraveled before he could change.
I went back to the list and asked him if he treated his students in any of the other ways he disliked about his girlfriend. He said no. As I looked at the list, we still had not found anything he did like number two, four or six.
Number two was that his girlfriend bullied him in a stupid way. I remembered that in the 2008 presidential election, his mother and he were having a pleasant discussion about whether Obama would be a good president. She had said she was worried he was too young and inexperienced. But Tim ad raised his voice very loudly and aggressively to say how wrong she was. She had felt very bullied into agreeing with his point of view. In the two years since then she had often complained to me bitterly about this incident. I also felt he would often try to bully me into having the appropriate liberal line on social and cultural issues. Instead of trying to give me reasons for why I was wrong, he would just try to force me to go along with him.
I also saw complaint number four play out in Tim’s relationship with me: he continually asked me to make more sacrifices than was appropriate because he was looking at the situation in a self-centered way. This meant he did not understand my needs because he was so focused on his needs. (Complaint number six on the list will be discussed in a few pages.)
I did not bring up either of these things. I had learnt from sad experience that self-centered people do not care about how they treat others.
It was now five in the morning and he was tired. He had changed his approach to teaching. He felt he saw things a lot more clearly between himself and his girlfriend. Later that day his girlfriend and he had a great talk, and both of them decided they wanted to stay together and would put energy in to make it work.
My son left a few days later for Germany, where he had a yearlong fellowship in ethics and global justice at the Frankfurt Institute. A fellowship was every academic’s dream job: he was paid just to read books. He did not have to do teaching or any other work.
But two weeks later my son called, distraught and depressed about how his bosses had treated him. He had arrived in Germany at the beginning of October with the understanding that he was going to be paid for September. But now they said they were not going to pay him for September. He had talked to them and appealed to other administrators, but no one would fix the problem.
Even worse, there was another person with the same fellowship in the same program who had arrived the same day he did. She had also signed her contract at the same moment that he did. But she was going to be paid for September.
He was depressed and mad at the total unfairness of it all. It made absolutely no sense to him. This thing had happened three or four days ago, but he felt so bad about it, he was unable to get any work done or think about anything else since then.
He wondered if he could have done things differently or had made some mistake to cause him not to get the money. We reviewed his actions and it seemed he had been very careful all along the way and checked things out with his bosses and had gotten approval for everything. He had done everything right on the external level. This analysis was reinforced by the fact that the woman who had done the same thing as he did was going to be paid for September.
My son railed on about the absurd unfairness of it all for fifteen minutes. Then he finally asked for my advice. I said I was going to look at it from the point of view of the energy model, which meant I was going to wonder how he had in some unconscious way been attuned at the same energy level as the people who bothered him.
I said from the short-term perspective, it was totally unjust that this was happening to him. But from a long-term perspective, maybe there was cosmic justice that it was happening to him. He did not like the word justice as that meant he had sinned and deserved what was happening to him. The idea that he had done something wrong and so had deserved this had been making him depressed for the last four days.
I said that I did not mean that he deserved something bad. Instead I said he had unconsciously attracted the situation to himself, but it was not a matter of sinning or deserving because it was unconscious. He had not chosen to do something bad, so he did not “deserve” to have something bad happen to him. I said that if there were some external thing he had done wrongly or not done right earlier, maybe he would have in some sense deserved what had happened to him, but there was no such thing.
He said my words cosmic justice also implied an external God making things right. I said I did not think of God having anything to do with it.
I said maybe a better way of looking at it would be cosmic fairness. He was more comfortable with that word. So I said it was not cosmically fair in the short term he had this problem, but maybe it was in the long run. He asked me what I meant. I said if he treated others the same way he was being treated, then it would be cosmically fair he was running into this problem. He agreed.
Then I pointed out that he often complained about other bosses not treating him fairly. I reminded him that he had complained about his previous employer; at that earlier time he had gotten all emotional about how they were not treating him well enough (even though it was another year-long fellowship where he was paid just to read books). He also had complained about how the employer before his previous one had treated him unfairly. Finally I said that when he was sixteen, his first employer, a Boy Scout camp, had treated him extremely unfairly and he had never gotten over it. I said he had some issue or problem around bosses treating him unfairly.
He agreed and said the hard thing was not just that he was treated unfairly, but that he did not know if he could count on others to watch out for his needs. Sometimes they did and sometimes they did not, and he never knew how he was going to be treated next. The uncertainly threw him for a loop. This comment seemed really sincere and a deep statement of his feelings.
I then said that his long-term girlfriend felt the same way about him. She loved him deeply but the way he treated her was very uneven. Sometimes he was very loving and supportive; other times he was AWOL. This meant she could never trust him to watch out for her needs and that threw her into despair about the relationship.
I reminded him that their relationship had taken a sharply negative turn at one particular moment: when he lost her most important childhood things. His girlfriend had grown up in New Orleans and her house had been destroyed in the flood. She was distraught by that. One day he was on a train transporting the last of her most precious childhood possessions that had been saved from the New Orleans flood. But he had not watched them carefully enough, and they had gotten lost along the way. (This was number six on the list of things that bothered him about her.) She was devastated, not only about losing the last of her childhood things, but she wanted a baby with him. What did losing her most precious things say about how he would take care of a baby? Or her?
He then said “Oh, you are right.” He could see how he treated his long-term girlfriend the same way he felt he was being treated. I told him he had to treat her and other people better, and then would not have an opening to be treated this way any longer. He could see my point and no longer felt depressed.
The next thing he said surprised me. He said he had misspoken at the beginning of the talk: his work situation was not really as bad as he had painted it. His German bosses were not going to pay him for September, but they were going to defer the money to the end of the year and pay him then. So the problem was not as bad as he thought.
I said it was weird that he had not stated the problem correctly at first. He agreed it was weird, and said he was only seeing it correctly after he realized how he treated his girlfriend the same way he was being treated.
A few hours later he told me that his bosses, without any further action on his part, had decided to pay him right now for September.
After this book is written, I am hoping to get it published. It would be helpful if you tell me any questions you may have or any parts that you have found helpful. If you have sections that you do not understand or you think are stupid or misguided, I would very much appreciate if you tell me. It is much better to hear these comments now, when I can easily change things, then later, after I have published a book. I will reflectively consider your concerns and, if warranted, I will change things to incorporate your concerns into the book. You can email me at email@example.com. Please put “About Connections,” into the subject heading of the email.
This book was written by Joseph Waligore with the help of Michelle Stage. Joseph teaches philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. More information about him can be found at his MySpace profile or his Facebook profile. Michelle works in a bank in St. Paul, Minnesota as a learning consultant and in a Minneapolis night club as a dominatrix.
This website is one of four websites I have. Another one, www.followingtheflow.com is for spiritually oriented people and discusses very similar ideas from a more spiritually oriented perspective. Another one, www.josephwaligore.com is for academically or intellectually oriented people. It has my writings about spiritual philosophies such as Stoicism, Socrates, the Deists, the Enlightenment period, and the rise of modern science. Another one, www.spiritualcritiques.com, has critiques of many popular spiritual teachers and spiritual teachings. It looks at teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Ken Wilber, and Pema Chodron. It also looks at teachings like “All is One,” “The Hundredth Monkey,” and “If it Rings True, it is True.”
There is a Facebook group called Flowing. People interested in meeting other people who are interested in these ideas and/or participating in discussions about these ideas are invited to join the group.
Many people reach this site through keyword advertisements. It might be of interest that Joseph got the money for these ads through his day trading profits.