My father, a clergyman, used to say that if any couple can survive the first year of a relationship, it is proof of God’s existence – because it’s a miracle.
All relationships, personal or professional, are challenging. We look to other people, and especially our nearest and dearest, for love and support. We don’t always get it. Often we believe that we deserve something more or something better. Sometimes we may be right. Sometimes other people may be right. Our perceptions or theirs may need to be examined. We or they may have expectations that are impossible to meet.
Professional relationships are often imposed upon us. We may be thrown together with people with whom we may have little in common. We may not even like them. We may have supervisors or employers who irritate us beyond measure. And there may be nothing we can do about it other than take what experience we can and then look for another job if we are sufficiently fortunate to be able to do so.
Against that background we may see our personal lives as an opportunity to make choices that were denied to us in our professional environments. We choose the people we want to be with. We may choose one person with whom we want to be particularly close. We may hope that this will be the end of our problems but, as my father observed, it may be just the beginning. Relationships, all relationships, are difficult.
Sometimes we make a close personal relationship in order to escape from a disturbed and distressing family upbringing. All children need to individuate, to become themselves rather than merely an unthinking successor of their parents’ values, ideas and behaviours. This is why adolescence is so tricky. We have to rebel to some extent in order to be ourselves. But then we come up against the reality that we are dependent rather than independent. We don’t have the money, the housing or the social freedom to make our own way in the world. We have no choice but to go with what we’ve got. We look forward to being able to break free. Sometimes, in a fit of determined belligerence, we break free in the most inappropriate and damaging ways.
We may be far more influenced by our peers, children of our own age who share our personal interests – our gang – than by our parents or teachers or by other adults. We assume that we know better than they do. Sometimes we may, but at other times we may be sadly misguided.
Sometimes we get ourselves into sexual relationships that are very damaging. We may find ourselves being over-impressed with money or status. We may think of opportunities as being Heaven-sent when a more mature judgement might be that they were Hell-bent.
Eventually we settle down, but not before we have made a large number of mistakes and, hopefully, learned from them.
Sometimes we don’t learn very well. We abandon one inappropriate relationship and go straight off into another. We search for the perfect partner but, of course, he or she doesn’t exist. Successful relationships have to be created: they don’t just happen. We may have ‘magical thinking’ instilled in us by newspapers or books or by television soaps or by films. That is all fiction. Reality is that every successful relationship is hard work. There is no magic fix.
Early adulthood is the most difficult and challenging time of our lives. We have to take on a new relationship, and establish a home, when we may have had poor examples from our own upbringing. We have to establish ourselves in work, if we are fortunate enough to get it, when we have had little training in what this will actually involve. We may have to bring up young children when we simply don’t know how that is done. We have to find out for ourselves.
Schools have a lot to answer for. They teach us to read and write and count and sometimes they teach us to reason and to express ourselves succinctly. What they tend not to teach us at all are the three things that we most need to know:
How do we build long-term relationships?
How do we bring up children to be successful and happy in the way that they want to be?
How do we make a profit in business so that we can contribute something to our society rather than take from it?
It is these three challenges that lead to the creation or destruction of self-esteem.
From our consumer culture we may have imagined that we could feel good about ourselves, and thereby be attractive to others, if we have good looks and plenty of material possessions. What a pathetic personal philosophy that reveals! We have only to see the disastrous lives of many sports people, pop stars or captains of industry to see that true happiness does not come directly as a result of physical fitness, fame or wealth. The instant gratification culture is no more rewarding than the dependency culture.
True self-esteem has to be based upon being the people we want to be, being kind and considerate, creative and enthusiastic, loving and nurturing. It cannot be based on achievement. So what if we have done this or that? There will always be someone better. It cannot be based on comparison. So what if we do have more, or do more, than someone else? That’s a sadly inadequate personal value. Nor can it be achieved through association. So what if we do know this person or that person. Do they talk of us with affection or admiration, or are we just hangers-on?
By the time people come to see me for help, they have usually gone through all these difficult phases of adolescence and early adult life and then tripped over the next hurdles. They have established themselves in business or in a profession and begun to wonder whether all the work was worthwhile. It may not be giving them the personal rewards that they had hoped for. They find themselves on treadmills. They may have established a home but then wonder why this physical castle felt no more rewarding than a castle in the air. They may have brought up a family but wondered why so many things seem to go wrong. Behind the façade they may wonder whether other people’s children are just as difficult as theirs. Also, they may ask, in the reality of the boardroom or the bedroom, whether other people’s professional and personal relationships are more stimulating and rewarding than their own.
To find solutions to these questions we may need some professional help. However, it is sadly true that we can make grave mistakes when we ask professionals for their help.
We go to a doctor with stress and get given a prescription. We go to counselling for depression and meet someone who appears to have more problems than we do. We go to a business advisor and find someone who gives little evidence of ever having run any successful enterprise. We go to members of our own family and learn very quickly not to make that mistake again.
In offering myself as a guide or counsellor, I have to stand on my track record. I was married for 48 years until my wife died of a stroke, just out of the blue. I am now remarried and have a lot of happiness in my life, when I least expected it. I have three adult children who are as independent of mind as I would wish them to be. I have run successful enterprises and I do now.
Inevitably I have made stupid errors, time and again throughout my life. Hopefully I have learned from them. While focussing upon establishing myself professionally, in one thing after another, I took my wife for granted. In bringing up my children, I hoped that they would be like me. In running a large business, I lost sight of the financial side and thereby betrayed the trust put in me by my staff and others.
Anyone who has had a blameless life has quite possibly learned very little and may have nothing to offer.
I have spent my professional life listening to the woes of other people. I am happy to do that. Even so, I believe that counselling has to have more to offer than merely a listening ear. There has to be a level of interaction. I tend not to give advice because I can never know sufficient about another person to be able to do so. However, I can ask people whether their own method of doing something has resulted in the happiness that they sought. I can then ask them, from my impartial perspective, whether they would like to look at some different ideas and ways of doing things.
This process does not have to be intellectually intricate, psychologically mysterious or emotionally distraught. It can be serious but also illuminating, challenging and even enjoyable, all at the same time.