Making Sense Of Modifiable Personal Lifestyle Factors


My favorite quote about relationships is one from motivational speaker Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”.  It’s difficult to imagine relationships in mathematical terms, but it is an interesting idea that communities and social networks would influence us so powerfully.  Is it possible that who we connect with influences who we are?  The research is not conclusive, but it seems to point to the idea that our relationships do impact our health as well as ourselves.  In fact, according to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, the people you habitually associate with determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.

So, if there is this much power and energy related to our relationships, then how do we influence them?  How do we protect ourselves from destructive relationships and, more importantly, how do we cultivate healthy and happy relationships?


In functional medicine we often think about going to the real root of any sort of disorder or imbalance.  Interestingly enough, the same person you bring into every relationship is YOU…and that is likely the largest influence in the relationship.  It is often said that “you teach people how to treat you”, but it may actually be that you teach people how to treat you with how you treat you. Thinking of this another way, if you don’t have healthy boundaries, if you don’t rest or if you don’t take care of yourself, people pick-up on this and they will treat you similarly.  Part of the starting success of healthy relationships involves letting people know that you honor yourself and that if they come into your personal space and try to cause disaster or chaos, you will protect yourself from them or potentially cut them off altogether.


This can be viewed simply as concentrating on what matters to you most.  If the things that matter to you most are not being focused on in your life, then you may not attract the relationships to build on your greatest values.  Family, honesty, loyalty, integrity, reciprocity…whatever it is you value, find other people who share your code.  If however, you connect with people who do not value what you value, you will be in constant conflict trying to work with, befriend, or love them.

Recognize that every relationship will have some conflict in it; so expecting a relationship without any conflict is unreasonable.  But speaking to conflict, it may be equally important to surround yourself with people who resolve conflict in similar ways to you.  Resolving conflict is a natural part of growing a relationship, so finding out how people resolve conflicts before you get involved or attached to them is an important part in determining the health and longevity of the relationship.


I am biased because I love this term.  I first heard about it from Timothy Keller, the lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.   In his eloquent book and sermon series, he spoke of the idea that we can stop connecting to every experience, every conversation within ourselves and can actually be free from the battle of self-hatred or self-obsession.  Instead, we can enter into a state of self-forgetfulness and therefore be free from either option.  In this way, we do not think too highly OR too lowly of ourselves.  This true freedom can only be gotten by thinking outside of ourselves.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that bombards us with envy and pride.  The entire world of advertising and social media constantly reminds us either that we are not good enough OR that we are not as bad as we originally thought.  The result is a large amount of self-thought that is not truly helpful or constructive.  Instead, the concept of self-forgetfulness holds to the idea that we are part of a whole…a larger picture…a bigger purpose.  Both faith and psychology teach us that this is what drives a majority of our joy.  Practicing self-forgetfulness sets into motion the internal healing needed in all of us and it is then that true relationships can form for the better.


All relationships take work…and the best relationships usually take the most work.  That is part of the reason I use the word cultivating when talking about relationships.  To cultivate is to prepare and use something, like land, for gardening or crops, and if there is going to be meaningful fruit in any relationship it needs cultivating; preparing, planting, watering, nourishing, pruning, and finally harvesting.   Most of us would like to skip all of that work and get right to the harvesting, but relationships, like gardens, never work that way.

Most of us are often ill prepared as well as uneducated in forming healthy relationships.  We too often form our relationships through trial and error, superficial means, and sometimes just by chance.  However, this kind of process can lead to a large amount of suffering, expense, and time that in the end results in frustration, heart-ache, and in some cases cynicism.  Fortunately, there are some practical things we can do to cultivate better relationships with others.


Empathy: The most successful relationships occur when each individual in the relationship has a strong sense of empathy. To help better understand empathy, Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, noted four of its attributes: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotions in the other individual, and communication.  Empathy then is the ability to position oneself into the other individual’s situation without judgment, all while recognizing their emotions.  Many relationships suffer and fail due to the narcissism, selfishness, or entitlement of one person. So, if you want to develop a real sense of intimacy and closeness with another person you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. As Brene Brown has suggested, empathy drives connection and is the foundation and core of any successful relationship.

Integrity, Honesty, and Consistency:  If empathy is the foundation of relationships, then these attributes are the building blocks of strong relationships.  This can be best explained from the conversation between Alice and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, “Say what you mean and mean what you say”.  And, as the Mad Hatter suggests, these are not the same thing.  When dishonesty and hypocrisy enter into a relationship they can be destructive.  Sometimes the relationship can survive through forgiveness and may need to start over, but often a loss of integrity and honesty results in the end of a relationship.  You can only get away with bad behavior for so long before people stop putting up with it.

Know Your Love Language:  When you are verbally communicating with someone who understands another language, it is often more difficult to connect.  This is also true when it comes to emotional connection.  All of us express, interpret, and receive love in different ways.  Our upbringing, traditions, and cultures all form our love languages.  From the work of author Gary Chapman there are five love languages: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch. Each one is important and expresses love in its own way. Learning another individual’s love language (as well as your own primary love language) helps create a stronger bond in any relationship.

Conflict Need Not Be a Bad Thing:  As a relationship grows and becomes stronger and closer, there will be more revealing of the true self.  Sometimes what is revealed in deeper relationships can result in conflict and discord.  However, areas of conflict may actually reveal things about the relationship and the individuals within the relationship.  Conflict also can be seen, in gardening terms, as an opportunity for pruning and growth.  It is telling what conflict reveals about each individual’s value system.  It also may help reveal areas of vulnerability or even selfishness that need improvement.  If a relationship is to grow in a healthy way, the individuals within the relationship need to grow as well.  Conflict, if handled well, can be used for growth rather than the common idea that conflict must be avoided.

Attack the Problem and Not the Person:  This is a concept taken from the negotiation book “Getting to YES”.  Although its roots are in negotiation, a great deal of any relationship IS negotiation.  As negotiations and relationships enter into disagreement and discord it is essential to get to the root of the issues.  We teach this concept of getting to the root of the matter in functional medicine and it should be applied to relationship imbalance as well.  Unfortunately, our instincts teach us to assign blame and attack those who are at fault when conflict arises.  However, this often creates greater emotional problems and may not resolve the situation.  It is better to assess the situation to see what the real problem is.  Finding out each individual’s understanding of the circumstances, as well as desired outcome, can be surprisingly helpful in resolving the problem.

Compromise and Fairness: Not to repeat myself, but no relationship is perfect and disagreements will enter in as long as there are two people involved.  However, healthy relationships should have some feeling of reciprocity. This means individuals involved in the relationship do not feel like the relationship is one sided or uneven. Relationships require a degree of give and take. However, if one individual is all give and the other individual is all take, then the relationship is not healthy and will likely not last.  Generally, people who consistently take from others don’t have many relationships of real substance.


We know from psychology as well as general medicine that people are strongly influenced and sometimes even defined by their relationships more than anything else. Relationships tell us who we are, whose we are, and what is expected of us. Our relationships influence where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.  What’s more, it appears that our relationships may be how the world ultimately defines us. In fact, whom we associate and connect with says more about who we are than any biographical sketch or social profile.   As the opening statement in this article suggests, the company we keep is one of the most telling characteristics of who we truly are. To that point, when all is said and done, the largest relationship that defines who we genuinely are is our relationship with God.

Our Faith and our relationship with God are powerful and personal influences into who we are.  Like any relationship, it will need cultivating and time.  For this reason, I often recommend the ultimate relationship, our spiritual relationship, be the starting point for all of our relationships.  Out of the development of this relationship flow the foundations, guidelines and emotions of our other relationships.


We know from the science as well as from experience that our relationships influence our health and our well-being.  Unfortunately, they are not something we talk about much in medicine.  Worse yet, we have very little guidance on how to grow and improve our relationships.  It seemed right to dedicate an article on this factor since it is so powerful.  Hopefully with some of the information in this article, your relationships can be cultivated into the ideal and balanced relationships that will help you live your best possible life.

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