Bess was a 34-year-old, attractive, single, accomplished attorney living in the Boston area. She lived comfortably in her condo, managed her finances, had no close friends and had a succession of unfulfilling relationships with men. She struggled with sustaining connections with others and often felt quite lonely. Only at work did she feel empowered and on her game. Bess could not figure out what got in the way of her having better relationships. Time was passing her by and most of her friends were in various stages of getting married, having babies, and growing their families.
Most unhappiness does not come from failing to have what we want or what we perceive we need, but from the inability to connect with others in a way that feels meaningful and gratifying. The primary reason that most people seek out psychotherapy is related to some rupture in their ability to communicate with others. Where the rupture emanates from is secondary to the fact that many of us struggle with the ability to stay happily plugged into our relationships.
While I have many thoughts about how to build and sustain healthy relationships with others, I thought it would be valuable to think about some of the ideas put forth by physician and spiritualist Don Miguel Ruiz. His ideas come from the ancient Toltec wisdom of the native people of Southern Mexico, who were the scientists, philosophers and artists of their time. Dr. Ruiz created a template for personal development, behavior, communications and healthy relationships based on the spiritual knowledge and practices of their ancestors. In his inspiring book, The Four Agreements, he proposed a “Code for Life,” which is rich with ideas that are timely and relevant for enhancing the quality of our relationships and well-being.
In my work as a psychologist I have repeatedly found that those who follow or cultivate these ‘agreements’ possess tremendous integrity along with an internal compass that guides them on their life’s journey.
The Four Agreements:
Be impeccable with your word – Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using your words to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Do not take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own interpretation. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you will no longer be the victim of needless suffering.
Do not make assumptions – Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With this one agreement, you can transform your life.
Always do your best – Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick, when you are happy as opposed to sad. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.
These agreements can be observed in the most effective leaders on any playing field. They also benefit your physical, psychological and spiritual well-being.
Bess and I talked about the power of the Four Agreements among other things. After several months of talking together in therapy, Bess realized that she often personalized and internalized what others said or did. For example, “If he didn’t call, it must have been because of something I did.” She did not grasp that most often the actions of others had little to do with her.
Bess made assumptions about the way both men and women treated her. She avoided expressing her true thoughts and feelings at all costs. There was too much risk in exposing her inner reality and if her mask were to come off she would feel vulnerable and perhaps like a fraud. In any case, the risk was too high, so she continued to feel lonely and isolated.
When Bess began to realize that most of the time other people’s choices spoke more about their own needs, she began using her voice in a truthful and compassionate way. When she needed clarification, she would ask rather than assume. When she felt hurt or disappointed, she would say something about the way she felt in a kind and honest way. Things began to change. Bess’s relationships began to flourish as she continued to do her best and communicate authentically with others rather than creating her own demons.
You might find it worthwhile to challenge yourself by incorporating these Four Agreements into your daily life. Perhaps you can begin by focusing on one of the agreements and then building from there. You probably have already incorporated some of these ideas into your life. Perhaps you can find a way to improve some nuance of the agreements you already practice.
Notice what happens in your life when you wholeheartedly integrate these agreements with yourself and with your full attention.
What do you observe from your practice of one or more of the Four Agreements?
* This is a composite description and does not reflect the characteristics of any individual in particular.