The new year is a time when many reflect on their lives, and evaluate which areas may need improvement or change. A few common areas that are discussed are eating healthy, exercising, getting organized and saving money. I’d like to discuss what I believe is an easily overlooked, but critically important area of our lives which may be worth focusing on as well.
Do you feel like you overexert yourself in your relationships, are putting in more effort than is being returned to you, or just a general sense of interpersonal burnout? All of these are common and valid experiences. Relationships of any kind require a give and take; two people actively making an effort to communicate and connect with the other. While it’s important that we don’t “keep score” or view our relationships as conditional, a healthy, thriving relationship should have a balance of both parties feeling thought of and prioritized.
Depending on our personalities and social styles, we may find ourselves relating to others in a way that is unique to us. Some people are planners, some prefer staying at home, some initiate conversation and some are more reserved. Understanding how we relate and feel connected to others is important. Feeling socially content looks different for everyone and that’s OK. However, problems occur when we find ourselves consistently exerting effort to connect with others, but don’t feel like it’s being reciprocated. We may experience feelings of frustration, hurt or burnout when this happens repeatedly. We may begin to lose our motivation to keep maintaining various relationships.
I’d like to suggest: Relationships should be viewed as investments. When investing financially, a person carefully considers the value of what they are investing in, as well as what kind of return they can expect to receive. Additionally, once they begin investing, they would be wise to keep track of and monitor their returns. If they were to take a loss, perhaps they’d choose to invest a bit less in that asset, or to invest elsewhere. We, as humans, have a limited amount of time, energy and capacity for connection. Although these aren’t as measurable as money, we are in fact limited, and when we exceed our limit we become fatigued and burned out. (Think of the feeling one gets after a hectic work week.)
It’s important that we view our social capacity in this way. We often have the choice to allocate our energy and time to the people we choose. It would benefit us to take a look at the people in our lives who have access to our attention and connection. We can then reflect further on how our investment to connect with each person affects our well-being. Do we feel energized by connecting with them? Are they as thoughtful toward us as we try to be for them? Do they match the effort we put into our relationship with them?
Perhaps we have a neighbor who tends to ask many favors from us without consideration of our time or space, or a friend who often does not take the time to respond to our thoughtful messages, or a family member who spends most of the time talking about themselves, without expressing interest in our lives. We may notice negative feelings or fatigue setting in from experiencing these repeatedly. Each person’s social situation looks different from the next, which makes evaluating these a personal experience.
Regardless of how different our social lives look, a healthy, common trait we can work to incorporate is to be intentional about who has access to our energy. We can make choices about how we would like to allocate our limited supply of resources such as time, thoughtfulness, communication and space. An idea that resonates with me is to prioritize the people who prioritize us. This means doing our best to reserve our energy and effort for the people who do the same for us; it means being proactive about prioritizing our emotional well-being and preventing ourselves from feeling frustrated or drained. With this mindset, if for whatever reason we were to choose to devote energy to a person who is either not able or not willing to reciprocate, it would be just that—a choice. We would account for ourselves and understand the possibility of feeling taxed by these interactions or relationships. We’d monitor our experience and notice when a boundary or space is necessary for us.
Every one of us deserves to be surrounded by loving, respectful and communicative people, who are ready to match our efforts in any given relationship. Let’s take our feelings into greater account when interacting with others, and notice what we experience. Let’s be intentional about where we choose to spend our precious time, space, energy and love.
I hope this message provides a perspective toward our relationships that will lead us to feel more satisfied and energized from them in 2024.
Josh Frank, LMSW, is a psychotherapist who works with clients experiencing anxiety and related issues. Josh and his wife, Sarah, are residents of Teaneck. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @therapy.with.josh for more mental health content.