A good friend of mine who is a yoga philosophy teacher has a saying that has resonated with me for years: “You become the company you keep, so keep great company.” For a long time, I have used this idea as a very good excuse for keeping regular company with the amazing, sometimes kooky, always inspired folks in my yoga community—people who uniformly make my world a better place. It wasn’t until the last few years, however, that I also started thinking about this statement in the inverse: that given that you become the company you keep, you need to think very carefully about your choices in company.
The shadow side of the company we keep abounds in my practice. A few examples: I have clients with partners who tear them down, don’t believe in their dreams or bury them in fear or cynicism; lo and behold, when given the choice, these clients are often terrified of making even the smallest of changes to better their lives. I have clients with “best friends” who are so needy, manipulative and desperate for attention that the client feels paralyzed to say no to the friends’ demands, even when those demands are detrimental to the client’s own mental health or bank account. I have clients who toil in office environments where gossip, bitterness and doomsday mentalities about work are par for the course; those clients often become bitter themselves, feel completely trapped in their jobs and soon can’t envision taking a different path from their peers.
Never is it more important to consider the company you keep than when you are looking to make some serious shifts in your life or work. Look around you: are you surrounded by people who lift you up and want what’s best for you? Who believe in your future and in your dreams? Who share openly and respectfully support you and ask the same in return? Who inspire you to rise to your best self? If not, it may be time to draw some boundaries around the company you are keeping.
Trust me, I know from personal experience that drawing boundaries around the company we keep isn’t always easy. Long-term friendships that have plagued us with their onesidedness and lack of support may need a profound shift or to come to an end altogether. A toxic workplace may require a job transition. Personal relationships where we are mistreated require a brave, strong exit.
Drawing these boundaries requires a seriously courageous demarcation, a standing up for what is best for ourselves first and not second, and a faith that we deserve better. The first time we stand up for ourselves and say, “No, thank you. I do not want this person/job/worldview in my life any more” can be terrifying. I’m here to tell you that you should absolutely do it anyway. Drawing boundaries around the company we keep is an absolutely critical step on the path to creating a more rewarding life, because it is the ultimate manifestation of your CHOICE as to who and what surrounds you, and what kind of life you will choose to lead thereafter. Trust me, it will change your life.
More subtle changes in the company we keep can also result from taking responsibility for our personal interactions in our daily lives. An example: I have been amazed by how many of my clients who work in toxic environments turn out to have been holding on to unresolved issues with colleagues for years without ever discussing them. Make no mistake about it: that which you keep hidden and fail to discuss owns you. Your seething, unspoken hatred of your office mate’s inability to talk quietly on the phone creates an environment of seething, unspoken hatred. Your unwillingness to talk to your junior colleague about his/her poor performance means that your junior colleagues will not be willing to talk to you. Your failure to sit down and discuss a supervisor’s mistreatment of you on that last conference call means that you will always feel mistreated by that supervisor.
Fortunately, a shift in perspective works wonders here. As I tell my clients, YOU are responsible for your relationships with the company you keep—no one else. That means that something as simple as a carefully designed, respectful conversation with that colleague who has caused you such problems, wherein you take responsibility for your part in the matter (and you ALWAYS have a part to play in the dynamic in which you find yourself, even if that part was failing to speak up in the first place), apologize for failing to discuss it and then ask for what you need, is a complete game-changer. When my clients carefully and bravely apply this process, more times than I can count they find that the other party has had NO IDEA of the issue or that anything had taken place that was upsetting. Apologies abound for the offense, long-standing angst disappears, and new, more respectful boundaries are built in a single conversation.
Designing such conversations is equally effective with friends, family members and loved ones with whom you have unresolved issues. Careful discussions such as these allow you to let go of the burden of unsaid, unresolved emotions that have been weighing you down over time.
Even in the mundane events of daily life, drawing simple boundaries around the company you keep can make a big difference. Closing your office door when you need to work so that the office busybody isn’t tempted to stop in for half an hour will make you more productive. Avoiding workplace gossip that drains your energy and does nothing but make you feel lousy about the place you work will help to maintain a more positive outlook on the job. Choosing to spend your Friday night with friends who uplift you, rather than friends who complain, pontificate about their own misery and are invested in playing the victim will make your personal life more rewarding.
Keeping company with great beings improves your quality of life. Better yet, it encourages you to continue your evolution as a great being yourself. Make 2012 the year you choose to surround yourself with friends, partners and colleagues who make your world better. Draw lines in the sand around those who don’t. Your worldview, your intentions and your achievements will be brighter for it, and you’ll find that as you keep great company, you will joyfully become the company you keep.
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