In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” he highlights the little Italian immigrant community of Roseto, Pennsylvania in 1961. The community had rates of heart disease half that of the national average at the time, and nearly zero for men under 65—as well as a death rate 30-35% lower than the national average for all causes. A professor of the University of Oklahoma Medical School wanted to find out why. To his surprise, he discovered that the people of Roseto had a diet that was far from healthy, they got very little exercise, and their Italian relatives back in Italy enjoyed no similar protection (so they didn’t have their genes to thank). But something else also set them apart from the national norm: community living and multigenerational homes. Neighbors strolled the streets together in the evenings. They went to church together. They had dinner together. Their children played together. They looked out for each other.
A generation later, the “old ways” began to change as the younger generation in Roseto grew up and moved away, and the very close-knit community life the immigrants had enjoyed began to disintegrate. Over the next decade, heart disease in Roseto doubled, hypertension tripled, and the rate of fatal heart attacks reached the national average by the end of the 1970s.
It turned out that what kept that idyllic community healthy was the community itself.
What Healthy Relationships Look Like
Healthy relationships have two prerequisites:
- We must be able to share with another person (or group of people) who we really are, flaws and all.
- The other person (or group) must be willing to love and accept us as we are, without criticism or judgment.
But obviously it doesn’t always happen quite like that. If we engage in #1, we open ourselves up to the possibility of rejection or loss if the other person or the community fails to exercise #2. And let’s be honest—that happens to all of us at some point.
If we’ve internalized enough acceptance and connection over time, though, we can handle rejection or loss and still continue to offer our true selves in other relationships in the future. But if we haven’t, eventually we shut down. Shutting down precludes all possibility of healing relationships—because of course, we have to be willing to show others who we are before they can decide whether or not to love us.
What Shutting Down Looks Like
These are just a few, of course. See if you recognize yourself in any of them.
- Addictions. Addictions happen when we use a surrogate to try and fill a real need—and we can use almost anything (including substances, shopping, gambling, sex, and food). You might have an addiction if you seek a surrogate like one of these to relieve negative emotions, especially if you never feel like you’ve had enough of it. Another red flag might be if one of these surrogates consumes a lot of your resources (mentally, emotionally, financially, or physically). Jesus said in Luke 12:34, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
- Self-Sufficiency. This defense mechanism says, “I don’t need you anyway.” It might start out looking like sour grapes, but over time it moves into true denial of the need for other people. Denial tends to keep us “stuck” and therefore isolated, because obviously if we don’t realize we need others, we’re not about to open up to them (which means it’s impossible for us to receive what we really need from them—their love).
- Perfectionism. The logic tends to be, “If I were only more (fill in the blank), then they would love me.” This approach tends to create perfectionists, in an attempt to gain admiration. The trouble is, perfectionists can never relax. Every compliment sounds to their ears like an expectation to do even better the next time. There is usually a lot of fear surrounding the idea that at some point, others will find out who they really are, and they will lose love as a result.
- People-pleasing. People pleasers tend to be chameleons; who they are, what they like, and what they will or won’t tolerate depends on whom they happen to be with at the time. They often have a hard time saying no, fearing that setting limits will provoke anger and thus, lose love.
What Doesn’t Work
If you’ve adopted protective mechanisms, you’ve adopted them for a reason. They’re symptoms, telling you that there’s a problem hiding underneath that still needs to be healed. One of the primary tenants of naturopathic medicine is to treat the root cause, rather than the symptom. If you try to discipline yourself to kick your addiction, or to stop wanting admiration, or to stop putting so much pressure on yourself, you’ll only be frustrated. If the underlying reason for those protective mechanisms hasn’t been addressed, willpower simply won’t work. The instinct for self-preservation is too strong.
What Does Work
What does work, in a word, is grace. Only the first of the two conditions for healthy relationships depends upon us, but we must do our part. We have to risk showing our less-than-perfect sides to safe people. It’s important to choose someone who is not likely to be overly critical—support groups or churches are a great place to start. When you’ve internalized enough love and acceptance from safe relationships, life’s inevitable losses and rejections will be much easier to take in the future.
And if you’re already one of the fortunate individuals with healthy relationships, hopefully you will have the opportunity to be such a safe person for others!
For more on this topic, check out “Hiding from Love,” by Dr John Townsend