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David Baxter

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On Outgrowing Relationships & Trusting Your Instincts

by Hailey Magee
August 14, 2022

Some folks never feel the need to outgrow relationships because they were incredibly clear about their standards and their bottom-lines from the start.

Those of us who are in the process of breaking the people-pleasing pattern we will probably outgrow more relationships than most⁠⁠—because we’re letting go of the problematic behaviors that made those very relationships possible in the first place.

This article is about how raw and uncomfortable that process can feel—and how important it is, especially for the recovering people-pleaser, to learn to trust our instincts and lean into self-compassion throughout the process.

A growing pain, as I often think of it, is a feeling of guilt, shame, fear, or discomfort that naturally (and correctly) arises when we do the work of breaking old patterns. We are shedding skins we’ve worn for years or decades⁠⁠—learning new steps to old relational dances, if you will⁠—and it’s uncomfortable not because it’s wrong or bad, but because it’s new.

But when you’re in the thick of a growing pain, it doesn’t come with the glorious fanfare of a self-righteous hero’s journey. It feels like you’re wrong⁠—even broken.

For me, the past two years have included a seismic shift in my relationships. During the pandemic I, like so many others, felt called to assess what was really important to me. I began dropping the many masks that I’d worn in my relationships for so long.

After years of being “the listener” and “the fixer” in my relationships, I stopped playing therapist and started… being myself. (I still listened, of course, and gave of myself to my friends—but I also worked on taking up space, having opinions, and initiating). I began to seek connections where there was a true exchange of energy, ideas, voice, and time.

When I dropped these old roles and really sought true reciprocity, I began to realize that I’d developed four new standards for my relationships with the people closest to me:
  1. I’m no longer magnetically drawn to people who “need me.” Instead, I’m attracted to people who are creative, confident, and independent: people who want and enjoy my company, but don’t necessarily rely on it to be okay. I’ve become turned off by demonstrations of extreme clinginess or dependency.
  2. Whereas I used to be okay with taking up a minimal amount of airtime in my conversations with others (ahh, yes, the “listener,”) I’ve become intolerant of relationships in which the other person exclusively wants me to be their sounding board. I need curiosity and active listening from the people closest to me, period.
  3. I’ve accepted that I’m an introvert (INFJ, to be exact) and that I need a lot of time to myself—and I need the people closest to me to be okay with that. I still socialize and enjoy seeing my friends regularly, but I just can’t be at 100% all the time, and I’m often the one who leaves the party earliest.
  4. I’m not comfortable being on the receiving end of potent people-pleasing behaviors in my relationships with those closest to me. Witnessing these behaviors in others feels⁠—dare I say it⁠—triggering. It reminds me of my past and, for better or worse, it’s not something I want to be around right now⁠—similar to the way I wanted to stop being close to really heavy drinkers when I got sober.

As type these four standards out here, they seem like reasonable new realities. (Right? Like… I think so?????)

I’ve spoken up about these needs of mine. Many of my relationships have been able to fluidly and effortlessly accommodate them. For these connections, I am immensely grateful.

But other relationships haven’t been able to accommodate these new needs. Some folks expect me to continue on in my old roles, or fix their many problems, or give all and take none. It’s these relationships that I’ve found myself outgrowing.

And it HURTS. Because it sucks to feel like you’re hurting someone by outgrowing your original connection with them.

I try to remind myself that I’m not outgrowing these connections for some lofty, cerebral idea of “finding total love and light” or “pursuing my healing journey.” It’s not even a choice I’m consciously making⁠—it’s a choice my instinct is forcing me towards.

For me, outgrowing these relationships is happening because I’ve felt a deep sense of invisibility, hurt, or suffocation in the connections. It’s because my feelings have been hurt, time and time and again, and I’ve felt unseen, and un-cared for, and used.

Outgrowing relationships like this is, I remind myself, is, in the truest sense, self-protective.


There are times I can feel into the truth of that and trust my path forward. And other times, I’m haunted by the idea that others are forming an image of me as a cold, heartless, rash, or callous person.

I imagine them saying:
  • There’s something wrong with you because so much is changing at once. Clearly you’re too sensitive.
  • You shouldn’t be so bothered by this. Just deal with it!
  • Other people wouldn’t be so sensitive to these things. Clearly this is your old trauma/woundedness surfacing and you can’t trust your judgment here.
  • If you were more enlightened, you could be close to anybody.
  • You’re hurting people and it’s selfish. Can’t you just be happy and grateful that they want you around? Why do you need them to fit these parameters? Shouldn’t you accept everyone for who they are?
  • You’re way too sensitive!
I try to remind myself that not all people understand my needs. They aren’t bothered by the same things I’m bothered by; they don’t have the same non-negotiables for their relationships that I have for mine.

Everybody’s standards and bottom lines are different because we are all different; we all come with different baggage, different love languages, different sensitivities, and different needs. As I read in a post by @revolutionfromhome yesterday,

“You don’t need permission or approval from ANYONE to cut ties or put boundaries in place with people who don’t feel healthy for you. Your instincts don’t have to make sense to anyone but you, and you’re not required to explain or justify your choices, particularly to those who don’t encourage or understand your growth.”

Something I’ve found useful, in terms of combatting these negative voices, is to summon evidence—hard facts⁠—to refute them.

I remind myself: I have maintained many, many relationships throughout the years, despite seasons of growth, change, and evolution.

I’m still on great terms with my closest friend from college; I’m still close with many friends from Boston despite moving across the country four years ago.

I have friends of all kinds: introverts and extroverts⁠—natural talkers and natural listeners⁠—some who like to be the center of attention and others who prefer to be wallflowers.

I am tolerant of differences and don’t require all of my relationships to fit a certain script of perfection.

But I do, I am learning, have limits. And that’s OKAY. Isn’t that the whole point of learning to set boundaries and honor your intuition?!

It’s funny—how hard this feels, how mean this feels, when in fact, I’m simply developing the same limits other non-recovering-people-pleasers have had in place all their lives without even thinking about it.

Some folks never feel the need to outgrow relationships because they were incredibly clear about their standards and their bottom-lines from the start.

For those of us who are in the process of breaking the people-pleasing pattern, though, we will probably outgrow relationships more often than most⁠⁠—because we’re letting go of the problematic behaviors that made those very relationships possible in the first place.


And it can feel so foreign : to have clear standards for the people we let closest to our hearts!

Additionally, outgrowing a connection doesn’t have to mean severing all ties with a person. (I did this earlier this year and it was a mixed bag, and quite painful; I wrote about it in How to Forgive Yourself When Your Boundaries Hurt People).

Instead of outgrowing a relationship completely, we can also outgrow a phase of a relationship. We can assess just how close we are comfortable being with someone and what that looks like, specifically, for us.

We can recognize, in the words of my extremely wise friend K., “I can interact with this relationship in the way that reflects the capacity of relationship I can have with this person.” ⁠


Screen+Shot+2022-08-14+at+9.51.49+AM.png

I personally really enjoy the concentric circles imagery by Maria Popova. On the outermost circle you’ve got acquaintances⁠—then people you know and like⁠—then kindred spirits⁠—and finally, friends in the truest sense.

In Popova’s article “Reclaiming Friendship: A Visual Taxonomy of Platonic Relationships to Counter the Commodification of the Word ‘Friend,’” she explains these different levels of intimacy:

Inside (the circle of acquaintances) resides the class of people most frequently conflated with “friend” in our culture, to whom I’ve been referring by the rather inelegant but necessarily descriptive term person I know and like. These are people of whom we have limited impressions, based on shared interests, experiences, or circumstances, on the basis of which we have inferred the rough outlines of a personhood we regard positively.

Even closer to the core is the
kindred spirit—a person whose values are closely akin to our own, one who is animated by similar core principles and stands for a sufficient number of the same things we ourselves stand for in the world. These are the magnifiers of spirit to whom we are bound by mutual goodwill, sympathy, and respect…

Some kindred spirits become
friends in the fullest sense—people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values. The concentrating and consecrating force that transmutes a kinship of spirit into a friendship is emotional and psychological intimacy. A friend is a person before whom we can strip our ideal self in order to reveal the real self, vulnerable and imperfect, and yet trust that it wouldn’t diminish the friend’s admiration and sincere affection for the whole self, comprising both the ideal and the real.
Our innermost circle, explains Popova, is for those with whom we are comfortable being our “real selves.”

I like to remind myself that not I do not owe every person that experience of me. Exposing my flaws, imperfections, and vulnerabilities in this way requires an environment of emotional safety that not all people are able to give me. It requires a degree of curiosity, active listening, and non-judgment; it requires reciprocity, tenderness, and warmth.

And it’s perfectly okay to recognize that not all people—in fact, a very small, very limited number of people⁠—can and do give us that, and respond accordingly.

In this culture, many of us feel that a healthy or happy relationship is one that constantly grows forward (for more about this, I recommend learning about the relationship escalator): one that gets bigger, more important, takes up more time, and takes up more space with every passing year.

In other words, we expect all flow and no ebb.

When a connection does ebb, as they often do, we tend to assume that something is “wrong” or “bad,” instead of viewing it as a natural function of all relationships.

As I wrote about in an earlier article, in the realm of Insta-therapy, we are lambasted with two extremes: “just cut them out!” or “just make it work!”

But what about the middle space? What about allowing for fluidity? What about assessing which concentric circle this relationship belongs in ⁠—and adjusting our habits, behaviors, and communication patterns accordingly?

As we shift into a different concentric circle, we can ask ourselves, “What would it look like if I shifted my interactions in this connection to reflect the capacity of relationship I can have with this person?”

We might consider shifting things like:
  • How often we communicate with this person
  • What forms we use to communicate (in-person vs. calls, texts, Facetimes, DMs)
  • How often we spend time with this person
  • What topics we’re comfortable communicating about (romance, insecurities, work, mental health, family, etc.)
  • How long our get-togethers are (a week-long vacation vs. a coffee or walk in the park)
  • What our expectations are of this person
  • Whether we ask this person for help on certain chores or tasks; whether we say yes to requests for help on certain chores or tasks
  • Our financial entanglements with this person
When it comes to relationships I’ve outgrown, I’m reminded of what my mom told me, time and time again, when I was extricating from a particularly toxic romantic relationship:

“All relationships are work, Hail. But they shouldn’t be this much work.”

And it’s true.

While I believe that a certain degree of second-guessing is healthy⁠—and I believe that it’s worth deconstructing our decisions to see what hidden baggage, trauma, and outdated coping mechanisms lie beneath⁠—I also believe that sometimes, you can trust your gut. Period.

If your gut is telling you, and has been telling you, that it’s time for certain connections to change—you can listen.
 

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