While the late Jim Rohn, a contemporary motivational speaker, is credited with saying “You are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with,” this concept didn’t originate with him. For years, folk wisdom has taught us to be aware of whom we spend our time with:
“Birds of a feather flock together.”
“You can know a man by the company that he keeps.”
“If you lie down with dogs you’ll wake up with fleas.”
Even contemporary psychology has something to say about this: Psychology textbook writer Judith Rich Harris caused a sensation back in the 1990s when she published an article (and eventually a book) arguing that peer groups had more influence than parents on a children’s development.
While there are certainly multiple factors (including genetics and unavoidable life events) that affect performance at work, school or in relationships, it’s hard to avoid the influence of the people you see, work with, or talk to regularly.
(This is true even if you are conscious of their faults.)
If you’re concerned that your relationships might have a negative effect on your own attitude or functioning, it’s probably time to make some changes, both in yourself and in your choice of associates.
Here are some ideas for identifying and addressing the ways you are influenced by your social circle:
- Reality check + the law of attraction: Before you begin to analyze your friends and associates, take a long hard look at yourself. It may be that your own negativity or lack of achievement attracts the “wrong crowd.” Planning to change your social circle as a self-improvement technique only works if you are also planning to change yourself.
- Think about responses: Positive relationships support positive behaviors. If someone constantly undermines your goals (such as tempting you with sweets when you are on a diet) or makes excuses for your failures (“You didn’t want the extra responsibility that goes with a promotion anyway.”), be on your guard. People who do this sort of thing often want to keep you at their level so that they themselves don’t feel any pressure to improve.
- Expand Your Circle: Volunteer for committees and teams at work. Join a knitting circle. Help out a local shelter or food bank. The people you meet can become good friends and positive influences over time.
Obligatory Relationships & Compassion
Some writers criticize Rohn’s concept as lacking in compassion and failing to recognize that adults need to take responsibility for their own behavior. It is also true that it isn’t easy to leave some relationships, no matter how negative their impact.
Here are a few examples of such relationships, and strategies for managing them:
1. For Better or For Worse
Family members, including spouses and in-laws, can be an ongoing source of discouragement and frustration. Yet, unless these relationships are particularly toxic (or dangerous), abandoning them is seldom a good or realistic option.
What to do? Depending on the nature of the relationship, you may have to develop some healthy boundaries. These may include lowering your expectations, reducing the amount of time you spend with the person, or limiting how much you share with him or her.
In other cases, open and honest confrontation may be the best way to get a relationship that you value back on track. Sometimes even bringing in a third party, such as a counselor or mediator, can help you and your family member address issues and develop a positive, supportive relationship.
2. Tough Times, Good Friends
There are very few humans who don’t struggle with major challenges in their lives. Friends, family and co-workers will inevitably hit road bumps (divorce, illness, job loss) and may lose their bearings for a bit. They’ll need your support during these times, just as you’ll need their support when you face tough circumstances.
The notion of keeping company with people who encourage us in positive ways doesn’t preclude being present for friends who are experiencing severe difficulty and pain. If a friend needs you to listen while he or she mourns a loss or expresses anger, s/he isn’t trying to bring you down, but is showing you respect by being vulnerable in your presence.
Be present for your good friends when they suffer. This is what true friendship is about.
3. Work and School Relationships
Some co-workers or classmates can be sources of great discouragement. Unfortunately, the only way to end these relationships is to drop a class or find another job. If you are forced to work with people whose negativity or bad habits threaten to impact your own performance, take action:
- Stop expecting too much of your co-worker/classmate: If you don’t expect him or her to perform well or meet your needs, you’ll invest a lot less emotional energy in being disappointed or angry.
- Don’t lower your expectations of yourself: This is important. Don’t let someone else’s bad habits give you an excuse to slack off and mess up your own career.
- Focus on other relationships: Invest your time and attention in relationships outside of work or school. Having positive relationships can help you cope with an unpleasant professional or school situation.
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