Saturday 22 October 2016

Operation Transformation's Dr Eddie Murphy: The 5 relationships that define your life

In a new Weekend column, clinical psychologist and Operation Transformation expert Dr Eddie Murphy is going to show you how to live a happier, healthier, more positive life. Today, he begins by identifying the key relationships that shape who you are - and teaches you how to stop them from becoming toxic

Eddie Murphy

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy. Photo: Kip Carroll
Clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy. Photo: Kip Carroll
Your Partner
Your Family
Your Children
Your Work

Life is about relationships. When they are in harmony, we are at peace. When there are in conflict, it can really impact the quality of our lives.

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An argument with your partner can cause you to lash out at your children; a difficult boss can leave you too stressed to sleep… Conflicts in relationships are emotionally draining. That's why understanding the key dynamics of relationships will help you to flourish and ensure you do not get pulled into the negative vortex of power games.

In my new weekly column for Weekend, I hope we can explore together the areas of positive psychology, mental health and well-being. As my style is solution-focused, I will give you the tips and tricks and simple exercises that will help you towards a life of wellbeing, pleasure and meaning.

To begin with, today I'm examining the five relationships that define your life - those with yourself, your partner, your children, your family and friends, and your work. These are the important relationships that shape your personality, motivate your actions and impact most on your emotional state. I'll share some powerful strategies for nurturing these relationships to ensure that they don't turn toxic.

Focusing on your five key relationships will ensure true fulfilment and happiness. Sometimes, it's like juggling, trying to keep all these relationships in kilter. If one is in conflict or languishing in mediocrity, then the joy in our lives is impaired.

Central to all these relationships, I believe, are healthy boundaries, trust, openness and a passion to give to others in terms of listening, support and empathy. Being authentic, compassionate and focusing on human 'being', not 'doing', allows you to put your true energy into these relationships and this will be reciprocated.

Are you ready to examine the five key relationships in your life and to be honest and open with yourself about that state that they are in? Read on and remember to be open, reflect and figure out whether your relationships patterns lead to bliss or distress…

1 Yourself


Probably not the first one you would think about, but the most powerful relationship is the one you have with yourself. This all happens in your head! What is your dominate mood — happy-go-lucky, optimist, sad, angry? In the world of modern psychology, we are often more interested in ‘what keeps the problem going’ as well as identifying the origins. By targeting the negative thoughts that keep the negativity going, or sustaining the positive thoughts that support optimism, you are in control of your relationship with yourself.     

Is your internal voice a poisoned parrot or a nurturing coach?  If you think you are unlovable, worthless, helpless, scared or flawed, then challenge these core beliefs — don’t accept the harsh internal critic. Work on this voice, it’s what keeps negativity going. Tackling this critical voice will change your world. It will transform your low self-esteem so you become lovable, fearless, self-reliant, worthwhile and content. Imagine and practise your inner voice as a coach and not as a critic on a daily basis.

Having a positive relationship with yourself improves your relationships with others. We need to be connected and emotionally available to ourselves. A healthy relationship with yourself places a value on your self-worth and involves embracing your strengths and weaknesses.

Be your own best friend — it’s OK to put yourself first 

I have seen too many people “playing the martyr” or “putting others’ needs first”. This is detrimental to your wellbeing. If the needs of the self are suppressed, then food, alcohol, negativity and being critical of others are pervasive. One way to break this cycle is to think of the safety instructions on airplanes, where you are advised to put on your oxygen mask before putting it on anyone else, even a child. Putting yourself first includes self-care, self-respect, goodwill and self-love and getting in touch with what nourishes you in mind, body and spirit.

Task: Give yourself three of these gifts a day — sleep, exercise, meditate, read, reflect, practise gratitude.

Become your real self

When it comes to the relationship with yourself, “being your real self” is critical. Are you your real self? Too often, I find people investing time and energy into their mask and ignoring their real self. In the space between are emotional pains — panic, fear, sadness, anxiety, depression, anger, relationship conflicts. 

If you too often “keep the peace, for a quiet life”, you are denying your real self. The outcome of this is continual unhappiness. The challenge is to find your voice and your real self. Then, your internal relationship is contented, authentic and thriving. 

Task: Nurture an acceptance of who you are. Develop confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust in your instincts. Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualising what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.

2 Your Partner


The relationship with your partner reflects a commitment you have made to each other, one that involves you both “being” differently as you think as part of a team — not two individuals. There is no one type of healthy relationship as it’s different for every couple. Nevertheless, certain psychological research has identified fundamentals that need to be in place for healthy relationships:   


Trust is central to relationships; it’s the essential ‘unsaid’ hidden glue that permeates healthy relationships. Imagine a relationship with no trust. Imagine that every time your partner is away, you are thinking they are up to something. Fundamentally, if you don’t trust your partner to be faithful, honest and caring, then you’re not in a good relationship. Deep trust is the “well” you go to and what you rely upon when the invariable challenges arise.


In healthy relationships, we allow our vulnerabilities to emerge; our deepest fears, faults and failings. When we get to know each other, deep acceptance and respect are at the cornerstone of a healthy relationship.


If trust is the hidden glue, then communication is the overt glue in relationships. Honest, respectful communication with a dollop of humour goes a long way. In happier relationships, people talk favourably about each other in social situations, and respect the other person’s individual preferences. People in healthy relationships take interest in one another, going beyond the small talk and seeking deeper understanding. Listening is the greatest skill. When I do couple therapy, I find the couples in most conflict have a consistent pattern of being the poorest listeners. Along with communication, other real needs of the relationship include affection, emotional support and intimacy.

The pit stop — managing ruptures and fast repairs

Healthy relationships work like a Formula 1 pit lane, where the healthiest relationships are able to quickly and effectively repair ruptures to the relationship. This involves the emotional intelligence to recognise firstly, that you or the other person is hurt, angry or unhappy with something, then secondly, sorting things out quickly. More often than not, a good repair usually starts with a genuine apology. 

The power game

Power permeates relationships. When this is negotiated well, relationships work. When it’s imbalanced or invariable, the relationship is stifled, sterile and loveless. You don’t always have to be right. It’s OK to let go of control, to share it, to laugh at yourselves — remember, the battle and winning comes at the expense of the relationship. When you have let go of the power game, you are in the space of growth and change. 


Together, rate yourself independently from 0-100 for accepting, respecting, meeting the other's needs, providing positive interactions, problem solving, saying sorry when you are wrong, forgiving quickly and truly. Then, ask yourself what can I do to improve a score by 5-10 points. Share the scores if you dare!

3 Your Family and Friends


Now we are into the heart and soul of relationships, - families, and how to survive or thrive. Boundaries in relationships are incredibly important in childhood and in adulthood. The key patterns of boundaries in relationships are 'distant', 'healthy' and 'intrusive'. How we maintain these boundaries is vital to our wellbeing. Consider your relationships with family and friends and ask yourself: is it distant, healthy or intrusive?

Distant and healthy relationships

Distant relationships are characterised by disconnection. Distant relationships are cold, unfulfilling and will fail to give you support. In contrast, healthy relationships have give and take. Space is woven into the togetherness. Power is shared equally. Each individual helps the other to develop, nurture and grow, which in turn, allows the relationship to grow. Conflicts are dealt with quickly and ill-feeling does not fester.

Intrusive relationships

OK, now we enter the territory where it's about surviving not thriving. Intrusive relationships are characterised by imbalance: one person exerts power over the other. Sometimes, this power is overt and manifests itself through a control of finances or a display of physical strength. Alternatively, power can be exerted covertly, in ways that are subtle yet destructive. Imagine someone in your life that you love, but don't like - it happens.

Key Tasks: managing toxic people in your life

It's critical that you put your own needs first, so that you remain healthy to cope with the demands of toxic people in your life. Dump toxic friends - they are no good for you. When it comes to your family that's not possible and you can get sucked back into old dynamics - these are the ties that bind. The strategy is to reduce the toxic dose by setting clear boundaries while building your self-confidence, inner strength and emotional independence.

Key question

Do your family or friends give you little praise, put you down or embarrass you in front of your friends or in public, constantly criticise you, or are always negative? If yes, then your relationship is toxic.

4 Your Children


This is one of the most rewarding relationships of all. It can be like a roller-coaster with great sorrows, fears and thrills and deep happiness. I am a dad of two young beautiful boys (I would say that!) Oisín (8) and Darragh (6) and what I write about below I strive to achieve. There are many days that I don’t make it — the challenge is to be a ‘good enough’ parent.     

Nevertheless, there are a number of key factors that will help you have a healthy relationship with your child. As a clinical psychologist who has worked with thousands of children and adults, I can tell you that you cannot give a child too much love. The nature of your relationship with your child depends on the age of your child, as children of different ages have different needs. Nevertheless, the fundamental building block of relationships with children is unconditional love.     

The power of attachment

One of the most influential psychologists, John Bowlby, identified the nature of this relationship as ‘attachment’. Attachment theory describes the most powerful psychological phenomena shaping our day-to-day relationship and how the foundations of our relationships are formed. Central to this is our first and most powerful relationship — the bond between ourselves and our primary caregiver, generally our mother. This bond is developed in the first years of our life. However, not everybody is lucky enough to have a responsive mother — possibly because of bereavement, illness or personality style. More recent research has shown us that a child needs one good person in their life from an early age; this can be an aunt, uncle, grandparent or older sibling. This primary caregiver — through sensitivity and responsiveness —  provides the child with a secure base for effectively regulating their emotions.

The mother–child attachment bond profoundly influences infant brain development, self-esteem, tolerance of stress, and how people react to the responses of others. More recently it has been shown that the attachment style of someone’s childhood is linked to forming and maintaining successful relationships in adult life. The attachment style established in early childhood acts as a working model for relationships in adulthood and influences our strengths and shortcomings in relationships.

Assertive parenting

Assertive parents hit the sweet spot between sensitivity and strictness. Sensitivity refers to the extent to which parents provide warmth and supportiveness. While strictness refers to the extent to which parents provide supervision and discipline. Whether you are high or low on strictness and sensitivity creates four parenting relationship styles:

● Indulgent — more sensitive than they are strict

● Authoritarian — are very strict, but not very sensitive

● Uninvolved — are low in both sensitivity and strictness

● Assertive — are both strict and sensitive

In the coming weeks, I will explore this a little more, suffice to say that children of assertive parents understand boundaries; understand when no means no; and are both highly motivated and have high self-esteem.    

Life skills for children

I am very passionate that children develop key life skills.  As parents the relationships we have can ensure these skills are taught. Indeed, I am so passionate about these skills for future emotional health and wellbeing that I think the life skills need to be embedded into our primary and secondary systems. The life skills are: 

● decision-making and problem-solving

● creative thinking and critical thinking

● coping with emotions and coping with stress

● self-awareness and empathy

● communication and interpersonal skills

A loving relationship gifts your children these life skills and helps your children and teenagers make informed decisions, solve problems, think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, build healthy relationships, empathise with others, and cope with and manage their lives in a healthy and productive manner.

5 Your Work


The eight-hour day in work is a myth. Many of us spend a lot more time in work, be it at home or in an office. When things are going great in work, then life is good. Now throw a boss in who is a jerk, then the relationship and your quality of life is impaired. I was called a number of years ago by an insightful team leader regarding a workplace team where there was an old-style misogynist boss impacting on the mood of the department. I did some work on workplace professionalism and boundaries under the guise of ‘creating a positive work place’.

Key areas that emerged were that of respect, trust, communication, and healthy boundaries. All the team walked away with a baseline that they could call out any inappropriate behaviour on and, more importantly, a roadmap to a happier more productive workplace.

When relationships go wrong in work

A number of behaviours that will impact on your relationships at work, be it from you or others, include: gossiping, being work-shy, isolating yourself, being negative, always taking things personally, resisting change, and being disorganised.

Fundamentally these actions will impact on the factors that support positive work relationships; trust which is a powerful bond that helps you work and communicate more effectively; mutual respect where everyone’s ideas are valued; taking responsibility for your words and actions; and being open and having open communication.

When work becomes toxic

Now we are in the red flag area of workplace bullying, which is toxic and harmful to the individual, and to

the organisation. Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. All of which kills any relationship in work. Here you will languish if you do not intervene. Your confidence and happiness will erode and if you stay in this situation without change for a long time, I have no doubt that you will develop physical signs of stress like headaches, backaches and sleep problems.

Your challenge is to tackle this early by making sure you’re informed of bullying policy and complaints procedures. Keep a diary — documenting everything that happens, including what you’ve done to try stopping it. Get support from someone you trust — HR, or external legal advice. 

Assertive communications 

Central to positive relationships at work includes assertiveness. How many times have you said, “It doesn’t matter”, when it does? How many times have you said “I’m fine”, when there is really so much you wanted to say? We don’t want to offend, so we end up not being completely honest.

Being assertive means honestly communicating your thoughts, feelings and needs to others in appropriate ways and acknowledges both the way you say something as well as when you say it. It does not mean being aggressive: that is what happens when a problem situation has been allowed to persist and build up.

Assertive communication can also help you handle difficult work relationships more easily, reducing drama and stress. Remember assertiveness is a skill that anyone can learn. The secret is it takes lots of practice.

Practical toolkit: top assertive phrases

All you need is a few all-purpose assertive phrases.  Memorise these, practise them, and say them gently but firmly when you get stuck or tongue-tied:

● “I’m just not comfortable with that.”

● “I’ll think about it.”

● “No thank you.”  

● “I could use some help.”

● “I don’t appreciate it when you _____.  Please stop now.”

● “I don’t like___.  I’d prefer ____.”

Expect not to get it right and falter from time to time. Keep trying. Remembering what a difficult skill assertiveness is can help you persist. Should you always be assertive? Not at all. Sometimes life calls for protective aggressiveness or wise non-assertiveness. But if you want relationships that are more open, honest, and kind, aim for the assertiveness zone as much as possible.

NEXT WEEK: Why resilience is the new mindfulness

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