We can’t be everything to everyone. It’s impossible.
Trying to please every single person in your life will stretch you to the point of utter exhaustion. It’ll also leave you grossly unfulfilled: someone who tries to meet the needs of everyone else will have nothing left over to have their own needs met. So, it’s not only impractical, it’s also depleting. It can’t be done.
If we can’t be everything, how can we try to be something to the people in our lives? How can we successfully be one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is their life?
We can’t meet all of their needs, and nor should we ever take on that responsibility, but surely we must be able to do something to ensure we’re playing some part in making our significant others happy? After all, if we’re not doing anything to add value to those people’s lives, what’s the point of being in them?
There’s no hard and fast formula to achieving this, but I do believe that one of the ways this can happen is if we see the relationship for what it truly is.
And part of that is accepting that just as you can’t be everything to everyone else, nor can they be everything to you.
All of our relationships have boundary lines—whether it’s with family members, our work colleagues, our friends, or partners. Although we would all probably prefer it if we could reveal all of ourselves in each relationship, the truth is we can’t. Some people will only get certain parts of you, just as you will only get specific parts of them.
Sometimes people will only be one piece of the jigsaw, and not the whole picture.
This doesn’t make the relationship worthless; it just means it’s limited.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
When I was at university, I had a friend I’m going to call “K.” If I wanted to go out, have a drink, and have fun, they’d be the first person I’d think of. To be honest, despite not having seen each other for over a decade, he’d still be one of the first people my mind would turn to when I think about enjoyment—because I doubt if I’ve ever enjoyed myself more in the company of others than I did in the time I spent with K.
The day before our graduation, when we revisited our old haunts, remains one of the best of my life. Yes, there was a lot of booze. However, there was also laughter. Lots of it.
The problem was that K and I didn’t really talk about anything you could term “serious.” We discussed football, or our course, or London, a city we both had strong emotional links to. More often than not, we just got drunk, got a bit daft, and swapped silly stories. I’d later see that all this wasn’t actually a problem at all, but simply the parameters of our relationship. However, that realization was still years in the future.
After university, K and I drifted apart. For a short while, we both found ourselves back in London, but, after the relationship I was in fell apart within a year of graduating university, I moved back to my home town. I then worked abroad (on a cruise ship). Then my father got ill, and then passed away. I then met someone new, and relocated to the other end of the country.
I often thought about K, but not only did I believe that too much time had passed (hint: it hadn’t and never has; it’s never too late to contact an old friend), I also felt that our friendship wasn’t “right” for this period of my life. The next decade involved marriage, becoming a father, divorce, and a long slide toward mental disintegration—K and I had rarely, if ever, talked about anything serious; how could we ever have broached any of that?
The truth is that we didn’t need to. That wasn’t who we ever were. And never needed to be.
However, because I felt I couldn’t be completely me and discuss some fairly heavy issues, K slowly left my life. Which is ridiculously stupid. In my desire to have a multi-purpose friend, who could suit every occasion and every need, I lost someone who—in their own way—added immeasurable value to my life.
Just because that relationship was limited, it didn’t make it worthless. Far from it; even now, I know my life would be richer if K and I were still close. So what if we never talked about depression or divorce? Those days of laughter would more than compensate.
If I couldn’t talk about that stuff with K, then I had to find others with whom I could. It wasn’t on him to be everything to me—we were good friends who simply didn’t share everything. And there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was a good friendship, and it worked the way it was.
I’d simply talk about the more serious stuff with other people.
Just as your work colleagues don’t get the whole, unfiltered, unvarnished you, your friends and family don’t have to either. Again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
There’s a direct parallel between K and my family.
For someone who’s not stupid, I can also be incredibly slow on the uptake, and not see the warning signs clearly visible ahead. In hindsight, it was obvious that my mental health was a taboo subject. Why? I’m not sure. But, the truth is, I wasn’t sensitive enough about it—I kept pushing on that door, trying to have conversations no one else really wanted to have.
Does that make them uncaring? No. Much as with K, it simply means those relationships were limited. Just because someone is family, it does not automatically mean they get every part of you. The label of “parent” or “sibling” does not instantly bestow intimacy on any of you, nor make you (or them) someone’s first choice confidant. The relationship you actually have does that.
And, if you’re not as close as you want to be? If you can’t talk about those things that are really troubling you? Well, that’s sad, and I feel for you. But, it doesn’t mean those people are nothing to you: they’re simply just not everything.
This isn’t about hiding parts of you, or being inauthentic; it’s simply about seeing things for how they are. If I had done that, then there’s lots I could have done to improve those relationships. An improvement that might have led to us being able to discuss the heavier things later down the line.
For example, a few years ago, I found myself with a free weekend. My daughters were going to visit their mother’s parents, and I had no work penciled in. What I did with that weekend shows clearly that I wasn’t seeing things for what they were.
Instead of jumping on a train and heading back to my hometown, I spent a small fortune trying to win back a former partner, and paid for us to go away for the weekend. I had actively chosen to invest my time in someone who hadn’t been there for me, at the expense of people who had. Although things later deteriorated, even with my most partisan head on, I can’t deny that my family had been there for me a lot over the last five years.
And that’s who I should have focused on. I should’ve have given them a little of bit of the Christopher they needed. I should’ve gone home and spent some time with my mother. Just me and her. I should have taken my sister out for a drink, and spent some quality time with a sibling with whom I’ve drifted. Whilst there, I should have visited grandparents, uncles, and cousins.
So what if we’d never discussed what I was truly feeling? That simply wasn’t what those relationships were. They were individual pieces in the jigsaw that was my life; not the whole set.
Like with K, none of those relationships necessitated the need to share the most intimate details of my life; to be honest, I have friends back in Liverpool I do that with. Things were okay as they were. They didn’t get all of me; I didn’t get all of them; that was a parameter of those relationships. If I had accepted that sooner, maybe (just maybe) I could have done more to improve the relationship we did have, instead of being preoccupied with the one we simply didn’t.
I never saw things for how they really were. I wanted much, much more, and didn’t do enough to find that elsewhere. I wanted them to be far larger segments of the jigsaw, instead of accepting that they were one piece each. And I didn’t see that that was enough.
The irony is that, had I done that, it might have taken some of the strain off those relationships. In many ways, they buckled under the weight of expectation, crippled by an unrealistic want for them to be things they never were.
We can’t be everything to everyone. Nor can they be that to us. We’re not always the whole jigsaw, but sometimes just individual pieces. But being something, that one piece, is always enough.
For, although we might not discuss anything of profound significance, given the chance, even if we never once mentioned mental health, I’d do anything to sit in a bar and talk nonsense with some of those people.
That something is, as I’ve found, priceless in its own way.
And to be that, you’ve got to see a relationship for what it is. Understand its parameters. Understand just how much of the jigsaw those relationships cover.
Most of all, you’ve got to accept that whilst being everything can be pretty amazing, being something feels just as good.
After all, every single piece of the jigsaw matters.