Why Stepping Back Could Be The ONLY Thing That Moves Your Relationship Forward

Recently, a former coaching client of mine from, oh, maybe seven years ago was reminiscing about our work together. She said, “Your advice that I needed to step back in my relationship with my daughter – in order to make room for her to step forward – this completely changed my life. It completely changed our relationship. When I stepped back a little bit, she totally stepped up”.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea: what I recommended to this client was not that she turn her back on her daughter or cut off contact. Nor did I encourage her to deliver an ultimatum, make a long-winded speech about why she was going to step back, or stop speaking to her child.

However, there are times when the ONE thing that can move your relationship forward is stepping back with love. This is absolutely, positively NOT the same as turning your back on someone, throwing up your hands in a dramatic gesture, or trying to manipulate someone into doing what you want by threatening to dissolve your relationship. No.

The problem in a situation like this is two-fold:

1) A daughter is struggling

2) The relationship between mother and daughter is STUCK in a push-pull dynamic they can’t seem to get out of – one that is characterized by a loving, worried mom trying to help her daughter who resists, rejects or runs away from suggestions for change.

To be clear, everyone in this dynamic was in a lot of pain. The daughter was in distress because of the challenges she was experiencing. But mom, too, was in tremendous pain because she was watching her daughter struggle while unsuccessfully attempting to alleviate her daughter’s suffering.

What I suggested to my client was this: she would continue to spend time with her daughter whenever she could. But, while they were together, I invited my client to quietly shift this key dynamic: avoid offering advice, suggestions, or other thoughts about what her daughter could do to create more stability in her life.

If asked, mom could offer insight, wisdom, or knowledge – but only then. Otherwise, mom’s task was to listen, to witness, and to just be there, loving her kid like crazy. I suggested that by stepping back from offering helpful advice – advice her daughter didn’t or couldn’t (yet) welcome – she might open up some space between them.

This space might allow something new to enter their relationship. In particular, this new space could create an opportunity for her daughter to step forward and step up. Here’s the thing: my client knew her advice was really on point. She’s as loving and wise a mom as any of us could wish for. And she knew deeply that her daughter could experience her life in a completely new way if she made some different decisions.

But whether it’s your relationship with your child, partner, or best friend…there are times when stepping back with love is the only thing that can get you unstuck – beyond a cycle of push-and-pull that’s giving you both whiplash.

If any of this sounds at all familiar, I want to ask you this:

Are you trying to fix, rescue, or save another person?
Are you trying to carry the other person (or your relationship) on your back toward a finish line only you can see?
Do you feel like you continually reach out – only to have the other person pull further away (and as a result, you’re walking on eggshells trying to avoid conflict)?

No question, this is a tough place to be. However, sometimes, our loved ones become so unconscious to their own knee-jerk rejection of our reaching out to them…that our attempts to offer really thoughtful, loving support can actually push them further away.

If you continue in this way, you run the risk that the other person may become entirely alienated from you – and from the support you genuinely wish to offer them. So, how do you know it’s time to step back with love?

When you experience the subtle, uncomfortable feeling that your advice is being actively disregarded, dismissed, or declined…NOTICE your urge to lobby harder for your point of view – and quietly, gently step back from it.

Other tell tale signs that it might be time to step back with love include:

Your spouse, partner, or child is often impatient, abrupt, or has a short fuse whenever you switch into here’s-what-I-think-you-should-do mode.
They look away from you pointedly when you’re offering advice.
They turn the tables on you, pointing out mistakes you’ve made in a reactive counter-attack to what they perceive as criticism from you.

And this is the golden key to stepping back with love: it’s not the other person you’re stepping back from. You remain available to share support, connection, and insight if it is asked for clearly and directly – e.g. “Mom, what do you think I should do?”.

However, when you step back with love, you gently distance yourself from your own conviction that you know what the other person needs, what would serve them, what they should do…even better than they do. THIS is what you’re stepping back from – and here’s why: when someone is struggling with their shame demons, their mistakes, or their pain, they are very susceptible to feeling criticized, blamed, or even attacked.

In a situation like this, you can sometimes serve them best by being a soft place for them to land: a place where they know they’ll feel heard and seen, a place where they are understood and held in a loving gaze that silently mirrors to them their innate goodness – and your belief that they will come to know this in themselves again when the storms have passed.

Lest you worry you’re abandoning the other person, remember: it’s your love that permeates the space you’ve created for the other person to step forward into.
If and when they do step forward, it’s your love that will meet them there, in the space you’ve created by stepping back with love.

Because you may be right about what they need – but you may as well be wrong if they’re pushing back against your help. The result is the same. They stay in the difficult, painful place you desperately want to see them leave far, far behind. And as painful as it is to watch, a person you love may need to struggle, to flail, even to hit bottom. Sometimes it’s when we hit bottom…that we finally find our feet after months or years of free fall. If you find yourself in a situation like this one – but you’re not sure if it’s time to step back with love – I’d like to help.


If you’re curious about how Total Relationship Coaching can transform your relationships – whether you’re single, content in your relationship, or struggling through a rough patch – I’m offering you a chance to get me one-on-one for a complimentary, 45-minute Relationship Reboot Strategy Session.

Saddle up your biggest relationship wish – and let’s get you on track. Send me an email at erin@erinbentley.com right now and we’ll schedule your session in a hot minute!

Note: I only offer two of these Relationship Reboot Strategy Sessions per week and exclusively to professionals who are serious about creating loving, lasting, healthy relationships. If that is you, shoot me an email right now so we can get you scheduled in. Talk to you soon!

Naming the Un-nameable: How Fear of the Unfamiliar Keeps Us Stuck

One of the things I love most about my clients is their commitment to getting under the surface of whatever is troubling them about their lives.

Whatever it is that they’re coming to me with, it’s not unusual that – by the time they find their way to my door – the relationship, job, problem, worry, crisis, trauma, or heartache has become so unbearably heavy…that it far outweighs any fear of what might happen if they take the risk to look under the hood (so to speak).

But sometimes…sometimes it’s not so specific. Sometimes, my clients come in with a general unhappiness, depression, or anxiety about their lives – but they don’t know why they’re feeling this way. When there is something bothering you that can’t name, this can be incredibly frustrating – or even terrifying.

You look at your life and think, “I should be happy. I should be grateful. Am I crazy? What’s the matter with me?”

I would like to propose that we have organized our lives in ways that can make it incredibly difficult to name the cause of the very real unhappiness that sometimes lives inside us.

Yet…the very un-nameability of the source of this discontent is a clue that tells us we have to look in some unfamiliar places for insight.

The dilemma, however, is this: when our unhappiness is rooted somewhere in our lives, somewhere in our everyday, how do we step out of our everyday thinking to find solutions?

In other words, if we’re doing the stuff that we’re supposed to do, and still find ourselves unhappy in our lives…where then do we look for answers?

We don’t.

Uh-huh. You heard me right.

I’m saying that maybe we should stop searching for answers, and start asking different questions.

Let’s face it: searching for answers can be like chasing our tails around and around. And we all know where that gets us: frustrated and dizzy!

Oftentimes, searching for the answer is far less important than reconsidering the kinds of questions we’re asking ourselves. At first, this can be more challenging than it sounds – because the questions we ask have to come from somewhere. They come from inside our life situation.

In other words, the questions we ask ourselves are structured in particular ways by our perspectives – which, in turn, are absorbed from the people we spend time with, the media we consume, our professional and educational socialization, etc.

It’s all fine and good to say, “think outside the box!”. But how do we do that?

One of my favorite philosophers, Michel Foucault, points out that asking new questions requires creating new ‘conditions of possibility’ for inquiry.

I would add that this requires expansion – it requires exposing ourselves to different things, different ideas, different people, different art, different media, different…differences. And I’m not talking about being a tourist, here.

We can’t all eat, pray, and love our way to figuring out what’s troubling us.

No. I’m suggesting something altogether different.

In my work as a sociologist, I have often been struck by the sheer volume of labor that most people perform in order to avoid people, ideas, and things that are outside their everyday experience. Most of us don’t even realize how many choices we make every day to shut down any possibility of encountering circumstances that are unfamiliar.

In other words, people typically dislike – and therefore work hard to avoid – discomfort. This is because not knowing what to say, what to do, or how to react means we have to actually think – hard – moment to moment. It means we have to be present and available to observe, consider, and respond to the situation in front of us.

How much easier is it to avoid the unfamiliar, and continue to just follow the social scripts that have been spoon-fed to us our whole lives?

No decision making necessary. No creative thinking demanded. No thoughtfulness, no spontaneity,  and no vulnerability required.

For many people, this works just fine – until it doesn’t. And it is then that we find there is an un-nameable something troubling us. Keeping us awake. Distracting us at work. Making us unaccountably stressed, anxious, or irritated when there seems to be no reason for it.

Think about it: When was last time you departed from your daily routine…and bought your coffee in a different coffee shop? Or got off the bus in a different neighborhood than the one you live in, just to explore? Heck, many of us will even resist the notion of trying a new restaurant – unless we can buffer the newness of the experience by taking people with us that we already know.

When was the last time you deliberately struck up an original conversation…with a stranger?

Would you even know how to begin?

If the thought of this makes you uncomfortable, that’s okay. I want to encourage you to stay with that discomfort. Sit with it. Look at it. Without judging, without analyzing, just observe it.

Now I’m going let you in on a secret. Are you ready?

Discomfort can be powerfully transformative.

This is because, when we embrace discomfort, we have to switch off our auto-pilot and become attentive to whatever a particular moment, person, or circumstance is offering us.

This is scary.

Stepping outside the box requires that we become friendly with the unfamiliar.

But here’s the pay-off: it can also make us feel more intensely alive than we have felt in a very long time. And that sense of aliveness…is gold!

And then?

Well, now. Then we make a space for newness to enter our human experience – new feelings, new thoughts, new sensations, and yes, new questions arise within us in response to what is in front of us.

In other words, what can be called forth from us changes…depending on the experiences we create for ourselves. If we are locked into routine, the familiar, and the rigorous avoidance of discomfort, then we are closing off the possibility of expansion.


We can move out of our comfort zones – thoughtfully, not vicariously (this should not literally require a parachute!)

As new experiences inspire us to feel, think, and sense differently, something miraculous occurs:  by experiencing contrast, by observing our reactions to new experiences, we can we gradually learn to trace the contours of what was previously invisible to our conscious minds.

This includes the source of the discontent that may have inspired us to face down our fear of the unfamiliar. But it is not limited to that. Oh, no. Not by a long shot.

What we can create by stepping out of our comfort zones can be as limitless as the human soul; can reach further still than our childish imaginations once reached; can explore every meaning of the word ‘possibility‘.




Why Forgiveness Makes Us Shiny…

xA few years back when “The Secret” was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, I heard something that made me begin to reconsider what I’ve since come to call “unforgiveness”.

Lisa Nichols was one of the featured speakers for that episode, and she shared her definition of forgivness. She said, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different”.

I nearly went bananas when I heard her say this because it resonated with me so deeply. There are many things I love about this way of describing forgiveness. For example, it doesn’t let us off the hook for what we do when we get it wrong; it doesn’t sound like an obligation; it’s not presented as something we should do in order to purchase God’s approval.

What it does do, however, is position forgiveness as something we can do for ourselves. It’s a letting go. And yes, it puts the responsibility for importing the past into the present squarely on us.

It does all of this while preserving space for meaningful accountability – something I value a great deal (more about that another time!).

In other words, the definition Lisa Nichols offered was one that I found empowering. It’s not about being a doormat or a martyr. It’s not about being a saint. It’s about freeing ourselves from the burden of old stories / pain / emotional baggage, etc. so that we can make a space inside us where joy can live. Or kindness. Or tenderness. Or creativity. Or whatever good stuff you want more of in your life.

Do you ever replay negative scenarios in your head?

You know, that argument you had way back when? Or that thing that happened to you in high school that still makes you cringe when you think about it? Or that road-raging-twit whose hand was stuck to his / her horn in traffic today?

Yup. Me, too.

I used to do this whenever I was in the shower. Go figure, right? Seriously, I would replay what I call “mental movies” of all the shitty things that other people had done or said to me in my life. And given that I felt like an outsider for the first 30 or so years of my life, I had a lot of mental movies to provide variety.

Except, in the shower, I always re-wrote the script. I said that witty thing that put that other person in their place. Or I used all my powers of persuasion to change their mind about what they were doing, making them see the error of their ways. Or, if I was remembering getting bullied as a child, I would imagine busting out a ninja move that would make them sorry for every bit of torment they ever tried to visit on me.

Oh, yeah. I pitied the fools.

Even when I started to notice that I was doing this “mental movies” thing – in the shower or out of it – I couldn’t seem to stop doing it. And it always put me in a crappy mood.

This is because rehearsing painful events in our minds activates the emotions that accompanied these experiences: the grief, loss, humiliation, unworthiness, etc.

Before I saw that episode of Oprah, I had already begun to notice that keeping my resentment, bitterness, victimization, anger, pain, rage, and been-done-wrong feelings alive didn’t serve me.

What it did do was allow my ego the illusion that it can change the past. Seriously, the ego has delusions of grandeur, and this is one of them. Ego says, “If I just rehearse that past event again and again, I can change it!”.

Then the Universe put me in front of the television on the day that Lisa Nichols spoke her truth about forgiveness. Man, if I ever meet her, I am going to give her one big, squishy, grateful hug of thanks. She gave me a key piece of the puzzle on my journey to this realization:

I am not the things that have happened to me.

Once this thought arose in me, I started to ask myself if maybe I needed to forgive the folks who had treated me badly by letting go of my hope that the past could have been different.

And I discovered that I really, really didn’t want to forgive the people in my past who had caused me pain.

I wanted to hold onto my righteous victimhood.

I wanted to keep making them wrong, over and over again, in my mind – as if that could somehow even the score.

I wanted to cling to my moral certainty that the other person or people who had wronged me were less than me.

I wanted to preserve my belief that those other people who had been cruel or mean spirited or abusive didn’t deserve the time of day – let alone my forgiveness.

In effect, I was creating a victim-identity for myself out of my past, painful experiences. This was an identity I could use to position myself as morally superior. This is because, in the stories I was drawing on for the foundations of this victim identity, the other person was always the bad guy.

This meant that, in my mind, I got to be the good one – the one who was deserving of approval, love, respect, recognition, worthiness, and all the things I thought other people could withhold from me.

Over time, I created a forgiveness ritual for myself.

I find some time and space for stillness, close my eyes, and say something like this:

“Thank you, Universe, for helping me to surrender and release any unforgiveness towards myself and (person’s name) for what happened in x y z situation. I surrender and release this to you now, and I thank you for taking it from me”.

As I say this – giving it my fullest attention – I visualize the unforgiveness (read: bitterness, resentment, anger, grudge, etc.) leaving me.

Then, I say,

“And in the space I have made within by releasing this unforgiveness, thank you Universe for helping me to bring in _______”. I then bring in whatever feels appropriate on that day – peace, discernment, compassion, gratitude, grace, understanding, joy, etc. – to fill the space within me that used to be occupied by my unforgiveness about that event / person.

Now, this is my personal forgiveness ritual. Feel free to use it, change it, discard it and / or create your own. But I recommend having one. It sounds simple, but it’s deeply transformative. By practicing this little ritual myself, I’ve let go of a lot of anger, grief, loss, resentment, frustration, anger, shame, guilt, remorse, etc.

Guess what happened along the way?

Because I gradually but persistently put down my unforgiveness…I became more open.

I became more comfortable in my skin.

I became more aware of opportunities to offer kindness day to day.

I became more accountable to myself for the experiences I was creating, and more grateful for what I was learning about myself, my choices, my boundaries, etc.

I became less judgmental and more watchful for opportunities to be compassionate towards others who – like me – sometimes made mistakes, acted badly, or somehow showed up as less than they were for one reason or another.

And, boy, let me tell you…did I ever become less angry.

Most importantly, I became more…me.

Instead of carrying these victim stories, I became more reflective and creative in my self definition (instead of being reactive to what others thought about me).

For example, instead of mentally saying, “I’m not your doormat / emotional scratching post / target!”, I started saying, “Who do I want to be in the world?” – and then choosing that, acting and behaving and relating to others in ways that were more consistent with that.

Without the weight of all those grudges and grievances about being an outsider, a victim, misunderstood, or badly treated weighing me down, I had more room in my mind and heart to say, “what can that experience teach me about myself? About who I am? About who I want to be in relation to that person / circumstance / event?”.

I felt more empowered to make conscious choices, instead of feeling like a victim of my life.

And instead of creating mental movies where I re-lived all the stuff other people had done “to me”, I started using that mental energy to imagine how I wanted my life to feel.

This is very, very joyful. Because, yes, when we put down all that anger, fear, and pain…

We can create a space inside where joy can live and thrive and shine.

So what’s so shiny about shining? Because that’s when our REAL beauty emerges into the world, effortlessly. For real.

Click here to read my last post, “All Experience Is Generous”.

All Experience is Generous. Yep. All of it.

I wanted to begin my adventures in blogging talking about this notion that I’ve shared with clients from all walks of life – folks who’ve been able to honestly and powerfully step out of their ‘victim story’ by integrating this notion: all experience is generous.

I’m suggesting that it’s not only the pleasurable or joyful experiences that have something to offer us.

Oftentimes, the hardest experiences of our lives – the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, the end of a relationship, losing a job – can also be rich with opportunities to transform our lives. Of course, they also can be pain-filled, loaded with grief, or downright devastating. But this does not mean they are not also offering us something.

What would happen if we devoted ourselves to looking for what’s generous about loss, grief, hardship, or heartbreak?

Now, I am not advocating denial. Denying or repressing our feelings is neither healthy nor spiritually productive. Gabor Mate has made the case for this idea that suppressing our emotions is a leading cause of illness and disease. His book, “When the Body Says No” is a very worthwhile read if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

So, no, I’m not recommending that we pretend to be happy when we’re not, or otherwise deny our authentic feelings.

Rather, I’m suggesting that we ask ourselves what our feelings can teach us, and make room for them: holding a space for ourselves to feel powerful emotion allows us to experience both the feeling and the lesson beneath the feeling.

Crucially, we must recognize that when we repress the emotions that we find uncomfortable, we miss the lesson. Moreover, our joy, gratitude, and creative capacities are also muted, because when we repress the ‘bad’ emotions, we turn down the volume on all of them.

Simply put, I am suggesting that we do not need to be resigned to forever and only feeling helpless in the face of our grief, loss, anger, resentment, bitterness, or been-done-wrong feelings.

Rather, we can come to a place when we are authentically able to ask, “What can my anger about the loss of my father teach me?”.

Or, “How – amidst phone calls from creditors and utility companies – can I transform the loss of my job into an opportunity, a new experience, an inspiration to push me to confront my fear or shame about asking for help?

Can this experience inspire me to take a closer look at what it is I want to offer the world?

Can this event be a catalyst to community building, personal growth, or profound transformation in the ways I think about and move through the world?”

Once we’ve really done the work to see everything that an experience has to offer us – the good, the painful, the uncomfortable, all of it – thinking about or remembering that experience shifts profoundly, and takes on a deeply rooted quality of balance.

This allows us to move forward with an authentic recollection of what was challenging or painful about an experience, but also with an abiding gratitude for what it has given us.

Lived in this way, we can allow life’s difficult experiences to change us in the ways that we choose.

In this way, we can come to recognize that we are not diminished. In this way, life’s experiences can be consciously lived in ways that make us greater. This is consciously applying our highest awareness toward chosen processes of progressive transformation. This is freedom lived.