Saturday, May 31, 2014

Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

“I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, 'I love you.' ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” - Maya Angelou

This notion has been a salient theme for me my whole life, and probably for many of you as well. It's no surprise how I ended up a therapist. By nature, I'm inclined to take in those in need. I want to put salve on everybody's emotional wounds, and tend to their brokenness, and I have historically not always been careful about my boundaries when doing so, especially in romantic relationships. I've found myself in some pretty messed up situations here and there as a result of my desire to "fix"people I care about. I think in some ways it makes me a better counselor, since I certainly can't judge anyone else for their well-intended errors in judgment, but that doesn't mean I want to continue this pattern of behavior. I have learned over the years to identify and back away from these sorts of situations and hopefully I can help other people to do the same. 

Professionally, my boundaries are quite clear and easy to maintain. But when I truly care about someone on a personal level, it becomes difficult not to take on their pain and the weight of their emotional burdens. I want to "fix" people I care about, and help them to love themselves and to see in themselves the good that I see. And my hubris is evident in the conviction that I know I can help them. 

The intention behind this is positive, of course. If I am able to help someone, I feel obligated as a human being to do so. Frankly, I think everybody should to some extent feel responsibility for the happiness of their fellow humans. That's not problematic in and of itself. In my case, I am lucky that my career allows for a lot of helping and emotional burden-sharing, so when I am healthy and balanced and seeing clearly, I have this inclination fully met at work. People like me who work in jobs where this need to help isn't met are going to be harder-pressed to find outlets for it. 

It's in the arena of intimate relationships that a desire to "save" or "fix" becomes a real issue, and where I see many other people making this same mistake. It is simply true, as the late Dr. Angelou states so succinctly, that if someone does not love him or herself, he cannot love someone else with any real authenticity. 

So when we enter into a love relationship with someone who is imbalanced or unhealthy or simply does not believe him or herself worthy of love, the end result is we become responsible for their emotional well-being. We as the ostensibly stronger partner become a source of strength and a "need" for the person. In an intimate relationship, this is an inherently imbalanced and unhealthy dynamic insofar as it is a crutch that allows a person to continue walking around without a shirt on, to extend the metaphor. Any "love" this person offers is not sourced from a place of genuine happiness, so to some extent it simply cannot be trusted. When a person who does not love himself says "I love you", it can be translated to something more akin to "I love how you make me feel better about myself" or "I need you to feel whole" or "thank you for loving me, because I do not know how to love myself." 

In my work and personal life, I observe other people doing this all the time. Some of us are just attracted to "projects". You know, those broken souls that really need us to help them. This is highly attractive to those of us who are emotional givers and healers, because in helping them, we find a sense of value and satisfaction. It also allows us, conveniently, the option to focus on their issues and avoid dealing with our own. Sometimes we don't even know that that is happening until we are full-on in a Relationship (or to a lesser degree this can happen in a friendship as well. It just tends to be more evident when a friendship is imbalanced). We may feel like we are the best thing for this person. The notions "I'm the only one who really understands her" or "He needs me" can be extremely compelling. 

What we really do in these scenarios, however, is do ourselves and our partner a disservice. We are selling ourselves short by investing in someone who simply hasn't the capacity to love us back fully because he hasn't learned to love himself yet. And we are enabling the person we care about to use our love as a crutch to prop her up and provide her with a sense of worth. The hard lesson is: it is not my job to make you feel better about yourself. Neither is it yours for me. The only way we can have a healthy relationship is if we meet at the intersection halfway between our own respective self-loves and self-awareness. The only true intimacy will be found when we are both whole and both bringing our full, best, authentic selves. Or, another way to put it: when we both have our own shirts on. 

Here are some other thoughts about this: need and want are vastly different things. I posted a TED talk a couple of weeks ago highlighting how this difference can account for long-term satisfaction in relationships  (relating specifically to erotic desire). Only a person who knows, loves, and accepts himself fully and authentically can feel comfortable in vulnerability and intimacy. A person who wants you in his life because you are good to each other and make one another's lives more satisfying is a person worth investing in. However, if you feel "needed", there is a strong probability that there is some unhealthy or codependent stuff going on in the relationship. Need is a burden, whereas want or desire is a gift. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference, but that's part of the work we need to do in order to position ourselves to have the kind of relationships we deserve. 

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