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. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

There's a hole in my sidewalk (by Portia Nelson)

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit ... but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

Tiger Stripes.

“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time."
~Maya Angelou

This is a hard one for many of us. It is certainly difficult for me, mostly because I genuinely want to believe the best in everyone. I think people are mostly good. I will play devil's advocate on nearly anyone's behalf, and I'll rationalize all kinds of behavior in the interest of the 'benefit of the doubt'. Conversely, I know people who immediately assume the worst about others, who consistently leap to the negative conclusion, who take no time to consider alternate explanations for the behavior they dislike. 

Neither is ideal. It's not ideal to allow someone to be disrespectful or rude and explain it away or let them off the hook over and over again. Neither is it ideal to vilify every action or inaction that displeases us. What is the best approach to interpersonal relationships is to make every effort to see others as they are. That sounds simple, but it is actually hard to do if we are being honest with ourselves. Have you heard the Anais Nin quote, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are"? I think that is quite accurate, as much as I hate to admit it. As human beings, we are constantly filtering our perception of other people through our entire lifetime of experiences and biases and insecurities. We bring ourselves to every interaction, which despite our best efforts, makes it difficult to simply see the other person objectively. We unconsciously project all kinds of things onto others that have nothing to do with them. It's neither good nor bad, it's just how people tend to be, and requires effort to interrupt. Becoming aware of these projections and making an effort to tether ourselves to the current reality is a challenge worth undertaking. 

So the point is: when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Give the benefit of the doubt when appropriate, because there are any number of legitimate reasons why good people might act poorly or the converse. And it is entirely reasonable to hope that in time, relationships will grow and people will live into their "potential". Ultimately, however, people can only be who they are. Obviously, since I'm a counselor, I truly believe, in my bones, that people can make some pretty radical changes in how they interact with the world and the people in their lives. But while we can change our behaviors or gain insight via therapy or meditation or self-help books, I do think that the fundamental core of who we are is relatively fixed. Here's another nugget for you: "A tiger cannot change its stripes." 

It would behoove all of us to stop expecting a person to change when we have already seen their stripes over and over again. Either accept them as they are, or don't, but believe that what they are showing you right now is who they are likely to continue to be. No matter how much you care about, like, or even love someone and want things to work out, be realistic. Do your best not to invent them. Let them wear their stripes in front of you. See each person clearly and accurately based on what they demonstrate with their actions, words, behaviors. Of course, everyone is complex and there are layers to each of us. I'm not saying leap to a conclusion when you first meet a person. What I am saying is: if you get a bad vibe from a person, it's probably for a reason. If they demonstrate a lack of integrity right off the bat, you can't be surprised later on when they continue to not act with integrity. If someone lies to you, or cheats on you, or treats you poorly, trust that. Forgive if you can, but understand that sometimes that person is merely being who they are. She is showing her stripes. You can go ahead and insist on waiting it out- as I have been known to do- and saying, "Oh, but s/he is really a good person…" or "He will change if I love him enough." But understand that you are (i am) equally responsible for how it turns out if the person has been consistently showing you their negative aspects and you continue to ignore all that and hope for the best. Perhaps he or she is a good person. I believe most people are decent at their core. But if he has shown himself to be unable to act like one, then continuing to ignore the clear indications he is giving you is to remain willfully ignorant of who this person is right now. 

We do this at work, in friendships, and even in our own families. We fail to see people accurately for any number of reasons. Usually the reasons are lofty. We want to preserve the relationship, or maintain a positive view of a person we respect, love, or admire. And we are particularly inclined to do this in Romantic Relationships. How often do we meet someone and are drawn to them for some reason or another, and despite all indications that it's not a good idea, despite clearly seeing their stripes, go ahead and pursue a relationship with them? I am certainly guilty of this. I have been known to ignore some glaring red flags, so please trust that I'm not throwing any stones from this glass house I'm living in. I'm working on this too and per usual, I'm just sharing what I learn as I go. I learn from my clients and the other people in my life every day. 

I'll wrap up by saying: at the end of the day, we are all of us doing the best we can. Connecting with other humans is what we are here to do, and I for one am grateful for any tools I can use to enhance the authenticity of those connections. I think if we can begin to take Ms. Angelou's advice, and begin to really see people as they are, rather than as we are, or how we want them to be, we might find ourselves in deeper, richer, more satisfying unions with one another. Fitter. Happier.