“If you have a body, you are entitled to the full range of feelings. It comes with the package.”
I’ve had a couple emails over the last week or two asking me to discuss how much we should love and invest our energy and attention into relationships with estranged family members, or just people in general. I like this question, because for all the answer seems self-evident, I think it runs deeper and is more personal than we might think.
Part of the struggle we have with ourselves, our relationships, our lives, our healing and with figuring out how much is enough of virtually anything – is we don’t actually pay attention to our full range of feelings. Feelings are our ultimate feedback, our highly personalized, super sonic, GPS system. If we don’t tune in, we miss essential information and the feedback we need to ask ourselves the next meaningful question, to get to the next meaningful answer, to allow us to take the next meaningful steps. This process of responding
do –> feel —> stop to evaluate –> think --> feel –> think --> choose the next step --> feel
is such an important part of relationships; both those we are estranged from, and those we remain involved in. Yet stopping to check in with ourselves, to feel, to evaluate and to make adjustments to our decisions and behavior can be very foreign. We spend a great deal of time in reaction … someone says or does something, or fails to say and do something and we react. Reaction is not a place from which to make skillful decisions, or decide how much we will love or not love. Yet we react all the time and then are surprised at the results we create for ourselves.
I have noticed in the course of my work that many people seem to regularly refuse to turn on their GPS, and as a result find themselves in precarious positions. For instance, we decide we are going to invest everything we have into salvaging or restoring a relationship. We’re doing all the “right” things; staying open, owning our responsibility for hurts caused or mistakes made, engaging from a place of caring and love, giving nurturing, letting go of the past, making room for good things to happen …. then discovering some time down the road, we are resentful, hurt, frustrated and angry all over again, because we aren’t getting the same things in return.
Surprise! We are doing all the work of the relationship.
If we are moving through reaction, it can sometimes take a very long time to realize that the only thing that is really keeping a relationship up, is us. We might not see it until we take a few steps back and stop doing all that work on our own. Then we can be still and mindfully tune into what is happening.
It is pointless to blame another person for not being or doing what we want. They are who they are and they will do what they will do.
We need to tune in and realistically appraise how who they are and what they do fits for us. We need to allow our relationships to find their own level. We may want a close, loving, growing relationship – but we cannot create it on our own and it is not good for us to persist in trying. This doesn’t mean that we don’t love, or care – it means we allow relationships to unfold in an equitable, respectful way.
We have notions of family being the seat of unconditional love and regard. We also have ideals about expectations – that we should not have expectations of people we love (especially family members), that we should just love and accept people, as they are. There is of course, nothing at all wrong with unconditional love and regard however, they are not a license for others to treat us poorly. We can love and care unconditionally and at the same time, we do not have to be doormats and victims to the inability or unwillingness of others to love us back.
When loving full throttle causes us pain, we need to tune into those feelings and ease back!
It is also okay to have some expectations about how you wish to be treated – these expectations inform our boundaries and our ability to be responsible for ourselves. Of course it is important that our expectations are reasonable and you will figure out what is and is not reasonable. You can think. You can trust yourself. You know what you need. Just because we have expectations, doesn’t mean other people will be willing or able to meet them. That’s okay too … it’s all part of that feedback loop.
“I didn’t see my brother for about 11 months and I got to a point where I thought it was getting dumb. So I sent him an email and I told him I missed him and I was sorry for my part of the things that happened. He didn’t get back to me, so I started doing some things I read about in a book. Just little things like sending him birthday and Christmas cards, or short emails about what was going on with my life. He never responded. I kept on doing it like the book said. Loving him even harder. Making sure all my messages said how much I loved him and missed him. I still didn’t hear from him. After almost two years of this my sister told me that he wasn’t interested in anything I had sent and he wasn’t interested in me. My heart was broken in half.”
Love and caring are not all or nothing undertakings. We can take small steps, and then assess and reassess. We ask ourselves open questions like; "does this relationship bring me closer to health and happiness?" We can be still and wait with question until we feel closer to ananswer. Maybe in the above situation, one or two messages could have been sent inviting connection and letting the brother know there was openness to engage. Maybe after doing that, stepping back, giving the situation time and space, practicing self-care, working on personal healing may have been a more self-caring way to go. We could think about it.
We can love and care for others and take care of ourselves.
It's worthwhile to think about the way that we give of ourselves, our caring, attention, love and realistically assess whether our giving strengthens and empowers us, or leaves us resentful, helpless victims. Many of us will have to learn to step back, breathe and take a break. Many of us don't know how to leave the relationship alone and give it time and space to find its level.
Tune in. Trust your feelings, then decide how much love is enough love.