The Three Pillars of Redefining Love are Boundaries, Accountability, and Grace. The premise is that we must have all three pillars in balance, both inwardly and outwardly, in order to redefine love. There is no starting point. You get to just start where you’re at, in any given circumstance. Here is a handy graphic to help you visualize this…
I’ve observed through coaching and client work that people tend to grasp boundaries and grace pretty quickly. We understand that we have to set limits around our time, energy, and physical environment in order to determine what space we take up in the world (which is boundaries). And we understand that we need to accept where we and others are at in their personal journey through life (which is grace).
Ugh. It feels a little uncomfortable to even say the word. But why, exactly? Do we associate it with conflict? With judgement? With shame? With hard truths and awkward conversations? In short, yes to all of these questions. So I’d like to remove some of that discomfort, one issue at a time:
Confession… I used to be terrified of conflict, but now, I actually kind of like it! On its face, it seems like anyone who likes conflict must be a masochist. But hear me out on this. I view conflict as an opportunity to resolve issues that have been festering. From my perspective, the sooner we get down to the nitty gritty of an issue, the smaller the conflict is necessary to clear the air.
Conflict is a natural part of the human experience. It is inherent in the whole free will and individuality thing. We are all different, which means we will never all agree. Therefore, acceptance of the reality of conflict is an acceptance of reality in general.
It isn’t realistic to assume that we are always going to get along. Unfortunately, some of the circumstances that are the most ripe for conflict are the ones in which we place the most expectations for all the warm fuzzies.
Take the holidays, for example. We expect to things to be just right – love, laughter, great food, great connection with people we love. If ever there was a time for all things to be peaceful, it is in these moments, right? And yet…
We are gathering with people with whom we share the most baggage, whom we probably don’t see all that often, who are bringing all sorts of different worldviews, often over religious holidays that are highly personal and deeply meaningful.
Add to that the mountain of food that must be prepared, gifts to purchase and wrap, decorations to put out, and the incredible expense of it all, and… C’mom, folks – this is a recipe for disaster! The chances of nobody feeling resentful for having to cook, decorate, clean, and/or shop more than everyone else are miniscule.
The chances of nobody being insulted or wondering about what sort of passive aggressive message is being sent by a particular gift purchased, or who gets the first (or last) piece of white (or dark) meat… The opportunities for conflict are endless!
My husband and I are now able to laugh that one of the biggest fights we ever had was over him eating all the Santa cookies. I mean, it was a big fight! If your family isn’t doing at least a little sparring over the holidays, you deserve a gold star and should be teaching seminars on healthy family dynamics.
It’s just not realistic to assume that a conflict-free existence is possible! And this applies to anything. When somebody gets a promotion at work, there’s somebody else who didn’t. A big snowstorm hits the city; who gets their street plowed first? And last? It’s got to be somebody!
No matter where you turn, conflict is a part of life. Rather than fight against it, we should be learning how to do conflict better. But how, exactly, do we do that?
That’s where grace and boundaries come in. The better grasp we have of our boundaries and the space we take up in the world, the less we allow others to overstep, or to overstep someone else. When we understand that we are all doing the best we can at life with the limited tools we’ve got at our disposal, the easier it is to have hard conversations with empathy and grace.
When we change the way we view conflict – as an opportunity to grow rather than a fight to win – accountability doesn’t feel so scary.
I’ve long said that judgement is the great equalizer. It is the one sin we all commit every single day. Whether we are grumbling about the other drivers on the road, or arguing with strangers on social media, we all do a little (or a lot) of judging every day.
How many of you don’t like the word “sin?” I used that word on purpose. So many people have a lot of big feelings about that word. Without even realizing it, when you read that sentence, almost all of us made a judgement:
“How great that Sara is calling out our sinful nature!”
“And here I thought Sara wasn’t a party to that religious nonsense!”
See how easy it is to slip into judgement mode without even realizing it? Like conflict, judgement is another one of those inevitable life things that we need to accept. But unlike conflict, it’s not unavoidable. It comes down to the idea that we can’t control other people, but we can control ourselves.
Conflict is inevitable because we are all different. And unless we all live in our own private vacuum, we’re going to run into conflicting worldviews and approaches to life.
Judgement, on the other hand, is well within our control. The more we can master the meanderings of our thoughts and feelings, the more at peace we become. And, the more we become masters of our own thoughts, the easier it is to hold ourselves and others accountable.
Think about it… If we acknowledge that we are in control of our own thoughts, it becomes very difficult to ignore when our thoughts lead us astray. I’m at the point now where I’ll fix my thoughts (and thus also my actions) about a million times per day. It isn’t that the opportunities to pass judgement are any less. It’s just that I’m accountable to my own thoughts and feelings when the opportunity to judge arises.
And, when we acknowledge that others are in control of their own thoughts, it becomes easier to recognize where their actions are harming others (including, perhaps, ourselves). Of course, once again, you can’t truly hold others accountable without boundaries and grace. How can you hold someone else accountable if you haven’t identified the space you take up in the world? If you haven’t identified your boundaries?
Said another way, judgement becomes accountability when combined with boundaries and grace. And accountability is a powerful tool of discernment that can be used to determine whom to include in our close circle, and whom to love from a safe distance. Defined in this way, judgement becomes a lot less uncomfortable for all involved.
Perhaps the hardest part of accountability is that it requires us to look directly into the heart of shame, either our own or someone else’s. And that’s a hard thing to do, for all of us. What makes it easier for me when I’m struggling with shame, whether it be my own or another’s, is to remember that we all carry shame within us. It’s part of the human condition.
And so, rather than see it as something to be hidden, I instead view shame as something to be shared, so that it doesn’t feel so heavy. In fact, in my experience, once shame is acknowledged and named, it is released. This may not make shame any less painful, but it does make the pain more bearable.
I liken it to the difference between childbirth and other sorts of profoundly painful physical experiences (of which I’ve unfortunately had more than my fair share). I can personally testify that having a baby – though just as painful as other medical emergencies – is an entirely different experience.
The difference lies in the outcome. When the pain of labor starts, there is the anticipation of finally meeting this new human being that’s about to enter the world. This makes it distinct from my other trips to the ER. Yes, there is some fear when going into labor, particularly for the first time. But there is also the joy of anticipation.
If we can reframe our perspective towards shame to one in which we face it with not only fear, but also joyful anticipation of the release of the burdened created by the shame, it becomes easier to face. It still hurts, but you know that the payoff at the end makes it worth the trouble.
Hard truths and awkward conversations
Let’s face it. Holding ourselves and others accountable requires brutal honesty, and is usually accompanied by a challenging discussion that both parties would rather not have. Most of us tend to stumble through these difficult conversations, finding ourselves unable to find the right words to properly communicate our point.
And again, as always, I come back to boundaries and grace. Mostly grace, in this case. If the relationship is one worth saving, the other person will give you grace through the struggle. If they do not, then this may be the biggest indicator yet that this person is better loved from a distance that is emotionally (and in some instances physically) safe for you (which requires boundaries).
Holding grace in your own heart helps you to love yourself and the other person through the awkwardness. In the best case, perhaps you can laugh a little at how deeply uncomfortable the topic is for you both. Grace helps to clear our thoughts, because we aren’t so worried about delivering the necessary information perfectly.
There is no space for or expectation of perfection in the boundaries, accountability, and grace paradigm. Accountability doesn’t require a perfect delivery. It only requires that you confront the truth with gentle courage.
We make it harder than it needs to be.
It’s been said that 99 percent of the things we worry about will never happen. I don’t know about you, but this is certainly the case for me. How many times have I stewed and tossed and turned during sleepless nights, only to discover that the actual event was not that big of a deal? Or, in some cases, actually enjoyable. If I had to estimate, I’d say… about 99 percent of the time.
I must be honest, however, that within the remaining one percent of the time, there have been a few instances where I tried to have that hard accountability conversation and it actually turned out worse than I’d anticipated.
But here’s the thing. I’m still here. The world didn’t stop turning. There was pain involved, but every time… Every. Single. Time. Things ended up working out. I can’t promise life will be conflict free. But I can promise that, when balanced with boundaries and grace, accountability is not nearly as scary and difficult as we fear.