Balancing love for yourself with love for others

Self-love, self-care, you are enough, love yourself first… These are trendy phrases seen everywhere these days, to the point that they might lose their meaning and feel unattainable to those of us trying to do all the things.

It’s hard to feel like “You are enough” when you’re dropping plates left and right!

And at the same time, we are supposed to love generously, give of our talents, get out of our own head, etc. It all gets very confusing!

Redefining Love begins with self-love, but what does that really mean? Conceptually, the idea that we “can’t pour from an empty cup” makes sense, but how do we balance filling our own cup with meeting the needs of others?

Isn’t self-love selfish?

The idea that we are to love ourselves conjures images of gazing into the mirror for hours, admiring your own beauty, or dismissing the needs of others to focus on our own interests and concerns.

By now those in the Redefining Love Community know that I always come back to intention and curiosity. What is the motivation behind the choices you make? Do you get curious about the why behind the things that you do?

An example from my own life

I’m a big believer in therapy. I think we should all have a therapist on-hand to process our thoughts, in the same way we have a dentist we visit routinely to care for our teeth, or a mechanic to perform routine maintenance on our cars.

Just last week, I was in my therapist’s office for a “tune up” and she posed an interesting question. Had I ever examined why I got into the relationships I had before I married my current husband?

I was with my ex-husband for over 12 years, and have been divorced for around 14 years. And yet, I had never explored what my 18-year-old self was thinking when the relationship began, or what my 20-something self was thinking when I was in such deep conflict with my life partner.

I’ve tried so hard to give that younger Sara grace, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it. And yet, issues from my past continue to pop up in my current relationship. What’s that all about?

Naming my trauma

I realized that I had not ever truly named that trauma; I’d never identified it and spoken it out loud. As we’ve learned in past discussions, we can’t resolve a problem that we haven’t yet identified.

And so, my task now is to dig in and identify the why behind young adult Sara chose to enter into this relationship in the first place, and why I chose to stay. What was young Sara thinking back then? What were my intentions?

I’ll have to keep you posted on what I discover, because I just started this exploration last week! And as we know, healing isn’t an overnight process. I will have to stay inside the discomfort of this exploration for a time, so I can get to the bottom of things.

INTENTION TIP: Schedule your therapist visits out over several months, so that you are forced (in a sense) to continue the digging. Otherwise, it’s very easy to get “too busy” for this uncomfortable task. Let your therapist know that you want them to hold you accountable for exploring this issue, and to tune into any subconscious attempts to avoid it by changing the subject. If the topic is uncomfortable, it probably means that’s exactly what you should be talking about.

What does this have to do with selfishness?

So, what does this have to do with our topic? In short, everything… We’ve all heard the phrase relationships take work.” Whether it be friendships, family relationships, marriage, or dating, we need to invest time and energy into maintaining them if we want them to flourish.

Our relationship with ourselves is no different. And sometimes, our subconscious pushes back. Sometimes our trauma brain says, “Ummm… No thanks. I don’t want to talk about it.” It communicates this to us by feelings of anxiety such as a racing heart, shaking hands, hives, stomach aches, headaches, a tightening in the chest, etc.

And because that’s uncomfortable, we step away from it. Unfortunately, when we do that we are damaging our relationship with ourselves. Suddenly, your conscious and subconscious mind are in conflict. Your subconscious is giving you the silent treatment, and you’re just letting it get away with it!

Redefining self-love

In Redefining Love we learn how to love ourselves and others with boundaries, accountability, and grace. Sometimes, this concept is easier to understand when applied to other people than it is to ourselves. How can we set boundaries with ourselves? What does self-accountability look like? And grace… we are so often our own biggest critic.

Accountability for self:
Just as loving someone else sometimes requires uncomfortable conversations, so too does loving yourself. Self-accountability means that you find a safe person (or people) to support you as you dig into your own life with intention and curiosity. It means not avoiding the hardest conversations, the ones that make you sweat or clench your jaw just to think about.

Boundaries for self:
Boundaries with yourself means that you schedule that appointment with a therapist. In those appointments, when our trauma brain wants to change the subject, you take a deep breath and stay present in the struggle until you’ve processed the trigger through and out.

You learn healthy ways to manage your triggers when you’re not in therapy, such as breathwork, stretching, journaling, going for a walk or run… whatever it is that helps bring you back from a trauma state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

Boundaries for self shows up as the typical forms of self-care that we hear so much about. Yes, they are important! But if you’re not approaching these self-care activities with intention and curiosity, all they are is another chore to add to your to-do list.

Have you ever felt guilty for not “doing enough for yourself.” You look down at unmanicured nails, or realize you haven’t showered in three days, and think, “Ugh… I can’t even manage to take care of myself!” If you haven’t identified the why behind those acts of self-love, they are easily put on the back burner.

Grace for self:
I’ve gotten pretty good at saying, “We’re all doing the best we can with the limited tools we’ve been given, including me.” And I mean it. That’s a great place to start, but grace doesn’t end there.

Grace for self, as it intersects with accountability and boundaries, means talking to that wounded self when it arises. It means reassuring your scared trauma brain – when it starts to make your stomach turn or your neck tighten up – by saying, “I know. This is a scary. But it’s okay. We are stronger and wiser now than we were then. We can do this.”

The difference between self-love and selfishness

Selfishness is doing whatever you want, whenever you want, without any thought of the consequences to yourself or others. It isn’t only other people who are hurt by selfishness. When we are selfish, we also hurt ourselves. In essence, selfishness and self-love are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Here’s an example:

When my son asks me to stop working to play a board game with him, I can say no selfishly, or I can say no lovingly. It isn’t the no that’s the problem. The problem is a lack of intention and curiosity.

If I snap at my son and say, “No! Can’t you see I’m working here?!” I’m simply reacting from a place of trigger. I offer no explanation for why my work is more important than time with him in that moment. I haven’t explored it for myself, and I haven’t explained it for him.

This creates a relational shame cycle that puts him on the defensive. With no explanation given, my son’s subconscious is left to assign blame, and when no other option is provided, our subconscious blames itself. All of a sudden, my no has become a shame trigger for my son. His subconscious decides that he is not worthy of time and attention.

However, if I approach my no with intention and curiosity, I can respond with grace for myself and others. If I say, “I’m sorry bud. I know I’ve been busy lately. I love spending time with you and I miss it! I need to wrap this up before I can play. Can we make a plan to connect later, when I’ve finished this project?”

The answer to his question is no either way – no, I will not play a board game with you right now. But one answer provides his subconscious with the reassurance he needs to stay regulated and feel worthy of my time and attention, and the other creates shame and a sense of unworthiness.

And of course, in all relationships, with children or adults, we then need to follow through on our plans to connect later. Otherwise, those words become meaningless, and the shame and unworthiness settle in as the subconscious reacts with its default setting to blame itself.

How are you teaching others to treat you, and vice versa?

Wayne Dyer says, “People treat us the way we teach them to treat us.” This goes both ways. Relationships are a dance, or game of catch, where the behavior of both parties involved teaches the other how to relate.

If someone you are dancing with continually steps on your toes, you’re going to move further away from them. If someone you’re playing catch with lets the ball hit them in the chest, with no attempt at catching it, you’re probably going to lose interest in the activity pretty quickly.

The best relationships occur when both parties are invested – both are focused on not stepping on the other’s toes, and both are actively engaged in attempting to catch the ball.

There’s nothing wrong with saying no

Your no is not the problem. You can still catch the ball and toss it back to the other person with your no. You can still respond in sync without stepping on toes. You do this by engaging with yourself with curiosity and intention.

Why are you saying no? You can’t explain it to someone else unless you’ve explored it for yourself.

Is this work project more important than your relationship? Maybe in that exact moment – yes! It is! You’ve got to make money so you and your family can eat! But unless you explore it, you’re not going to know your why. You’re just reacting on autopilot, and leaving a trail of debris in the form of shame and unworthiness in your tracks.

Selfishness is in the lack of self-reflection

If you struggle with feelings of guilt when you say no, or with feelings of resentment when someone else says no, get curious. Notice how you’re feeling, like this: “Gosh, this no feels really gross to me. I wonder why?!” Then answer your question.

Maybe it feels gross because the other person hasn’t provided an answer for your subconscious. Maybe you’re feeling rejected and unworthy of their time and attention. If that’s the case, explore that within yourself before mentioning it to the other person.

Has their no activated a shame trigger from your past? Perhaps your resentment is misdirected – maybe you actually feel rejected by someone in your past, but it’s manifesting in your current relationship.

Or, maybe the other person just handed you a big fat shame sandwich, because they didn’t approach their no with intention and curiosity.

Either way, if you reflect on this before you have the hard conversation about your feelings, the other person is a lot more likely to catch the ball than they are if you simply toss shame at them without first getting curious.

Maybe you are the one who said no, and that’s feeling really uncomfortable for you. Again, dig into that with intention and curiosity.

What’s your why for saying no? Are you punishing the other person with your no? Is there some other not-so-healthy reason you’ve said no? In that case, root around in there and dig that shame out before answering the request. Maybe, after reflection, your answer would actually be yes!

Or perhaps you are truly too busy in that moment, but you are happy to address their need or meet their request later. If that’s the case, then say so. Give their subconscious a reason, so it doesn’t slip into it’s default and blame itself. Toss them a healthy no that they can actually catch, rather than a speed ball that’s going to knock them over.

Bringing it all together

I began this post by talking about self-love, so let’s bring this all back around to that point. Self-care and self-love is about so much more than bubble baths and aromatherapy.

Sometimes – just as it is with love for others – self-love requires some discomfort. When we redefine love to reflect an honest, intentional relationship, we step bravely into the hard conversations, knowing that it’s an act of love to determine the why behind our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Once we’ve explored our hearts with intention and curiosity, we can then set boundaries with others without guilt, because we know and are able to explain why we feel the way we do. When we know our why, we can then set about solving the problem.

And when we explain our why to others, we break the shame cycle because the other person’s subconscious is able to assign healthy meaning to the boundary.

We can’t control others; only ourselves

And of course, as always, we can’t control how other people react or respond to our boundaries. Just because you’ve provided a loving explanation for your no doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person will explore your boundary with intention and curiosity. They may very well throw you a shame sandwich in return.

But if you’ve fully explored your why – if you’ve identified the space you take up in the world – you don’t have to eat the shame sandwich. You can stand with confidence in your no, knowing that regardless of how the other person responds, you are coming from a place of love and good intentions.

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