The reality of choice
Perhaps the most challenging part of Redefining Love is accountability. Too often we see ourselves as victims of circumstance, swept up in relationships that spin beyond our control by some invisible force over which we have no control. This is a lie we tell ourselves in order to avoid accountability, and we’ve all done it. It’s okay if you’re still actively doing this. It’s never too late to change your point of view.
In order to Redefine Love, you must accept the reality of choice. If someone is hurting you, or you are hurting someone else, it’s time to make a change.*
You are not a victim of your emotions
I highly recommend counseling as you begin your accountability journey, particularly if you are a product of a dysfunctional family. The primary characteristic of dysfunction is a lack of accountability. You were provided no foundation to build upon, and no tools with which to mine within yourself. It isn’t impossible to Redefine Love without therapy, but it certainly helps.
Redefining the “enemy”
Most of us tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between believing that all people are basically good, and believing all people are basically selfish. In truth, people are made up of equal parts of both.
In Redefining Love, it is crucial that we see the equal capacity for good and evil in ourselves and others. When we have accepted that each and every one of us has within us light and darkness, we can recognize that a person may be a blessing to one and a curse to another.
We can then allow others their own journey, which is Grace, another of the Three Pillars of Redefining Love. We can accept blessings from someone who has hurt others (as we all have), and allow others to appreciate the blessings offered by those who have hurt us.
Once we recognize that we are all capable of good and evil, we can stop assuming that everyone we disagree with is our enemy. An enemy is an adversary. Enemy is a term of war, which is a place where love does not exist. If you enter into conflict with other people with an attitude of winning and losing, then your focus is no longer on love but avoiding defeat. The relationship becomes a competition, which shifts our focus away from accountability and towards blame.
There is no room for blame in Redefined Love. When we accept that we are all fallen people, we are able to feel compassion for ourselves and others. There is no winning or losing. There is only where you end and the other person begins. You recognize that everyone is in their own place. Perhaps that place is not somewhere you’d like to be. If that is the case, we can set healthy boundaries for ourselves and shift our focus to other relationships.
Loving through disagreements
We can love those with whom we disagree when we realize that we have as much to learn from those who have hurt us as from those who treat us well. This can be a scary notion because it requires us to examine our own pain, which hurts! It hurts our hearts, and it also often hurts our pride. Very often, maybe almost always, our hurt is rooted in our own insecurities and shame.
We must be honest with ourselves, dig deep, and root out the foundation of our hurt. We must be accountable for our own healing.
Being accountable for our own journey doesn’t absolve the other person from his or her responsibilities. Let’s say, for example, you were physically abused as a child. You must root out the associated shame, guilt, self-blame, and notions of victimhood that reside within you in order to fully love yourself and others. But accepting responsibility for our own journey doesn’t mean the abuser isn’t guilty of a grave offense.
Most of us avoid conflict at all costs. When we call others out on their bad behavior, even when it’s done gently and with love, we risk rejection. We risk anger and hurt feelings. What if the other person reacts aggressively? What if they end the relationship entirely?
It’s much easier to just keep your mouth shut, right? Maybe. But it isn’t honest. Sometimes silence is the biggest lie of all. And it certainly isn’t loving. How can anyone hope to grow and become their best selves if nobody ever points out their areas for improvement?
Some people welcome conflict and even thrive on it. Our culture tends to reward these types of people, even if it is begrudgingly. We may not like bullies, but we respect them because they aren’t afraid to speak up. The problem with this approach is that it is actually just as cowardly as remaining silent.
When someone tries to intimidate during a disagreement their goal is to silence any dissent. And it usually works! Because most of us fear conflict, we will quietly endure intimidation because the alternative feels overwhelming. Once the dissent is silenced, no progress is made to resolve the conflict.
We shy away from conflict because we see it as a negative thing. But conflict can be very constructive and is simply an unavoidable fact of life. Because the world is made up of unique individuals, each with his or her own ideas and experiences, we aren’t always going to agree.
The more we avoid conflict, the bigger the issue grows. Most of us can think of times in our lives we avoided conflict repeatedly, until one day the issue just blew up in our face. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just address it the first time the issue arose?
The duality of accountability
Redefining Love requires accountability on two equal sides. We must hold ourselves accountable, and we must hold others accountable. The two sides must be in balance in order to Redefine Love.
We can’t change other people. We can only change our reactions to them. The only way to break the Shame Cycle and free yourself from toxic relationships is to create new, healthier patterns of relating to others. And if you’re like me and wait until you’re in your 30s (or longer) to start changing those patterns, it may feel overwhelming. But you can do it!
Accountability for self
In order to break free from toxic relationships, you must first be brutally honest about your own toxicity. It’s okay. We all have darkness within us. It can only control you if you try to hide it from the world. The truth truly does set you free.
Even if you are an adult child of dysfunction, having had no control over the family you were born into, you have absorbed some of that toxicity into your own life. If you are unwilling to address your own toxicity, you will not be able to successfully redefine love.
Yes, it is humbling to admit that you’ve screwed up too. If you have been in dysfunctional relationships, you’ve probably spent a lot of time blaming other people. Admitting your mistakes is even harder when nobody else is willing to admit theirs. It may feel like you’re feeding yourself to the wolves. But it doesn’t matter if others are being accountable or not. What matters is that you are coming to a healthier place of peace within yourself.
We have been culturalized to believe that admitting wrongdoing is akin to weakness, and weakness makes us feel ashamed. It seems easier and less painful to simply blame someone else when things don’t go our way, or when someone else is hurt by our actions.
When we blame others for our shortcomings, we develop a victim complex. There is no greater toxicity magnet than a victim complex.
Culture has it all wrong. Holding yourself accountable is the opposite of weakness. Accountability takes enormous courage. Admitting wrongdoing and working to set things right is incredibly brave.
My childhood was not rosy. The adults in my world were far from perfect and are solely responsible for their own behavior. But I am as fallen as anyone else. I can mourn the lost little girl that I was, and the way that little girl was treated. And believe me, I have. But if you are unable to move beyond your grief it will turn to bitterness, which serves no practical purpose.
Allow yourself to feel angry at your hurts. Channel that anger into courage, and then move forward with your life.
Redefining Love requires you to admit your failings and account for them. I entered adulthood already deeply enmeshed in a generational Shame Cycle that began long before I was born. That doesn’t absolve me of responsibility.
In some of my relationships my shame made me toxic. Notice my choice of words: My shame made me toxic. Not the shame of my parents, my grandparents, my siblings, or anyone else. My shame made me toxic. Until I was willing to address my own darkness, I would continue to poison others with my shame.
When I scold my children for bickering, they often respond by pointing fingers at each other and say in unison, “He started it!” This phrase is endlessly irritating. My response to them is similar to most parents: “I don’t care who started it. Both of you need to just stop.”
Those I have hurt in my life were also caught in their own Shame Cycles and were hurting me right back. In most cases, it’s impossible to even pinpoint where the toxicity began, and it doesn’t matter.
I spent the majority of my 20s in a dismal state of sanctimony and self-righteousness. On the surface I was perfect. I did not drink, do drugs, or hang out on the “wrong” side of town (wherever that is). I worked hard and earned the respect of my employers and colleagues.
But I wasn’t perfect, and deep down I knew it. I saw bad things happening all around me and chose to remain silent. I allowed other people to define who I was, and thus wasted enormous potential within myself. Rather than stand up to the bullies in my life, I bullied others who were not the true source of my angst. I wasn’t blatantly evil, but my passivity was poisonous to others.
Whether you admit your shortcomings or not, you know they are there. Refusing to acknowledge your own darkness makes you ashamed, which thrusts you deeper into the Shame Cycle.
My response to the toxic relationships in my life was to respond with equal toxicity (which is so common, particularly for those of us who grew up in toxic homes – we know no other way). In therapy, I spent almost as much time discussing how I could have handled situations better as I did about the situation itself.
I am sorry to those I’ve hurt. It doesn’t matter how good my intentions were. It doesn’t matter how justified I felt at the time. It doesn’t matter how misunderstood or misconstrued I believed my actions had been.
Holding yourself accountable has nothing to do with the actions or reactions of other people. If you’re not willing to admit your own fallibility, you cannot redefine love.
The flip side of this, of course, is to be careful not to absorb the blame for everything wrong in your life. If you’ve wronged someone, own it, but do not carry the shame of others as your own.
Accountability for others
When we care for someone deeply, it can be difficult to see their faults, especially if we accept the cultural standard of love as “all or nothing.” If we believe that love is always warm and tender, then to feel anything other than adoration means we can no longer love that person. The notion of holding people accountable is then associated with an immense sense of loss.
If the other person also views love by the cultural standard, then they view your holding them accountable as a betrayal.
When we redefine love, we recognize that we can love people through our anger and hurt. We realize that ignoring the weakness in ourselves and others is actually a far greater betrayal than being honest about our feelings and experiences. We are able to identify where we end and the other person begins, untangling ourselves from codependency and enmeshment.
Once you have learned what love truly is and what it isn’t, it’s easier to hold others accountable. When you redefine love, you know that there is nothing mean about saying, “No! Enough is enough. I deserve better in this relationship, and so do you!”
I look at it like parenting. If a child is allowed to do anything he or she wants until the teenage years, it’s going to be a lot harder to enforce boundaries than it would have been if the parent had enforced appropriate behavior standards from the beginning of the child’s life.
Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves stuck in toxic relationships for years before we finally realize what is happening. In order to be fully accountable, we must admit our place in the Shame Cycle. This isn’t victim blaming – it’s simply recognizing maladaptive behaviors within ourselves so that we can avoid falling into toxic relationships in the future.
How do I determine who is accountable for what?
A healthy relationship is one in which both individuals behave with integrity. But what does that mean, really?
Integrity is when a person lives their life according to their values, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable. And by values, I mean an intentional moral code that defines right and wrong action, both internally (thoughts and feelings) and externally (actions).
That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s break it down by keywords:
Intentional: This means you’ve thought about what’s really important to you. You aren’t just floating through life according to rules and norms passed down to you by your family, friends, coworkers, teachers, or clergy. You have a clear identity of your own, that you have intentionally developed after careful reflection.
Moral code: These are the rules you have established for yourself, based on intentional reflection. This is your sense of right and wrong. It’s important to note that not everyone follows the same moral code. Our moral code is a product of our culture, religion, and temperament. I talk about this more in the Speak the Language section.
Internal Moral Code: You can’t live a life of integrity until you take charge your thoughts and feelings. We all know people who look great on the outside, but when nobody’s looking they behave entirely differently.
In fact, we’ve all been there! To a certain extent, hypocrisy is part of the human experience. Nobody is perfect. But when hypocrisy is your go-to response to life – when your internal world and external image don’t match – you are in serious trouble. Integrity starts on the inside. You can do all the “right” things when the world is watching, but if you are a negative, toxic person inside your head, you are caught in a dangerous Shame Cycle that will eventually implode.
External Moral Code: Walk the walk, even when no one is looking. One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle, has mastered the art of one-sentence wisdom. One of my favorites is, “Just do the next right thing.” Sometimes it’s not black and white. Sometimes what is right is really, really hard. Or maybe what’s right for us is going to really disappoint someone else. That gets us to the next keyword…
Uncomfortable: Yikes. Sometimes it’s hard to do the next right thing, right?! Nobody ever promised you life was going to be easy. (Or, if they did, they were pumping you full of bull.) Life is hard. Especially if you decide you’re going to live your fullest, best life. Because your fullest best life is not always going to feel warm and fuzzy. Sometimes, your best life is going to hurt. That pain is there, standing between you and all the good things. So you have to walk through it if you want to get to the other side.
Luckily, as Glennon Doyle reminds us often, “We can do hard things.” This is perhaps her most famous and beloved quote, and there’s a reason for it. We all need to be reminded of this, pretty much every day. Whether you are my seven-year-old who stubbornly resisted learning to tie his shoes because it was just “too hard!” or you are faced with setting boundaries with a toxic bully in your life, you can do hard things. Yes. You can!
Being accountable doesn’t mean you’re perfect.
Words like “always” and “never” are dangerous words. No matter how intentional you are, you aren’t always going to do the right thing. Expecting yourself to never hurt anyone else is an unfair and unrealistic prospect. Because we are all different, and each on our own journey, sometimes, your next right thing is going to bump up against someone else in an uncomfortable way. That’s okay. It happens. The trick is to be fully present and intentional about each step, and try to love yourself and the other person through it, even when it’s hard.
I like to think that my husband and I have a healthy relationship. We are both focused on meeting the other’s needs, doing what is best for ourselves, each other, and our family, and openly communicating our feelings.
This does not mean we have never hurt each other. I would love to always do what’s right. I’d love if my husband never said or did things that hurt my feelings. But that simply isn’t realistic. It is an unreasonable expectation to assume that I’m never going to be hurt by those I love. It is setting up myself and my loved ones for failure.
What I can assume, though, is that we are all working towards the same goal – to love each other through our pain, to listen to each other when we are hurting, and to be accountable for our mistakes and shortcomings. I can safely assume this, because I have chosen my relationships very carefully. I choose to share my life with people who are accountable for their own behavior; who in turn hold me accountable as well.
Ideally, we would all be in healthy relationships all the time. But it isn’t that simple. Sometimes we are born into toxic relationships with parents, siblings, or extended family. Sometimes we meet people who seem great at first, and it is only once we get to know them that we realize that they aren’t who we thought they were. And sometimes our own insecurities and shame cloud our judgement and pull us into Shame Cycles that we feel helpless to escape.
Toxic relationships and Shame Cycles may feel impossible to resolve, but that is not actually the case. I don’t mean to diminish the complexity and emotional struggle it takes to extract yourself from painful relationships. Believe me, I’ve been there and it is not easy! But it isn’t impossible.
Perhaps the hardest thing in toxic relationships is identifying what exactly isn’t working. Usually, in these cases you are putting a great deal of time and energy into the relationship. Often, we feel as though there just isn’t anything left to give.
And perhaps you are right… I’ve adopted a few techniques to measure the quality of my relationships:
The bottomless bucket
When I’m examining a relationship, I imagine that I’m pouring my love and energy into a bucket. I close my eyes and I can actually see it. My love looks like sparkling water, and the bucket is an old aluminum garden bucket with rope handles. This is what mine looks like, but your bucket can be whatever you’d like. Maybe it’s a bright blue plastic beach bucket, or a wooden bucket hanging over a well.
I’ve had relationships in the past (so, so many of them!) where I felt like I just kept pouring and pouring love in, yet it never filled. It was only through a great deal of reflection and therapy that I understood that many of the buckets I was pouring into had giant holes in the bottom. It didn’t matter how much I put into it, it was never going to get full.
There are infinite reasons that relationship buckets get holes. I’ve spent endless hours trying to figure out why a person is never satisfied. These endless hours were just another form of my love being dumped into an abyss. It’s okay to seek understanding about other people’s dysfunction. Sometimes, that helps us heal. Just make sure that you are seeking understanding so that you can forgive them, and not because you want to try to fix them. You can’t patch the holes in other people. This is a futile waste of your time. Instead, focus your energy on patching your own holes. This is the only thing you can control.
If you find yourself pouring and pouring love into someone else to the point of exhaustion, and you’re never getting anything back – or worse, it seems as though they are actively hammering away at your own bucket, chipping out holes so that all your healthy love is draining out – then perhaps it’s time to stop and think about whether this relationship is adding value to your life or the other person’s. Maybe it’s time to set some boundaries to extract yourself from the Shame Cycle.
Apply the circumstances to a neutral party
Another of my favorite ways of holding myself and others accountable is to imagine myself having the exact same interaction with other people. Often, when we are caught in the middle of a Shame Cycle, we are too close to even recognize what’s happening. If we pull ourselves outside of the cycle and apply the same circumstances to a neutral person (real or imagined), sometimes this will help the lightbulb turn on over our heads and illuminate the situation.
Here’s an example:
You have a friend who wants to have lunch every single Wednesday. You enjoy having lunch with her, but sometimes you have scheduling conflicts – a deadline at work, a child home sick, a flat tire, whatever!
When you have to cancel, which is very infrequently, your friend becomes passive aggressive. She calls and texts every hour all day, telling you how much she misses you, how she had so much she needed to talk about, or explaining how much harder and hectic her day was than your own.
You end up feeling so guilty that the next time you have a conflict, you cancel it and show up to your usual lunch date, even though you’re feeling resentful and stressed.
We’ve all had this sort of interaction at one point or another. Guilt is one of the ugly ancestors of shame (along with anger, humiliation, abandonment, and pain). To extract yourself from this Shame Cycle, mentally remove the other person from the situation, and replace them with someone with better boundaries. If you can’t think of a specific person, make one up. In your mind’s eye, literally pluck the other person out of their seat at the table, and plop someone else down in her place.
How does this new person react to your cancellation? Is she understanding? Sympathetic? Does she wish you sincere luck on your big project at work? Inquire genuinely about the health of your sick child? Does she offer to come help you change your tire, or pick you up from the service station while your car is getting worked on?
Let’s move back even further. Considering your full, busy life, is a once-a-week lunch date really even reasonable? Maybe it is! In which case, great! But maybe it’s not. Maybe you don’t just resent the guilt trips on occasions you have to miss, but you resent the entire premise. You have other friends you’d like to have lunch with, and you really only have the funds or the time to go out to lunch once a week. Maybe once a month is a more reasonable expectation. Or maybe, this relationship needs to be put on hold entirely, either permanently or temporarily, until you have a better handle on just how toxic this situation has become for you.
What if you’re the one with a hole in your bucket?
I have some bad news for you. We all have a few holes in our bucket. Those holes manifest in different ways for different individuals. Sometimes, they show up as emotional distancing (this is my fatal flaw). Sometimes they show up as guilt trips, or gaslighting, or other forms of manipulation.
It’s absolutely crucial that you dig deep to recognize your own holes, your own toxicity. Because until you know the holes are there, you can’t get to work repairing them. It’s okay to not be perfect. I hate to break it to you, but everybody already knows anyway. There is no shame in weakness. There is only shame in being too much of a coward to admit it.
It is never too late to hold yourself and others accountable.
It’s true that the longer you wait, the harder it may be to attain accountability. Once we become accustomed to living in a situation, even if it is highly toxic, it can feel safer to just stay where we are rather than risk the conflict and discomfort of developing new, healthier norms.
But remember what Glennon Doyle says: “We can do hard things.” I would argue that accountability is not optional. It is a necessity for the well-being of yourself, your family, and even for the toxic people in your life, particularly if there are children involved. Kids who grow up in Shame Cycles and toxic circumstances are starting off life miles behind their peers with healthy childhoods. I’ll discuss this more in the For The Sake Of The Kids section.
Accountability takes intention and maintenance.
When I began my redefining love journey, I found holding myself and others accountable to be so deeply difficult. It required me to determine what my boundaries are, and then hold myself and others to those boundaries. I had to constantly check my intentions, and it seemed that I failed more often than I succeeded.
When I set boundaries, I felt like I was being mean to people. Sometimes, I was so insecure about my right to live a separate, healthy life, that my boundaries became too rigid and unforgiving. Conversations I went into with a clear head and the best of intentions descended into defensiveness and raised voices. Very often, I’d slip back into unhealthy patterns, especially with those with whom I was the most deeply enmeshed.
There is an enormous learning curve to this, which is why it is so important to surround yourself with at least a few healthy, supportive, objective friends or loved-ones to walk this journey with you. You need someone who will honestly hold you accountable, who will call you out when you are slipping back into old patterns, and who will celebrate with you when you do well.
For me, in addition to supportive friends and family, my counselor was absolutely crucial in helping me set boundaries within my toxic relationships. She cheered me on when I was afraid, and held me accountable when I didn’t handle things quite right or regressed into old habits.
Once I redefined love, I began making meaningful connections with other emotionally healthy people. Just as Shame Cycles can snowball, dragging in other vulnerable people nearby, so too can healthy connections grow exponentially. As of this writing, I’m not receiving therapy, but I’m not opposed to going back if I ever feel I need a little extra help processing my relationships.
Loving with accountability
Once we have redefined love, setting boundaries and holding others accountable becomes a lot less scary. Even though the other person may still not see it that way, within yourself you know that you are sharing your whole, honest self. And you don’t have to be angry or aggressive about it, because you understand that boundaries are an act of love.
By admitting that we are all capable of good and evil, we become more prescient to the toxicity of others. Our judgement becomes clearer. We can recognize that although this person is doing a lot of good in the world, they may not be the best for us. We can also recognize good in others where many can’t see it. We love each person individually, and we know clearly where we end and others begin.
The reward for embarking on this journey is that at the end you will come out stronger and happier than you’d ever dreamed. You will know who you are and where you stand. You will have self-respect where once there had been shame.
Seek the support you need to become accountable, and begin your journey to redefining love.
Physical or sexual violence is not your fault. In fact, it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the abuser’s need for power and control. There are a myriad of ways abusers control their victims, and no amount of personal accountability or boundaries on your part is going to change that. If you are being abused, speak out to someone you trust, and keep speaking out until you are heard and you are SAFE.
Copyright © Redefining Love 2020.
The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for general informational purposes only. For mental health questions or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.