The reality of choice
Perhaps the most challenging part of redefining love is 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.
At the core of accountability is choice. 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 ok 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 own emotions. You are the boss of your emotions. You are not a victim of circumstantial relationships. You can choose where you end and others begin and with whom you want to share your life.
Again, I highly recommend counseling to those who undertake this 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 would certainly help.
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’s going to be a long road. But you can do it!
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. One way or another, most of us need to realize that 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. 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 blaming 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 abused as a child. You must root out the associated shame, guilt, self-blame, and notions of victimhood that reside within 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 offence.
Create a Love Spiral
The answer to all brokenness, whether it is ours or someone else’s, is love. Loving yourself in spite of your own mistakes, shame, and insecurity sets you free to love others. Loving others sets you free to love yourself. It is a new spiral, a love spiral.
You can’t fix everyone. But you can work on yourself, and teach your children a new way to love and be loved. And perhaps you might influence others in your life as they see your newfound confidence and happiness.
Accountability for yourself
In order to break free from your toxic relationships, you must first be brutally honest about your own toxicity. It’s ok. 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 will be 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 will feel like you’re feeding yourself to the wolves. But it doesn’t matter what others think, because you are redefining love and coming to a healthier place of peace.
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 and grieve 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 become 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 saying 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. 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 myself and others.
Whether you admit your shortcomings or not you know they are in 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 a toxic home – 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 in my actions. 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 then you cannot redefine love.
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 usually it 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.
When we redefine love, we love everyone, regardless of their beliefs. This is called grace. Grace allows us to view conflict not as a negative to be avoided, but as an opportunity to better understand the other person. Perhaps we have something to learn from them, or they from us.
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?
Accountability for others
When we care for someone deeply it can be hard to admit their faults, especially if we accept the cultural standard of love as an all or nothing thing. 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 we care about 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 weaknesses 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.
It’s never too late
It’s never too late to hold yourself and others accountable. Yes, the longer you wait the harder it may be. But it can be done. I would argue it must be done, for the well-being of yourself, your family, and for the toxic people in your life. Particularly if there are children involved.
When I began this journey, was it hard to hold myself and others accountable? Absolutely. It still is sometimes. Accountability takes intention and maintenance.
Did I feel like I was being mean to people? At first, yes.
Did I always hold my boundaries in the most mature and loving ways? No, especially not in the beginning. And I still slip into unhealthy patterns, especially with those with whom I was most deeply enmeshed.
There is an enormous learning curve to this, which is why it is so important to find a good therapist. 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 slipped into old patterns.
Once I redefined love I began to make meaningful connections with other emotionally healthy people who help hold me accountable and with whom I can relate. I no longer receive 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 are sharing 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 judgment 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 redefine love.
Copyright © Redefining Love 2018.
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.