It starts with you
Redefining love starts from the inside out. Before we can effectively love others, we must accept ourselves in all our beautiful brokenness. We must make peace with regret, and forgive ourselves for our mistakes. We must let go of shame and self-doubt and be more loving to ourselves.
Take yourself through all the steps outlined below, applied only to you. Once you have a handle on that you can move on to your closest relationships in your own household. Then move on to the family you were born into (family of origin).
Move outwards in this manner, until you have redefined love towards your friends, coworkers, acquaintances, strangers that you meet on the street, and finally the world at large.
But don’t feel like you have to master redefined love before moving on. If that were the case, few of us would advance beyond ourselves. I have to remind myself to love me just about every day. This is normal and ok!
(I must pause here to distinguish between redefined self-love and narcissism or self-absorption. Narcissists don’t love anyone in a healthy way, including themselves. Redefined love requires accountability, which is impossible for the self-absorbed.)
Love is messy
In order to redefine love we must accept that love is not always the way it is portrayed in our culture and the media. Love isn’t always warm and fuzzy. And it certainly isn’t always easy. Families, romances, children, friends, coworkers, perfect strangers… relationships are complicated and messy. And you can’t have a relationship without love (more on that later).
We are all a blessing and a curse
We are all flawed and ugly at times, capable of incredible light and despicable dark. That means you, too. And that’s where accountability comes in. Until you can accept that we all have good and evil within us, you are never going to be able to redefine love.
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.
Seeing the darkness in those we love can be really difficult. Seeing it in ourselves can be almost impossible. And if you are a self-loather like I was, seeing your own light may be equally difficult. I will emphasize over and over on this website the benefits of therapy. If you are having trouble holding others or yourself accountable, I strongly recommend you get help. I am not at all ashamed to admit that there is no way I could have done it without the help of a professional counselor.
What does it mean to be in relationship with someone else? Relationship equals interaction. Every time you participate in social media or step out of your house, you are in relationship with others.
We are in relationship with everyone. If I am in relationship with everyone, then everyone deserves equal regard. The clerk at the grocery store is just as deserving of love from me as my husband and children. That seems easy enough, right?
But what about that guy on the news in the white hood burning a cross? Or an abusive parent? A conniving coworker? Or the kid who bullies your kid at school? Suddenly the idea of loving everyone is a lot harder. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.
We must nurture our relationships with love in order for those relationships to function properly. And we are in relationship with everyone, because in one way or another, each of us affects the whole. Suddenly you can see how redefining love has the potential to change the world, one individual at a time.
And before you start feeling overwhelmed by the idea of loving the whole world, keep in mind that each relationship within the whole is unique, and you get to determine with boundaries how close you want each relationship to be. Your capacity for love is infinite. Your time and energy are not.
We all have a right to decide who we will allow into our inner circle. Enmeshed families and codependents will try to convince you that you are stuck with them. Unless you are an underage minor or physically enslaved, you are not stuck with anyone. You have the right to choose your own family.
A major part of redefining love is deciding with whom we want to share our whole selves. There is only so much of us to go around. Emotionally healthy people choose to share their whole selves only with those who respect their boundaries, because their boundaries are essentially who they are. If you don’t respect my boundaries, you don’t respect me.
The idea that setting boundaries is unloving is a myth. In fact, it is quite the opposite. When someone sets a personal boundary for us, they are saying, “I love you enough to share my whole self with you.” How’s that for a compliment?! Instead of being offended by other people’s boundaries, we should feel flattered.
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.
Holding ourselves accountable involves digging way down deep into our own darkness and light and admitting where we’ve done wrong and right. It’s scary, and it hurts. It’s also crucial to redefining love. Because if you hold other people accountable without also holding yourself to the same standard, you are just being sanctimonious.
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.
Holding others accountable is also scary. When we call others out on their bad behavior, even when it’s done gently and with the best of intentions, we risk rejection. We risk conflict. We risk anger and hurt feelings. It’s so uncomfortable!
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?
The Shame Cycle
The belief that we are in relationship with everyone holds everyone accountable. No one exists in a vacuum. The actions of one person always affect someone else, which affect someone else, which affect someone else. There is power in relationship when we realize that we truly are all connected. And with great power comes great responsibility.
When I am working on loving those in my personal life who deeply hurt me, I am tempted to get defensive. This defensiveness is the root of gossip and drama. We drag other people into our pain to vindicate ourselves and validate our feelings. We become hurt not only by the person who committed the offense against us, but by all those who side with the other person. Battle lines are drawn, and fight or flight is in full swing.
This is when it becomes 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.
The end result
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 with the other person. And you don’t have to be angry or aggressive about it because you are sharing an act of love.
There are always going to be people who are harder to love than others. For me, it is those who have hurt me, who continue to attempt to hurt me, those who refuse any accountability. For others it may be those with completely different worldviews (politics and love aren’t generally terms we use in the same breath).
But we must forge ahead, loving ourselves and others through it. Love may not be the first emotion that you feel when you encounter these people. Sometimes it may take days to come to a place of love for someone else. But it is so incredibly worth it. Because love feels a lot better than hate, bitterness, and despair.
I imagine a world where everyone has redefined love, a world where everyone holds themselves and others accountable, where everyone holds firm to their own boundaries, and everyone else respects those boundaries because they recognize it as an act of love.
I imagine a world where we can all love through our disagreements, where we realize that each of us has good and evil within us, that each of us is both a blessing and a curse.
The world I imagine isn’t perfect. We are all still flawed and fallen. The only real difference is we love each other anyway.
It seems impossible that we could ever get to a point of worldwide redefined love. But the way we view love is really all just cultural. And culture can be changed, one individual at a time.
And so it ends right back where it started – with you.
If you feel at any point like you want to harm yourself or someone else, seek professional help immediately or dial 911. You are worth too much to the world to choose otherwise.
The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for the specific purposes of learning to set boundaries and hold yourself and others accountable with love and grace. For mental health diagnosis questions or clinical mental health treatment or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.