REDEFINING LOVE STARTS WHEREVER YOU ARE. THERE IS NO STARTING LINE or ribbon to burst through at the finish. There is only your journey inward and outward, all at once.
It feels like a paradox – before we can effectively love others, we must love ourselves. Before we can love ourselves, we must love others. Fortunately, the opposite is also true.
Once you start loving others despite your disagreements and conflicts, you start to love yourself as well. Once you start loving yourself, it becomes so much easier to love others. And once you get the hang of it, it all works together for your own good.
It truly doesn’t matter where you start. But for our purposes – for the sake of instruction – let’s choose a starting point.
Let's start with YOU
It seems as good a place as any, right? Wouldn’t you like to make peace with regret, and forgive yourself your mistakes? Wouldn’t it be nice to let go of shame and self-doubt?
Doing all these things requires that we be honest and accountable, not only about your shortcomings and failures, but about your successes. In my experience, it is often harder for a person to honestly account for their strengths than their weaknesses.
Why is that, anyway? Put the book down and give that a think for a moment. Do you find it easier to list your strengths or your weaknesses?
If you are someone who struggles with the idea of self-love, you may be confused about what self-love looks like. Self-love is not conceit, narcissism, or self-absorption. Narcissists don’t love anyone in a healthy way, including themselves. Redefining Love requires accountability, which is impossible for the self-absorbed.
The facts of Love:
In order to redefine love, there are some basic facts about love that you must accept that will likely challenge your current concept of what love is:
Love is messy
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 untidy. (And, as we’ll learn later, you can’t have any kind of 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. Yes, you too. 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, or believing all people are basically selfish. One way or another, most of us need to realize that people are made 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.
SUPER HELPFUL TIP!
I will emphasize over and over throughout this book the benefits of therapy. If you are having trouble holding others or yourself accountable (good or bad), I strongly recommend you seek out professional help. I am not at all ashamed to admit that there is no way I could have made it to where I am today without the help of a professional therapist.
What does it mean to be in relationship with someone else? In Redefining Love, 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.
And since we get to decide at what distance we love someone, I get to decide how I will express that love. Will I look them in the eye? Ask how their day is going. Say thank you after they ring up my purchase? That seems easy enough, right?
But what about the 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 gets 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.
The Three Pillars
There is no step-by-step path to Redefining Love. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the Redefining Love Framework is built on the Three Pillars of Boundaries, Accountability, and Grace. Without these three pillars working together Redefining Love cannot be achieved.
Here’s a graphic that illustrates how the Three Pillars work together for a balanced life:
Every relationship – and every interaction within that relationship – comes with its own unique circumstances. One relationship may require you to start with grace for yourself. Another might require that you apply boundaries for another. And yet another may require accountability for both yourself and others. It doesn’t matter where you start, only that you start.
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. But the reality is, unless you are an underage minor* or physically in danger,** you are not stuck with anyone. You have a right to choose your own family.
*If you are an underage minor, setting boundaries can be tricky. Your legal guardians have a say in many layers of your life, and you are reliant on adults for food, shelter, and other necessities of life. You may not have the same opportunities to set boundaries as an adult, but you can still set internal boundaries, and begin the work of determining what space you take up in the world.
**If you are physically unsafe, setting boundaries is not going to be enough to protect you. Someone who does not respect your body in the most basic sense of safety is not going to respect your boundaries, no matter how well you advocate for yourself. Additionally, your body and mind are going to stay in a triggered state until you are no longer in physical danger. You are in no condition to start boundaries work until you are in a safe and emotionally secure environment.
If you feel physically unsafe, please seek help. Get to a safe location, and then call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800)799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org. You will receive assistance to help you escape and rebuild your life.
A major component 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 they don’t respect your boundaries, they don’t respect you.
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 that they trust us enough to be open.
Typically, accountability is the part of Redefining Love my coaching clients look forward to the least. The word “accountability” feels punitive, so much so that I considered not using it. I considered the words intentional and examination. And certainly these are two elements required for accountability. But here’s the thing…
Accountability is the only word for it. There has to be some sort of accounting that happens – some sort of intentional examination of motives and actions of yourself and others. Without accountability, you can’t set boundaries for yourself or anyone else, and you can’t give yourself and others grace if you don’t know where grace needs to be given.
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, because if you hold other people accountable without also holding yourself to the same standard, you become sanctimonious.
I will say it again – counseling is highly recommended, particularly if you are a product of a dysfunctional family. The primary characteristic of dysfunction is a lack of accountability. If you grew up in a toxic household, you were provided little to no foundation to build upon, and no tools with which to mine within yourself.
Holding others accountable can also be 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. In the very least, it’s 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 belief that we are in relationship with everyone holds everyone accountable. No one exists in a vacuum. The actions of one person always affects someone else, which affect someone else, which affect someone else. There is power in relationship when we realize that we are all truly connected. And with great power comes great responsibility (or so says Uncle Ben to Spiderman).
The Shame Cycle
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 dark, 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 only way to end a shame cycle is to apply grace. Grace simply means allowing yourself and someone else their own journey. Grace is where self-love and other-love comes into play.
Grace happens when you look inside yourself and others at the good intentions behind a mistake, and you see all the ways that culture, upbringing, experiences, and temperament come into play. Grace leads to forgiveness of yourself and others. Without grace, accountability for self leads to self-loathing, and accountability for others leads to self-righteousness. And so, grace is crucial to Redefining Love.
When Redefining Love is achieved
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 what 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 is 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. We all make mistakes that hurt others. The only real difference is we love each other anyway.
The way we view love really is just cultural. And culture can be changed, one individual at a time. And so it begins, right 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.