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We all need each other to get by. Loving and being loved fulfills our deepest human need and allows us to stay on track as we navigate the challenges and difficulties of living. Just as virtually no one practices recovery alone, so most of us need the love, support, understanding, affirmation, validation, and assistance of others. From the day we are born to the day we die, we are dependent upon others. Civilization would not exist were it not for the incredibly intricate matrix of an incomprehensible number of interdependencies.
Loving and allowing ourselves to be loved requires a number of key relational skills:
- The ability to enhance and maintain our well-being and vitality so that we can devote ourselves to the care of others and of life itself.
- Practicing understanding, compassion, acceptance of others, and nonjudgment of others’ persons (as opposed to their actions).
- Knowing that we are all imperfect and vulnerable to hurtful and selfish behavior, we love while also protecting ourselves from being harmed.
- The ability to astutely assess others’ characters and intentions.
- The ability to trust trustworthy people in the ways that they can be trusted.
- The ability to effectively communicate and connect with others.
- The habits of treating others with unconditional love, care, and respect.
It is cliché to say that we must first love ourselves before we can love others. Yet this is a truism. If we are self-destructive or self-neglectful, we suffer and become obsessed with our suffering. Ultimately, we often end up treating others similar to how we treat ourselves, sometimes despite our best intentions. To love is to enhance the well-being of life. To love ourselves is to enhance our own well-being. To love another, we need to feel whole and fulfilled, so that we can forget ourselves and devote ourselves to others. This requires knowing how to skillfully care for ourselves and enhance our sense of wholeness and value.
To love ourselves we attend to our biology: sleep, rest, good nutrition, and exercise. We tend to our psychology by devoting our lives to the care of something greater than ourselves and by acting with care and integrity in all our affairs. By doing the right thing, moment-to-moment, we increase our worthiness to others, as it is our actions that define our worthiness to the world. When we are worthy to others, we feel worthy.
The practice of integrity requires daily mindfulness, as we honestly notice our intentions and actions from moment to moment. We notice when are being dishonest, uncaring, or manipulative. We notice when we have an urge to do something we know to be wrong, whether it be out of fear, anger, or greed. With mindfulness, we give ourselves the ability to choose, moment to moment, what is true, right, and good, rather than acting on destructive impulses. Integrity does not sprout overnight. It develops gradually with each right action with right intention, just as a city is built brick by brick.
We also enhance our well being by skillfully engaging in work, play, and in our spiritual practices.
Everyone needs our care and support. We cannot provide this without understanding, acceptance, compassion and nonjudgment. Failure to achieve these qualities of mind has a direct effect on our actions, causing others to feel devalued, judged, and alienated. By developing these qualities of mind, we enable ourselves to show care and kindness to others, even when they are behaving destructively. This is not to say that we do not set limits, assert ourselves, and create boundaries to protect ourselves, it is just that we protect ourselves while maintaining an attitude of loving-kindness. This is a very difficult thing for most of us to do, requiring a lifetime of practice. With practice, however, it is a capacity that slowly grows over time.
Understanding the roots of another person’s unskillful behavior, creates the internal conditions for compassion to arise in us. Understanding comes from carefully listening to others, asking questions, and observing closely. By being interested and attentive to others, we deepen our understanding of them. We learn to not judge others by constantly reminding ourselves that we are all imperfect, and that if we had their genes, their parents, their upbringing, and had experienced their traumas in life, that we would do exactly as they do. We see that people are exactly as they are, beyond the reach of our control and preferences most of the time. Accepting that Reality, including the reality of people the way they are, is as it is, leads to the acceptance of others, even with their quirks, foibles, and even their evil (evil simply being anything that harms life). We are all exactly as we are, and can be nothing other than who we are in this moment. To the extent of our free will, we can choose to do good over bad, but this is all we have control over, as our influence of others is never guaranteed.
With compassion, acceptance, and nonjudgment of others’ persons, we find ourselves enabled to protect ourselves from the harm of other people’s hurtful behavior with a clarity that sustains our ability to feel love and care. The ultimate of this might be, in very extreme circumstances where we are fighting for our life, that we might harm another person to protect ourselves while still feeling care for them.
Often in relationships, our own relationship needs blind us to the true character and intentions of others. We may rush into a relationship out of loneliness, taking at face value what another person might say, believing what we want to hear, without carefully attending to what they do, and then coming from this to a clear understanding of who they are. Some people are manipulative and deceptive. By learning to see others’ clearly and accurately apart from the distortions of our own needs, we learn to become a good judge of character. Once we develop the ability to assess others’ characters accurately, we can then skillfully decide on who is safe for true intimacy.
If others who we trusted in the past have hurt us, we will have difficulty trusting others in the future, out of fear we will be hurt again. Learning to trust intelligently requires that we see others clearly. We can always trust others to do what they feel is in their best interests. Not everyone understands that to treat others with respect and care is in their best interests. Not everyone understands the law of Karma, which states that if you do good, good comes back to you, and if you do bad, bad comes back to you. Only a few of us deeply understand that the ultimate selfish act is to be selfless. We must learn to assess others’ character and motives. We need to be able to see who may want to manipulate us for their own desires, exploit us, or even harm us out of frustrated anger that we are not giving them something that they want. Many people do the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, meaning not for the mere sake of doing what is right as an end in itself. Once we see others clearly, we can then intelligently decide who we can trust, and what we can trust them for. We learn who has the capacity to be a true friend, who “has our back,” and who has made a commitment to not harm us. We then take many incremental risks of trusting, constantly “testing the waters” to see if the other person responds in a trustworthy way. As we learn to understand others more deeply, we cultivate the courage to trust.
Healthy relationships require communication. The most important skill of communication is the ability to stop what we are doing, pay close attention to what another person is saying, and listen very carefully. We then mirror back to them what we have heard for correction and confirmation, our intent being to make sure the other person feels understood.
By helping another person to feel understood, we create the conditions for them to be more receptive to what we have to say. We take care in our speech to make “I” statements, avoiding blame and criticism, which are both communication stoppers. Saying, “When you don’t clean up after yourself, I feel annoyed, and wish that you wouldn’t leave messes for me to clean,” is very different from saying, “You’re an inconsiderate slob.” If we voice our feelings and preferences with care and respect, we will stand a better chance of getting care and respect back. We need to help others to understand us by not causing them to feeling judged, hurt, or fearful, as these emotions invariably lead to defensiveness and anger.
Implied in all that has been said it that all people are worthy of our care and respect, simply because of the fact that they are human beings, apart from their actions. Each of us is of infinite value and worth as a living being. By seeing each other as sacred, we cement our commitment to unconditional care and respect regardless of how hurt, frustrated, or angry we may feel. Furthermore, we commit ourselves to being respectful and loving because that is who we are committed to being, regardless of another person’s behavior.
These relational skills take a lot of effort and practice to develop. We often need the help of our therapist, recovery coach, sponsor, family, and/or friends. We do not always learn these skills on our own. Healing and growth require humility, and the ability to both ask for help and accept feedback. If we devote ourselves to the practice of loving and being loved, with the help of others, we will find that we slowly enhance our relationship skills over time.