Self-centeredness is the enemy of love which is why therapists try to teach empathy and attunement to couples, parents and kids. When one can put oneself in another person’s shoes, then many of the walls which may have grown up between them can start to lower. Afterall, isn’t that the beauty and the risk of love--being willing to put someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own?
What often gets confusing in our relationships is that we all have personal needs which need met and boundaries which need considered to be a healthy half of a relational equation. For instance, I may have an infant who wakes up on and off throughout the night and has many demanding needs during the day. My love for this child means that I am willing to wake up with them and give them what they need when they need it, even at the cost to my own desire to take a long shower or get more sleep. However, if I don’t take care of my basic needs--i.e., food, sleep, interactions with other adults, etc.--my ability to function well, or even at all, will start to suffer. This balance is the struggle of every partner, every parent and every helper--how do we sacrifice for another while also staying a healthy individual ourselves? None of us will ever have this balance down perfectly but here are some tips to help you as you seek to love others well.
Practice noticing. In this day and age, it is very easy to spend time with others while also being on our phones, laptops or tablets, or while watching TV. Most of us also struggle with “busyness” which can mean that those precious times at home with family are also filled with a million tasks to keep everything flowing--cooking dinner, vacuuming, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, feeding the dog and so on. An important part of the bonding process we have as humans is so basic that we often forget to do it. This basic process involves looking deeply into someone’s eyes, noticing the little idiosyncrasies of their face, holding someone’s hand or scratching someone’s head; doing things which help us identify what makes someone tick, a smell they like or their favorite song. I love people but I am also very task oriented, which means that I often have to set aside time where I can intentionally be free of distractions so I can be fully present with an individual. For me, this time is usually nighttime. I can put away the tasks of the day and be fully tuned in to another person.
Know thyself. Being selfish is very natural; we don’t have to try to do it as often our selfishness is unconscious. I have noticed in myself and in others that fear and the need for control are often two motivators at the root of my selfishness and unhelpful reactivity. It is imperative that parents seek to ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing. While it is easy to convince yourself that your fears or need for control are justified, fight these patterns with a vengeance. Fear and control are isolating motivations and are not conducive to love and relationship.
Practice Flexibility. Some people are much more flexible than others. When forced out of your comfort zone, try to look at the experience as good practice for increasing your flexibility. Just like physical stretching, emotional stretching can train us to go with the flow. During my childhood, I had to share a very small room with my two much younger sisters, While this arrangement was neither ideal nor fun, it allowed me to develop a great deal of flexibility with others. As I’ve grown older and more in control over my space, I choose to consciously put people in my life in ways that will force me to practice adapting to other’s ways. This choice keeps me relationally limber.
Choose to see the beauty in sacrifice. Often those who have a religious or moral code which places value on sacrificing for others, will find the process of fighting selfishness to be much more joyful. In a culture which tells us to make ourselves happy, the idea that there is inherent good “in giving up something for someone else” sounds kind of crazy. And yet, I don’t think anyone who has ever loved would say that sacrifice isn’t a part of the equation. Ask yourself why are doing what you are doing and what you think love is? While these may seem like philosophical questions, the answers you find will give you a roadmap to understanding what you believe about relationships and how to love people. Once you stop resisting sacrifice, you are more free to move through the difficulties of relationships: setting healthy boundaries, dealing with grief when things don’t work out as you had hoped, and seeing the joy within the pain of letting go of your own agenda to love another.
Set healthy boundaries. When you take good care of yourself, it will help you understand how to help others be healthy too. Often we become resentful and return to our worst habits and thought patterns when we have extended ourselves too far or when our basic needs are not being met. If you are trying to practice new ways of being flexible, giving and attuned, being healthy and balanced will help you practice these skills and grow the emotional/relational muscles you need. Being in crisis is not a good time to learn because your brain and body actually shut down higher level functioning during times of stress. Being a healthy person will actually help you learn and grow and give.
Expect growing to be uncomfortable. You may be confused when I say that you learn best when you are not in crisis because there is a large chance that confronting your selfishness is going to put you into crisis. The more you learn to confront selfishness as a lifestyle, the less shocking it will be to your system. But the truth is, much of our selfishness is there to prop up parts of our identity or meet deep needs we have. Expect to feel panic, discomfort, anger, failure and confusion as a part of this process. Remember, none of us are capable of being perfect.
To be both known and loved is what we all want. While none of us can truly give love unconditionally, those who strive to love others well usually have great boundaries, abundant grace and are honest about the fact that such love is both deeply beautiful and very difficult. Practice receiving love just as much as you work to give it. If you are willing to put in the effort, you will find yourself changed for the better, and your life will be filled with messy, beautiful love.