There is a person in my life who I love with all my heart, but in this relationship I struggle to keep a full cup myself.
They are family, the situation is complicated and tender. But learning to have compassion for this other person begins with having compassion for myself. A nasty divorce spanning most of my childhood set the stage for our current situation. My mother was deeply emotionally wounded by my father, and carried that pain into her parenting of my sister and me.
Contact with the ex my dad dropped to nil—maybe a week a year, far below what the court had decided. Any efforts on our parts to connect with our absent parent, even recounting fond memories, were seen by our mother as attacks on her legitimacy and a discounting of her pain. And what emotional intimacy we shared was often exploited—it kept us locked into the family unit, not believing we could have our needs filled elsewhere, least of all with our absentee father.
A few short years prior, I felt part of a happy, perfect family. Suddenly one parent was effectively gone. Childhood gifted me a number of unhealthy survival mechanisms, which still follow me around today: Growing up, I realize that those mindsets that helped me survive as a child, in the trenches of grief, inadequacy, and parental loss, no longer served me.
Becoming a healthier person showed me how unhealthy this particular relationship really was. Healing with my mom—communication about the past, forgiveness, and moving on together—has not taken place. Attempts to bring up my own hurt and pain are minimized and shut down. So, in interactions with my mother, I keep my guard up. I know she still hurts, and seems timelessly stuck in her own grief, but it would take a great degree of emotional wholeness on my part to absorb each new wound with simple forgiveness and empathy.
Many of us experienced relationships like this: We all have histories, wounds, scars. Most people carry deep tender spots that have never truly healed, and some use all their actions to self-protect. The fear of vulnerability leads them to cover those places, distract from those places.
They project their fear of getting hurt into decisions that may themselves, unintentionally What you do when you love someone intentionally, cause others to suffer. Here lies the difficulty: Real shifts in our psyche, our inner being, do not come from outside pushes. Change will never stick unless the changer is ready.
Our worldly circumstances will nudge us here and there, and we ultimately respond by either softening or embittering our vision, our paradigms.
We cannot throw another person over our back, or carry them in our arms through the fire. That cannot be our job. Be there for them, be support, hold space in time of need, even be a guide when asked. But always, the true work will be theirs alone. Compassion for others begins with compassion for ourselves. Loving someone should not mean getting hurt time and again. There will always be need for forgiveness, but not at the cost of healthy boundaries.
Here, love might mean taking a step back. When both parties feel pain that they believe the other caused, they will already be on the defensive.