“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” ~Pema Chödrön
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. My relationship with the other became a labyrinth of confusion—love down this path, hurt down the other, and at my young age I couldn’t find the rhyme or reason to it.
Childhood gifted me a number of unhealthy survival mechanisms, which still follow me around today: a deep fear of conflict (because conflict often meant someone would leave), constant apologies and guilt for things I’m not truly responsible for, and a voice in the back of my mind telling me no matter what I do, who I am, who I become, it will never be enough.
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. My words, invariably, have been met with responses like “I can’t do this right now, it’s a bad time,” “I can’t believe you’d do this to me,” or “It all came from a place of love.”
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. I see where my path might point toward such healing in the future, but we’re not there yet.
Many of us have experienced relationships like this: someone we love acts toward us in ways that continually damage.
It’s one thing to forgive and move on from a wound we received in the past, and another animal entirely when we get hurt again and again, in the same place, a scab not quite healed over before it’s ripped off again.
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.
Attempts to wear the heaviest of armor results in getting “bitter” rather than “better,” and those who are too thick-skinned start to lose their delicate abilities to empathize. They project their fear of getting hurt into decisions that may themselves, unintentionally or intentionally, cause others to suffer.
Here lies the difficulty: in a relationship with someone who continues to act in hurtful ways, how do we toe the line between loving them and interacting with compassion, and protecting our own heart?
We can save no one but ourselves.
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.
If we’ve allowed experience to push us toward a scared, closed off, hardened heart, things can only be different when we are ready to make our own intentional choice to be different.
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.
Being love does not mean being a doormat.
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.
I’ve realized that sometimes, forgiveness is not about absolving someone of their actions—it means we have given ourselves permission to move on with our lives, deciding “what you did no longer holds power over me.” It’s okay, necessary even, to set up firebreaks, to say, “Enough.”
We can’t resolve hurts from unstable ground.
If someone has hurt you, chances are they’re suffering themselves. When both parties feel pain that they believe the other caused, they will already be on the defensive. I believe the only place from which we can work through those old woundings is one of stability, of love and trust.
Yet closure in the sense of reconciliation, communication, and healing together may never happen. If someone doesn’t believe they have wronged you, arguing your point will only drive the relationship rift further apart.
If we can find common ground in our love and words, it’s possible to move forward together into resolution of hurts. But if one party isn’t ready to look at themselves truthfully and engage in painfully open communication, resolution must come a different way.
Putting things to rest can be one-sided.
Here’s the tough truth: closure won’t come from someone else. It happens when we are ready to let things go.
In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes uses the concept of descansos, death-markers, the white crosses seen on the side of roads in the West and Southwest, as a metaphor for marking, blessing, and moving on from trauma, grief, little “deaths” in our lives.
By tenderly identifying our own descansos—things in our lives which haven’t gone as planned, dreams we’ve had to leave behind, expectations we’ve put aside in exchange for the truth—we give ourselves a unique means for closure.
“Be gentle with yourself and make the descansos, the resting places for the aspects of yourself that were on their way to somewhere, but never arrived…
Descansos mark the death sites, the dark times, but they are also love notes to your suffering. They are transformative. There is a lot to be said for pinning things to the earth so they don’t follow us around. There is a lot to be said for laying them to rest.” – Clarissa Pinkola-Estes
Surround yourself with people who love you.
This one is easily said but sometimes complicated to walk out. Family doesn’t always go hand in hand with blood: people we are related to may never truly be good for us, while the friends we’ve chosen might be more dear and positively impactful than any relatives.
A great relationship inspires and brings out the best in us, and the love shared there has few strings attached.
Great friendships should be sounding boards for the good and the bad in our lives. We need people to see our inner truths, hold our hands in the dark times, exhort us in times of abundance—and we must recognize those people as gifts.
These are hard lessons for me. It is sad to let go of a fairy-tale ideal, what I expected this relationship to look like.
But after a process of grieving, it can be so much healthier and more fulfilling to live with reality, to send out love without expectation of what we “should” get in return, to have compassion for someone without a constant eye for what they “should” do for us.
We take back our power, creating graceful resolution for the future where it wasn’t available in the past.
May we all learn to love without contingency; in the meantime, may we learn to walk our path in self-compassion. Loving ourselves is our dawn into the light of truly loving others.
Fighting fingers image via Shutterstock