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Encouraging Love: Help Your Partner Grow Without Being a Critic

Showing the Way

“You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” ~Thich Nhat Hahn

When you think you’re an evolved and conscious woman and your partner tells you in no unclear terms that you’re “hard to be with,” it does a number on you.

Those words landed like a well-aimed boulder, smashing the immaculate vision I’d created of evolving myself: an exemplary girlfriend who was “doing the work” to grow, to become generously loving, spiritually awake, and to wholeheartedly support and encourage her beautiful partner to open to his fullest potential.

We met under messy circumstances. Both just weeks out of intense breakups and deeply embroiled in “processing” our respective experiences, I had a laundry list of emotional baggage to shed, patterns to break, and new nonnegotiable standards for anything and anyone I’d allow into my intimate space.

I pinned the badges of Emotional Consciousness and the Evolved Feminine on my heart. I journaled, meditated, and prayed to the Goddesses: Quan Yin. Kali. Durga. Sati.

And as I learned, dove deeper, sailed higher, I held fiercely to his hand. I wanted to do this together. I begged him: join me. Rise. Dig. Excavate your stagnant places.

It’s the only way forward.

I believed it. And I think, to a certain end, so did he.

Then encouragement, collaborative growth, and tough love turned to jagged criticism. Instead of holding one another in our struggles, we sat on opposing sides of some false fence. I saw only his flaws and I believed I needed him to fix them.

I saw his potential. He was brilliant, deeply spiritual, an intuitive outdoorsman and incredible teacher. He had promise, gifts to bring to the world. I wanted him to reach for it—without fear.

And when he didn’t, when he paused to rest, when he stumbled, I saw failure. I saw an unwillingness to try. I saw a man gripped by fear, clinging to safety.

I used those words.

Why couldn’t he just work as hard as me?

It’s easy to say this now. To see where my ardent desires for his evolution—to shed the excess weight and step into his highest self—so quickly became toxic. How it clouded my vision of who he was, in the moment, without the changes I thought necessary.

Wrapped up in my own work and redefining of what it meant for me to rise, I transposed my journey onto his.

All I saw was his shining potential, his shadowed present, and the moments he wasn’t up to the challenge. When the stones the universe hurled at his foundation bested him.

And I ignored the brilliant light already standing in front of me, showing up in his wholeness, wounds and all. So he learned to try and hide it, for fear that I would criticize the tenderest parts I saw to be flawed.

Nobody is perfect.

The funny part is that I’m a coach and a yoga teacher. I write about every angle of perfectionism, I preach about loving your tender and dark parts, I read endlessly about the divinity of this eternal growing process.

Stretching is uncomfortable. Peeling off the layers hurts. It’s a messy, messy adventure, this evolution. Blah blah blah. My brain knew all that. But that’s different from living it—and dammit if I wasn’t a full-on hypocrite.

So… nobody is perfect. Right?

His imperfections became my teachers. And as I crumbled, defeated in my epic pursuit of New Age Girlfriend Perfection, he taught me what it is to hold someone you love to their highest potential, with grace, love, and honor.

Your journey is not their journey. It seems straightforward, but it requires a humble and gracious heart to resist imposing your own standards of evolution on another.

Just because you’re in love with transcendental meditation and it has blown your ego to pieces doesn’t mean your partner will find it moving in the least. And while you’re deeply questioning the meaning of “self,” the qualities of nonattachment, or the truth of your suffering, your partner might be doing battle with self-acceptance. Or body image. Or what it means to be masculine.

And that’s all perfect.

See the potential. Celebrate the present. That’s where I went wrong; I missed the second step. And he gently, kindly told me that he wasn’t feeling seen. Really seen—in his work, in his accomplishments, in the steps he’d already taken.

Spend more time celebrating the positive elements of how far your partner has already come—and then encourage them to keep going, because you see such beautiful potential and brightness within.

Let go of perfect. You know from your own excavations that the work never ends. There is always growth, always evolving, always new spiritual/emotional/soulful expanses to be explored.

When we think “highest self,” it sometimes feels like an end point—a “point a to point b” kind of goal. It’s not, and living from that mentality makes the experience of evolution feel hurried and time-sensitive.

As Osho says so simply, “Slowly, slowly.” Let that be your mantra, and honor each slow step your partner takes. Even more so, honor the pauses. The deep breaths. They’re part of the work, too.

It is not yours to push. You’re not his life coach. You’re not her personal trainer. You’re not mom. Position yourself on the same team—encouraging, supporting, celebrating, yes. Demanding? No. That creates a power dynamic that eventually becomes toxic and corrodes the integrity of your relationship.

When you find yourself becoming the teacher, check your motivations and rephrase. How can you encourage with tender and gracious love?

Your love will become freedom. You have this one role in your partner’s evolution: to hold the space, to fill it with love and safety and, simultaneously, the encouragement to expand—and your love will become their freedom.

Freedom to be exactly where they are on the path and to take the journey that is right at that moment and in that time. Freedom to fall. To screw up. And to try again, with unflinching faith in their own potential.

And that freedom, ultimately, is the only path to the highest self.

Photo by Nono Fara

About Heather Day

Heather Day is a coach, yoga teacher, and wild soul traveler who works with women who long to overcome perfectionism and live for something more—body, mind, and spirit—but aren’t quite sure how to get there. She’s the creator of the Your (Im)Perfect Body Cleanse, and can be found online at heatherdaywellness.com.

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  • Autumn

    This article feels like a mirror. I’m literally in that same space with a perfectly imperfect loving man, and I know there are times when my good-intentions “teachings” come at him like sharp criticisms. I know that, because he’s told me. And he too, has started to hide. I was crushed, I took it deeply, and I’m working toward a more loving center as support, not a leader. This article has put this struggle into words, and softened my headstrong heart. Thank you so much.

  • C

    This was humbling and came at the right time. Thank you.

  • Summer

    I can very well relate to this post. I find my girlfriend very smart but lazy. I always have the feeling that she is not exploring her potential to the fullest. Procrastination and stress from the hurdles of life get the better of her. Both of us agree that she needs to work harder, learn to worry less, and make the best out of her life. But sometimes, I feel I am too patronizing and critical about her failures, and I have realized this myself many times, even before I read this post. What I did not realize though is the way it must be affecting her. It’s not too late yet. I don’t want there to be a day when she has to hide her trials and tribulations from me. After reading this post, I have decided to celebrate who she is and celebrate her victories, no matter how small or how big they are. Nobody gets out of life alive anyway, so it makes sense to celebrate whatever time we have got on this planet with each other.

  • Just A. Guy

    Courageous post! It is so easy to get focused on the target and forget that reaching it is a process.

  • cinnamongirl

    I was in such relationship then marriage. Needless to say that the marriage ended. He told me he saw such a potential in me and wanted to see stelar results. The criticism really had bad effect on me. I started to believe I was not enough, not trying enough. I just wonder if he understood how the repercussions of his “pushing” had on me. Good thing: no hard feelings. Glad the relationship is over: hopefully the marriage will be over officially soon.

  • Winter

    And what do you do when the other person seems to stops caring about anything? When they dwell on the negative, expecting only the worst outcome because ‘that’s just how [their] life is’ ? What do you do when they don’t even look at you when you speak, and when you make further effort to be heard, you are criticized for the audible sounds you make requesting some sort of response?

    How do you combat all that while trying to still lift them up, to encourage them to be who they are, that is, better than what they’ve allowed to take them over without being mom or a teacher?

  • Michelle

    Thanks for such raw honesty, Heather. It takes guts to share something about yourself this transparently.

    And that’s why your story is so powerful. What really grabbed me the most, though, is this:

    “Stretching is uncomfortable. Peeling off the layers hurts. It’s a messy, messy adventure, this evolution. Blah blah blah. My brain knew all that. But that’s different from living it.”
    Hell yes! But right after that you talk about being a hypocrite. I’d say, go easy on yourself, sister. We’re *all* hypocrites in that way.
    I say this lovingly, as a recovering perfectionist myself. 🙂 I have **incredibly** high expectations of myself . . . and similarly to what you describe, I need to really watch my words, actions, and (probably most importantly) the thoughts that underlie them, or I’m liable to transfer those superhuman expectations onto others, including the ones I most care about.
    Like you, I’ve learned they don’t like that too much. 😉
    Heh…this self-work isn’t easy, is it?

  • lv2terp

    Truly motivating and inspiring post!!! Thank you for sharing your vulnerability, and such an amazing lesson learned with us!!! 🙂 Given me a lot to ponder, thank you!! This has been an Achilles heal for me in my life, all relationships! Thank you again for shedding light on this wonderful perspective and way of looking at others’ growth and path!

  • Feminine Fires

    I can related in many ways, but here is my struggle…what if a few of your partner’s habits are real deal-breakers? What if by criticizing him or telling him you are negatively affected by his actions causes him to shut down and feel unloved, but allowing him to “be as he is, do as he does” helps be the catalyst for your own displeasure, disgust and depression? I am not talking about tapping fingers on a desk but about health habits that definitely affect others. Because he has seen my growth, and he has appreciated my love and acceptance of him,…he has greatly expanded and grown. It has been wonderful….but the remaining issues are very troublesome for me and I do not know how to be true to myself and yet be supportive in an area he does not wish to change.

  • cinnamongirl

    I think it’s about whether you want to accept him fully or not the way he is right now. It’s not fair to expect change. It’s all up to you. Don’t wait too long to make decisions.

  • lv2terp

    I feel the same way, and when I became aware of my constant mentality of “teaching” (also motivated from love and wanting to help), I started working on giving space instead of jumping to giving insight. it seemed that the immediate “loving advice” I gave came across as invalidation of their feelings, judgmental, and righteousness….I am still working on that space to make the decision on just listening, how to respond, or if in fact the timing is right to give my views or just be a support of what they are going through….very tough, yet so beneficial to the other person and relationship in general I am realizing in those moments where I do give space and witness the magic happening!! 🙂 Here is a good article talking about creating space between stimulus and response (this applies in every aspect, but to focus on what it is that applies to my situation was key to me). I hope this helps in addition to this awesome blog post that caused my wheels to turn more as well!! 🙂 http://thepracticeofyourlife.wordpress.com/2008/07/30/creating-the-space-between-stimulus-and-response/

  • katie

    so well stated, perfect. i needed this. i see myself in your story as it’s mine too. thanks!

  • Pris

    very good question…..

  • Jen

    Thank You for this post Heather. It is right on time for me.

  • Feminine Fires

    Thank you…suppose, though, that I sort of HAVE waited to long to make a decision to say goodbye. I get it that I should not (now) expect changes, but I am in a corner now. Do I speak up and know he will feel I am being judgmental or suck it up (even though it bothers me terribly)? I wish I could convey things to him without him having a negative filter. I intend to be accepting of others–flaws, perfection, everything. I know when I need to stop expecting certain things– But, I don’t think we should have to keep quiet about EVERYthing that bothers us—I think it would be more helpful to know how to deal with it when you feel you simply MUST say or do something. How do you lovingly express what is basically an ultimatum? LOL We tell people not to put up with negativity in their lives, but then we are told to accept everyone. When these people are distant relations, it is easy to say you accept and just not be around them–but it is different when it is someone very close to you. No?

  • H.

    Beautifully insightful. Yet, how does one hold onto patience when a partner’s imperfections become hurtful (e.g., not expressing love for self or other)? It seems the hard part is knowing when the tenet of relating with compassion and freedom points you to let go of a relationship that is causing you pain. I believe those of us, like me, who are trying to teach the other are ultimately trying to preserve a relationship they believe will fail otherwise. The hardest part is letting go, and from what I’m learning, I think this philosophy requires we do so.

  • Heather Day

    Winter… you sit in your light, reflecting positivity, kindness, compassion. That’s all you can do, and remember that it is not your responsibility to fix anyone. It is your not responsibility to pull them up out of the depths. When your presence and radiance are not inspiration enough, you trust that this is where they are on their path- and it’s where they need to be. Even if we can’t understand it. I learned that one the hard way 😉

  • Heather Day

    Yes! Hear, hear! Beautiful. Perfect. Celebrate, encourage, support, and honor where she is on her path. Shine your light, and you’ll continue to inspire her! Blessings, Summer!

  • Heather Day

    Beautiful, Jen! Blessings on your journey of supporting and celebrating 🙂

  • Heather Day

    Thank *you*, Katie! The magic of oneness, yes?

  • Lisa

    Excellent! I really appreciate this.

  • Heather Day

    Love, it’s time for a conscious communication practice. Sit with one another, face to face, on the floor. Begin by breathing together, looking one another in the eyes deeply. The first person to share speaks openly and with responsibility for his/her feelings- “I” statements, without accusations. How are you feeling? You are fearing that he’ll find you judgmental. Share that. The listener listens- only listens. This isn’t a dialogue, but a sharing. Once one person is complete, the other speaks. The listener sits in openness, receptivity, and nonjudgement. It sounds like this issue has truly festered for you, and that you need to look inward to decide if this is truly a deal breaker. If it is? Deal broken. We must be able to love someone in his entirety, NOW- because it’s totally possible that it will *never* change. And if you are so passionate about it that you can’t accept it, perhaps the two of you aren’t entirely compatible. Send me an email if you want to dive into this further, love- and many wishes for clarity for you.

  • Heather Day

    Thank *you* beauty, for being here and for dedicating yourself to keep growing and growing!

  • Heather Day

    Mmmm, you bring a powerful point to the table! Thank you. Yes. Compassion is my daily practice, and our thoughts do carry such a strong vibration and the power to really shift what we attract into our lives!

    And ohmygosh. Easy? No way. Vast and beautiful and incredible? Absolutely 🙂 Thank you, Michelle!

  • Heather Day

    Mmm, resonance is such a powerful teacher! Yes. It’s crushing when we realize our best intentions have become painful barbs… I think we need to remember that our role as a “teacher” for our partner comes through subtlety, not outright “lessons” or “advice”. Instead, we shine, reflect, and hold presence- and in being a clear and open mirror, we can serve our partners beautifully! We’re doing this side by side, not one in front of the other, right? Big love to you, Autumn, as you soften into this space!

  • D

    You get them to a doctor who is capable diagnosing and treating depression. By ‘combatting all that’, you are most probably making them feel even more miserable and less heard…

  • Autumn

    Thank you so much! That’s exactly it… I jump to the response, I want to help, but more often than not listening is the stronger support.

  • Catia Korrea

    Thank you for this insightful article. It graciously debunked how I overly criticize the people I love the most. Thank you!

  • Feminine Fires

    Wow, thank you, Heather. I find tremendous comfort in reading your suggestion. Thank you! <3

  • ellie

    I completely agree with Heather. All we do is continue to live the way that is loving and kind to ourselves and others in each moment. And remember to take nothing personally.

  • Morgan

    Do you feel better now after writing that and telling us how it is???

  • Mabel

    This is a beautiful post and it describes quite well the reason behind why my boyfriend and I broke up at a certain point. Both of us had to improve, but I was the one who was focusing on his imperfections and forgetting what a lovely existence he is. Fortunately, we are together again and our relationship is much stronger than before. We learned a lot during the time we were away from each other and what I, in particular, learned is directly related to this post.

    So I thank you for writing this. It feels wonderful to remember, to reinforce it and to relate with others. Blessings.

  • GeekyGal

    Wow what a good eye-opening post. I went wrong with one of my best friends and now am afraid to reach out.

  • Awesome!

  • Michael Mark

    The message is rings clear and true and it is sincerely crafted. Thanks.

  • Harmony

    “You know from your own excavations that the work never ends. There is always growth, always evolving, always new spiritual/emotional/soulful expanses to be explored.” Yes! this is so important to remember and yet often so hard remember! We think that we are going to get to some place where everything is perfect–but life is about GROWING. We will never reach our highest potential and that’s a GOOD thing because if we did, the end our growth would mean we would have nothing more to live for.

    I have been learning lots about these things–acceptance, compassion, self-worth, boundaries. A relationship is not about ‘happily ever after’ but a process of evolution for both people. Once you begin truly loving and accepting yourself as YOU are with all your imperfections, then you can begin to accept another, fully and completely. But again, there will never be a day when this process is finished. As you so beautifully put it–“See the potential. celebrate the present.”

  • Harmony

    Giving an ultimatum is putting the ball in his court; ie. giving up your power. You need to decide what YOU will do. Tell him calmly, firmly and loving exactly what YOU need. If this is something that is essential for maintaining your true self and integrity, it is not a compromise. Then comes the hard part–following through with what you have promised to yourself. It can become the heart-wrenching choice of losing him or losing yourself.

  • Manoj Sethi

    Good One

  • Grinch

    This is tough. I feel I love. Yet the more I read the more I think the love I try to portray is not love at all. To give the love my partner needs and deserves is to give up on my own need for love. I want to feel love too. If I’m not getting it, it becomes so hard to give it. Either way, this article is great. Very insightful and enlightening. I won’t give up on love cause Love is the way. But it sure is tough.

  • Heather Day

    I don’t believe for a moment that you must give up on your own need for love… love is our blood, our nourishment! It’s about how we *define* love that becomes the problem. Do we misconstrue approval for love? Do we seek love through the lens of someone else? Or can we find unconditional love, which is a deep and beautiful reflection of all that is our truth? First turn inward to learn what you are craving… and then examine your relationship to see what may be possible in your co-evolution 🙂

  • Heather Day

    Amen, sister! Beautifully said.

  • Heather Day

    So today’s the day! Reach out from love, and you can’t go wrong 🙂

  • Heather Day

    Sometimes space is the greatest teacher possible in our relationships… perspective, time to grow and flower and to become grounded again within. I’m so glad your growing process continues, Mabel!

  • Heather Day

    Thank *you* Michael!

  • Heather Day

    Mm. Thank you for sharing your experience, love… he will learn, just as you have 🙂

  • Heather Day

    Letting go… of attachment to outcome, especially. What we ultimately seek is to be the highest expression of love! And sometimes, that expression isn’t to be realized in a dance with this particular partner. It’s a difficult thing to accept, always, but there is grace in welcoming the journey without focusing on an end goal. We aren’t here to be “teachers” in our relationships, just to be honest and open and loving mirrors. That’s been a HUGE place of learning for me 🙂

  • Grinch

    Thank u for taking the time to respond. I really find your words honest and real. I won’t ever give up but love is definitely harder to appreciate sometimes then it should be. I will strive to appreciate more and expect less. The pay off will be worth it in the end. 🙂 btw. Love this page.

  • I found this post illuminating and resonant on many dimensions. Although is written by a woman with a woman’s perspective, as a man, I have found myself on both “sides” of constructively intended criticism in relationships, i.e., playing the role of the critic as well as victim – er, I mean, recipient – of criticism.

    On the receiving end of criticism, how ever well intentioned (and I believe all of it is intended to help me achieve greater approximations of perfection), I often find myself shutting down. Even – or perhaps especially – when the criticism is prefaced with some positive feedback, followed by the disconcerting “… but,”.

    However, when I am able to adopt a perspective of non-attachment – which I find especially challenging in the context of a primary committed relationship – I am sometimes able to reframe the situation into an unsought opportunity to practice acceptance of another’s non-acceptance of me.

    When I find myself prompted to offer my own constructive criticism in a relationship – including my relationships with my adult children – I try to reflect on and apply the Buddhist wisdom embodied in the proverb “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. When I am in doubt about another’s readiness, I will ask permission “Are you open to any input on this?” and if granted permission, try to offer any insights and experiences in the form of “I statements” (a practice I saw recommended in another comment).

  • growthguided

    I really love this point you made ….

    “His imperfections became my teachers. And as I crumbled, defeated in my epic pursuit of New Age Girlfriend Perfection, he taught me what it is to hold someone you love to their highest potential, with grace, love, and honor”

    great post =)

  • photopoppy

    What a mirror for me, too, and such a relief knowing, hearing, that I am not alone in this. I have been working for several months to learn this, and have made a mantra out of “I am not managing” to remind myself to step back and accept the present.

  • Heather Day

    Joe, what a beautiful sharing! I’m curious about the blurry edges of offering “constructive criticism”, and seeing ourselves as teachers, and relinquishing that title or frame in our relationships and instead honoring the fact that we are ALWAYS teaching- without making our relationship into a formal classroom… thoughts?

  • Heather Day

    The rewards are plentiful, beautiful, and never what we expect! 🙂 Thank you for sharing…. and we’re glad you’re here!

  • Ash

    Heather. You write beautifully. Thank you for sharing your art. It really was a pleasure reading your post.

  • Krystal Ostapowicz

    I wish my ex would have been kind to me about things,instead he imposed
    his ideas and expectations of who he thought i could be and made me feel
    horrible,so much so i ended up so depressed and pressured and feeling
    unloved,its good some people realize when they are not being very loving
    and maybe that their intentions to help?can actually be harmful to the
    other person.Some people learn and grow at different paces.I happen to
    learn extremely slow,and i had to be in special classes when i was in
    school.Its not that im lazy more than it is,something that is easier for
    someone else is not so easy for me.We should not compare ourselfs to
    others,especially our own strengths with our partners,not everybody
    functions and operates the same way.Sometimes we get so caught up in
    wanting to help people though,that we couldnt imagine why the person
    does not see things the way you or others do.I am now divorced because
    the relatonship i was in became so demanding,unloving,very
    controlling,and there were so many expectations of me that i couldnt
    meet that pissed my partner off,in the end?He lost me.He was so hard on
    me,one of the last things he said when we split was,YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHO
    YOU COULD HAVE BECOME,BUT NO!!! INSTEAD YOU DID YOUR OWN
    THING!!….Well you know what?His idea of who i am to become?Is none of
    his buisness,anyone who wants to push their views on a person to the
    point of destroying them,deserves to be broken up with immediately,my
    relationship than became emotionally and than physically abusive because
    i couldnt meet his or his families expectations of what THEY wanted me
    to be.Not what or who i wanted to be,but what they wanted me to be,so
    please be very careful on who you are pushing forward and how.It might
    break them.Some people need to learn at their own pace and work at their own pace.

  • Jason Holborn

    Totally worth reading

  • Yes, I love this post! I think it’s very easy when you are ‘into’ personal development to see other people as complacent when they don’t try their ‘best’. In reality, though, we aren’t at our bests all the time either. Pushing & shoving somebody towards their highest self is never going to work. It’s about love & understanding. It’s about seeing their inner light even when it’s faint at times, and loving them so they can continue to let it shine.

  • C B

    I just need to come back to this every single day and read it. I have the most beautiful, generous and wonderful girlfriend and it’s the hardest thing in the world for me to stand aside and let her handle her own struggles on her own. Thank you for this reminder that they’re hers, not mine. My place isn’t to push, but to embrace.

  • Mel

    This may be 2 years late, but I am so thankful to have read this article. Today, it was mentioned to me that in trying to help the people around me reach their full potential, I became controlling and expectant of perfection. After hearing that criticism, I can’t say I felt like a good girlfriend anymore; I questioned my motivations for wanting so badly for my partner to grow. It was hard to tell if my pressuring was coming from a place of love or just perfectionism. I now understand that what I see as steps forward, may not be the right steps or the right pace for the people around me. Thank you for sharing your journey! It’s truly appreciated.

  • char

    this is the most beautiful insightful article I have ever read..life-changing. Thank you so much for this! I am a fixer, I rarely live in the present moment, and put these unfair terrible expectations on people I love..instead of seeing just how wonderful they are, right now, in their own beautiful glowing light. How blessed I am. Thank you so much for this. Maybe the future is so frightening..and scary..the thought of maybe not ending up with the ones we love is paralyzing but truthfully even we might die the very next moment- so the present is all we have. It is all it is. And the people who are with us right now, they are with us because they love all our flaws and imperfections too. Thank you for writing this article. You changed my entire life. <3. So grateful.

  • Amanda

    I have been with my boyfriend for a year now and he is a recovering addict. He does so well with me but when he goes home he seems to fall into it again. We have had our discussions and arguments but his family is back home and how do you keep him away from his family how do I encourage him without sounding like a parole officer as he puts it sometimes.