Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself—if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself—it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice.
So said Thich Nhat Hanh in an interview for Shambhala Sun. To me, this quote captures why we need to establish boundaries and honor our limits--our "hell nos"--in relationships. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself since a fairly long and winding path led to this connection between self-love and limit setting...
When I first awoke to the idea that self-love was more than a cliche in a ballad fabulously sung by Whitney Houston, I started looking more closely at my relationships.
Lo and behold, I was violating my own principles left and right. Although I deemed it a personal shortcoming if I took my frustrations out on my partner, was critical or judgmental toward them, or was otherwise less than perfect (i.e. being human), I had lots of excuses up my sleeve--and experienced plenty of resentment--for their hurtful behavior toward me. I also expected myself to be ever more accommodating of their wants and needs, regardless of whether or not my partner shared that expectation.
Then, on the advice of a therapist, I read Harriet Lerner's Dance of Anger and learned the concept of de-selfing:
Obviously we do not always get our way in a relationship or do everything that we would like to do. When two people live under the same roof, differences inevitably arise which require compromise, renegotiation, and give and take...[De-selfing] occurs when one person...does more giving in and going along than is her share and does not have a sense of clarity about her decisions and control over her choices. De-selfing means that too much of one's self (including one's thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions) is 'negotiable' under pressures from the relationship.
"De-selfing" offered a serious wake-up call. I realized I had taken on the belief, hook, line, and sinker, that pursuing my own dreams was selfish. Thus uncovering my own thoughts, wants, beliefs, and ambitions became a new goal.
Because I was not very practiced in such self-study--I was much more accomplished at judging myself for being self-centered!--I turned to Charlotte Kasl. Her book If the Buddha Dated had lots of gems, including an exercise on setting bottom lines, or "hell nos." Her words illustrated how the act of self-compassion intertwined with the act of putting one's foot down:
Because we want to find the luminous essence within us, because we do not want to repeat painful lessons of the past, because we love ourselves fiercely and want to find a partner who is kind and loving, we commit to what is often called a bottom line. Setting a bottom line means naming the behaviors you will not tolerate in a relationship. Period. Nonnegotiable. If someone crosses the bottom line we stop seeing them--no rationalizing, no excuses. Likewise, we set a bottom line for our own behavior--making excuses for the other person, ignoring responsibilities, sacrificing our values to keep the other person. Honoring our bottom line tests our spiritual resolve.
What I find particularly insightful in this quote is Kasl's emphasis on behaviors. When we set bottom lines with a Buddha-like heart, we are not demonizing, shaming, or blaming others. We are acknowledging that certain behaviors do not contribute to our well-being, whether they are enacted by others or ourselves. We can set bottom lines and still forgive others and ourselves for the harm they/we cause, especially since that harm oftentimes results from a lethal mixture of confusion, judgment, and shame rather than intentional meanness. The difference is that in addition to forgiving, we respond differently to our own pain by no longer making excuses for others and ourselves.* Re-enter from stage left Harriet Lerner with her lovely depiction of responsibility as response-ability:
By 'responsibility,' I do not mean self-blame or the labeling of ourselves as the 'cause' of the problem. Rather, I speak here of 'response-ability'--that is, the ability to observe ourselves and others in interaction and to respond to a familiar situation in a new and different way. We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our own steps, the dance no longer can continue in the same predictable pattern.
I regret to report that responding in "a new and different way" does not prevent loss or pain. Indeed, if our predictable pattern is predicated on de-selfing, we have likely established and maintained ample relationships that deplete rather than nourish us. Therefore, as we start to create emotional boundaries and limits that safeguard and strengthen us, we will likely provoke a reaction in those who are used to us giving in and going along. When we change the dance, we may lose the relationship. That is where the spiritual resolve that Kasl mentions comes in, as well as the words that opened this post. After all, the more we are able to generate energy that takes care of, protects, and nourishes us, the less we will need to negotiate away important parts of ourselves for the sake of keeping a particular relationship. What is more, we will have freed up energy to become more and more skillful at practicing a love that feeds us, those we encounter, and the surrounding world.
The great news is that such energy tends to attract people. Additional good news is that with cultivated clarity and compassion (practice! practice! practice!), we are much more likely to enter into and sustain relationships that are mutually beneficial and life-giving. As for the times in our lives when we feel all alone and so set out to violate our hell nos, we can turn to the immortal words of Tina Fey for inspiration:
May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.