One of the greatest sources of stress in my life are my relationships.
Relationships are also my most valuable resource.
Throughout my life, nothing has brought me such enormous pain, or profound meaning, as my relationships.
Struggling with relationships with my family, friends, and boyfriends, is what sent me on the path of psychology and personal growth as a young teenager nearly 30 years ago. I wanted to understand people, emotions, and relationships in order to relieve my own pain. And maybe one day help others do the same.
I’m still working on it all. As my mentor Stan Tatkin says, “There’s nothing more difficult than another person.” I will vouch for that.
There have been times in my life when I felt like I was working hard on my relationships by myself. Those relationships didn’t grow or develop.
Then there have been times when people worked on the relationship with me. I married one of those people, my husband Jayson. Others have become my dearest, most wonderful friends. I treasure my relationships with the people who hang in there with me. People who believe in something beyond the struggles we have in the moment, and work with me to find our way through.
My husband and I see our relationship as the most important emotional, physical, and spiritual resource in our lives. I find the same is true as a parent for my children. The quality of my relationship with my kids is the foundation of their development. I choose to prioritize my relationship with my husband and children over everything else, because I believe our relationships are that essential to our health and well being on all levels.
Some would question me on this, and ask, but what about you? How can you put your relationships above you? Isn’t self care the most important thing?
Hell no, it’s not. Self care is not the holy grail of personal growth or the end all be all of healing. Despite what a lot of healers and self helpers say, self care is inherently limited, in fact, on many levels.
The more we learn about how the human brain and nervous system work, the more we see the fallacy of self care (listen to Bonnie Badenoch, read Gabor Mate or Stan Tatkin, just to get warmed up to this idea if you’re not already). Because of our neurobiological wiring, we simply cannot do for ourselves what others can do with us. Self regulation (the cornerstone of self care) is an important skill to learn, however it is limited, inefficient, and full of our tendencies to avoid our own issues, struggles, and growth edges. Though we may try, we simply cannot do much alone.
Though self help and healing professionals will try to sell you self care as the thing that will save you, self care is merely along the lines of brushing our teeth, cleaning our room, eating a meal, or taking a shower. Self care is a basic capacity to attend to ourselves. We need this skill to function, but that is about it. Even fancy self care like yoga, meditation, or long spiritual retreats (all of which are awesome, by the way) won’t solve our relationship problems, chronic stressors, or the never-ending onslaught of challenges that we face as we go through life.
Think about it. How often have you done some kind of self care (after noticing you were stressed or anxious about something) only to find that minutes, hours, or days later the issue that was creating distress remains? Self care is, at best, a basic skill for day to day functioning. It is worth learning and doing. It will help reorient you and calm you, to an extent.
But don’t expect self care to solve your problems or relieve your stress for more than a fleeting period of time. At worst, we are susceptible to using self care as another avoidance or defensive strategy that distances us from the aspects of our lives and ourselves that we simply don’t know how to manage.
Yes, I’m saying yoga, meditation, nature, exercise, sleeping, or whatever your favorite self care go to’s are, are there for you to recalibrate momentarily and help you get back in the seat of facing your life. Its not your fault for thinking self care should be working better than it does. Even therapists (who know the power of working through emotional struggles with another person because they do it for a living) often encourage their clients (inadvertently) to avoid relationship problems and life stressors with self care activities, rather than to use self care to face them directly.
So lets reframe self care as a basic life skill for maintaining our day to day capacity to face the world, our feelings, and whatever our life is bringing us. Lets not make the mistake of making self care into something that it is not. Self care is not going to resolve our relationship problems, our ongoing stress about the state of the world, or our struggle to find meaning or direction in life. It can’t do that and it isn’t designed to do that.
Ok, Ellen, got it, geez! Why have you got such a big beef with self care, you ask?
Because every day I watch as people use self care to avoid life. Every day, people use self care as an excuse to even perpetuate the exact issues they complain about in their relationships, minds, and bodies. I find myself constantly redirecting people to something else, the thing that will actually help.
You want to know what really helps? What it is we really need when life gets hard, relationships push us to our edges, or life events unfold in painful or even traumatic ways?
People. Each other. Learning how to be in and utilize our relationships.
In order to change the state of our inner life and of our personal life, and eventually the state of our world, we have to learn how to do relationship. We have to learn how to navigate the difficult and complicated terrain of the minds and hearts of our own species, together.
Most of us don’t really understand how people work (trust me, I’ve been studying people and relationships for my whole life, and I am still learning, all the time), and yet we pretend we do. Even experts at the forefront of neurobiology, physiology, immunology, psychology, attachment and many other fields are learning new shit every day about humans and what happens when we come together.
Many of us have no idea what is ultimately possible when two people come together with an open mind and a willingness to listen and learn. We avoid these intimate moments with other people—even those we love dearly, and especially those we have conflict with, though those can go together, too—because we don’t believe in relationship.
And that is fucking sad to me.
But if we are willing to learn about relationships, about the profound capacity of our systems to support one another even during conflict, there is a chance to believe again. To believe in the power of reaching out under difficult circumstances, of using all that support from within that our self care orients us towards, and actually using it to be of real service to our loved ones, communities, and planet. Something totally profound becomes possible, that supports the evolution we all want to see occur, when we face the people we want to hide from.
But in order for this new outcome to occur, we have to believe in our capacity to maintain connection to ourself while we extend to another. That is something that self care, if we are using it correctly, helps us with. It helps us stay connected to ourself and supported from within while we turn towards the challenges that have come our way.
Some of us think that by limiting contact (or breaking up) with people who challenge or trigger us will solve the issue. Boundaries, right? Isn’t that good self care? Yes, sometimes. Its just not always that straightforward and simple. If we aren’t careful, when we cut others off, we run the risk of stunting our own growth while reinforcing the sense that the world is full of people we should be afraid of. Avoiding each other reinforces the feeling of us vs. them, which is part of the mess we are currently in, socially and politically.
So make 2017 the year you decide to deal. With your relationships. I know, its hard. Its hard to deal with the every day challenges of another person, someone you perceive as different than you. Most of us never really learned how. But if you want to go beyond the limits of self care to help yourself and this world, relationship is where its AT.
If you’re really up for a big challenge, maybe you can reach across the lines to someone in your own family. (You thought I was going to say a Trump supporter, didn’t you! That would be rough, not gonna lie). It turns out the people closest to us are often the hardest for us. Its a good, even great, place to begin. And imagine, if we can do that, we can probably deal with everybody else.
Whatever you do, make the leap to listen, and to care. I am certain the effort alone will change the world.