So, what is it that makes it so hard for us to take responsibility for our own stuff in relationship conflicts? I think that the reason why we go through so much turmoil in trying to disentangle problems in our most important relationships is because it is so hard for us to look at our flaws. Having to admit to our own failings is accompanied by so much self blame and sense of failure that we would rather defend to the death before admitting that we have erred in some way. When you think you have to be perfect, you can’t admit your mistakes. In the old school, parents were not even supposed to admit their mistakes to their children out of fear of being viewed as weak. All this did is make children think that they needed to be without flaws like their parents, otherwise they did not measure up. The truth of the matter is that the more confident you are, the easier it is to admit your failings. When you know what suitcase is yours and what is in it, it is so much easier to listen to criticism, apologize and admit when you are wrong. The irony is that the more perfect you think you need to be, the less likely you are to admit and acknowledge your own flaws to yourself, let alone anybody else. It is hard for us to face ourselves honestly and embrace both the good and the bad. Many of us don’t even know what our strengths and weaknesses are. We have not unpacked our own suitcase. A primary goal of therapy is to help clients become aware of their emotional triggers and understand as well as accept their vulnerabilities so that they can be less defensive and more responsible in their relationships.
Everybody has baggage. Nobody is perfect. When you accept yourself, you know what is in your suitcase and you can take ownership of it. Interestingly, for many, it is easier to forgive and accept others than it is to forgive oneself. Yes, what does this say of our arrogance? It is O.K. and forgivable if somebody else makes that mistake but it’s not O.K for me to err in that way? I had a client once in therapy who was brutal with herself and so unforgiving that she could not even begin to own and make corrections in her life and she knew it! I worked so hard as her therapist trying to help her to let go of the self hate that crippled her ability to move forward. One day she caught me completely by surprise. She walked into a session and said that she had finally had a breakthrough. She told me that she had been exploring her spirituality and realized that if whenever she erred, she could start by forgiving every body else in the world who had made that same mistake, then she could include herself in that group and forgive herself as well. The missing piece for most of us when we get stuck in defensiveness is the inability to have compassion for ourselves more than the difficulty having compassion for others.
How many of us are holding on to grievances against ourselves and others that just make our suitcases way heavier than they need to be? Resentment makes for a heavy load and so does self blame. In fact, both can be crippling. I have a colleague who keeps a baseball bat in his therapy office. When I asked him why that was the case, he said that he has a number of patients who beat themselves up and when they do, he hands them the baseball bat so that they can become aware of what they are doing. The ironic truth is that the more you beat yourself up, the less likely you are to take responsibility for your own suitcase and the less likely you are to change. It only makes sense. All that self abuse just ends up being so oppressive and your suitcase becomes such a burden that all you want to do is to off load it somewhere. Similarly, if you hang on to resentments toward others, your suitcase gets heavier and heavier and weighs you down. The major reason to forgive others is so that you can lighten your load and get on with your life.
Close relationships are fraught with power struggles. It is inevitable and part of their nature and evolution. Children have as much trouble forgiving parents as parents have forgiving children. Power struggles are inherent to primary relationships and learning how to get through them is integral to learning to love. Most couples come together because they want to feel good and are counting on the other to make it happen. Power struggles often emerge because we want the other person to change so that we can feel better. We hold one another to impossible, unnatural standards and then become disappointed, hurt and angry because we have bought into the belief they if they just loved us enough, they would do what we want so that we could be happy. You can only invite someone to change. You cannot pummel them into it. Otherwise, the best of intentions result in feelings of entrapment and bondage. With time, many learn that happiness is an inside job and that another cannot make us happy. Many relationship conflicts can be resolved by people letting go of blame, having the courage to take responsibility for their own quirks and expectations and being able to forgive themselves. How does one go about doing this?
Letting go of blame and lightening your suitcase is no easy task. There is no formula but the process looks something like this: First, in the midst of a conflict when feelings are heated and thoughts are swirling, you need to stop and let the dust settle. Thinking is often skewed at this time and acting impulsively is seldom constructive. Second, you need to take a step back and allow yourself to acknowledge all the feelings that you have without judgement and without feeling swallowed up by them. This requires being able to observe your feelings and thoughts without becoming over-identified with them. In other words, know that your thoughts and feelings are only part of you, not all of you. Third, you need to be able to let go of blame in order to do some soul searching so that you can take a look at what’s in your suitcase that may be contributing to the relationship dilemma. This does not mean that the other person does not have issues. What it means is that relationship conflict is a dance and the only control you have is over your side of whatever conflict has ensued. The more work you have done on yourself, the greater your awareness of what is in your suitcase. The hard part about looking at your stuff is feeling good enough about yourself so that you can be resilient and not get stuck in pride or shame. In tough situations when you really feel snagged, it may help to go through your suitcase with somebody you feel safe with who you feel is non-judgmental. This could be a priest, parent, spouse or therapist. The challenge is to be able to look at those shadow parts and mistakes as portals to learning something new rather than opportunities to berate oneself. As one gets better at forgiving oneself and being able to show compassion for oneself, the ability to forgive others flows naturally. There is no end to learning how to get better at doing this because understanding ourselves and learning to love are lifelong!