The greatest gift you can give someone else is doing your own emotional work.
As I get better acquainted with the types of difficulties encountered by most of us in a day-to-day way, I am less and less troubled by the idea of things done deliberately to hurt me or ruin my day. Notwithstanding its prominence in national and international newscasts, actual malice is relatively rare and thus usually easy enough to spot when present.
Much more pervasive and harder to avoid is the damage done by basically well-meaning people who don’t know or love themselves well enough to see others. They haven’t interrogated their own understandings and found their own blind spots. They’ve spent a lifetime reacting to things around them using every available coping mechanism rather than finding and operating from a deep-down, central self. They’ve taken on old ways and attitudes, internalized every belief about themselves and the world that was inflicted on them by others doing the same thing.
Of course they can’t see how their attitudes and actions might negatively impact anyone else. They can’t even see themselves.
Opportunities for misunderstanding and hurt feelings with such people are practically limitless:
- Maybe you exist in one of the many blind spots they’ve failed to discover.
- Maybe you remind them of someone from their past, and they are so unaware of their own associations and thought processes that they are automatically reacting to (and settling scores with) you as if you were that other person rather than yourself.
- Maybe they resent you or feel the need to ‘cut you back down to size’ for daring to think more of yourself than they’ve ever managed to think of themselves – for taking chances they wished they could take, but didn’t feel entitled to.
In short, I’ve seen how people project the stuff they haven’t worked through for themselves onto the world around them, and how quickly their problems become everyone else’s difficulties in families and systems where poor boundary-setting is endemic.
So… most families and systems.
If all the people circled around such confusion-makers were unfailingly good at setting and maintaining strong boundaries, the negative effects of the behavior could be mitigated. But not everyone is good at setting boundaries. And, as a practical matter, if you find yourself unable to stop tossing dog poo over your neighbor’s fence, the nice thing to do is to examine and root out this tendency in yourself rather than counting on your neighbor to keep building taller fences.
It just takes one or two people not doing their own work to wreak havoc on a family. It just takes one or two people throwing themselves under the bus, ignoring their own needs for the sake of others – turning themselves into time bombs of resentment and hostility – to throw everything and everyone else into disarray.
In my (laughably) short time walking this earth, here’s the closest I’ve come to a formula for getting life right: Get yourself right. Know yourself. Like yourself. Figure out how to understand the parts of yourself and your history that you don’t like, so you don’t end up inflicting your pain on others. Make sure you’re a happy person.
Want to ease the burden of your kids and everyone else around you? Make sure they won’t have to carry you. If you want to be really available to them in whatever they’re facing, you have to be available to yourself. You have to have done your own work.
The nicest possible thing you can do for everyone around you is take care of yourself. You can try to fix and help other people, but you are the only thing over which you actually have any control. If you’re not okay, then nothing else is either. When you’re not okay, no one else is either. Your discontent spreads. The stuff you never worked through gets inflicted on the world, in ways large and small.
Other people might buy you time by meeting you more than halfway – by making special allowances or doing some of your work for you – but most of them won’t have the time or patience to deal with that state of affairs for long. By not doing your own work, you limit your inner circle to those (fool)hardy souls willing to put up with someone who’s always requesting more of them. That rules out a lot of people – and probably, disproportionately, the people you’d most benefit from knowing. People with boundaries. People who’ve learned to value themselves and find some inner peace.
So please, tend your own garden. It’s remarkable to realize how many family-wide calamities have been precipitated by people not valuing themselves enough to get the help they needed. It’s not selfish to put yourself first in that way. It’s the nicest thing you can do.
You do your work. I’ll do my work. Let everyone else do their work. We’ll all be okay.