Love Is Not A Reward
Please welcome back OPAN editor and co-host Kayte for a great piece on love and boundaries.
Through my journeys both in a program of recovery as well as in the polyamory community, my definition of love has shifted and evolved to be something that would be unrecognizable to the me of twelve years ago. This is a wonderfully fortunate thing, and I am so grateful to be older and somewhat wiser regarding my experiences in love.
As a teenager, my definition of love was desperate and hopeless, just like the examples I saw in all of the movies I watched and love songs I listened to. I was waiting for The One to come and save me: save me from unhappiness, from struggle, from heartache, from loneliness, and from myself. This Person would complete me, just like in “Jerry McGuire,” and I would be happy forevermore.
This idea of love lasted well into my twenties and even into my thirties, primarily because of what my own experience of love had been. I had wanted more than anything to feel love and nurturing from my parents but, unfortunately, that was not something they were capable of showing me in a way that I understood as a child. So, I went searching for it in my Other Half. That’s what love meant. To be able to enmesh with another human being and have them be the Love of My Life and my Everything. I capitalize these words because they were that important to me. They symbolized someone to get me out of the muck of my life, because “Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong.”
When I got into a 12-Step Program twelve years ago, I heard the terms “self-love” and “self-compassion” tossed around and fervently got on that bandwagon. I looked in the mirror and said, “I love you” to myself every day. I drew hearts on myself like in the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and I had affirmations on my mirror that I said daily to myself about my worthiness and my love for myself. While the intention was certainly good and I do believe that these behaviors can be helpful, it felt like I was trying to erase a chalkboard full of negativity with a q-tip. I was missing a big piece of this would-be transformation, and that was something I discovered through my stepwork.
The 9th Step is a process of amends to people that I discovered I have harmed as I work through previous steps. There is a setting aside of the harm that has been done to me (super easy, right?), and being able to truly be accountable for the actions I have done to others. This step has been by turns terrifying and freeing, and I have been working on it for the better part of a year. I have made amends to my father, my sister, former coworkers, former lovers, several friends and former friends, and my ex-husband. Through this process of cleaning house and being responsible for my actions of the past as well as my behavior moving forward, I discovered something truly fascinating. I have not forgiven myself for many of these transgressions. Others have let things go and moved on, and yet I have continually “beat myself in the head with the hammer of shame,” as my sponsor says. I was such a terrible person, such a special snowflake, that I was never to be forgiven for these actions even if others had already forgiven me. I would carry on in their stead, making sure I remembered every hurtful thing I did or said in my whole entire life.
This was understandably exhausting.
As I continued this process of discovery through stepwork, it made sense why all of those self-love affirmations made very little change in my life. It made sense why I was so judgmental to those around me; I was reflecting what I felt towards myself. I refused to cut myself some slack, and so those around me couldn’t have any slack, either. Everything had to be perfect about me, and I was fighting a constant battle of trying to live up to this standard of perfection and failing miserably. As Brené Brown would say, I was hustling for worthiness.
I had believed for a good portion of my life that love was a reward for doing something right. This was implanted in me by my parents and reinforced in my relationships. Emotional pain, either from the withdrawal of love or from shame or codependence, was my punishment for not doing things right. If only I hustled more! Love was payment for sex, for gifts, and for sacrifice. If I did it right, you would love me. Love was a transaction and I paid out the nose for it. In this way, I manipulated my partners, family, and friends, and I felt good when the transaction went well. I kept score, and I made sure that I was doing everything I could to keep them happy so that I would keep getting my love paycheck. There was no way I could love myself because I was so busy maintaining this delicate balance with others, and punishing myself when I came up short. Which was always.
Which leads me back to my amends. This process has been laborious, but there has been little in my life that has made this much of a profound change in my outlook on myself and my relationships. In moving through my list of people to make these amends to, I am given the opportunity to revisit each situation with each person and allow self-forgiveness to permeate my past. I acknowledge these behaviors. I bring them into the light and I look at them honestly. Then I go out into the garden and put them to rest with kindness and gratitude, because I am not that person anymore. I am allowed to have this freedom. I deserve this freedom. I no longer have to hustle for worthiness. Accountability and action are the tools I have used to break these chains I have wrapped around myself. I can finally choose to put the hammer down.
As I navigate my relationships with multiple partners, love is no longer a transaction or paycheck. Who wants to make even more freaking amends than I already have on my list?! Looking at and subsequently dismantling my codependent patterns of behavior has helped me move from a place of trying to control everything to a place of compassion and kindness for myself and others. (And something I still work on. Every. Single. Day.) I am not responsible for my partners’ feelings, but I can be supportive and loving as I hold space for them and provide a safe respite from the turmoil of the world. I can apologize in the moment for being an ass instead of holding on to it for 3+ years and having to have an awkward conversation outside of a Starbucks. I give these kindnesses to others because I have learned how to give them to myself. In a beautiful paradox, I have let go of the need to bargain for them and in return I get these things freely from my partners. They love me for who I am, flaws and all. I love them, flaws and all. I don’t have to manipulate; I don’t have to control. In cleaning up my life, I provide myself with the chance to forgive myself and others for being human and making mistakes and release the energy that has held me captive with its need to be fed. I get to use this energy for other endeavors whether creative, uplifting, or sometimes just surviving a particularly bad day.
Being able to be honest about where I am, what I’m feeling, and what my needs are makes my relationships cleaner and more intimate than I have ever allowed myself to experience. Because in truth, I didn’t want enmeshment. I wanted to be authentic. I wanted genuine intimacy. I wanted to be seen and cherished for who I am. Everyone always says, “You have to love yourself first.” I knew that going in, but I had no idea how to get there. Although there have been days that have sucked extra-super-hard, self-forgiveness has been the key that has allowed me to crack open the door to self-love. It’s currently still only open a crack, but it’s amazing how much love can fit through that small space. ♥