Relationship Principles You Can Trust
This post is the first in a series of eleven, about relationship principles that set you free. Together, these basics build a foundation of deep love in your life, whether you have an intimate partner or not. These truths apply to relationships in general.
However, no principle in this series is the first step in situations of physical, mental, or emotional abuse. The first step in those situations is to get out of the situation safely. Take care of your well-being, first and foremost. Then, and only then, can other issues be addressed.
#1 of 11— Tend to yourself first.
If you’d like your connection with another person to improve, turn your gentle attention to the places in you that get upset with others. Do this practice casually, no need to get a shovel and start digging. These places show themselves at even the slightest hint of an honest invitation.
Pay attention when an ouch arrives. Or upset, anger, or frustration. When something surfaces, be a good partner. Please don’t say, “Never mind, go away. I don’t want to talk to you.” Do this because the quality of your relationship with others cannot exceed the quality of your relationship with yourself.
This “ouch place” (or upset, anger, frustration) is a place to heal in you as a first step rather than relying on others to change. Once this place has received the attention it deserves, the former problem will transform in some way, or it won’t bother you anymore. The actions or words won’t monopolize your attention and send you in a downward spiral.
This is one way others are generous to us. A problem “given to us” by someone else eventually becomes a gift. (Have faith. We’ll get there.)
It’s possible that you’re thinking, “Yes, but how do I DO that? How do I heal my angry places? Or where I feel resentful, or scared?” My first recommendation would be to read How to Save Your Fourth Marriage. That’s not possible instantly, but it’s a good plan for the long haul. The book is a way to understand this idea thoroughly.
Taking on this shift took me a good while, and remains an ongoing daily awareness practice. Because it takes time, and because it takes a long time, summoning patience at the outset is a worthwhile endeavor.
Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Healing comes when you see the opportunity for growth that a painful situation has provided.” Persian Poet Rumi challenges us with “If you are irritated at every rub, how will you be polished?” Rashani Rea reminds us that “We are all alchemists transmuting pain into aliveness, unwanted experiences into awakening.” The measure of growth, according to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is “You know that you are making progress, when you are kinder and kinder and have fewer and fewer opinions.”
Dr. Hew Len
An extreme example of “tend to yourself first” comes from a true story about Dr. Hew Len. The story illustrates that when we tend to our own mindset rather than blame another or ask them to change, it can alter lives in unimaginably positive ways.
Around 1980, at the Hawaii State Hospital, Dr. Len was assigned to a special ward for the criminally insane. This was a place that housed murderers and rapists, people who had done truly brutal things. Being employed at this facility was intense and dangerous. Patients attacked one another and the staff nearly every day.
Dr. Len was a practitioner of hoʻoponopono, a Hawaiian approach to the development of community, which involves accepting communal responsibility for individual issues that arise. In hoʻoponopono, one person’s issue becomes the entire group’s. With advice from the group’s elders, they find a resolution that is accepted by the whole community.
The four steps of this approach involve Repentance (I’m Sorry), Forgiveness (Please Forgive Me), Gratitude (Thank You), and Love (I Love You). The belief is that when individual minds heal, the worldly problem in question heals, too. This may seem like a far-out idea (it did to me at first), but research suggests the results of hoʻoponopono are similar to the miracles that occur when a group or an individual holds a person or situation in prayer.
Instead of looking for what was wrong with the patients, Dr. Len pored over one patient file after another. He read the details of their crimes and made peace within himself about what each person had done. It was a slow process. He didn’t judge the patients or look for ways to correct them. He did not try to rehabilitate them. In fact, he consciously expressed gratitude for the opportunity they provided to examine himself.
Dr. Hew Len never personally attended to the patients, yet positive changes occurred. Some patients were taken off their medications. Others stopped fighting. Harmony between patients and staff increased.
One by one patients were declared well enough to leave the treatment facility, and in fact, at the end of four years, the hospital closed due to lack of business. Only two patients remained, and they were transferred to another facility.
This is the story that inspired me to look within as a first step any time I felt upset with my husband. This single principle was key to rescuing our failing marriage.
Get Ready. Get Set. Go.
The starting line for most of us is not “tend to myself first.” Most of us begin dealing with our disagreements by transferring cause for our upset outside ourselves. We make our discomfort someone else’s fault. We make statements to friends about why we are justified in feeling the way we do.
Let’s say we believe our discomfort relates to communication with our partner. We blame them for being uncooperative, stubborn, or unresponsive—even toxic! Every In Care of Relationships consulting session with individuals or couples starts with participants placing responsibility on something—anything!—besides themselves: parents, partners, friends, the social system, an unfortunate circumstance, bad luck, and so on. No one sees their upset as a “positive.” They see it as something to get over, and something to prevent in the future. Of course they do. They want to feel better.
Not one person in a consulting session has ever said, “Please help me understand this unfortunate circumstance I’m in. I want to learn something about myself, to be a more compassionate and understanding person. Can you assist me with that?”
Couples don’t say, “Please show me what I might learn from the harsh words my partner said to me this week. How can I grow from this? How can I receive what happened in a way that benefits both of us? How might my openness to explore affect both of us?”
Our Personal Lens
It is natural to view the validity or acceptability of what another person says or does through our familiar “me” lens. This is a fine place to start, because, well, it’s how most of us see our world. But here’s the thing. Our view of another person gives more information about ourselves than the other person.
The lens through which we view our circumstances causes us to recognize patterns, threats, or opportunities according to our own biases and preferences. In our relationship with a friend, family member, or partner, we decide if they’re doing “the right thing” based on our own sensibilities or sentiments.
An example of a lens might be “always look on the bright side.” Others have a designer’s lens: how can this be improved? They are always looking to refine, boost, and upgrade. Still others might look through a lens called “Wait, I know the other shoe will drop—but when and where?” This lens brings trouble, because that lens looks for trouble. Our human attention is designed to find what we’re looking for. (It’s worth a pause to take that in.)
Lenses are normal and natural. However, the practice of tending to ourselves first asks us to go a different way.
If think my partner is boring, and I’m flat out tired of feeling bored, it might cause me to be short on patience, or dismissive of my partner. The practice of tending to myself first would mean that instead of aiming impatience at my partner (because I believe s/he is the “cause” of my irritation, and I have the right to tell them), I’d notice my rising reaction. I’d learn to stop on a dime.
Then, instead of practicing my old reaction and reinforcing it (blaming my partner, asking them for different action so I don’t have to feel so terrible) I’d share vulnerably with my partner. “I can see see what I’m doing. I’m impatient, and I’m about to aim it at you. Please give me a moment to look into this thing I don’t want to do anymore. It’s no benefit to either of us. I’d like to discover what else I’ve got besides impatience.”
(By the way, isn’t that an amazing proposal, one that would open your heart?)
To explore, I might ask myself, “What does boredom mean to me? Do I believe it’s a good thing, or a bad thing? How did I come to that conclusion? If boredom consumed me, how might my life be? Is there another time when I didn’t react to similar circumstances with impatience? How did I respond instead? How did I shift it? Did anyone model that for me? If so, who was it? What happened? What does all of this say about what I think is important? What would I prefer and why?
After exploring questions like these, I might ask myself, “What are some small steps I can take this week toward what I want?”
It’s certainly a challenge, a stretch, to break a habitual reaction, to ask a reaction to take a seat while we offer ourselves open-minded questions. But this is truly the work of becoming a well-adjusted human. We find value in exploration because self-awareness offers us profound benefits. Rather than react and repeat, we move toward something more satisfying. The burden of judgment gives way to acceptance. Frustration yields to the pleasure of evolving. Anger alchemizes into love. The heavy gavel we used on ourselves and others is replaced with a feather.
More About the Exploratory Questions
If you call your mother every week because it’s expected of you, and you’re tired of these obligatory conversations, get creative. Tending to yourself first would mean taking responsibility for the state of things.
What does it mean to be responsible for the state of things?
Do you know how to find ways to be satisfied with what someone else does, even if it doesn’t match what you would do? Or to make your way to a place of acceptance regarding standards that don’t meet yours?
Do you know how to invite others to tell you a story in a way that is meaningful to them? Do you have the skills to invite them to share about what matters most? Can you deepen the experience of being with your mother? Do you know how to turn an ordinary conversation into an extraordinary one?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been learning Narrative Therapy, originated by Australian Family Therapist, Michael White. Narrative therapy is a non-pathologizing approach that aims to explore the effects that problems have on a person’s life rather than labeling the person as the problem. The therapist helps a client notice and contextualize particular life themes.
This work has changed me. In particular, it has made me a better listener, a better beckoner and bringer-outer. It has given me tools to find and draw attention to subjects that matter to the person I’m conversing with in a way that features their story and their genius. When this happens, they learn and I learn. They learn from their story and realize their own brilliance. They discover that they, indeed, are a source of ready solutions.
If you’re having trouble relating to someone else, turn to the place in you that needs fresh air. Throw open your windows. Not only does this make it possible to breath more easily, but it settles you and opens your heart. When you come from your heart, you break new ground. You become true-you. As Gangaji says, “Be open. And then the truth follows.”
Being open is a powerful standing invitation for others to do the same. The world can use more of who we are.
Tend to yourself first,
GET IN TOUCH