The other day I was confronted by the truth of who I am at my worst in relationship. It was an ugly mirror to gaze into. The shame was immediate and deep.
I was sitting in a relationship therapy training program, and we were talking about self-esteem and boundaries, examining the behaviors that are driven by being walled off or lacking boundaries, by living in shame or believing yourself superior to your partner. And then, on the diagram on the board, I spotted myself. Not just any self - the self I try to hide from, the one I pretend is justified and warranted when I'm hurting and scared in my marriage.
It was a humbling moment, seeing that darkness in the light of day.
Thankfully, I was able to catch myself just as my inner critic started up, and instead I got curious. Why was I so ashamed? Was it because I assumed I was the only one who got stuck in these behaviors? Why did I immediately tell myself that MY worst self was the worst of the bunch? And, why did I jump to the conclusion that my worst was my whole story?
In other words, I had a classic shame response - negative thoughts spiraling ever downward.
It's not often that we have a chance to have our worst reflected back to us in a way that makes us listen. Usually when that mirror is held up, we try to deny what we see because... well, there's always a reason for that snarky comment or icy silence, isn't there?
But, none of us are immune from bad days or bad behavior. None of us.
Everyone has a worst and nearly everyone moves into that space in relationship from time to time.
If it's a thriving relationship and our tanks are full, hopefully those moments are few and far between. If it's a struggling relationship or we're running on empty, then maybe we've gotten a little more comfortable showing that ugly underbelly with more frequency. Maybe, for a few of us, our worst has even become our normal.
Sitting there that day made me wonder... how can we get better at sustaining love, even when we're at our worst?
How can we create and maintain connection when everything in us is screaming to lash out or disappear?
Because the truth is we are surrounded by stories that say we should be focusing on ways to "fix" ourselves or the people in our lives if we want healthy relationship. As if there's a cure or an answer that can make a relationship with another human being perfect.
What if it's not about fixing your partner or fixing yourself and instead about finding space and kindness around the prickly stuff?
What if it's not about who is right and who is wrong, but about how you can connect when shit gets tough?
What if you're allowed to have bad days and make mistakes and you're not broken because of it?
What if, when you're at your worst, you know you'll come out the other side and the people you love know you will, too?
What if you're not alone?
Because that's the thing that struck me most as I was swimming in my shame... every other person (most of whom were therapists and mental health professionals) in that training went to the same place I did: that feeling of "oh god, what if someone finds out?" People started sharing what their worst looks like and the feelings that were coming up for them.
I realized how NOT alone I am.
We are all struggling in some way or another to stay vulnerable in the face of disconnection, to stay open when all you want to do is close off and run away, to hold firm boundaries when you're terrified that boundary might mean the other person no longer loves you, to trust that you're worthy even when you feel completely unlovable.
That's why love takes courage.
Being seen takes practice.
Feeling frustrated and disappointed and unsure of what comes next is normal.
What can we do when we find we're closing ourselves off or being critical and retaliatory or feeling terrified or alone? How do we sustain love from that place?
It begins by simply acknowledging it's not about you being broken, it's about a world that doesn't give us the skills or the tools to navigate these scary spaces (and that's hellbent on proving to each of us how unworthy we constantly are so we'll buy more shit).
We are still worthy of respect, love, and kindness even if we behave in a way that isn't reflective of how we'd like to be most days.
Resilience in the face of uncertainty (which is the definition of life and love) takes endless practice. Knowing that can give us space to forgive ourselves.
Being an adult in any kind of relationship is hard. It takes work and tough choices and accountability and choosing over and over and over again to show up and try.
So maybe, sustaining love is about having faith that each of us are doing our best and sometimes that won't be good enough. But we can always learn and heal and try again tomorrow.
If you want to practice in this space, my bi-weekly online group calls are now enrolling. We practice things like leveling up in love, talking about desires, setting boundaries, finding words for feelings, forgiving our bodies, and a whole lot more. Join our community.
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