There have been times in my life when I have been hurt by someone that I care about. I am talking about small hurts like they don’t call when they say they will and large hurts like a broken friendship, a destroyed romantic relationship and broken familial ties. Over time these injuries add up and can make us timid in our relationships, overly cautious in romantic relationships and generally living in fear of pain.
Last year I read Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind To Yourself by Kristin Neff and in it she asked the question “What if instead of being disappointed in people for not living up to the potential that we believe them to have we treat them as if they are already doing the best that they can?” She said that she conducted a group therapy session with Pastors who do a lot of community outreach with people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and they were expressing their frustration with people who keep having the same issues over and over again. They felt anger towards the people they were helping and were on the verge of giving up on them. When she posed this question to them by framing it as “If God told you that these people were doing the best that they could how would that change the way you continue your outreach?” She said that when they thought about it this way many of them broke down in tears because it changed their whole perspective of these people and they could no longer feel anger towards them because they were doing their best.
So, I started thinking of people who have harmed me emotionally and asked myself “What if this really is the best that they can do? What if they have reached their capacity for caring?” I must admit that I was also brought to tears because I could no longer hold on to my “righteous” anger. I could no longer hold them to standards that I had built for them in my mind that they, clearly, were not living up to. I thought about watching my child learn to walk and not getting angry with her because she constantly fell. Instead I treated her with compassion and encouraged her to keep trying and sure enough she learned to walk and has been running ever since.
I am not suggesting that we stand idly by and take emotional abuse from our family, friends or romantic partners but I am suggesting that we remove the burdens of our expectations for another person’s behavior. For example, if I know that my friend is not very good at initiating communication with me I shouldn’t be offended when I go months without hearing from her. She has demonstrated that this is not how she is wired. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t care about me or our friendship it simply means that if I desire more frequent communication then I will need to reach out to her. If this is an untenable arrangement then it may be time to sever the relationship. If my romantic partner prefers to do everything as a couple and this is not something that is comfortable to me I can either constantly argue with this person and deal with them feeling unloved when I want to be alone or I can find a new partner who doesn’t require constant connection to reaffirm the relationship.
If you find yourself constantly frustrated and/or disappointed in someone because you are expecting them to parent, communicate, love or strive in a direction that they are not currently going perhaps it is because you are seeing them as you wish they were instead of seeing them for who they are. It can be difficult to start treating them with compassion instead of disdain but it is not impossible if we change the way we think about their actions. I am no longer interacting with people as I hope, wish or pray they would be, instead I am interacting with them based on their actual behavior because that is who they really are. Now they are free to be themselves without my added pressure and I am free from constant disappointment and judgement.