“There is a price that is too great to pay for peace…. One cannot pay the price of self-respect.” ~Woodrow Wilson
Those of you who read this blog know that I have been on a journey toward recovery, self-acceptance, and healing for the past year. In the process of that work, I have come across several valuable written resources. Some of them were given to me by friends, some I found through exploring the ideas of others, and some I just happened upon by chance. A small publication by Al-Anon which I recently read falls into the last category. I have never been to an Al-Anon meeting, though I would likely benefit from attending. I have been in relationships with alcoholics on and off for more than half my life, and my patterns of behavior, coping, and living have all been affected by alcoholism. While I was not specifically seeking assistance in dealing with those issues, something about the title of this book – Courage to Change – caught my eye. That spoke to me because it seems I sometimes lack the courage to make necessary changes in my life. The book is a collection of daily meditations or devotionals for use throughout the year. Some of the writings were meaningless to me, but others reached into my heart and brought comfort or challenge, like the following passage:
“One of the first things I heard in Al-Anon was that we didn’t have to accept unacceptable behavior. This idea helped me to see that I need not tolerate violence or abuse, and that I had choices I hadn’t even recognized before. I set some limits, not to control others, but to offer myself guidelines so that I would know what was and was not acceptable and what to do about it.” (Courage to Change, 1992; p. 51)
This goes along with something that I learned while reading Boundaries by Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You can love someone without loving his behaviors, and this love cannot be allowed to prevent you from having healthy boundaries that protect you and enrich your life. Setting limits is not a way to force others to change. It is not a refusal to share or show love. It is a means by which you keep you keep your identity and your sanity intact. Healthy people seem to do this without effort. I have never been able to set limits or boundaries in my relationships until now – and it is still extremely difficult.
The author of this particular meditation goes on to state that though she considered herself healthy these days, there was one person from whom she still accepted unacceptable behavior – herself. She berated and blamed herself for everything that went wrong and never gave herself credit for her efforts. She told herself how ugly, lazy, and stupid she was. Then she realized that those were things she would not say to someone she cared about and that she would not accept those words from anyone else. She learned to start treating herself as though she were a treasured friend. Only then was she assured that she was truly in recovery.
I have spoken before about how Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is a double-edged one; it assumes that before we love our neighbor, we love ourselves. This is still the most difficult hurdle for me to cross. It is so much easier for me to love others, to give myself completely to someone else’s wants, and to forgive them for the most painful hurts while continually castigating myself for the least little imperfections that I often feel as though I have spent my life binding up the wounds of others while I slowly bleed to death. It is not enough to say that I won’t continue to do it – despite my best intentions, I still find myself falling back into the pattern of giving people what I know they want, even when it hurts me to do so.
What is the solution? There are plenty of days when I feel that it would be easier to withdraw from every relationship until I am healthy enough to set my boundaries and hold to them. Then I wonder if I will ever be that healthy. Will it simply be that I hold firm until I am faced by the challenge of someone else’s needs? In the face of someone else’s desire will I just collapse into the old habit of saying, “Do whatever you want, it doesn’t matter”? There is a part of me that knows that withdrawal is not the answer and that I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life. Another part of me is so damned tired of the struggle to maintain my sense of self that it frankly doesn’t care if I have relationships or not. That part of me says it’s better to be alone than to feel used, hurt, and resentful. For a long time I seemed to be divided this way, with two modes of thought and no way to choose between them. But lately, as I’ve been working to heal, there is another way of thinking that is emerging. This other part of me recognizes that I have the right and the power to determine what goes on in my life, and if someone else’s behaviors are unacceptable then I do not have to accept them. I can draw a clear boundary that says, “You have the right to choose what you do, and I have the right to choose what I will tolerate. I will not tolerate this behavior.” This feels healthy to me, and yet it also frightens me terribly.
The fear stems from several sources, but the strongest is the abusive relationship I was in two years ago. In the beginning, my partner often said that he appreciated my independence and my desire for autonomy. Later on, he told me I had no rights in our relationship and that I was the most selfish person he had ever known. When I did try to assert myself in that relationship, the emotional abuse was immediate and horrific – diatribes and alcohol-fueled rants lasted for hours and at the end of the eight months I spent with him, the screaming sessions were interspersed with physical and sexual assaults. Now when I even think about saying “I choose not to tolerate this” my heart races and I tremble all over. Panic attacks and flashbacks threaten and in order to keep peace, I end up saying nothing at all. This is a kind of self-protection that is detrimental because it leaves me in anxiety over the things that I did not have the courage to change.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Serenity Prayer and how it asks for the courage to change what can be changed along with the serenity to accept what cannot be altered. I know that I can't change what others choose to do - they are free to exercise their will in their own lives. Their choices are their own, just as my responses are mine to determine. Where they are unhealthy I must change them – now I just need to find the courage to do it.