During my early years of recovery, I was told by many a mentor to “love yourself first”. Take care of yourself, have compassion for yourself. H.A.L.T., don’t let yourself get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I was also told to pay attention to my self talk. In a sense, I was learning how to have a relationship with myself again.
Relating to oneself is something that we’re born with. We know who we are. We know what we want. But years of cultural conditioning taught the taboo of knowing who we are. The skills that I learned to cope with the stresses in my family, and just of growing up, simply didn’t work as an adult to enable me to find a mate and settle down to raise a family. I was really unprepared for any of that.
The only way that I could learn those skills was to participate in groups with other people suffering from the same problems. I learned that “normal” wasn’t necessarily sane or healthy. I was told that I could not love others unless I learned how to love myself first. I worked the steps. I got a sponsor. I made friends I will never forget.
The way I made friends as an adult was very different from the way I made friends as a kid. No longer did I choose friends who taunted me. No longer did I stay with friends who broke my toys. No longer did I tolerate any abuse in any fashion from friends. That was one of the first steps I took to loving myself. I found friends who really did love me. I found fellowship.
Once I began to make good friends, I also began to take notice of my self-talk. I began to listen to myself, and ask myself, as my friends suggested, “does this serve me?” I learned to notice when I was being critical of myself, and to change what I was saying to myself. I learned to tell myself, in so many words, “this is only a phase in my development.”
I didn’t change the way I think because I wanted to. I changed the way I was thinking because what I was doing wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. During that time, I started journaling. I started writing once a day. I really hated writing by hand, but I made myself do it and eventually, it became a habit like exercise.
An unexamined life is not worth living. — Plato
Writing what I’m thinking exposes my thinking to myself for inspection. I began to see how I was thinking and began to make changes in how I wanted to think. I started to love myself by changing he way I was thinking. To paraphrase Neil Young, I was filling my cup. In the words of others I met along the way, I filled my cup until and after the cup flowed over. Anything that flowed over the top of the cup could be directed at someone else.
I kept going to meetings, filling my cup with fellowship. I kept reading books to change the way I was thinking, filling my cup. I did nice things for myself. Therapeutic massage, spas, vacations, nicer clothes, and talking to myself. Eventually, I had a nice river flowing from my cup. And then I found someone to point that river to, the woman I now call my wife, and later, my kids.
Whatever I learned, I learned to share it. If I could not talk about it, then I would demonstrate it. My wife is from a very different culture. I learned to resolve our conflicts not just by talking about it, but also by demonstrating how I wanted to live. I guess I was saying, “follow me”. Yeah, that was what I was saying.
Looking back, I can see that I was doing that for my friends, my relatives, my kids, my co-workers. I wasn’t telling them what to do, I was simply demonstrating how I wanted to live by living it.
Long ago, long before I met my wife, I was in a dance class. The woman I was dancing with stepped on my foot and apologized. “Don’t worry, I have another one. Remember to breathe, everything else follows.” Over two decades, I developed a sort of philosophy, to err on the side of peace. That is how I am today.
Today, my kids need me to help them to fall asleep. They associate the process of falling asleep with me. Now I could try some sort of behavior modification, but they would just rebel. So I changed my way of thinking. Their cups are not full. They need me to fill their sleeping cups. They don’t have the skills they need yet to fall asleep on their own. This is just a phase of their development.
When people present challenging behavior, I just see them like that. “This is just a phase of their development.” Messy rooms, temper tantrums (I haven’t seen one of those in my kids in a long, long time now that I think about it), rebellion, disagreements, passive aggression, and on and on. All of that stuff is just a phase of their development. It’s not forever.
That is what I’m thinking when I see challenging behavior. That is also what I’m seeing when my girls need me to help them get to sleep. They have developed a skill of falling asleep that is associated with me. There is something they need from me to fall asleep for now. But eventually, their cup will be filled. They won’t need me anymore to fall asleep once they fill that cup and can move on to another skill to learn. And I may look back on this time, wistfully.
I apply the same logic to our culture. We buy things to make ourselves happy. We engage in wars. We try to change other people to our liking. We tell other people what to do, “my way or the highway”. We think that something “out there” will make us happy. We don’t know how to entertain ourselves, so we get something outside of ourselves to entertain ourselves. I still fall into this trap from time to time, myself.
But then I see our culture shifting, figuring out that all those nice shiny things can’t make us happy. Even if we get them, we still have to choose to be happy.
And getting to the point of making that choice to be happy, to let what we have be enough, is also a phase of our development. Letting the people in our lives be enough can be difficult, but given time, we can decide to let them be enough. Love the one you’re with. Even if it’s just you. Fill your cup so that you don’t have to wait for someone else to do it. Fill your cup and share what runs over the top with someone else.