I have finally realized that some important but less-than-fun relationships have played a significant role in my development. And I am truly grateful for what I learned from them. I’m going to try to speak in generalities about these relationships, because some of the people are still alive, or protective of the reputations of those who have died, and I don’t want their feelings about what I have to say to take away from my message. My sincere, honest intention is to express appreciation. And I want to encourage others to adopt a more gracious, grateful attitude towards anyone who drives them crazy. They are our best teachers. They create significant opportunities for healing, wholeness, and wisdom.
Most of the formative relationships in my life have involved trying to love people who can’t love me back. Deciding to write about this made me I realize there’s a strong correlation between how I feel about having an incurable illness and how I feel about those significant people. The basic instinct is to oppose and fight either a toxic person or a devastating diagnosis. “How dare they/it?” “I deserve better!” “You aren’t the boss of me!” “You have no right!!” But, as I wrote earlier, to oppose something is to maintain it. The injury or injustice becomes a defining feature of the relationship. It gets woven into a dance of anger that actually maintains the status quo.
Then there’s taking a victim position. “There’s nothing I can do.” “I know he doesn’t really mean it.” “She needs me.” “This cancer is going to kill me.” This is accommodation. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that I deserve to be mistreated–either by people or by my body. I’ve written about that too. At bottom is a damaged sense of self, and a learned helplessness.
Many of my difficult relationships were push-pull efforts to extract the desired behavior from the other person. Almost always, the defining feature of these relationships was an imbalance of functioning. One person over-functioned, robbing the other person of dignity, agency, and respect. The other under-functioned, making him or her constantly resentful, disempowered, guilty, and helpless.
This dynamic can be extremely stable, though it sucks the life out of both people in it. The overfunctioner gets really burned out, and never ends up getting what s/he wants anyway, which is to be seen, known, cherished and accepted as a real human being, and not as some kind of invulnerable superhero. The overfunctioiner wants to be rewarded for all the good deeds, all the backing down from fights, all the good intentions. But that’s never going to happen. The underfunctioner stays stuck in an immature, narcissistic role. He or she is actually scared to death of being abandoned, fully conscious of a fundamental inability to stand on his or her own two feet. This is masked by aggression, hostility, jealousy, and mistrust.
Once I figured out I was actually the common denominator in a certain type of relationship dynamic, I began to realize that the “difficult” people in my life were holding up a mirror for me. What they were telling me about how they they saw me and my behavior may have been overblown, or unnecessarily harsh, or even unfair, but it reflected something about their reality. And their reality was valid for them. Whenever, instead of writing them off as wrong or bad, I decided to be curious about what was going on and resolved to take responsibility for my part in it, I began to learn some things about myself and my own character defects and weaknesses. In most cases I wasn’t the root cause of the the other person’s fear or resentment. That came from family-of-origin stuff. But I was doing something to bring it out.
There were people who, I realized, didn’t see me as a real person, but only used me to work out their “stuff.” Well, I also did that to them. In fact, every time I thought or said “So-and-so always does such-and-such,” if I then added, “just like me,” two things happened. First, I developed more understanding of the other person, and more compassion. And secondly I did that for myself.
I used to expect to be betrayed. I never asked for what I wanted or needed in relationships, because I thought I already knew the answer would be no. Instead I always just did damage control. I’d back away from disagreements so I could “keep the peace.” I tried to get love from people who “loved” me but didn’t like me. They were fearful, insecure people too, and they managed their lives by trying to control and manipulate others, hiding their true selves. I did the same thing. I played the same game. Once I began to focus on my own fears and decided to heal myself, everything else changed.
I do not claim that this “fixed” my relationships with all the difficult people. In fact it never did. But it did help me understand myself better. It also helped me clarify my own values, figure out what I wanted and needed, and develop the courage to ask for those things. I had plenty of work to do on myself. I had neither the right nor the power to change other people, and I had no control over how they’d respond if I stood up for myself. But I could quit making myself suffer by harboring unrealistic expectations. I was able to deintensify my reactions, and look for ways to stay connected that didn’t involve harming myself.
I am much happier now. I feel balanced, calm, and OK far more often than I used to. I don’t blame other people, or myself, for being human, for screwing up, for making less-than-perfect choices. I don’t get mad at the wind for blowing. There’s no reason to repay anger or hostility or resentment with anger, hostility or resentment. People do the best they can with what they know. Judging them or fighting back is nothing more than a way to avoid taking responsibility for my own actions.
Which brings me back to thoughts about cancer. I have no interest in allowing cancer to curtail my emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. I don’t have to let it define me. Furthermore, I do not see myself as being in a battle with an adversary. My cancer cells are part of me, not a foreign invader. To me, hating the cancer feels too much like self-hate. It also feels a lot like accepting uncritically someone else’s negative judgments about me. I know what my own intentions and motivations are. If I fall short, then I can try to do better next time, but I don’t have to jump from “I made a mistake” to “I am a mistake.” I am what I am. Facing reality, “warts and all,” is the only way to construct a way forward.
Just as relationships with “difficult people” can be a source of insight and wisdom, and ultimately, strength and healing, so can my relationship with cancer. I take it seriously, but not too seriously. I acknowledge its role in my life, but I don’t make it my central focus. It may ultimately win (though, by killing me, it also kills itself–like a suicide bomber) but if I allow it to paralyze me with fear or bitterness, it wins now instead of later.
I’m going to die. I’m not dead yet. In the meantime I choose to live, and learn, and grow. And love anyway. I haven’t had the kind of love from some other people that I was hoping to have. But I’m still here, unbroken, older, wiser, and there’s no need to assign blame or tell a story about failure. I can choose kindness. I can choose to say, “never mind.” As a matter of fact I feel more loved and supported and appreciated now than I ever did before. Just because particualr people didn’t live up to my expectations doesn’t mean I’m not lovable. It doesn’t even mean he or she “failed” me. It just is what it is.
So be it.