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We’ve often been taught that loving others means sacrificing ourselves to serve others. We suspend our own needs and desires in a noble effort to love.
Indeed, love relationships cannot thrive if we are self-absorbed or narrowly focused on meeting our own needs. They require an effort to attend to another’s inner world—to listen deeply to what our loved one needs to be happy. However, if we continually suspend our own needs in order to accommodate others, we’re likely to become resentful and unhappy. We may fall into a pattern of codependence—neglecting our own needs in order to accommodate the other. Love requires reciprocity.
Here are two important ways that self-care is vital if we want thriving relationships.
Tapping inner resources to calm ourselves
Our human desire system is very powerful. Attachment theory tells us that we have a longing to be respected, understood, and connected. We may feel that our very survival is at stake when our needs are continually unmet.
Interestingly, love relationships are supported by something we actually need to give to ourselves! We need to find a way to manage our desire system so that we’re not immediately hijacked by the fight, flight, or freeze response when things don’t go our way—when we’re not gratified in the ways we expect or hope for.
Much has been written about the importance of self-soothing. When things don’t go as expected, we may feel angry, hurt, or sad. We might feel shame—a contracted feeling that bespeaks a belief that we don’t deserve love—or will never find it. The self-care practice of being with our feelings in a gentle way allows them to settle, us feeling calmer and thus leaving more available for connection.
Finding more centeredness within ourselves, we serve not only ourselves but also the relationship. Feeling calmer and more resourced within ourselves, we are able to express our feelings and needs more clearly and effectively. The skills of self-soothing and emotion regulation enable us to do a double-take on what we’re trying to communicate. As we pause to soothe ourselves, we may find that our tone of voice and body language are softer, less contentious, and more likely to garner a positive response.
Love asks us to find the inner strength to sometimes temporarily put aside our own pressing feelings and desires in order to hear and respond to what our loved one needs to be happy. As we find a way to manage our reactivity when we’re triggered, such as when we’re feeling unheard or unappreciated, we can hear each other more deeply and be more inclined to respond not out of obligations but because our heart is touched by our loved one’s needs.
Uncovering our feelings and wants
Caring for ourselves emotionally helps us uncover our deeper feelings and needs. During couples therapy sessions, I often hear a frustrated partner say, “I never know what you’re feeling,” or “I wish you’d tell me what you need from me.”
An important part of self-care is to dive deeply into ourselves and notice what we’re really experiencing. When we’re in a reactive mode, we may vent secondary emotions, such as anger; we may become irritable, critical, or shaming. Emotional self-care means gently attuning to the primary feelings that are rumbling around inside us. These more often vulnerable feelings may include sadness, hurt, fear, or shame.
As we attend to our important feelings with a “caring, feeling presence,” as focusing on teachers Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell put it, our feelings have a chance to settle and be heard by us. It often feels good to recognize what we’re actually feeling inside. Even if we’re noticing painful or uncomfortable feelings, we may feel better because we’re being kind to ourselves instead of fighting with ourselves. Self-care means bringing a hearty dose of gentleness to ourselves rather than having an attitude of disdain or dismissiveness toward our feelings and needs. The more we cultivate non-judgmental self-care—that is, the more that we bring a gentle presence to ourselves—the more we can bring a caring presence to our important relationships.
A foundation for experiencing a secure attachment with loved ones is to be more connected to ourselves. The more we cultivate wise emotional self-care, the more available we are for emotional self-honesty and self-revealing communication. Connecting with ourselves in this caring way enables the growth of the emotional connection and intimacy we’ve always wanted.
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© John Amodeo
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