One of the relationship challenges I am navigating is the perception that I am a threat or an enemy to someone I love because of fear. When they talk about me, I am a one dimensional character with a flaw that is everything. All of the friendship, love, generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and conscious communication I shared over the last 10 years seems to mean nothing. All the visible work I do on my unhealthy patterns is ignored. I am reduced to the ugliest aspect of myself rather than being seen in my wholeness and given the benefit of the doubt. By making me an enemy, they believe they can justify treating me and others connected to me with tremendous disrespect. By diminishing me to one dimension, they see me, and thus treat me, as less than human.
I am guilty of this, too. I once lost a partner because I reduced him to one action in a fearful moment. I almost lost Eros last summer when I acted out and reduced him to one behavior while in a triggered state (triggers are caused by unconscious fear that past trauma is happening again). I know up close and personal that fear based stories and the resulting behaviors cause tremendous harm and can kill a relationship. I am too familiar with the shame and pain that come from acting out in fear.
I witness this story play out over and over in the relationships around me.
It is ultimately fear that drives people apart and it is quite literally breaking my heart.
When we are fearful our perception is limited, all we see are our fear stories. We forget the love stories. We forget that our relationships are built on thousands of tiny moments of goodness. We reduce everything to a few moments of time or one action or behavior, and then tell ourselves the worst possible story about the other. We forget that they usually have good intentions and assume terrible motivations for their actions. Then we feel justified in behaving badly toward them, whether through disrespect, violent communication, or tearing them down in our conversations with others. Our fear tells us we are protecting ourselves, but we are actually causing harm to ourselves and everyone touched by the vengeful ways we act out in fear. Fear based actions can cause significant collateral damage.
Humans are complex and infinitely-dimensional. We need to learn to embrace this reality if we are to going to live together in any kind of peace. When we reduce someone to one dimension, it is then possible to act without empathy or compassion. When we reduce someone to one dimension, we can justify doing anything we want to them because they are no longer human to us. They are simply a label (Black, Queer, crazy). We can disrespect them by treating them without regard (the homeless). We can be violent toward them with our communication or our bodies or weapons (police violence toward people of color).
This is the primary way fear destroys relationships of every kind, from our relationships with our families to our relationship with our government. This is why we cause the greatest harm to other humans, whether through our wars, racism, gender bias, partisan politics, or in our professional and personal relationships. When we are afraid and in pain, we become blind to the complexity of each other’s humanity and see each other in one dimension that objectifies and/or diminishes the other. We make the other less than human.
In our refusal to face our own darkness – our pain and the resulting behaviors – we project them on to others and make them enemies that need to be defeated or avoided. Instead of battling our demons we demonize others and imagine battles outside ourselves. The power of a fear based imagination and the lure of an outside enemy is incredible – look at Hitler or Trump. Then think about when you’ve done this to someone, because we all have.
This is why some Americans will consider banning Muslims from our country. All they see is their fear of terrorists. They don’t see all of the innocent Muslim people in the diverse complexity of their humanness. They don’t see the Muslim Mothers among us raising peaceful children with religious tolerance, or the Muslim Doctors healing our sick every day as they simultaneously suffer from our racism.
This is why policemen are able to beat and kill Black people. They’ve been brainwashed through the prison-industrial-complex (where Black equals profit) to believe Black equals violence and they are afraid. They don’t see the complexity of Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters, Sisters and Brothers. They don’t see the reality of the life they erase from existence.
This is why male politicians can make policies that cause harm to women. All they see are objects for their pleasure and control, and enemies trying to steal their power. They don’t see the deep grief and trauma that women live with daily in regard to rape, unplanned pregnancy, harassment…the list is endless.
And this is why family members and friends can turn on one another.
When we let our fear stories rule, we diminish the people we love, we make them less than human.
Love is expansive and embraces.
Love sees all sides and includes all perspectives, then discerns the most loving action.
Love is compassionate and curious toward triggers. Love asks, where is that pain really coming from?
Love understands human complexity and that paradoxes exist in our hearts and minds. We can think or feel two opposing things at the same time. We are all capable of generosity and selfishness, kindness and meanness, compassion and violence. We are all capable of great acts of love and great acts of harm.
I am particularly sensitive to this idea of actively choosing love over fear. My Mother was isolated and suffered tremendous physical pain at the end of her life because she was immersed in her fear stories. She drove everyone away and manifested her emotional pain in her physical body. My mother never overcame the traumas of her childhood and early adulthood. I believe that is what ultimately killed her.
At 42 years old I have been working for 25 years to unravel and heal my traumas and pain. I’ve made tremendous progress from where I began as a young woman with a mental illness single parenting two children on welfare, who grew up with emotional violence and addiction/codependency as my first languages of relationship. I am not the same woman that argued with my first husband every day for the first year of our relationship because neither of us knew how to be in relationship without fear. And yet I am still working on my fear triggers and learning love as my primary language of relationship. I imagine this is a lifelong journey rather than a final destination.
I hope the research in behavioral epigenetics (trauma passed on through genes) and the impact of trauma in childhood on all aspects of our health are going to help us to choose love over fear. We are all in so much pain. We all live in fear stories about something. Many of us are walking around with our wounds and fears crashing into one another. Most of us don’t want to pass this pain on to our children. If we become aware of our pain and challenge our fear stories, we could support one another in healing rather than tear each other down. If we challenge our stories of not-enough and scarcity, we could share rather than hoard. If we challenge our bias and prejudice, we could include rather than marginalize. If we opened our hearts rather than shut down, we could navigate conflict with gentleness towards ourselves and the other. We could transform the human experience if we would just face our pain.
I’m sick of pain. I’m tired of physical pain and emotional pain. What I am coming to understand is that the only way to overcome pain is to face it and embrace it. To feel it until we truly know it. To give voice to and be witnessed in our hurt. To express it in therapy or with a friend, or through our bodies in writing, song, dance, or art.
The only way to heal our pain is to to tell the truth about it to ourselves and others. That is the paradox. We have to walk right into the storm in order to calm it. Run the other way and it will chase us, getting bigger the longer we avoid it. While it whispers promises of relief to our minds, avoidance always brings more pain.
We need safe spaces to express our pain so that fear no longer rules our lives. This is my deepest motivation in creating safe spaces where people are welcome to be all of themselves. We need to start by creating safe space within ourselves to face our pain head on. Then we need to find or create safe space to both listen to others and be heard.
After we tell the truth about our pain, releasing its stranglehold over us,
then we can consciously choose to act in love rather than fear.
We can choose to act in love toward ourselves and the other.
We can choose love over vengeance or being right.
Love doesn’t always mean staying. If the other person in the relationship can’t meet us without diminishing us, then walking away may be the most loving choice. Sometimes love may look like abandonment because allowing ourselves to be diminished is not loving. Every human being is entitled to the respect of being seen and held in all of our humanness.
I am heartbroken that I am perceived as an enemy by someone I deeply love. I understand it is immense pain and fear at the heart of their actions. I know I will find compassion and forgive one day. But for now I have to hold safe space for myself as I grieve, continue to work to overcome my own family-of-origin violence, and nurture healthy relationships in which conflict can be resolved through vulnerability and hard conversations. I will no longer consciously participate in avoidance, passive-aggression, or violent communication as methods of dealing with tension, hurt feelings, and triggers. I do not want to have to live through the pain of this lesson again if I can help it.
Over the past few months I started more actively choosing love instead of fear in the relationship closest to me with my partner. He is meeting me in this intention. We are learning how to navigate difficult conversations without diminishing one another. We are practicing how to hold space for all of each other, even when it’s hard to hear, even when we speak it all and still don’t agree. We are learning to own and give compassion to our shadow behaviors, as well as hold each other’s quirks with compassion and humor rather than annoyance and resentment. We are stronger, happier, and more in love with one another, happily celebrating five years together next week.
I am also in the process of healing relationships with my sister and my daughter.
The beauty I am weaving from this heartbreak is that I am learning how to communicate the truth of my needs and my hurt without violence, as well as hear the needs and hurt of those I love. I am challenging my fear stories and listening when my loved ones mirror them back to me. I am learning what violent communication and emotionally abusive behaviors look like and how to call them out without becoming violent in return. I am learning how, when, and why I act out toward others in harmful and diminishing ways. I am learning how to disarm my triggers as they happen. And a big one for me – I am learning how to set and maintain boundaries for my well-being.
Most importantly, I am learning how to hold space for myself and my loved ones in all of our complex humanness. I think that maybe that’s all this human thing is really about. All the questions about God and meaning and purpose, they are all leading me back to the same conclusion. It’s all about holding what’s happening inside us and between us with presence and compassion, with the intention of emotional safety. It’s about how we treat ourselves and each other, most especially when we are in pain.
It’s about choosing love over fear, not as a new age platitude, but as a lived reality.
Fear is destroying our relationships and literally killing us through addiction, isolation and loneliness, suicide, neglected health issues, domestic violence, murder, etc.
Choosing love is choosing life.