« December 2007 | Main | February 2008 »

January 2008 Archives

January 2, 2008

Boundaries

The world is virtually ruled by fear. It is fear that lies at the root of all anger, hatred, racism, conflict, and even war. Fear is the cause of the majority of mental illness and a large portion of physical illness. Fear determines so much human behavior that it’s difficult to point to decisions that are not influenced by it.

There is so much fear in the world, and so much pain attendant to it, that people will do almost anything to achieve some measure of safey. In therapeutic and self-help circles, many techniques have been applied to help people achieve relief from their fears, and in recent years one method that has attained a level of nearly universal acceptance is the use of the personal boundary.

When people are frightened by a situation or by the behavior of another person, they are encouraged to “set a boundary,” which means creating a protected space where they don’t allow other people to physically or emotionally hit them, violate them, insult them, ridicule them, or otherwise inconvenience, threaten, or hurt them. It’s a safe space where they keep danger away from them.

On the surface, this sounds like a really great idea, doesn’t it? Creating a boundary for yourself makes it sound like you’d be all wrapped up in a nice warm blanket, sipping on hot chocolate, or whatever you’d drink by a crackling fire. But it’s not a great idea, because at its core there’s a worm that eats away at the soul, and the name of the worm is victimhood. Let me illustrate this by introducing you to a couple that once came to me, Marta and Allen.

For years these two had honed their Getting and Protecting Behaviors to a fine edge that they didn’t hesitate to use to irritate each other. Their routine was fairly predictable. Allen often criticized Marta with anger and harsh language, which Marta then loved to relate in exquisite detail to everyone who would listen. Marta was a classic victim, who withdrew her affection from Allen and passively failed to support him in a variety of ways that annoyed him.

Although they had been to several counselors, their relationship was steadily declining. When they sat down with me, Marta began speaking immediately.

“I am sick of the way he speaks to me,” she said. “He violates my boundaries all the time.”

“What do you mean by your boundaries?” I asked.

“The way he talks to me is really ugly. It’s a violation, and our counselor—more than one—said that I have a right to set a boundary for him not to talk to me like that. Nobody has a right to talk to another person like that.”

Why does he talk to you like that?” I asked.

At first she could not understand what I was even asking her, but eventually I was able to explain to her that Allen was attacking her only because he was empty and afraid, because he didn’t feel unconditionally loved. She had never heard an explanation of Real Love before.

“I understand that he’s behaving badly,” I said. “I understand that sometimes he behaves like a pig. But understanding why can make all the difference. Knowing that he feels unloved, what would he need most?”

Instantly Marta became defensive. “But when he talks like that how can I—”

I gently interrupted her before the volcano got out of control. “I understand completely that it’s difficult for you when he talks like that. I really do. But hang on for a bit, and let’s see if we can change your entire world instead of just repeating over and over what hasn’t worked for you. Do you want to keep doing it the old way? How’s that going?”

“Well . . .”

“Did you come here so you could tell me how well your marriage is going, or did you come here to learn something that might work?”

“Okay, I’m listening.”

“So back to the question: Knowing that he feels unloved, what would he need most?”

“To feel loved?” she said.

“Yes, exactly.” Then as I spoke I put both my hands up like a wall between myself and Marta. “Suppose my goal is to feel more loved by you—to feel closer to you—but then I put up any kind of boundary (shaking my hands for emphasis) between us. What happens to my goal? Will I feel closer to you and more loved?”

“Probably not,” she said.

“And you won’t feel more loved either. The instant I set a boundary, I might feel a little safer for a moment—maybe—but what I really want, and what you really want—which is to feel loved—becomes impossible. And that’s what’s happening in your relationship with Allen. His greatest need is to feel loved, and that’s what you really want in your marriage too. But then you set a boundary for yourself, a boundary that stands between you. How do you think that will affect the love in your relationship?”

Marta was now deep in thought. Only a few minutes had passed since she had first sat down, and yet the angry, self-righteous expression and tone she demonstrated then were entirely gone. She was now calm and open to what was being said.

“So how can I feel safe when he’s angry and criticizing me? How can I not set a boundary?”

“Let’s try it right now. Give me an example of something ugly Allen says to you.”

She gave me some examples of some unkind things he had said about the way she kept the house, and he had used some rather harsh words. I asked her how she had responded to him. She had lately evolved to the use of her boundaries, which meant that whenever he spoke to her harshly, she stopped him, told him she wouldn’t put up with that kind of language, and left the room.

“And how does he respond to that?”

“Not very well. He usually yells more. And follows me, yelling.”

“With the boundaries, do you feel closer to Allen? More loving? Do you cuddle more?”

That finally evoked a laugh. “No, there’s no cuddling.”

“So the boundaries thing doesn’t seem to be working all that well.”

“No, that’s why we’re here.”

“Perfect. So let’s try something different.”

I asked both of them to participate in an experiment. “We’re going to do something entirely different here. Relax. Marta, this will be especially different for you. There will be no need here for boundaries, no need to protect yourself, because I’ll be here to make it safe for both of you. Actually, I’ll be here to make it much better than safe. It will be loving, which is what you’ve been looking for all along.”

I asked Allen to repeat to Marta one of the unkind statement he had made in the recent past about the way she kept the house.”

“The house is a filthy, stinking mess,” he said, “and I’m tired of you being an irresponsible child.” He seemed to enjoy that.

Then I asked Marta to cross the room and sit in Allen’s lap, reminding her that there was no need to protect herself.

“Remember,” I said, “ that the goal here is not to be safe. You’ve already tried that, and it got you nowhere. The goal is far better. The goal is to be loving. I want you to set no boundaries whatever. I want you to be entirely truthful and open here, with no excuses and no protection of yourself. I want you to repeat the words I give you exactly, but only if they’re true. Don’t say anything I tell you to say if it’s not the truth. Understood?”

She agreed, and she sat in Allen’s lap. They were both a bit disoriented.

“Allen, you’re right,” I said.

“I can’t say that,” she said.

“I thought you agreed to repeat what I said that was true.”

“But it’s not true. The house is not filthy, and he has no right to call me an irresponsible child. That’s why I set boundaries.”

“Listen to me closely, because I’m here for one reason only. I’m here to help you be happier. I don’t care who’s right. I also don’t care to help anybody be safer. That’s worthless. You’ll be happier only as you feel more love in your relationship, and here’s your chance. Right now. Right now Allen is not being loving. I can see that. So what? If you want your relationship to be better, somebody has to choose to be more loving. So you can choose to be safer—which is just an illusion anyway—or you can choose to be more loving. What’s your choice? This is life or death here, as far as your relationship goes.”

Marta got the point, and she said, “I want to change our relationship.”

“Very cool. So let me help you see the truth. Is the house as clean as Allen wants it to be?”

“No.”

“And are his requests for cleanliness entirely unreasonable?”

“Well, not entirely.”

“So from his perspective—in his language—the house is filthy. Period. He’s right about that. And he’s been trying to communicate that to you for how long, would you say? A week? A month? Longer?”

Marta looked sheepish as she said, “A long time.”

“Years, right?”

“Yes.”

“So when he first asked you to tidy up the place, I’m guessing that he asked in a gentler way. But after being ignored for years, in an effort to get his point across with more emphasis, he resorted to harsher and harsher language. That does not make him right. That does not excuse him, but it certainly explains his behavior. But don’t be distracted by his language. Don’t be distracted from whether his point about the house is right. Now back to what I originally had you saying to Allen.”

“Allen, you’re right,” I said.

Marta swallowed and said, “Allen, you’re right.”

“I really haven’t kept the house as clean as you’ve wanted.” Marta repeated what I said.

“The real point is that I haven’t been thinking of you. I’ve been thinking of myself, and until right this minute I didn’t realize that.”

And in that moment both of them began to cry. And then hugged each other for quite a while. Their marriage didn’t become perfect overnight, but it did begin a dramatic positive turn in that moment that continued as they applied the principles of Real Love.

Boundaries certainly seem justified in the moment. When we’re in pain, anything that temporarily reduces our pain seems justified . Hence all the Protecting Behaviors. But the moment you set a boundary, you presuppose that you are a victim and that someone is trying to hurt you, and that makes it virtually impossible for you to feel unconditionally loved. Although boundaries may create some sense of safety—usually just the illusion of safety—any good they do is entirely offset by the damage they do to the process of feeling unconditionally loved.

The goal of life is not safety. It’s love. When we remember that, our short term goals become much more effective.

January 9, 2008

A Tale of Two Teachers

At a recent Real Love seminar, I had an opportunity to speak with a couple of teachers. Although I had heard stories like theirs many times before, it was still horrifying to hear them tell me that during all their education to become teachers—and during all their years of continuing education since certification—no on had ever talked about the primal need that every child has to feel loved. This would be somewhat like a farmer going all the way through agriculture school without hearing any mention of soil or water.

Teachers are certainly taught the content they are expected to pass on to their students. They’re also instructed in the various techniques with which they can pour that content into the heads of those students. But then no one teaches the teachers about the essential emotional and spiritual needs of their students that must be filled before the students can really listen and most effectively learn anything.

Regrettably, with each passing year, there seems to be little interest in correcting this gaping hole—this Grand Canyon, really—in our children’s education. To our credit, we are recognizing that something is amiss. We are trying to do something. We have recognized that our children are failing to get something from their education, and in 2001 the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which aimed to improve the performance of U.S. primary and secondary schools, primarily by increasing the standards of accountability. Simply put, this law required educators to put a greater focus on the outcome of education, where students would be required to conform to minimum standards of competency as assessed by certain basic skills tests.

Many opponents of this system object that students aren’t being given a genuine education but instead are learning only to pass tests. Whatever the objections to the No Child Left Behind approach to education, it is a fact that our students are continuing to fall behind the level of education of children of other nations around the world. In other words, what we’re doing with our children isn’t working.

I submit that training our children to pass tests without addressing their most basic need for Real Love is like putting buckets all over the house to catch the dripping water from a leaking roof. You might catch most of the water, but you’re not addressing the primary problem. Why not fix the hole in the roof? What children need most is to feel unconditionally loved, and if we address that need first, everything else we do with them will become much easier and more effective. In fact, many other problems will solve themselves.

Children who do not have that basic need filled, on the other hand, are consumed by emptiness and fear. They are so distracted by those feelings that effective learning becomes impossible. They also lash out with anger and rebellion. They attempt to fill their emptiness with the approval of their friends in all manner of bizarre behaviors, the very behaviors that drive adults crazy. They also engage in behaviors that are frankly dangerous, including the use of alcohol, drugs, and sex. In short, if we don’t fill the basic needs of our children for love, not only will they fail to learn, they will endanger their lives.

We can correct our shortcomings as teachers. We can do better. We can learn to love them and give them what many of us never received ourselves at their age. If we will commit to do this, we can literally change the course of the world.


January 14, 2008

I Have a Complaint

For many years I have periodically offered assistance to a woman in my hometown who would otherwise be unable to completely care for herself. She suffers from bipolar disorder, morbid obesity, chronic arthritis of her knees, and a general sense of victimhood that prevents her from ever taking responsibility for her own decisions. She hasn’t held a job in years, and there’s no way she ever could. She’s only sixty-three years old, but she acts twenty years older.

Recently I accompanied her to the Social Security office, where they planned to conduct a review hearing to determine whether they would continue to send the disability checks she depends on. After waiting for some time, we participated in the hearing, which went well, but during the interview it was discovered that an additional interview would be required, to determine what Social Security benefits she should be receiving and how those would affect her disability payments.

We were told that we’d have to wait another forty minutes or so to see the next counselor, and again we began our wait in the lobby. After only five minutes, the counselor came to the door and called my friend’s name. We went back through the maze of offices, but before we began the interview I said, “First I’d like to complain that we didn’t get to wait nearly long enough.”

The counselor looked at me as though I’d lost my mind, so I continued, smiling all the while in such a way that she would know I was joking with her: “When we sat down in the waiting room, we were told that we’d be waiting for forty minutes, and you came to get us after only five, so I just wanted you to know that I’m a little disappointed that you were so fast.”

She smiled and said, “We don’t hear many complaints like that.”

“That’s my point,” I said. “People always complain when they have to wait too long, so it’s only fair that I complain when I have to wait too little.”

“Well, thanks for your complaint,” she said. And she couldn’t have been nicer to us throughout the interview.

Most of us tend to be very quick on the draw when complaining about what we don’t like or screaming about things that aren’t “fair,” but we’re not nearly as vocal when things do go the way we’d like, and that’s a huge mistake. When we fail to give equal emotional weight to the good things in our life, we miss much of the pleasure we might have enjoyed. There’s another way to say this: When we fail to be grateful, we can’t be as happy.

We’re surrounded by opportunities to be grateful and happy. They’re everywhere, and we’d enjoy our lives so much more if we’d simply notice them. When you’re in traffic, instead of fussing about the delays, be grateful that you have a car at all, and that you’re not walking. When you’re waiting in the docctor’s office, quit griping about the wait. Take a book and be grateful for the quiet time you have for reading. When a loved one dies, of course you’re sad at their loss. But don’t spend the rest of your life grieving about it. Be grateful for the love and joy you did share with that person.

The opportunities for gratitude are everywhere. Enjoy them—and, while you’re at it, express them to others. People love to hear them.


January 23, 2008

Let’s Just Play

In our society, winning in is very important, perhaps of paramount importance. In everyday conversation, we have to win our arguments. When competing for business contracts, we talk about beating our competitors. In sports, winning is everything: we bet on it, we become excited when we win, we become despondent when we lose, we even become triumphant or downcast when our favorite teams—with whom we are only peripherally involved—win our lose. When we pick up our children from Little League games—when our children are only eight years old, for heaven’s sake—we immediately ask them, “Who won?” In hockey games, when a referee makes a call that might affect a potential win, parents come out of the stands onto the ice to berate—and occasionally physically assault—the poor referee who has volunteered his time for the benefit of the kids. To say that we are obsessed with winning is a bit of an understatement. We’re actually insane in our pursuit of it.

In an effort to win, we’re willing to lie, cheat, belittle our opponents (witness the taunting behavior in the end zone when someone scores a touchdown), trash talk our opponents to the point where we will degrade their mothers, steal signs from the opposing side, and even cause physical injury to the “enemy.” I’ve read at least two stories describing the mothers of high school cheerleaders who plotted the murder of young girls who they thought might interfere with the success of their daughters on the cheering squad. In the absence of Real Love, it’s apparent that the acquisition of power from winning is very, very important.

My son recently attended a church father-son event, in which the fathers and sons were playing tennis together. The goal was to get the fathers and sons bonding together as they cooperated during a shared athletic event. My son watched as one boy approached his father to ask him to come and play tennis with him. At the time, his father was engaged in a match with another man. The father was clearly exasperated that the son would interrupt him while he was engaged in such an important activity, and he said to his son, “We’re in the middle of this game. The score’s close, so I can’t talk to you now. Go away, and I’ll play with you later.”

My son suggested that the boy come with him to play a game, which the boy was eager to do, and they subsequently had a great time together. The boy couldn’t possibly have gotten any message but this: My father cared more about winning his game than he did about me.

Everywhere I look, I see the price of our emphasis on winning. At the end of a college football game, half the people in the stands are cheering and exuberant, not in a loving and charitable way, but in a triumphant, victorious way, as though they had just conquered someone. Through their team, they just experienced a vicarious moment of unhealthy power over the team—and the supporters of that team—they just beat into the ground. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the other side of the coin. Look at the faces of the fans of the team that just lost. They’re downcast and sometimes even despondent. Some are jeering at the referees because of the injustices they suppose were heaped upon them during the contest just concluded. Athletic events are often less about sports than they are about the acquisition and demonstration of power.

So how could we do this differently?

My six-year-old grandson, Brad, has been raised in an unconditionally loving home where he has little idea what competition even is. Recently he began his first season in organized football, and although I live several hundred miles away, I really enjoyed participating in some of it: purchasing equipment, giving advice to his mother about this and that, attending a practice with him, getting reports after each game, and so on.

After his first game, I called to ask him how the game had gone. He told me that he had thrown the ball up in the air twenty times in a row and the caught it, he had tackled the other team’s quarterback, he had eaten an apple at halftime, he had run all over the field, and he had found a four-leaf clover in the grass. He had enjoyed himself very much. Then I spoke to my daughter, and only then did I discover that Brad’s team had won the game, and Brad had scored the winning touchdown. It turned out that Brad scored touchdowns most of the games of the season, but that meant nothing to him, nor did winning the games. What mattered to him was simply playing the game, running around the field, and playing catch on the non-game days with his father.

In sport, we often speak of the thrill of victory, but for each winner there is always a loser, and in many sports there are many losers. Moreover, the thrill of victory quickly fades, while the enjoyment of just playing—when it’s not tied to winning—can be experienced anytime, anywhere. I submit that we might be wiser to follow the example of six-year-old Brad and just play. It’s more fun. There are never any losers. In fact, when we “just play” everyone cooperates with each other, and in that act alone don’t we all win?

January 30, 2008

The Impossible World of the Victim

After twelve years of marriage, Liz and Robert had learned to attack and control each other with a precision and ferocity that was both fascinating and horrifying, like watching two gladiators at work. Robert was primarily an attacker. He motivated people—including Liz—with the force of his personality and with his anger. Liz, of course, didn’t like being controlled in this way, and she defended herself by feeling and acting victimized. With her words and behavior, she said variations on “Look what you’ve done to me!” many times a day, sometimes several times in a minute. In this way, she could often make Robert feel guilty—or at least irritated—to the point that he’d stop doing whatever was bothering her.

I helped Robert see how unloving his behavior was, and he was a quick learner. He was humbled to realize how selfish and unkind he had been over the years. He freely told the truth about his behavior to Liz and made a commitment to work at becoming more loving.

I tried to help Liz see the truth about her behavior, but that was another matter entirely. Whenever I talked about how she acted like a victim, she immediately said, “But he—” In fact, at one point, I suggested that we have a conversation about her life in which she could not use the words he, him, his, or Robert, and it was sad or amusing—depending on your perspective—to see that she literally could not speak.

Liz had never known Real Love, so she had learned to act like a victim in order to earn acceptance, power, and safety. She was a master victim, and she couldn’t imagine living another way. The idea of giving up her role as a victim was simply unthinkable, and she saw my discussion with her as a threat to that role. So I became another monster in her life, another person who was victimizing her.

She told me that I had crossed her boundaries. Victims love this word. It protects them from all evil. As soon as something happens they don’t like, all they have to say is that their boundaries have been crossed. Victims put up boundaries everywhere. And therapists buy into this foolishness, actually telling people to establish boundaries to protect themselves. But boundaries only establish atmospheres of fear and defensiveness. They do not promote love, which is the only thing that will make people happy.

I assured her that I would cease crossing her boundaries any time she’d like. I said I was speaking to her only because she had asked for my help. I certainly had no agenda but her happiness. I emphasized that if she didn’t want to talk to me, all she had to do was stop the conversation. But she continued talking, insisting that I stop Robert from hurting her.

“Oh,” I said, “so you don’t want me to cross your boundaries, but you’re eager for me to cross his.”

At this point Liz actually began to scream at me. She said she was going to report me for abusing her. Robert—who was in the room with us at the time—was clearly enjoying this, because he was getting a break from being the usual object of this behavior.

Welcome to the impossible world of the victim. Liz was following the pattern of victims worldwide. She screamed that she was being victimized, and yet when she was shown a way out of the predicament she supposedly hated, she wouldn’t take it. Her only way of living was to be victimized. She could only function as a victim. She had only one perspective of every interaction: How was she being victimized and who or what was the perpetrator? In the absence of Real Love, she had nothing. But she couldn’t live in a vacuum, so she used her victimhood to get whatever scraps of sympathy, acceptance, power, and safety she could find.

Over the years, Liz had become very accomplished at her craft, and in her defense, she was almost completely unaware of what she was doing. On the other hand, victims keep themselves ignorant of what they’re doing. They refuse to consider that they might be responsible for their own behavior. They must always be right, because if they ever stop to wonder if they might be responsible for anything, in that moment they can’t be victims. And that would change everything. If victims ever admit that they might be wrong, they would lose their victim status—which requires that other people be wrong—their very identities, and that would not be permissible.

Liz began screaming at me because my question required that she examine whether her beliefs and her behavior were wrong, and that is intolerable for a victim. I tried in other ways to help her see the folly of her position.

“Liz, no one is paying me to talk to you. I have no motivation whatever here except to help you be happy. And I have considerable experience helping people in your situation. Robert has freely admitted responsibility for his part in your relationship problems. He is angry and controlling. But your relationship won’t change until you tell the truth about your own behavior, and you are just as unloving and selfish in your own ways as he is.”

Her screaming resumed. She said I was “violating her” and that she didn’t have to “put up with this.” She called me names and criticized me personally and professionally. It was not difficult to see why her marriage was a disaster. Ironically, this woman had no clue that her behavior toward me was more vicious than anything she had ever described as coming from her husband. And keep in mind that I was a relative stranger who was there to help her. Imagine how she behaved behind closed doors with Robert.

In her mind, however, her behavior made perfect sense, because in the world of the victim, score keeping is an odd, one-sided affair. When Robert was unkind to her, for example, she put that up on the scoreboard forever, for all to see. If she, on the other hand, was hateful and selfish to Robert, no score was kept whatever, because, after all, she was only responding to what he had done, and he deserved it.

Victimhood is an insidious and destructive disorder. Enormous quantities of patience and reason and love are required to help a victim. If you recognize any of the characteristics of victimhood in yourself, do whatever it takes to address it. Read the book Real Love and Freedom for the Soul. Tell the truth about your victimhood wherever possible in order to allow the effects of Real Love to change your life. If you interact with victims—which you do, every day—learn all you can about victimhood, so you can learn the best ways to respond to it. The consequences of allowing victimhood to run its natural course are just too horrible to contemplate, as most of us have already discovered.

About January 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Greg's Real Love Blog in January 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2007 is the previous archive.

February 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.