One of the easiest ways to be hurt, is to have expectations of ourselves, or others, that are not met. When we meet the ‘perfect’ lover, and want them to carry on being perfect in every way, we are setting ourselves up to suffer. When we cannot accept feet of clay in our teachers, human fragility in our friends, the shortcomings of our parents and the mistakes of our children, we create a world of pain for ourselves.
I think we all have to go through the tricky transition from parents as the godlike figures of our infancy, to parents who have power over us and can reward or punish, to parents who we start to see as capable of error. The recognition that our parents are not all-knowing can be liberating, but also alarming. For me, it brought realisation (and relief) that I would not be expected to achieve the divine levels of insight I had formerly been attributing to all adults.
I have certainly turned out to be a failure and disappointment for others along the way. The feeling of never being good enough has haunted my life, and I’ve never been sure whether that was a fair reflection of problematic shortcomings, or that the people around me were maybe judging me harshly. I’m working on just plain accepting that this is what I get sometimes, not beating myself up if I know I’ve done all I could, and not blaming them or getting angry with them for wanting me to be more than I am. We’re all flawed and we’re all in this together.
Acceptance of others and compassion for them is a theme you will find running through all kinds of spiritual writing. However, for the abused child, the beaten spouse, the bullied employee, this is not a good line to take. If acceptance holds you in a dangerous, destructive place, then it isn’t helping. It’s worth taking a step back here. To accept the way someone is, does not mean glossing over it. Acceptance is not saying ‘oh, this is all fine and fair’. Acceptance begins with honesty. Much of the time that means being able to say ‘yes, my friend hurt me with this one, but there was no intent to harm, it was an honest mistake and we can let that go and move on.’
If someone is brutalising your body, heart or mind, then the truth of that needs to be owned. Accept that there is cruelty, malice, or a level of incompetence that is dangerous to be around. Accept that they are unreliable, or outrageously selfish, incapable of empathy, careless, or whatever the issue is. Know it and name it. Then step back from it to an appropriate degree, whether that means offering less, or taking whatever you can carry and getting out the door. If you’ve accepted that someone is toxic to you, don’t stay around to be subject to further bouts of poisoning. You can accept them from a distance. You can feel compassion for them, from a distance.
I’ve met people along the way who have made clear they expected me to be perfectly compassionate and supportive of them, but who could not be asked to ‘walk on eggshells’ for me. It’s curious how eggshells always come up. I’ve stuck around for some of it, too, years in more than one instance. How it works in practice is that the other person gets to open their mouth and let all the anger, frustration, resentment, jealousy and so forth of the moment, spew forth at me. This, I had to take with saintly composure, because not to is ‘unfair’ to them. It is hurtful, attacking, I am not compassionate enough. If they wound me in such an outburst, they may say afterwards that they didn’t mean it, and I am supposed to accept that and be fine. It is unfair of me to want kindness from them, they have to be spontaneous, free to express themselves. But god help me if I take their words with a pinch of salt on one of those rare occasions when they meant what they said.
What I have come to accept is that this is bloody awful to be around. I can never be ‘saintly’ enough to pacify such people. I never give enough and never do a good enough job of accepting their… whatever that is… to make them happy. My discomfort is not to be spoken of. I accept, therefore, that in such situations all I can do is absent myself.
There was a time when I felt that ‘failing’ in me, keenly. I believed that I really should be able to do more, give more, tolerate more. Unwillingness to accept my own flaws (perceived or real) kept me in contact with people who regularly shredded me.
I’m not a saint, nor am I capable of infinite compassion. I recognise that I’ve read a lot about how I should be more compassionate, but find I need to accept my own limits. One of them is that I am no longer prepared to martyr myself to what I increasingly see as other people’s selfishness, and toddler tantrums. Come out a little way to meet me, and I will give you my all. Expect me to bleed myself dry for you, while you speak of eggshells, and I’ll be some other place.