As Joko Beck, an American Buddhist nun, writes in Everyday Zen:
So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy-it often doesn't-but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find.
I don't spend much time looking in a mirror these days. Like many women, I'm sometimes unhappy with what I see-the signs of sun damage, for example. And my neck-let's just say that when Nora Ephron entitled a book, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," I knew exactly what she meant.
Fortunately, I'm pretty adept at looking at what I do like, and there's plenty there, like a warm smile and a strong body with lots of energy to do the work I love. But looking in a mirror also reminds me to take better care of myself, especially to be more diligent about applying sunscreen.
In a similar vein, if I think of a relationship as a mirror, and I don't like what I see, I think it's a great opportunity to be more diligent about applying self-love. In particular, it's an opportunity to take responsibility for my own feelings.
One of the least true phrases in English is, "That made me feel bad when it happened." We say it so often because we think that something or someone makes us feel a certain way.
But what if we decided to tweak our thoughts, so that instead of thinking, "That made me feel bad." we think, "That helped me feel bad," and "That thing"-whether it's a natural disaster or a domestic downturn-"helped me feel vulnerable or unworthy of love"?
Thinking about it in that way qualifies as self-love because it opens our hearts and minds to the possibility that we can act to make things better.
For example, one of my clients had a conflict with her partner this week: after it was over, she bemoaned the fact that she acted badly. This in turn led her to become distraught when her boyfriend didn't respond to her contrite messages. And so, later, after they had resolved their conflict, I suggested that she ask for his help in the future.
She could say, "When we have a conflict in the future, it would help me if we took a break as soon as we notice we're getting stuck. When I feel better, I'll send you a note and it would help me if you let me know you got my message shortly after I leave it. You don't have to respond with anything more than that. I respect your need for time to process your feelings. I look forward to talking with you when you are ready."
Thinking about things in that way puts the responsibility squarely on us to make it right. We can ask what we can do to help the situation -and there is always something we can do. And we can ask others for what they can do to help us.
We can apologize and make amends if we transgress. We can remind ourselves that we are learning and growing, and we are going to make mistakes along the way. We can remind ourselves that we are worthy of love and acceptance no matter what.
And so in the mirror that is our relationships, we are often presented with the image of ourselves as vulnerable, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.
As in everything else, we have a choice: we can always shift our focus, see something different, and put everything together into a different story.
And once we do that, we will look in the mirror and begin to see someone vulnerable and strong, someone capable of learning from our frailty and making our relationships everything they can be
Is there any greater gift we can give ourselves or the people around us?