(Adapted from a list created by an unknown author, by Karen Fairchild, LCSW)
We all have a deep longing to be completely understood and unconditionally loved. In life, it is easy to note that we are not always understood by others because our particular circumstances are truly unique and sometimes seem unfair. When we most need to feel loved, sometimes those who we depend on for support are not there for us, either physically or emotionally.
I was given a list of Basic Responsibilities for Self many years ago. I do not remember from whom and there was no indication of who originally made the list. I have re-numbered the list and added words over the years. I have found it to be a very grounding and helpful list to me and to the people I work with in counseling. It helps empower us to shift ourselves out of feelings of self-pity, abandonment, and isolation into more present-centered living where we can truly continue growing into our potential. I decided it was time to write up the types of things I discuss with my clients when I go through this list. So here is my first attempt.
Before I begin discussing the list, I want to share my fairly simplistic, yet for me, profound definition of “Self.” I define “Self” as who we really are at our very core. It is who we are trying to be; who we intend to be. I do believe that this is who we really are. We all fall short of our own expectations and hopes for ourselves, but thankfully I believe we are truly “a work in progress” and we have a lifetime and beyond to finally learn to live in harmony and congruence with our true “Self.”
I believe that all people have the same, infinite, unchangeable, and inherent worth. I do not believe that this changes due to anything a person may have done or had done to them. I distinguish between self-worth, self-esteem, and self-acceptance. Self-worth, as described above is infinite and unchangeable. Self-esteem is how much we believe in our worth. Self-acceptance is the conscious deliberate choice we make to love and accept ourselves right now, in our imperfect, flawed and very human state. This acceptance is a humble, forward-moving acceptance, not an “Oh well, get over it. This is just the way I am” type of acceptance.
- I am responsible for my own choices and consequences.
Most of us have been taught that we are responsible for our own choices and consequences for as long as we can remember. However, sometimes when we are hit with undesirable consequences, we want to blame others for the choices we made that led directly to the consequences.
I was recently reminded of this quote by Albert Ellis, “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”
We have probably all said at one time or another, “You make me so mad” or fill in the blank with any other negative emotion. The truth is that we can, or can learn, to take responsibility for our own internal reactions. We make choices about how we respond when a negative emotion is activated inside of us. Learning to take responsibility for our own emotional reactions and what we choose to do with them is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and our relationships.
- I am responsible to make changes in my life.
This sounds simple but, of course, is not. As we learn to accept the basic responsibility of caring for our Self and letting go of blame, we can truly begin to make changes in our lives. One of the biggest mistakes we make, is holding our peace and joy hostage by some future event. “I’ll be happy as soon as ____________ is over.” “I’ll feel good about myself when _____________.” I can relax when my child finally stops ________ or starts ___________.” Now is the time to begin problem-solving and acting on those things that we can and should change. Otherwise, now is the time to start learning acceptance for those things we cannot change.
While working in early intervention with families of young children with special needs, my supervisor taught me to use the word “yet” when describing a child’s deficits in my reports. “Johnny is not yet walking” rather than “Johnny can’t walk.” I have adopted the word “yet” in my own thoughts about my own deficits. “I have not yet figured out how to work full-time, keep my house clean, and make great meals.” Again, this is a humble yet empowered way to be self-accepting in the present without giving up or continually working to move forward.
- I am responsible for identifying my own feelings.
In our closest relationships, we sometimes feel hurt when the other person is not sensitive to our feelings. In these very moments, we may find that we do not even know how we are feeling and somehow expect the other person to know. When we are feeling misunderstood and treated poorly, it is a great time to check in with ourselves, look inside and make sure we can articulate how we are feeling. Brain science has shown that the act of identifying a feeling actually begins to regulate the feeling. We can then begin to make choices around the feeling rather than act out thoughtlessly on an undetermined emotion.
- I am responsible for clearly asking for what I want and need openly and honestly.
Clearly asking for what we want and need implies that we have clearly determined what we want and need. We have to wrestle within ourselves to determine what it is we really want and need. We need to have a reality-based discussion within ourselves to distinguish between our wants and needs. After we have done our internal work, we then have to be vulnerable enough to share. When we share what we want and need we need to be ready to accept that those whom we share with may or may not be able to provide what we want and need. They also have the right to say “no.” They have the right to set limits that are healthy for themselves. Sometimes the fear of rejection or being shutdown keeps us from sharing because it is too painful to deal with the feeling of rejection that may result. However, if we are brave and take that risk, knowing and fully accepting that others have the right to say “no,” the odds of getting what we want and need go way up!
- I am responsible for validating myself.
When someone authentically validates us it is a great feeling. However, it seems that when we feel the need for validation the very most, people are often not there for us. They are preoccupied with their own concerns or may not even notice. If we can learn to validate ourselves we have the potential for a more consistent stream of validation at the very time we need it most. Then, validation from others just becomes an extra.
When my children were young, I heard somewhere that it is healthy to model self- validation for your children. I did this playfully, saying things like, “I am such a nice mom! I made lunch for you when I wasn’t even feeling well.” My children would smile and humor my indulgence. I did notice over time that they were sometimes able to validate themselves when needed as well. Sometimes my husband when come home from a long day at work to a tired wife, a messy home, and out of control children. I would playfully ask him if he could tell what I had done that day. He would reply that he could not. I would then lead him to a bathroom or a drawer that I had cleaned or organized and he would then do a great job of validating my efforts.
Being able to tell ourselves, especially when we might perceive personal failure, that we did the best we knew how or we have learned something we can try to better the next time are other great ways to healthily validate ourselves.
- I am responsible for setting in place support people.
Another thing that we yearn for and are actually biologically wired for, is connection with others. When we are going through happy or sad times, we naturally desire to reach out to our support system to share our experience. However, sometimes when we are longing for connection and support, it is easy to feel like no one is there for us.
Worse yet, sometimes the people that we feel should be there for us may actually minimize or misunderstand our experience or are not emotionally or physically available. We actually grieve over whom we think ought to be in our support system but is not.
We also grieve when our support systems change. My experiences have taught me that we actually do go through a grief process when our support system changes or fails us. We often have to work through feelings associated with grief such as denial, anger, bargaining, and depression on our way to acceptance.
As with all emotions, we need to allow ourselves to feel them and to work them through, rather than attempting to bury them, because buried feelings always resurface, generally more complicated and messy than before.
So what do we do to fortify and modify our support system over time?
One of the first things we can do is to make sure we are not locked into all-or- nothing thinking. We might broadly declare that someone is not there for us, but on further thought we realize that they may not help us out with child-care but they do give our children great gifts or they may not be good at supporting us emotionally but they will come and work for hours in our house or our yard.
Professionally when I ask families about their support systems, they will sometimes tearfully declare that they have no support. When I remind them of the services they are receiving from the agency I am representing, a light starts to go on. Before that moment they were focusing on what they did not have instead of what was right there. We do much better emotionally when we focus on what and who is there for us rather than focusing on what is lacking.
This is true of our communities too. I have noted with my own three children on the Autism spectrum that we have had great community support at times and then it is pulled away due to things such as funding changes or a cherished working moving on. I have learned to flip my anguish, after I have allowed myself to do my
emotional processing, to gratitude that we did have the service and/or support when we did for as long as we did.
After all of this, if we still feel like we need more support, it is our job to go out and find it. This can be done in both big and small ways. We can reach out to someone else who is experiencing similar stressors. Social media is making that easier than ever before and is one of the few ways that social media can be used in a truly positive way.
When my first child was diagnosed with Autism, before I knew it, I had chartered a chapter of a national Autism society and made some of the best friends and one of the best support teams of my life. And, I learned from them what other resources were available and cheered them on as they lobbied the state legislature for additional services from which my community still benefits.
Keep your eyes and your heart open to the big and small opportunities that often come to us at the times we are feeling the most low and lonely. Not everyone needs to do big things, in fact some of the best support comes and is given in the smallest of ways. (For a more spiritual look at loneliness, see my writing Pilgrims and Strangers).
- I am responsible for giving, taking, and creating equitable relationships.
We lose a great deal of positive energy when we get sucked into a pattern of giving and sacrificing for others based on believing that we “should” or “have no choice” but to give to others. We have probably all been in a relationship at one level or another with someone who sucks the life out of us and we cannot see a gracious way out. We may tell ourselves that a “good person has to do this.” When we give, sacrifice, and serve because we want to and we choose to, our energy to give, serve, and sacrifice seems to multiply.
I wish you could all know my oldest son, Kevin. He has an incredible mind and I have been learning from him since the day he was born. On this topic, Kevin says, “The problem with a free vending machine is that it is always empty” and “The givers have to set boundaries because the takers never will.”
Just to be clear, I am in no way saying not to give, serve, and sacrifice. What I am saying is, do it from a foundation of choice and not obligation. Not all of our relationships will be 50/50 and that is not the issue. The issue comes when we do not set healthy boundaries which often lead to burnout and resentment.
Recently I was discussing setting boundaries with a young adult client who was struggling to set boundaries with a parent. I told her that it was important for her to be able to put herself first sometimes. We talked about how self-care allows us to be there for people in a more full and genuine way without resentment. She asked, “Isn’t that being selfish?” I asked her what her definition of selfish was. She stated that she always thought it meant just that, putting yourself first. So, we looked it up in an online dictionary. “Lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”
Self-care that is authentically done for the very purpose of being able to serve and give more is not selfish and is, in fact, necessary.
- I am responsible for having a positive sense of self.
How we see ourselves really comes down to choice. We choose to see ourselves with compassion and understanding. We choose to be kind to ourselves. We choose to love ourselves. We choose to forgive ourselves. We choose to make changes where needed. We choose to see ourselves as a work in progress. We choose to see ourselves on a path to progress and ultimately perfection with little concern about our placement on the path relative to those around us.
We learn the difference between shame and guilt. Shame beats us down and keeps us stuck. Guilt helps us to recognize when we are in the wrong and is a signal that change is needed.
If you have made it through all of this, I am truly impressed. I would love your comments, feedback, and questions.