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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Luboff, Ph.D.

Don't Be Afraid to Hurt Those You Love

You may think from the title that this post is about being selfish or taking advantage of people. It’s actually about learning to love more. And it’s not written for sadists or manipulators; it is for caretakers and co-dependent types. We each have different styles of loving, and with them, comes different healing work to do. This work is for those who love so deeply, so selflessly, at times, it seems, that they cannot bear the thought of hurting those they love the most.

A few years ago, a loved one began to suffer from constant suicidal ideation. They had struggled in the past, but no one in their life was prepared for this storm. What do you say to someone who cannot sleep at night because they want to kill themselves? How do you live your own life when you are up so many nights trying to calm their fears, trying to keep them safe?

I would never forgive myself if anything happened to them. That is what I remember saying to myself over and again. I wanted desperately for them to be well. I tried reasoning with them – meditation, essential oils, energy healing, medications, more therapy – everything, anything to get them better. When that didn’t work, I lowered my expectations. I’d do everything, anything, just to keep them alive.

One night, we were sitting in their dark room together. Their thoughts swirled around us like a cyclone, damning the world, shuttering out all hope, pulling us both down together. Then for a moment, I stopped. I felt myself as if standing outside that room, looking down on the two of us. What more do I need to do to love them? What more can I do to help them? The answer that came back shocked me.

You must forgive yourself now if anything does happen to them. Know that you have done your best. You have loved them fully. You have tried everything. You are not responsible if they kill themselves.

This was a terrifying thought. If I let go of my ardent wish for them not to die, how would I make sure that they stayed alive? How would I watch over them? How would I be there every moment making sure that they were still here?

I had been reading the Buddhist masters who say that love is releasing our attachments. If those words sound simple, it’s much more complicated than that. And I’m the type who’d much rather hold on to an attachment than risk letting go of what is true connection, just love. But I could agree in that moment that love, at the very least, means seeing past our fears.

If I couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to them, was I truly selfless? Or was I only trying to protect myself from pain? Was the fear the voice of my own self, my own ego afraid of being destroyed? Was it just my own inner child remembering the feeling of being alone? Of my world shattering to pieces? And, if so, was it really true? Were there really thoughts, feelings, so terrible that they could annihilate me?

And so, I decided to be brave. I forgive myself if they die. I have done – I am continuing to do – everything I can.

That is when the magic happened. As I said those words to myself, our conversation changed. The room grew lighter. With my own fear out of the way, I could show up for them. I could listen even more deeply than I did before. I had no more stakes in the direction we took. I could just follow them where they needed to go. And soon, they calmed down and went peacefully to sleep.

I can’t say that I’m a master at this. If you’re a co-dependent like me, you know that it comes up in every kind of relationship – with co-workers, students, friends, lovers…and managing it is a lifelong work in progress. Moreover, it will always be my conscious choice to err on the side of loving too much. I will always give more rather than risk not giving enough.

Sometimes we love so much, we cannot bear the thought of hurting those we love. But, actually, we love even more when we learn to stand that thought. It’s when we stand right here – naked, vulnerable, our true selves – ready to love the world as it is. And ready to become who we are in the making.

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