February 20, 2024

Toxic Myths that Burn us Out: #6 If you Loved me, you wouldn’t Bring out the Worst in Me.

if you loved me

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*Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a series—lucky you! Follow Tzeli to get notified when the next article is available to read. And check out Toxic Myth #5 here.
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What do you do at the end of the honeymoon phase of a relationship when the rose-colored glasses come off and your “uncool” traits and tendencies start popping up like bad weeds?

Do you hold each others’ hands and explore them with curiosity?

Or do you look at each other and exclaim in frustration:

“If you loved me, you wouldn’t bring out the worst in me?”

Let me tell you how I’ve historically handled it: I walked away from three relationships that lasted 28 years of my life!

Although unaware then, I left relationships thinking love should be easy, happy, and not hurt or trigger flaws.

However, I can now see that this conventionally held belief has never worked for me and is insidiously toxic. It can kill even the best relationships—the most important being the one we have with ourselves.

An intimate relationship is an invaluable mirror that can reflect which parts of ourselves we haven’t accepted yet (aka the worst in us), allowing us to embrace and fully love ourselves.

But if others are not to blame for our worst self, who is?

And when our undesirable qualities surface, what can we do instead of blaming them on our partner by subscribing to this myth?

I vowed that the next time I fell in love, I’d get to the bottom of these questions and finally figure out how to bust this myth.

Let me tell you what I’ve discovered so far.

What Really Brings out the Worst in Us

As tempting as it is to blame our partner or relationship when our worst self shows up, the real culprit is our shadow.

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, defines shadow as the “hidden, dark side of our soul.” It encompasses our unwanted traits, past hurts, unprocessed emotions, and suppressed memories in our unconscious.

We hide these parts of ourselves because they got implicated in the pain of our environment’s failure (our parents and other important past relationships) to meet our needs.

Although our shadow’s goal is to protect our vulnerabilities from getting exposed and improve our odds of finally meeting our unmet needs, it inadvertently gets in the way of building healthy relationships in the present moment.

Intimacy requires vulnerability, which works inversely with our shadow’s efforts, which will do everything in its power to keep our rejected and vulnerable parts hidden.

This creates an internal no-win battle we cannot escape unless we see it for what it is.

How the Shadow Brings out the Worst in Us 

You likely possess many positive qualities, such as kindness, compassion, beauty, and intelligence.

However, being human, I bet you also have traits you’re not proud of and prefer to keep hidden from others.

Perhaps there’s an angry side of you that takes things personally, a worried, anxious side that disrupts moments, or a judgmental side that hinders genuine connections by finding faults in others. You may even be in a great relationship, but your procrastinator gets in the way of doing the small daily things that show you care.

We tend to think these undesirable qualities are our “worst selves,” but that’s not true.

Our true worst self often emerges in our reactions when someone important to us rubs against those seemingly unlovable parts of us. Let me explain:

If our partner becomes too busy and forgets to check in with us all day, it may trigger our anxious side. However, experiencing anxiety wouldn’t be as distressing if we accepted and befriended our anxious side. In such a scenario, we could take a few deep breaths to calm ourselves before approaching our partner to express our feelings.

But if we’ve rejected our anxious side, we can’t acknowledge, support, or address it; instead, we expend energy resisting it.

Unfortunately, this internal resistance shifts our brain into fight or flight mode, impairing our ability to process information logically or connect emotionally with our loved ones.

Our behavior is then driven by primitive, fear-based reactions, such as criticizing, attacking, and blaming (fighting), shutting down (freezing), people-pleasing to avoid conflict (fawning), or walking away (fleeing).

Wouldn’t you agree that this represents our worst self?

I hope you recognize that what brings out our worst selves isn’t our partner—it’s the internal conflict between our authentic self, which seeks openness, trust, and connection, and our shadow self, which strives to keep us closed off and in the dark.

The Consequences of Projecting our Shadow: What we Don’t See can Hurt Us

Although how our shadow causes dysregulation happens below the realm of our awareness, there are many signs that it’s running our life on auto-pilot without our permission. We may feel like:

>> We have “a pit in our stomach.” (Our stress response suppresses digestive function.)

>> We have a hard time breathing. (Our stress response increases our heart rate, and breathing becomes choppy and shallow.)

>> We’re overwhelmed and can’t make decisions. (Under the spell of our stress response, we lose access to our higher functions, such as emotional regulation and relational abilities.)

>> We feel out of control, and our reactions are primitive and embarrassing. (Stress mode places us in a compromised state, physically, emotionally, and cognitively.)

>> We’re stuck in vicious cycles of negativity. (The stress hormone cortisol blocks the release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin and dopamine.)

No wonder it’s so easy to blame our partners for this highly uncomfortable experience. As Dr. Brené Brown uncovered in her research, blame is simply the discharge of discomfort and pain.

However, the saddest consequence of projecting our shadow and staying stuck in stress mode is that we get tunnel vision, and our perception is distorted.

We may have the most fantastic relationship and partner, but we can no longer see them. Our brain’s fear-based, negative bias overshadows anything positive in the present moment.

The relationship’s demise is imminent, and the opportunity to bring our shadow to the light is lost.

Except, this story doesn’t have to end this way…

We have the option of befriending our worst self instead of projecting it, which, interestingly, is much more conducive to what we want: connection.

“Connection—the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” ~ Brené Brown

The Antidote to this Toxic Myth is Complicated 

Empowered by my extensive research insights (shared so far), I felt I had cracked the code to avoid the trap of this toxic myth: “If you loved me, you wouldn’t bring out the worst in me.”

And my coaching sessions further boosted my confidence; I’ve lost count of how many relationships I saved by helping my clients see their shadow’s antics and use that energy to strengthen their connections with their partners instead of blaming them for it.

However, applying this wisdom in my intimate relationship was one of the most challenging tasks ever.

The irony is, when I entered my fourth relationship, I had no concerns about my partner and I ever blaming each other for our “worst selves.” Our chemistry, connection, compatibility, and mutual admiration were extraordinary.

I cherished his imaginative, adventurous spirit, resourcefulness, intelligence, kindness, affection, and good looks. I was over the moon when he expressed that he had dreamed and hoped for someone like me for a long time, calling me “the most amazing woman he’d ever met or been with.”

With each passing day and shared experience, my confidence grew that we would never fall into the trap of this myth.

Except…we did.

The Pandora’s Box of this myth opened unexpectedly. When I expressed concern about prioritizing our relationship over his commitment to “high-maintenance friends,” my partner’s reaction shocked me. Despite his compassionate nature, he became defensive, transforming from my loving companion to a defensive warrior. His response escalated to accusing me of being “judgmental” and casting me as an “enemy.”

My mind was overwhelmed with unsettling thoughts.

“Seriously? You’re accusing me of being judgmental? The advocate for marginalized populations, defender of abused children, activist against discrimination?”

Questions derailed me, tearing my heart apart.

“Why is this happening? Why can’t my partner reassure me I’m his priority? Who is this person, and what did he do to my love?”

While defending against being labeled judgmental, I couldn’t ignore the judgments surfacing about my partner.

“Are his reactions trauma responses from childhood experiences? If only he had embraced therapy like I have, we could have been happy together. That’s the problem. Thank goodness I realized it quickly!”

And just like that, below the realm of my awareness, I gave all my power away to this insidious myth…

Although I had perfected containing my emotional reactions externally, I was slipping into old habits internally. I projected my pain onto my partner, adopting a victim stance and expecting him to resolve our issues.

However, in that painful moment, I had a profound realization that shattered my conditioned ways of thinking. I finally understood the root cause of my suffering and the meaning behind the timeless wisdom, “You can’t truly love anyone until you first learn to love yourself.”

By fixating on my partner’s behavior and projecting my internal discomfort onto him, I missed the opportunity to see him as a mirror reflecting my own wounded parts that need attention and love.

Throughout my life, I’ve unconsciously avoided accepting and embracing all aspects of myself. I sought validation for my anxious, worried, and needy sides from loved ones while rejecting them myself.

What has kept this realization obscured and got in the way of my partner’s and my ability to support each other to heal past wounds through the power of intimacy?

Bringing the Darkness to Light 

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” ~ Lao Tzu

I’ve dedicated significant time and resources to learning how to make love work from the world’s leading love researchers. I found solace in Harville Hendrick’s IMAGO theory and couples therapy, which highlight the idea that we choose partners to rewrite past painful stories with happier endings, leading to healing and true love.

I could offer you endless bullet-pointed insights from numerous prominent relationship experts who could guide us out of the trap of this myth.

But to be honest with you, mindfulness and not knowledge helped me finally open the door to bust this myth.

Because all our knowledge, skills, and resources become inaccessible when we’re under the influence of our stress response.

Nobody (not even a stress coach) gets a free pass from this evolutionary liability. But guess who can break the spell of the fog of distress: our mind.

When we’re in the midst of a painful fight, we don’t realize that what we’re fighting about is the loss of connection, yet our mind’s interpretations cloud our judgment and trigger our stress response.

When we think, “Why is my partner blaming me/or bringing the worst out in me?” our brain sees red and mobilizes our systems for defense.

We can break the spell of this destructive entrapment by kindly and non-judgmentally guiding our mind to answer different questions that unlock our brain from stress mode, for example:

>> What is this reaction all about?

>> What am I thinking/feeling?

>> How would the better version of me respond?

As simple as this small intervention may seem, it can restore our relational ability and connection with our partner and is the ultimate portal to our healing!

When I leaned on mindfulness to soothe the pain of disconnection from my partner, it helped me realize that blaming him for my pain was the ultimate form of self-betrayal.

Because let me tell you what else broke down, beyond my hopes and dreams, as I stood there in pain, getting scolded by my partner for his outburst—the cage I had kept my wounded child in burst open, and she emerged free to deliver a crucial message.

My partner’s lack of compassion for my anxieties pales in comparison to the realization that I’ve harbored a hidden fear of abandonment throughout my life. Ironically, the only person who has ever abandoned me is myself.

For the first time in my life, instead of telling my wounded self to shut up or drink wine to numb her pain, I sat with her to listen to everything she’d been trying to say to me my entire life.

She was furious that I never validated her pain of how hard I asked her to work to get love and approval. How I never stood up for her to honor her voice or her dreams in an attempt to defend and please my parents because they loved me and didn’t expose me to “big T” traumas. And how my entire life, when she felt scared and anxious, I shushed her and did somersaults to ensure we fit in.

Finally being able to show up for her unlocked the true essence of Dr. Gabor Mate’s insight:

“Trauma isn’t what happens to you; it’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happens outside of you.”

My little girl’s wounds were real. Although she didn’t experience “big T” traumas, her need for love without working for it and the freedom to experience all emotions or rest were never met.

All she ever wanted was for me to stand up for her, honor her, and give her my love and approval.

And it was the distress that motivated me to finally join hands with her and place her needs, dreams, and voice as the compass of everything I’d do going forward.

This powerful shift has already been an incredible turning point for me.

I may feel hurt when blamed for someone else’s pain and reactions, but it no longer controls what I do. I can handle pain yet remain compassionate and equanimous.

Considering my mission with Myndzen is to make practical the ways we can stop stressors from messing with us, I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to tell you that I’m (finally) living my message.

Will my breakthrough be enough to bust this myth with an intimate partner? I’ll let you know if and when I get there.

Sometimes, being a benevolent, compassionate presence amidst someone else’s inner turmoil may inspire them to join us on the path of loving ourselves rather than projecting our pain to one another. However, the only thing within my control is to do everything I can to regulate my nervous system, heal my wounds, and ensure that my values and not past hurts drive my actions.

Regardless of whether the man I love and I will bust this myth together (or not), I feel tremendous love and gratitude to him for showing me the way back home in the most unorthodox way.

Final Thoughts

Escaping this myth is a nonlinear, dynamic journey closely aligned with the work I began a few years ago when I joined Elephant Academy’s Maitri course to learn how to make friends with myself.

I remember distinctly nodding my head when Waylon Lewis said, “Maitri is the practice of befriending not just the parts of yourself you love but the parts of yourself that annoy the heck out of you.”

After years of practicing Maitri, I finally comprehended the depth of his words.

I’m excited to rejoin the new and improved Maitri course as one of the many ways to honor and love my wounded little girl. I hope to see you there!

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