You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.
I was scrolling through Facebook when I read this on a quote graphic and took a step back. It was exactly what I had been doing: attempting to take care of others and destroying myself in the process. But why? After some long-overdue consideration, I realized it stemmed from my own expectation. I never want people to hurt. I tend to overextend. I light myself up and grit my teeth through the pain to make others feel better, caring for myself only after I feel the other person is safe and secure.
This tendency isn't news to me. It was, however, surprising to realize I was in the act of burning. Why? Because this pattern of hurting myself to help others is a leftover from being a victim. It is one I am very, very careful to stay away from. In fact, it's the reason I started studying Nonviolent Communications (NVC) for parenting and was the main impetus behind starting online safe spaces such as #LinkYourLife. Read more about #LinkYourLife here.
As a parent, I was struggling early on not to combust. I still often feel ripped apart from all sides by the needs of my children and my inability to meet them. I didn't know then that I was parenting autism, and I'm not sure it would have mattered if I had. The takeaway was the same: My needs weren't being met because I wasn't looking at them. And I couldn't meet the needs of my children because I wasn't in a safe space inside myself; I was completely lost. I honestly didn't know I needed anything.
But I did. We all do. I needed to be heard. I needed time and space to express my individuality. I needed respect and partnership. I needed loving care.
And I wasn't getting any of it because I had never asked for it in a way that directly addressed the need. I had never asked for it because no one had told me prior to that NVC class that I should check in with myself to see what I needed and how I would best receive it. Emotional and physical abuse teach you that your needs don't matter. I grew up thinking that way and brought that toxic thinking into my marriage and parenting.
It took a lot of work and support to break out of that mindset. I practiced using NVC scripts and cue cards nightly with my husband. Our relationship deepened. Our love grew and our home became healthier. We began to set boundaries with each other to eradicate the codependency we'd developed as a result of neither of us knowing or feeling empowered to know our own needs. We now have hand signals and phrases to indicate our needs to one another. We speak with "I feel/I think/the story I'm telling myself is" statements. We are much more in sync.
We do have to tune up our relationship regularly. I am very committed to this process, which is why I was taken aback to discover that in other areas of my life, I had completely failed to attend myself.
I've been saying this a lot lately and it's about time I listened: We can't meet other's needs until we meet our own. When a relationship or situation is breaking down, we have to stop and ask whether true communication is happening. If we aren't asking for what we need, we can't be heard. If we aren't being heard, we can become so preoccupied with being heard that we don't hear anyone else. There's more to it, but that right there is the center of me setting myself on fire. I told myself I knew what was needed in a certain situation, but I never checked with myself on what I needed or what I could give. And I burned.
My fire is out but it still hurts. It always hurts to witness your own failures. Still, I am grateful for the reminder that I am susceptible to those patterns. That knowledge will come forward with me and aid me in better defining my boundaries or, in simpler words, my needs. My intuition and personal wisdom are strengthened, and my attentiveness has turned back inward, making me better able to "warm" those who accept my support, and to whom I can safely extend it without self-harm.
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is a coach, writer and creator of online safe spaces for artists engaging issues of survivorship and social justice. The Honeyed Quill is her writing home. Find her here or facilitating #LinkYourLife every Friday on Twitter, and #LinkYourLife Connection, an artist support forum on Facebook.