May 2, 2014

When Tolerance Becomes Dangerous: How Early Relational Wounding Creates Blind Spots. ~ Dr. Katherine Coder

Unhealthy Tolerance~painting by Katherine Coder

The profound pain of my last relationship and the subsequent break up have revealed layer upon layer of self-betrayal and huge deficits of self-love.

At many of the pivotal turns in the relationship, I blew past the “red flags” and consciously chose to stay together rather than to honor my own needs for healthy connection, intimacy and love.

As a psychologist with years of training in these dynamics, and as a spiritual aspirant with a deep commitment to love, for self and other, seeing my own shadow and lack of care for myself was profoundly sad—and scary.

How could I, after all of this “work,” still be so unable to see how much I was hurting myself? How could I not choose to protect and care for myself when that protection and care was needed?

How could I not value myself enough to choose me?

In the months following the break up, the questions arose, and I swam in their dark waters week after week. With a strong desire to love and value myself more, I sought professional help, re-entered psychotherapy and committed to seeing my lack and healing at the deepest level.

Over those months I grieved.

I felt shock, sadness, anger, depression and resignation—in that order and in many different configurations depending on the day and the triggers present. I spoke with trusted friends, mentors and teachers. I meditated. I read Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love—a must if you have not read it.

And, through all of it, I held myself.

I cared for myself as best as I could. I sat in my pain, holding it and being with it. I held the horror and revulsion I had for myself as I felt into the self-betrayal. I held the deep sadness of how I abandoned myself in exchange for having someone next to me in bed to wake up to each morning. I held and forgave myself for the ways that I fell into the trap of cultural conditioning about getting married and settling down.

I let other people hold me as well and allowed myself to experience care from others—a friendly hug, a kind and compassionate ear, a knowing wistful smile responding to the poignancy of my story.

Through all of this holding and nurturing, pieces started coming together, and I saw how I could have fallen into this obvious trap.

Coining the term, “unhealthy tolerance,” I saw how early emotional boundary infringements with a parent created a lack of capacity to recognize relational “danger” in intimate relationships—romantic and friendly.

I liken it to not being able to recognize how deep the water is, wading into it and beginning to drown, all the while not realizing how grave the situation is until death is near at hand.

Or walking onto a battlefield with an active war going on, and not seeing the bullets flying until it’s too late.

As I saw my lack of ability to register relational danger, I was flooded with compassion for myself.

I forgave myself for my not knowing, and I forgave myself for my destructive behavior.

At that phase in my life, I simply could not have chosen what was most healthy for me. The capacity to see and to respond appropriately was not there.

In seeing my shadow so much more fully, I’ve taken many more months to integrate and test out new boundaries that recognize relational danger and deviations from self care and love.

I still find myself “confused” at times whether something is safe or unsafe, but the commitment to looking, feeling and experimenting is proving to help me rewire the faulty neurocircuitry and to build the circuits that reinforce healthy relationships and relating.

In this space, I have found the courage to speak up to friends, family and intimate partners and reveal when events have triggered me.

What’s interesting is, I am finding that I am able to bring up these challenging topics with an ease and grace that I never thought possible. I can speak to these topics and maintain an internal sense of cohesion.

I am not abandoning myself in the fires of potential conflict.

There is still much room to grow, more healthy relational neuronal connections to make, but this connection has taken hold and is holding me in the process.

I offer this story as encouragement on the path to greater self-love and relational health in general and to elucidate this concept of unhealthy tolerance specifically.

We watch ourselves cross our own boundaries time and time again, even though we know the behavior is not healthy. We wonder what can be underneath all of that unconscious decision-making that leads to self-harm. We describe ourselves as codependent.

If we take a moment to scan our early relationships, perhaps we can uncover a history of this pattern of early emotional and relational boundary crossings that occurred at a young age.

If this resonates, then unhealthy tolerance may be at the core of what plagues us.

Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Apprentice Editor: Amanda Fleming Taylor / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Provided by the Author, Original Artwork


Read 16 Comments and Reply

Read 16 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Katherine Coder