My mother-in-law is visiting at the moment. And while on the surface everything may look and sound somewhat pleasant, as always, in her presence I perceive threat. I feel the need to adopt a defensive stance as my muscles stiffen and the hair rises atIn her presence, I perceive threat the back of my neck. My eyes are watchful. I sense danger and feel vulnerable; I am poised to pounce and attack back.

I try to see the good, and there is a lot of good to see. I work hard at positive feelings in my heart. I diligently fill up a little book with words of praise for her in my attempt to transform my heart. I pour so much effort into this, and yet time and time again, in her presence I struggle and feel complex emotions; dislike is one of them, but it’s thrown into a basket together with empathy, appreciation, fondness and fear. Somehow, her presence—her very way of breathing and moving through this world—sparks within me dissension and causes me to question my way, who I am and whether I am good enough.

Many times, my mother-in-law tries hard to respect our wishes. At other times, she crosses the boundary of what’s appropriate in her role. At those times, I am called upon to be strong: sure of myself and my role, and how I want to raise my family, which would often not be her choice. But the common denominator—no matter how hard I rationalize or try—is a feeling of being threatened.

Yesterday, I spent time with a wise friend. I wanted something to hold onto, a piece of wisdom that would carry me through this visit. She mentioned that my aim in every interaction should be to make her feel good about herself. Help her feel good about herself? The words struck me. Admittedly, though basic respect is a consideration, that was never my emphasis. I have been in such fear mode all these years—more concerned with what she thinks of me, and ready to defend or attack, rather than thinking what I can do to help her!

I liked the idea. I imagined how amazing it would be to live from this higher place, where I am above pettiness and insecurity. But I was also honest with myself, realizing that in order to do that, I need to first feel good enough with myself. That, of course, is lifelong work.

For now, I decide to move in that direction. I put my arms around the little child inside—the child that is unsure of herself and scared of what other people think—and I remind her that she is beautiful, pure and amazing as she is. That she doesn’t need to acquiesce to anything that feels uncomfortable to her when it comes to her mother-in-law—or anyone else, for that matter.

And as I write, I a sigh escapes from this part ofIf I can love myself, I can do the same for others me—the part that yearns to hear these words, and to recognize self-acceptance and self-love in abundance.

I start to feel hopeful. If I can help myself feel safe and respected, then I can be a big person who is other-focused. If I can love and support myself unconditionally, then I can do the same for others. In fact, the great sage Rabbi Akiva teaches us a fundamental principle of the Torah: “Love your fellow as yourself.” But how can you begin to love a fellow that triggers your emotions and trips you up? By loving yourself first. From this place of feeling loved, whole and centered, you can more easily extend the same to others, too.

My hope is that as I work more on this, I will be able to view my every interaction with my mother-in-law as an opportunity, and consider what I can do to uplift her. I will connect to this holy job because inside, I will no longer be lacking or fearful.

And so, I hug myself tight, and I begin.