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Posts Tagged ‘boundaries’

Last summer I lost my chosen family.

I was really upset. I spent a few days dealing with logistics and trying to finish the things I was supposed to finish. After that I had cleared my schedule to do GISHWHES. But I didn’t really do GISHWHES. Instead I sat around in my living room and stared at stuff. Oh, and I broke up with someone. Then I got a not-very-nice email while shopping for luggage at Marshall’s, and I felt like I might have a panic attack so I went home without buying anything. And then I went to the UK.

When I got back from the UK, I was numb. All my emotions felt muted. Even when I was spending time with people I cared about, I felt like there was this new and unfathomable distance between us. I went to parties and stuff because there were parties and stuff on my calendar. I made plans to hang out with people because I needed new friends and I needed the friends I still had, and friendship doesn’t just spontaneously happen. But I felt like I was going through the motions and waiting for time to pass.

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I was numb for months.

MONTHS.

It felt like years.

I wondered if this was just the way I was going to be from now on.

I wondered how I could seem the same on the outside when I felt completely alien on the inside.

I wondered if I’d ever be able to trust my own judgment.

And then the numbness began to slowly fade. That took awhile too.

And now it’s mostly gone, except when it isn’t, and without the numbness to protect me I’m crying in bathrooms, and I understand why I had to be numb for that time. Because this has been really hard.

At some point a few years ago I thought, well, I couldn’t choose my given family, and that was unfortunate, but now I could have a chosen family of friends so everything was going to be fine.

But everything was NOT fine. Things fell apart. Physical boundaries were violated, emotional boundaries were violated, my words were dropping into a void, and I realized my life hadn’t changed as much as I had hoped. I still didn’t matter the way I wanted to matter.

In my darkest moments this fall I felt I had failed completely and utterly. And I told myself sternly that even if I had, I was not allowed to give up.

I remember writing blasé blog posts in the early years of this blog about how I had been a people pleaser but I was going to change, and how much healthier it would be to not be a people pleaser anymore. What I didn’t know back then is that being a people pleaser is a really effective defense mechanism. And without it? Well, without it, I had to face the painful truth.

Without it, I couldn’t always turn everything back on myself. Without it, I couldn’t keep making excuses for other people’s behavior. Without it, I started setting reasonable boundaries and then standing back to watch the fireworks, instead of not doing it so I could tell myself that if I just did it, everything would be fine. I got to see that sometimes people just do and say shitty things, and there is nothing I can do about it except communicate as clearly as possible, take care of myself, and try to be kind but firm. Especially firm.

I’ve felt like I’ve been hip-deep in bullshit for months. And yet at the same time, I realize that until now, I’ve been nose-deep and barely able to breathe. Changing this has perhaps been the hardest thing I’ve done.

I haven’t written directly about what happened last summer before now because I was worried about what you would think. I was worried about what everyone would think. I was worried that somehow by talking about it, I’d make it even worse. But lately, as I am able to see what’s going on around me more clearly, I don’t care as much as I thought I did. And if I have to choose between caring what you think and writing about what is true, I’ll choose writing about what is true. That’s who I am. That’s what matters to me.

And lately, I have come to realize that maybe, just maybe, I have another chosen family. They don’t look the way I thought they would. They’re scattered all over the place, and they’re not all friends with each other, and they’re very different from one another too. They are the people I trust, or am coming to trust. They are the people who listen. They are the people who respond to boundary setting with respect and patience. They are the people who remind me in a hundred small ways I am not alone.

Last summer I lost my chosen family. But coming out of the numbness now, I see that I am closer to finding myself.

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Once upon a time there was a whisper, a wish really, running in the back of my head: “Surely there must be something better than this?” I was like a bird captured in a trap, struggling until my body was breaking and I was completely exhausted. And I was still in the freaking trap.

Once upon a time I simply couldn’t continue, and the whisper became a declaration: “I will believe there is something better than this even though that doesn’t even seem possible.” I went all in. I walked away for the first time, and I began to dismantle my life, piece by painstaking piece.

Things got worse.

And worse.

The forest, the cave, whatever you want to call it, it was so dark. And the journey was so slow. And I was afraid, and I doubted.

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: eflon via Compfight cc

One of my greatest fears over the last several years has been that it would all be for nothing. That I wouldn’t be able to change myself or my life. That there really wasn’t anything better. That all of the time and effort and my suffering and other people’s suffering, that all the sacrifices I was making, would be fruitless. That my lifelong belief that more is possible for us than we realize would be proven wrong. That in my struggles, I’d end up making everything worse, and then I’d have to live with that.

I was afraid, and I clung onto my belief that I didn’t even really believe in like it was a lifeline. There must be something better than this. And I can do this. I will do this.

I won’t give up, I’ll keep going forward no matter what.

When I think back on 2014 in the future, I will remember it as a difficult year, yes, but I will also remember it as the year I left that cave.

Last month, I wrote about being stuck, and I said: “I’m not waiting for doom to fall down onto my head like an anvil.” I looked at that sentence after I wrote it, and I thought, “Oh shit. Oh shit. That is actually true. I don’t feel like that at all.”

What has changed? I have learned how to prioritize taking care of myself, and as a result, I no longer feel powerless. I don’t take on other people’s problems. When a person repeatedly treats me poorly, I don’t deal with them anymore, and honestly, I don’t care who it is. Because I deserve better than that, and I can have better than that. I work hard to surround myself with people who not only care about me but who are actively good for me. I come home to my lovely apartment with my sweet little dog and my piano and my books and my bathtub and my warm blankets, and for the first time in my life, I feel safe.

So now I know. There was something better the whole time, and I know because I’m living in it.

I’m so relieved. I’m so grateful.

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Every December I write a bit on the blog about themes that have developed over the last year, or about what I’ve learned, or other reflective stuff like that. And I think one of the main things I’ve been learning about and practicing this year is developing filters and acting upon them.

Ferrett talks about filters in his recent post “On Eternal Vigilance,” and reading it helped me cement my ideas on the subject. I also recently read a post on Wait But Why about 10 Types of Odd Friendships that is also relevant. It wasn’t the list that made up the bulk of the post that I found interesting though, but rather one of the graphics towards the beginning: The Life Mountain Graphic.

The Matterhorn is one of my favorite mountains, so I'm totally going to model my Life Mountain from it. Photo Credit: AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker via Compfight cc

The Matterhorn is one of my favorite mountains, so I’m totally going to model my Life Mountain from it. Photo Credit: AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker via Compfight cc

I’ve been trying to develop a filter that has both positive and negative components. The positive part of the filter is all about consciously noticing interactions with other people that feed me in a good way. For me, some of the things I’ve set my filter to pick up are the ability to listen well, to be supportive and nonjudgmental, to have an easy give-and-take, and to share wisdom. I look very closely at with whom I feel safe (physically and also emotionally) and with whom I feel I can be honest. I also look for a willingness to engage and take the time necessary to grow or maintain any kind of relationship.

The negative part of the filter is looking for incompatibilities and unhealthy behavior and dynamics. In dating these are called red flags, but I think it’s important to look for these in any type of relationship. Beyond basic compatibility stuff, here are some of the questions I ask:

Are my emotions being taken seriously or being easily dismissed? Do I feel like it’s okay for me to say no? Are my boundaries being respected? If someone accidentally tramples on one of my boundaries, how do they respond when I tell them and does their behavior change once they are aware? Does the person try to simply sweep problems under the rug and pretend they’re not there? How much emotional energy is the interaction taking? Am I being treated with respect (including respect for my time)? Am I receiving negative messages from this person that I have to spend a lot of time combatting? How hard do I have to work to keep this relationship functioning, and does the work seem more or less balanced?

I can use the data collected by this filter, both positive and negative, to determine who I’d maybe like to have move up my mountain and who should probably move down my mountain. This sounds simple, but in practice it can be a very delicate dance that changes over time and depends not only on the filter but a lot of outside factors.

The only way the filter works is if I act on the knowledge it has given me; namely, if I am able and willing to set boundaries and back them up. Which brings me to the second part of the lesson I’ve learned this year: I have to be willing to walk away.

Often walking away isn’t necessary. Sometimes issues can be worked out through communication (and with time). Sometimes I’ll set a boundary and the person will move a bit down my mountain and then everything will stabilize. It’s often not a big deal, as people are constantly moving around the mountain for all kinds of different reasons. But sometimes the filter has picked up enough red flags, and at a certain point there are only two options: remain in a deeply unhealthy personal interaction or walk away.

Actually, I suppose what I’ve really learned this year is not so much the necessity of being willing to walk away as the changed reality: That I have in fact become a person who will walk away. And I won’t feel particularly guilty about it. Not because I like it, but because I’ve recognized how essential it is. Not because I don’t value loyalty, but because I’ve recognized that loyalty only works when it’s also being returned.

Not because I don’t care about people, but because I’ve learned to care about myself too.

This blog post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my filter has helped me find and maintain some truly amazing friendships this year: some brand new, some who have moved up the mountain, and some who have been close to the top for a while now. One of the great joys of my life is the people (and a certain little dog) with whom I get to share it.

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I enjoy reporting in from time to time from the trenches of making a big personal change. At my current stage, here’s what I’ve learned:

My instincts of behavioral response right now are really kind of terrible.

What do I mean exactly? And what does this mean in practice?

Well, on the bright side, my gut instincts are actually coming along very nicely. I’ve gotten used to paying more attention. I’ve gotten used to noticing my feelings and impressions as they’re happening and remembering them for later. I’ve changed the criteria for what constitutes healthy and awesome behavior. All of this is great.

And when I have time to reflect, I do quite well. I understand basic principles. I can figure out what I’m okay with and what I’m not okay with. I practice saying no successfully. I can think through a situation and assess what’s going on, and then I can figure out how to communicate my boundaries. When I’m concerned, I have friends I trust with whom I can sanity check and get advice on the subjects on which I need guidance. I get support when I need it. I sometimes take a bit of time to get back to someone, but I’m usually okay taking the time I need. Again, all great.

Photo Credit: bernat... via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: bernat… via Compfight cc

But when I get put on the spot, well, I don’t want to say it all goes out the window, but if I’m going to slip up, that’s when it’s going to be. Being tired or hungry or sick doesn’t help either, but the hardest thing of all for me right now is when I find myself in a situation that requires an instant response. Especially if there is additional pressure being brought to bear. I usually know it feels off, but I often can’t figure out how to react. Or I attempt to say no or set a boundary, but when that is countered or rebuffed, I don’t persevere.

And my core instinct of behavior, I’m sorry to say, is to not rock the boat. I want to smooth things over, I want everyone to get along, I don’t want to be involved in a prolonged conflict, and I don’t want to find out if me setting this boundary will result in disrespectful behavior from whomever I’m with. It’s important that I DO find out, don’t get me wrong, but to be honest, it’s pretty depressing when that happens. And sometimes it seems so much easier to just … go along with things. I can and do fight that instinct, but when I’m not sure what the right thing is to do, that is the instinct that is ready and waiting for me to fall back on.

One solution to this problem is to do my best to get myself the time I need. “I’ll get back to you” and its variants are my new best friend phrases, and the more I use them or even just think them, the more quickly they will spring to mind when I need them. Even “I don’t know” can occasionally be helpful. And of course, many methods of communication have a convenient delay built right into them.

Unfortunately, some situations really do call for a more immediate response. Ferrett talked about one such example recently. And he’s totally right in that shock/surprise makes it really hard to respond mindfully, and future modelling does help prepare for a wide variety of situations. If I can anticipate an event, then I can prepare a response ahead of time. (Whether or not I’ll actually be able to deliver it, of course, is another matter.) However, anticipating every situation is ultimately impossible (and sometimes overly stressful as well), so I hope that eventually I’ll be able to build a new core instinct that does a better job of helping me stand up for myself when that is necessary.

I thought this would be interesting to write about because I don’t read articles very often about the difficulties of making these kind of changes when you’re right in the middle of one of them. But I have an ulterior motive: I figure it’s a good thing for people to know about me. I do better right now when I’m given time. So that is a gift you can give me that will be deeply appreciated.

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I wrote a short story with that title once: “This is Not Your Story.” I think it was a fantasy story, but really all I can remember now is the title. I suspect the story itself was not overly memorable.

When I was in London, I spent a lot of time walking around the city, and most of all, the parks. There is something intensely soothing to me about walking in that city’s leafy green spaces, occasionally stopping to take a picture or read a few chapters of a novel. And thinking. So much space for thought.

One thing I thought about a lot was how so much of what has been going on around me has very little to nothing to do with me. In one sense, it does, of course, because I have been present, I have been involved, I have had relationships of all kinds with people throughout my life. But even so, so much of it isn’t about me at all. It doesn’t have a lot to do with what has happened to me, or how I’ve felt, or what I’ve wanted, or what I’ve been thinking.

This is not my story.

Photo Credit: Brujo+ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Brujo+ via Compfight cc

I would like to be able to say that this realization has helped me take things less personally. That might even be true. But at the same time, it has made me keenly aware of my propensity to allow things to become my story, even though they really don’t belong to me.

I allow myself to be invisible. I allow myself to be crowded into a small space so there is more space for others. I allow my voice to cease being heard. I think, if only I say the right thing, if only I behave the right way, if only I am an even better listener, if only I am more understanding, if only I let this slide or keep my mouth shut or let it go because it’s not like it matters that much anyway (it’s not like I matter that much anyway, is really what I’m telling myself here), then everything will work and everyone will like me and I will finally be given the space I need to thrive.

To be clear, this is complete bullshit. It doesn’t work.

I’ve been having a hell of a time writing blog posts lately because I’m afraid to even lay claim to my own story. If I say anything about x topic, I think, then this person will think I’m writing about them, even though actually it has nothing to do with them, or maybe it does but that doesn’t mean it’s not an appropriate topic for the blog, but that means I can’t write about that topic, unless I find a way to be very clever so I’m kind of writing about it without writing about it. And three hours later, here I sit with no blog post to show for it. Or I’m bending over backwards to be incredibly vague, even while suspecting that it’s impossible for me to ever be vague enough. And the writing suffers as a result. This also doesn’t work.

Okay, so what does work?

Being authentic works. Being honest works. Speaking up works. Being firm and clear works. Not wanting everyone to like me works. Noticing when other people’s stories are coming strongly into play works. Refusing to take responsibility for other people’s stories works. Laying claim to my own story, yeah, that works too.

This is my story, and I’m going to write about it.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss and inspiration and kindness.

How are you going to tie all of those ideas together in an essay, Amy? Yeah, I’m not really sure either. But I am going to try.

When I first checked my phone on Tuesday morning, I learned that fantasy writer Graham Joyce had died. I felt sad. Sad because many of my friends are grieving the loss of someone important to them. Sad because the one time I met Graham, he had been kind and generous to me.

Sad because then I thought about Jay, and I miss him. I don’t talk about it much. I’m not sure there’s very much to say. The sadness is here, inside of me. That’s all.

We try so hard to distract ourselves, and others, from the reality of this sadness. We want so badly to fix, to take away pain, whether it’s our own pain or somebody else’s. Distraction, cheering up, intellectual discussions about philosophical implications.

But at some point we have to stop all of that and just sit. Sit with sadness. Sit with whatever emotions there are. Turn off the fixer, because there is no fixing death. There is no fixing loss. There is no fixing of so many things.

Sometimes there is someone who is willing to sit with us so we will not be alone. But we are not always so lucky. And sometimes being alone makes it easier. Either way, at some point, the sitting must occur.

Graham Joyce’s final blog post is being widely quoted because it is brilliant. This is my favorite part:

“Actually I know what the dragonfly said.  It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.

And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?”

Cherish. There is so much that is beautiful and good in the world, and it deserves the attention. It is so easy to miss seeing it; it’s so easy for it to be drowned out by the ugly and the ignorant and the damaging. But the good still matters; it keeps us going.

Inspire. We all need a hand up from time to time, or a new idea, or a fresh way of seeing. We help each other to be creative and kind and informed and engaged. We help each other to be better than we could be on our own.

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

I’m reminded of another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s from E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

That’s it. Be a little kinder. I hear these words in my head several times a week. They help me get out of my head when I’m about to stand up for myself or deliver bad news. They help me get past the empathy response that encourages me NOT to stand up for myself, because they give me a guide for how to behave that honors that empathy while also taking care of myself. They remind me that I can be clear and firm and honest without being unnecessarily cruel.

And they encourage me to a little kinder to myself as well.

Cherish, inspire, and be a little kinder when you can. Yes. That is what I’d like to spend my life doing.

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I imagine a better world for myself.

I imagine a world in which sexual harassment is not a common reality, in which consent matters and communication matters and female bodies aren’t so objectified that it becomes easy to forget there’s a person here in this body. In which harassment is strictly not allowed instead of being given a pass or labeled a misunderstanding. In which no always means no and nobody is trying to pretend that isn’t actually true so they can feel better about the horrible way they have treated other people.

I imagine a world in which people don’t tell me what to do unprompted, and people don’t explain things to me that I already know, and people don’t tell me incorrect information about things about which I already know and then won’t listen when I gently question this false information. A world in which I am not shut down when I try to express my opinion or reservations.

I imagine a world in which there are more choices for me than just the Virgin and the Whore. In which I am not shamed for having a body, for how I dress, for the existence of sexuality. In which I am not pressured, repeatedly, to do things I am not comfortable doing. In which vulnerability is not a weakness to be exploited. In which the word “tease” is never used as a weapon. In which I don’t have to worry about the possibility of being physically forced.

I imagine a world in which instead of being told I’m too emotional, my feelings matter. In which the boundaries I set are actually taken seriously. In which people take responsibility for their bad behavior instead of expecting me to be run over by a bus on their behalf. In which there isn’t an expectation that we’ll all just pretend that didn’t happen. In which my discomfort with bad behavior is met with neither anger nor denial. In which people know that empathy doesn’t mean just caring about someone but involves understanding their perspective and feeling compassion on their behalf.

I imagine a world in which people don’t feel entitled to me, to my body, to my time, to my energy. In which basic decency doesn’t expect a reward. In which my choices are celebrated instead of constrained. In which people don’t use manipulation tactics to attempt to control me. In which instead we are gifts to each other, freely given but not taken for granted.

I imagine a world in which I am surrounded by amazing and supportive people. In which none of us are perfect but all of us are willing to own the issues that are ours. In which we’ve learned how to listen, and how to apologize, and how to respect, regardless of gender or color or class or orientation.

And then I imagine myself. I imagine setting boundaries, standing up for myself, and rejecting the pervasive message that I do not matter. I imagine treating myself with the kindness and respect I used to reserve for others. I imagine allowing others to experience the consequences of their behavior without shouldering any of their responsibility. I imagine shedding shame like a skin I’ve outgrown.

Yes. I can be that woman.

Maybe I already am.

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