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Posts Tagged ‘boundaries’

A couple of months ago a friend of mine told me I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

At first I argued with him. But that ended pretty quickly because his argument was actually convincing. My favorite point? “How many men,” he asked me, “have you helped ‘discover their joy’?”

My reaction to that question was, “Oh, shut up.” Although of course, I didn’t actually say that because it wouldn’t have been a discovering the joy kind of thing to say.

So then I thought maybe I could write a memoir called “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Because how much fun would that be?

Bringing the joy! With BAKING.

Bringing the joy! With SWEET TREATS.

The idea was shiny but not without its drawbacks. For starters, to write that book properly I’d have to show a lot of the past messes in my life, and even though I know everyone has a lot of mess in their lives at one point or another, it’s still not the most comfortable proposition. Plus I know if I wrote that book the way I wanted to write it, I’d get rape threats for sure. Which, I mean, I kind of feel is inevitable, but it does have a dampening effect on my desire to pursue the project.

Also, I feel the need to point out that yes, we live in a world where female writers think about rape threat potential when planning their careers. Yup.

One of the great things about this hypothetical memoir is that it has a great redemptive arc. And I just read a blog post by Penelope Trunk telling me publishers want redemptive memoirs. (As an aside, I completely agree with her about Jeanette Wallis’s The Glass Castle. I was so disappointed when it ended. I wanted to know how her crazy childhood affected her adult life. To me, that was the interesting part, more so than the redemption. And then the book ended right when we got there!)

Anyway. Note the title of my memoir. I WAS a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Past tense. Because I don’t really think I am one anymore. How’s that for some redemption?

Why do I think I’ve changed? Well, I’ve been meeting a lot of people for the past several months. Including a lot of guys who I’m sure I could have helped discover their joy. Or at least made myself very unhappy trying. But I’ve lost almost all my interest in doing that. (I mean, okay, not ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of my interest, but hey, no one’s perfect.)

Like, I could never date a workaholic again, and I would be completely happy with that outcome. Ecstatic, really. Workaholics are thick on the ground where I live. And they are the perfect people to help rediscover their joy and the fact there’s a world outside their offices and all that jazz. Also, I totally disagree with their life philosophies. I think they’re more likely than not to regret being workaholics later in life. I mean, look at the top five regrets of dying people. But, I mean, whatever. Maybe they won’t, and in the meantime, it is so amazingly lovely to have that not be my problem.

It is amazing how liberating it is to realize how many things are not my problem. He can’t ask me to do something with a reasonable amount of lead time? Not my problem. He doesn’t see the importance of a social life? Not my problem. He has deep existential pain? Or, you know, some kind of complicated problem? Not my problem. He doesn’t like that I don’t drink? Not my problem. He doesn’t like some detail about my past? Not my problem. He’s unhappy and lost his ability to appreciate the little things? Not my problem. He lacks a sense of wonder? Not my problem. He tends to mansplain? So not my problem. Especially if it’s anything remotely related to writing. I’m currently perfecting my “Why do you think I want to sit here and listen to this?” face. (It needs some work. I’m still way too nice.)

I know to some of you that last paragraph will sound cold. Of course I help when I can and it is appropriate to do so. But refusing to take on other people’s problems means I can take a lot better care of myself. And a lot of that stuff is, frankly, a waste of my time and energy. As it turns out, it really sucks to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s a hell of a lot of work for very little reward.

So yes, I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But now I’m just Amy, and I’m pretty happy with that.

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What does it mean to respect yourself?

That is a question one of my friends asked on my last post, and I’ve been thinking about possible answers ever since. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a good idea of what respecting myself feels like, but as it turns out, putting that feeling into words is not without its challenges.

So I took myself off to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which defines respect as an act of giving particular attention. When we act with respect, we act with consideration. It’s also defined as high or special regard, i.e. esteem. So when we are talking about respecting ourselves, no surprise, we are talking about self-esteem and self-consideration.

It’s hard to talk about self-respect sometimes because we live in a culture in which confidence is sometimes equated with arrogance and self-consideration is sometimes equated with selfishness. And of course, arrogance and selfishness are attitudes that many of us strive to avoid, to the point that we can end up overcompensating. Which is why Matthew McConaughey’s point that it’s easier to respect others when we’re already respecting ourselves is so critical.

I think of self-respect as fostering a relationship with ourselves. Just as we put in a lot of time and effort building our relationships and friendships with other people, so we can put in time and effort into our relationship with ourselves. Getting to know ourselves, and getting to know how to take care of ourselves and what we need to function well are fundamental acts of self-respect.

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I can’t talk about self-respect without bringing up boundaries. Setting and keeping healthy boundaries is also an act of self-respect. Some people do this so automatically they don’t even have to think about it. And some of us have to practice and do this a lot more explicitly.

It is harder to maintain self-respect (or learn it in the first place) if you spend a lot of time in an environment in which you are not receiving external respect. When you’re with people who don’t value your opinion, your comfort, or your emotional or even physical boundaries, it becomes easy to internalize these attitudes of disrespect. And of course, it’s in these people’s best interests that you do so, as it is perpetuates the dysfunctional system. This is one of the reasons why mindfully choosing the people with whom we spend time and develop intimacy is so important.

What does self-respect mean to me personally? I’ve made a little list.

  • Taking care of my physical needs, such as doing my best to get enough sleep, eat good food when I’m hungry, rest and recover when I’m sick, etc.
  • Taking care of my emotional needs, such as having people in my life with whom I don’t have to pretend when I’m having a hard time, reaching out for support, doing self-care, fostering supportive connections with others, doing activities that make me happy, taking alone time when necessary, etc.
  • Taking care of my mental needs, like engaging in projects that I find challenging and interesting, trying new things, learning, asking questions, having an artistic outlet, etc.
  • Prioritizing my time and energy for people and activities that are generally positive to my well-being.
  • Setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries, and surrounding myself by people who support this.
  • Protecting myself from the disrespectful behavior of others.
  • Taking ultimate responsibility for my decisions, which also means not being too easily swayed by others’ opinions.
  • Embracing who I am and where I come from.
  • Being kind to myself and relaxing my perfectionism as much as possible; recognizing my own humanity and fallibility.
  • Being my own best friend.

What does self-respect mean to you?

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This post originally appeared on the SFWA blog, but I know not all of you saw it, so I’m running it here today. As you might expect, given my recent experimentation with this blog, I had several thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!

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When giving advice on writing blog posts, James Altucher says, “Bleed in the first line.” He talks about blog writing and bleeding a fair amount, actually, so I always think about bleeding when I write blog posts now. But what does that mean, bleeding on the page, and what is the correct way to do it?

As I’ve been experimenting some with my own blog, I’ve also been thinking a lot about sharing and privacy and where to draw the line. It’s something I’ve had to think about often over the years since I do this kind of personal memoir-esque kind of writing, and with opinions flying as to whether it’s a good idea for writers to share their political opinions, it is in the forefront of my mind right now. What is private and what isn’t? What is a great telling detail and what is too much? Where does that line go?

I found some wise advice where I wasn’t expecting it, in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. (This book is also a great resource both for learning about Dr. Brown’s data and how it pertains to the way humans tick and for managing common emotional difficulties that come up in the writing life.) She gives three guidelines for sharing with the public that I’d like to put into my own words and talk about.

  1. Only share experiences and stories after you’ve worked through them yourself.

I can’t overemphasize this one enough, mostly because it can be so tempting to break. But I do my best to write about things AFTER I’ve already processed them and dealt with the emotions coming from them and learned from them. This can be tricky, as experiences take different amounts of time to process (and of course, sometimes you think you’ve done so only to find out there’s more to do).

For example, I waited over six months to write this post about losing my chosen family. I couldn’t write about it earlier; I couldn’t have done so from a grounded place, and therefore I couldn’t have written a truly effective essay. That is why when people express concern at any of my blog posts, I always feel slightly surprised. By the time I’m writing about something, there is rarely any reason to worry. The stories I tell are a means to an end. Which leads us to the next guideline….

  1. Have a reason to share that serves your readers.

The point of blog writing is not to bleed indiscriminately on the page or to merely shock by flooding your audience with personal details. Every story has a reason to be told. Every shared experience should lead to some kind of revelation.

In some ways, writing blog posts reminds me of teaching. In the process of writing, I reaffirm lessons I’ve already learned and sometimes gain a stronger understanding of my subject matter. But as with teaching, I can’t write about something when I haven’t at least grasped the basics.

And I’m always writing with an end goal in mind: What ideas am I trying to communicate? What do I want my audience to take away from this post?

  1. Avoid sharing in order to get your own needs met (i.e. to receive validation, praise, support, etc.).

We want to publish every blog post from a position of strength, which means publishing it to serve our audience, NOT to get some emotional need met for ourselves. Blog posts aren’t therapy. And as writers, the more we can let go of any expectations we might have as to the response a post will receive, the freer we are to craft a powerful piece.

Sometimes, of course, a post will generate an outpouring of support, and that’s perfectly all right. What we want to avoid is needing or expecting it to do so. The more we depend on the response, the more we’ll become tempted to pander to our audience to receive that response.

These three guidelines boil down to this simple principle: So often when we’re sharing in public as writers, it is not about us. This may seem counterintuitive since we are sharing personal stories and opinions, not to mention letting people know about our work. But blog posts at their best are about not just us as the writers, but the relationship between us and our readers. And sharing personal stories can be a powerful tool for conveying emotions and ideas to our readers, as well as creating a sense of connection.

We don’t always want to hold back from bleeding on the page, but it should be a mindful act. We want to bleed for the right reasons.

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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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