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Posts Tagged ‘boundaries’

When I was getting divorced, I read a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since.

“A ten never marries a one.” Apparently a divorce lawyer delivered this line to Penelope Trunk, and then she blogged about it, and then years later I stumbled across it, and now it is burned into my brain.

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A ten never marries a one. Let’s break this statement down, shall we? I don’t know what the divorce lawyer meant by it, but to me, this statement has nothing to do with actual numbers or a ranking system (ugh). It has nothing to do with particular traits or talents or some idea that people marry others who are exactly the same as they are.

No, to me, it simply means this: a relationship is made up of two people, and both people contribute to it. So when we look at a dysfunctional relationship, both people are contributing to the dysfunction. This does not excuse certain behaviors. It is not a value judgment, and it is not a statement of blame (although it can feel like one). It is simply a recognition that a dynamic takes two people to exist.

It is a harsh truth, and I took it to heart. In fact, I recall repeating it at inopportune moments to friends trying to console me. (Sorry, friends.) But while it might be painful, it is also a truth that restores agency. In being willing to take some responsibility, we can explore how we might act differently in the future.

And that is what I did. I asked myself some tough questions. I looked deep inside myself, and I tried not to flinch. In particular, I looked for my behaviors that were preventing me from getting what I wanted, and I looked for the cracks and old wounds that contributed to those behaviors. And then I began the slow process of trying to change.

This is incredibly tricky to do. Partly, this is because humans love our patterns, and we fall very easily into dynamics that feel comfortable. Mind you, they may not make us happy or help us fulfill our long-term goals. There is comfort in familiarity, even if it is a miserable comfort. As a result, we tend to repeat ourselves again and again.

And even if we’re watching for our patterns, they are not always obvious. Sometimes things can look very different on the surface, only to end up rubbing against the same old wound underneath.

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So, this is a hard thing I’ve been working on. Totally possible, but also challenging. And I’ve learned a couple of things about myself during the process:

I learned it’s important that I know what I need. This means I had to figure out what it is I actually need versus what I thought I might need but it turned out wasn’t all that important. And I had to learn to accept what I need instead of feeling like I should be constantly apologizing for it.

I learned it’s important to be picky. I set out with the goal of being as picky as possible because I knew in the past I hadn’t been picky enough. My hope was by deliberately trying to be picky, I’d balance things out and come closer to the center on this spectrum. And also, you know, that maybe this would give me the necessary time and space to find someone who would actually meet a bunch of my needs.

I learned it’s important to be willing to walk away. I will probably always hate walking away. I will probably always hate even the idea of walking away. But what matters is not how I feel about it, but that I know I can and will do it if and when it becomes necessary.  

I learned it’s important to be happy on my own. And it’s important to believe I am a ten for myself, even if I have a lot of doubts about that. In other words, it’s important to believe you are worth it.

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So what has come of all this work, you might be asking. Last you heard from me, back a couple of months ago, I was talking about dating fatigue. I was, truth be told, feeling like dating was kind of a waste of my time.

Well, life, it has been changing once more. And on Thursday, I’ll tell you the story of how I met my current boyfriend.

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Because I am a writer, it will probably come as no surprise to learn words are very important to me.

As such, it’s been something of a struggle for me to clearly delineate the difference between actions and words, and to make personal choices accordingly. For me, words tend to carry more weight than is helpful, and actions less than they deserve.

That’s not to say words aren’t still important. Indeed, some time ago I dated one gentleman who indulged in almost zero Words of Affirmation (we are all familiar with the Five Love Languages, yes?), a situation that was, as it turned out, intolerable to me. Words do carry a certain amount of weight and are also intrinsic parts of many actions.

However, I have observed that it is much easier to adjust words away from the actual truth of a situation than it is to adjust actions. Meaning, actions tend to be a more reliable gauge of what’s actually going on and a more accurate reflection of a person’s feelings and priorities. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story for the past week, and he emphasizes again and again that deep character is revealed through conflict; that pressure is placed on a character, forcing her to act, and it is in that action that the viewer/reader learns who she truly is. It’s not what the character says that matters, but what she does.

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

This is not a new insight for me; in fact, I’ve written about it before. But it’s been getting easier to apply it in my actual life, and I think the feedback loop that is causing this improvement is interesting. It works like this: as I’m surrounded more and more by action and behavior that is respectful and positive and affirming, the instances when action and behavior is not acceptable stick out a lot more clearly. Basically, my baseline has shifted.

This shift has resulted in several differences. For one thing, I am much more capable of identifying unhealthy situations and acting on this information. I am more able to clearly state when I’m not okay with something when I think that is the right thing to do. And I am able to figure out what it is I need in order to take care of myself in a more timely and efficient way. All of this means that smaller issues are less likely to spiral and grow into bigger ones. Which is pretty great, even if at the time it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.

I am even able to notice much more quickly when these kinds of circumstances begin to push me down an unproductive thought path. “Oh no, this person isn’t going to like me,” I think. But then, an hour later, “Wait a second. Maybe it’s okay if this person doesn’t like me. My job isn’t to make sure everyone likes me. My job is to set boundaries to keep myself healthy while doing my best to remain compassionate. Right.”

All of this, incidentally, supports being more compassionate. I tend not to associate firm decisive action with being compassionate, especially when said action involves saying no or otherwise disappointing someone. But I think I’m wrong in this. Modeling healthy behavior is ultimately a net win for all parties, as it nips issues in the bud that might have otherwise stretched out into longer periods of suffering for everyone. It sometimes allows for the potential for the relationship to heal and grow stronger. And since you are taking care of yourself, you are opening up more emotional space for noticing what the other person is going through and genuinely feeling for them, even if (and this is often the case) there is nothing much you can do about it.

Words are still important to me. But so often it is the associated actions that make all the difference.

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One of my most popular posts is one I wrote back in September of 2012, entitled “Nice vs. Kind.” And this week I received a note about it from a person I recently met, so I thought it would be interesting to provide an update to you all.

In the post, I talked about the distinction I perceived between being nice and being kind, and I talked about how, while I was making the shift, it could sometimes be difficult for me to be kind at all, because then I’d just fall right back into being nice instead, which was something I was trying to change.

What I neglected to say was it was also difficult to be kind because I was so angry from the decades of not getting most of my needs met and receiving repeated messages of how unimportant I was. In other words, I had to learn to be kind to myself before being able to easily be kind to other people too.

Fast forward almost three years, and it has definitely become easier for me. I’ve created a kind of checklist for dealing with situations that feel fraught and involve setting boundaries. (Because honestly, the rest of the time, it’s not very hard for me to be kind.) This thought process has become mostly habitual at this point.

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Step 1: Figure out what I need/want.

If I really don’t care, then I get to be laid back, which is lovely.

If I don’t know, then I usually need some time. I’ve gotten better at simply saying I don’t know and getting the time I need to figure things out. Sometimes, when I’m really confused or emotional, I also need to talk things over with one or more friends to understand what it is I really need.

Step 2: Be clear and firm.

Step 3: Be kind.

Steps 2 and 3 are in that order for a reason. They reflect my priority, which is to be clear and firm FIRST, and kind SECOND. This helps prevent me from accidentally falling into niceness and wishy-washy-ness. It also reminds me not to soften or change what I need in order to be nicer, which is pretty much always an idea that crosses my mind at some point. (The Step 1 checking in with friends part is pretty helpful for this too, as it helps me not be too nice to begin with and builds in some accountability.)

I should note that if for some reason Step 3 is not possible, that doesn’t give an automatic pass to being UNkind. In general it is possible to be clear and firm without decimating someone in the process. To me, the main drawback of not being able to engage with Step 3 is it can feel a bit…robotic, but if that’s what necessary to express myself clearly and firmly, well, it’s not so bad. And luckily it doesn’t come up very often.

I should also note that following these steps doesn’t instantly solve all my interpersonal problems. The fact is, if someone wants something and I decide I don’t want to give that thing, then sometimes no amount of clarity or firmness or kindness is going to change the fact that the person isn’t going to be happy.

Still, each of these qualities serves its purpose. I practice clarity so I can get my actual point across with, I hope, fewer misunderstandings. I practice firmness so I’m less likely to have to revisit the same conversation and issue repeatedly or have someone try to change my mind. And the kindness? I believe it is ultimately helpful to the other person, and also, it’s simply the way I want to be.

“Be firm but kind, Amy.” This is the advice that runs through my head now. It isn’t foolproof, but it helps me remember how I want to be.

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I used to never say “Enough.”

I’d bend over backwards to avoid saying “Enough.” I didn’t know what would happen if I ever did, and I was afraid to find out. Coming from a background in which I was harshly punished for ever expressing inconvenient needs, the idea of saying “Enough” was nigh unthinkable.

Saying “Enough” would mean acknowledging something bad was happening. Something hurtful enough that such a response was warranted.

The first time I really said “Enough” started out small. It was almost accidental. I felt so hurt and so awful I could no longer pretend everything was okay. I gave a tiny weak “Enough.” I hoped it would give me a few weeks of breathing room and recovery time before I had to go back to pretending.

That’s not what ended up happening though. My tiny weak “Enough” got push-back, and I needed that recovery time so desperately, I actually held the line. No one was more surprised about this than me. And every time my “Enough” got pushed on, it got a little bigger. And a little bigger. And it was all so stressful I broke my tooth from clenching my jaw so hard.

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: madamepsychosis via Compfight cc

The hardest part of saying “Enough” is that it forces things into the light. The light is revealing. And you might learn that things aren’t going to change, and yet the light shows that things are intolerable. And you see that all the effort you’ve put in, all the years of swallowing your feelings and smoothing things over and bucking up and keeping a stiff upper lip and hoping for the best and thinking this time things will be different, all of this is the mental equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Saying “Enough” is also saying “Please stop hurting me,” and sometimes the answer you will receive is “No.” And with the bullshit stripped away, you then have to respond to this situation.

I wish I could tell you that this first experience with “Enough” taught me how to do it again, but it didn’t. It was just a beginning.

But it did teach me that “Enough” was a possibility.

Anyway, I faffed around for a couple of years, still not able to say “Enough” even when it needed to be said, which was unfortunate on many levels. And little by little I improved, and little by little my courage for speaking up for myself grew. And at the same time I did my best to change my life so I wouldn’t have to say “Enough” so often in the first place.

Last month I had to say “Enough” twice. What I’ve learned is, while it is important to be able to say “Enough” when you need to, if you reach that point, things have already gone a little bit off the rails. So twice in one month is not ideal. For one thing, it is pretty exhausting. For another, it means I was making some less-than-ideal choices, which is never fun to have to acknowledge.

But I can also tell that my choices overall have improved, because one person responded to my “Enough” with a genuine and heartfelt apology and respect for the boundaries I’d requested. This hardly ever happens, in my experience at least, and it is the best possible outcome to a not-so-great situation.

I used to never say “Enough.” But I’m really glad I learned how.

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I remember wishing for a support system.

I don’t remember exactly when this was. It couldn’t have been high school because I didn’t aspire to anything as lofty as a support system in those years. So it must have been college, when my mom was dying. I needed a support system while she was sick, and I knew I’d need one just as much after she died. I remember writing lists, plotting out how I could create this support system that I so desperately needed.

I failed. I couldn’t find a support group. I couldn’t figure out the mental health services on campus. I found very few peers with whom I could speak openly. My mom had two wonderful volunteers who came to visit her while she was sick and then helped us organize the memorial after she was gone. But then they went back to their regular lives. I desperately wanted my relationship with the rest of my family to be close, but it was not close, and I could not force it to become close, however much I tried.

I didn’t get what I needed.

I tried a few more times later on to create this support system I’d been so convinced was a good idea. Each time I failed. Each time I became less convinced it was even possible. I never completely gave up, but my efforts became more and more half-hearted as time went by.

It occurs to me now, writing this, that when you’re chronically not getting what you need–when, in other words, you are starving–then you’re in no position to set strong boundaries. You’re in no position to set many boundaries at all.

I’ve been thinking about support systems again because the last couple weeks have been on the rocky side, and in the breaks between bumps, I’ve been watching how I handle it.

When I think of the Me of ten years ago, or even three years ago, I don’t recognize myself.

Part of the difference is that I’m now an expert in Amy care. And the rest of the difference? It’s that support system I always wanted. I have it now, and I don’t hesitate to use it. Within a few hours of my first awareness that I wasn’t exactly a happy camper about some things that were going on, I was on the phone with one of my best friends. And every step of the way through the following days, I’ve felt supported, in several different ways, by a wide variety of people and communities (and little dogs).

Granted, these have been relatively little bumps I’ve been experiencing. But I know if they had been bigger, those same people and communities would have been there for me.

I am getting what I need.

Here, then, is a message to Past Me: Your idea about support systems is as good as you think it is. I’m so sorry you don’t already have one, and I know it’s really hard to put one together, but hang in there and keep trying. You’ll eventually figure it out.

You’ll eventually get what you need.

And here is a message to those of you who are part of my support system now:

Thank you for feeding my heart.

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

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I like to tell people that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to deal with the emotional baggage of writing, whatever your particular flavor of that is. And part of doing this, for me, is protecting the mental space I need to write.

This protection has been an interesting shift. Certainly when I was a music teacher, there was no need for me to defend certain mental and emotional territory in order to be an effective teacher. But writing is different. It’s tricksy. And the longer I write, the more I recognize how important it is to have boundaries in place that hold a space where I can be productive.

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

And the more adamant I become about maintaining those boundaries. If I recognize that something (or someone) is having a negative effect on my writing, ameliorating that effect jumps to the very top of my list of priorities.

For me, this manifests in several different ways:

Time. I guard my weekday daytimes with my life. What are those times for? My work. Also some life maintenance. What are those times rarely for? Lots of socializing. Granted, sometimes I have a lull in work and I have a little more spare time during the day, but when I agree to spend time with someone during the day on a weekday, that usually means I’m making them a massive priority. And I don’t do it all that often.

Explaining Writing to Me. When someone, usually a non-writer someone, decides to explain writing to me, whether it be the craft, the process, or the business, I pretty much never want to talk to them about writing again. This can sometimes put a damper on things since I care more about writing than almost anything else.

Dating. If I am dating someone and I start to feel badly about writing because of my interactions with them, I stop dating them. End of story. This is often because they want to explain writing to me (in spite of the fact that most of them are not writers and I haven’t asked for advice or feedback). Sometimes it is because they don’t think writing is valuable, or they want to tell me how some other medium is more valuable. (Like games. Don’t get me wrong, I think games can do interesting narrative things, but, um, I don’t write games so I don’t really want to talk about how they’re better.) Or we have different expectations of how my writing career should go, and then I get really stressed out even though I’m meeting all my goals and deadlines. Or they’re not even remotely interested in my writing, which is fine for a while but ultimately kind of limiting.

Talking about Writing. I tend to be somewhat careful about with whom I will seriously talk about my writing. This is one reason I find it extremely valuable to have trusted writer friends. The thing is, there are many things about writing that a person might not automatically know or understand. Like what the common emotional experience is (rejection is constant, occasional discouragement is par for the course), or what the timeframe is (sloooooow), or how the business works, or what the actual interesting parts of it are. And while I don’t think people should automatically know these things, I do find they often leap to conclusions and are more interested in telling me stuff or sharing unrealistic expectations than in learning how all these things actually work. And managing these responses takes emotional energy that, quite honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere.

Here’s the thing about being a writer, at least for me. I have to maintain a paradoxical belief in myself and my ability to create. Paradoxical because writing typically requires a long apprenticeship that involves a great deal of rejection and failure and learning and experimentation. And no one can chart a course through that morass except me. I sit alone for long stretches of time, working on projects that are sometimes emotionally taxing to create and which no one sees for months. NO ONE. And then when someone does see it, it is for the purpose of tearing it apart so I can make it again, better. And then there’s a cycle of rejection that typically also takes a long time. Rinse and repeat. And once you get published, you’re exposed to market pressures and more criticism of your work.

In the face of all of this, a writer must hold fast to the belief that what they’re doing is worthwhile and possible. That they will improve. That someday the rejection will turn into the acceptance. That they have something to say. That their work matters.

This is not always easy. Actually, it is usually not easy. Hence the boundaries. It’s hard enough to write without dealing with other people’s baggage around it. And having a clean and safe mental space in which to do the work is invaluable and indispensable.

Of course, protecting this mental workspace is one of the things writers need to learn how to do during their apprenticeships. And over time, I’ve found it has gotten easier as I have gotten clearer.

I need these boundaries in order to write. It’s that simple.

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There are so many words I have not said.

There is a graveyard of words I store somewhere in the space that encompasses me, buried several corpses deep. Words I couldn’t say. Words I should have said but didn’t. Words that risk and words that respect and words that choke in a throat habituated to silence.

Photo Credit: macieklew via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: macieklew via Compfight cc

I think these words I do not say. Sometimes I think them over and over again. I think about their vulnerability. I think about what they’re in response to. I think, “Is this person insensitive? Am I too sensitive? We’re acting like everything is fine and normal. Are this other person’s words and actions actually fine and normal? Would most people not have the reaction I’m having?”

It’s so easy to forget that at a certain point, those questions lose their significance. This is not about labels. This is not about unwinding the precise reasons, the why’s and the chain of events and the correct place to lay the blame.

Blame doesn’t repair anything.

No, this is about hurt. It is about swallowing it down and hoping I can hide it in a dark enough place it will almost be as if it never existed. It is about refusing to shatter the peaceful object that can be the two of us. It’s the fear of leaving the painful limbo for something worse. Maybe even someplace where you and I no longer exist as you and I.

It keeps you a few football fields at least from where I stand. Maybe with you way over there I’ll feel better. Maybe if I don’t tell you about the hurt, I can prevent it from growing if you ignore what I have to say.

It doesn’t work.

And so I think about transformation. What is the alchemy of turning the hurt into something like self-love? Let me test and tinker, let me write down a precise script of process and ingredients, let me join the ranks of the masters who have already perfected this art.

The question becomes not “Why am I like this?” or “How can I not be like this?” but rather “I am like this, so knowing that is true, how can I best be happy and cared for?”

The response becomes not “Swallow it down, and pretend it never happened” but rather “Let’s talk about this hurt and see how you and I can communicate.”

And if that communication is unfortunate and the hurt is not acknowledged? Especially if this is a pattern of interaction or a newer connection? The response becomes not “What’s wrong with me?” but rather “Perhaps I don’t want to spend much time with this person in future.”

Which, of course, can sometimes hurt like hell, but it’s the pain of the Band-Aid being ripped off. The wound was already there.

Meanwhile, I don’t want you to know who I am. My words reveal me. They let you know I am not a statue of joy and granite but a human of flesh and bone, tears and sweat, idiosyncrasies and flaws.

The whisper inside becomes not “I will never be perfect” but rather “I am enough.”

I believe it is better for the words to be spoken. It is only then we can learn each other.

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