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Posts Tagged ‘boundaries’

Well, I’ve been living in my new home for about a month now. Not long enough to be completely settled, but long enough that the flood of moving-related tasks has slowed down to a more manageable pace, and a definite end is in sight.

Overall, things feel calm. Amazingly calm. Beautifully calm. Calm calm calm. Probably the worst thing that’s happened to me this week is that I had to spend half an hour on the phone with Comcast sorting out yet another problem caused by incompetence. Which is a little irritating, but as problems go, it’s not so bad, and the customer service rep was really apologetic and nice and appreciative of me being nice, so it was really especially not so bad.

I keep talking about how nice everyone is here, and I hear the slightly unbelieving note in my voice as I say the words. It also feels like damning with faint praise, but what I really mean is people are treating me with respect. They are listening to my preferences and boundaries. They apologize when that’s appropriate. They aren’t pressuring me to do things I don’t really want to do or be someone I don’t really want to be. I don’t feel like they’re going to do things they don’t want to do either. In short, we appear to be taking care of ourselves.

I feel a Flinch sometimes. For example, my friend wanted to come visit at a time that wasn’t good for me. So I delivered the news, and then I flinched and waited for the hammer to come down. In the past, and with this particular friend even, there most definitely would have been a backlash. But this time, there was a bit of disappointment, and then we actually ended up finding a different time that did work for me. I could hardly believe it. I simultaneously felt gratitude and a more prosaic, “Well, you know, this is not actually noteworthy because this is how things should generally work.”

This should be how things are.

This is how things are.

I look forward to the time when the Flinch no longer happens.

Do I think this shift is unique to Seattle? Do I think the people in Seattle are just plain better? No, not at all. I think what we might be seeing here is the beauty of a fresh start.

While I know many people here, for the most part we don’t know each other well, and certainly not as local friends. This gives us a chance to get to know each other as we are right now. Not two years ago, not five years ago, not ten years ago. Now, in this moment. And Amy Now, I am thrilled to discover, really is a different person. Amy Now pushes back when she feels pressured. Amy Now communicates her preferences. Amy Now says no when she needs to. Amy Now gives the side eye to people who say egregiously sexist or unkind things, or who are very obviously lying. The kind of people who aren’t okay with this sort of thing are probably not the kind of people that are going to want to be friends with me as I am today.

Over time, we accumulate habits with one another. Things we do with one another, what we talk about, ways we communicate, ways we DON’T communicate, behavior we tolerate, things that are simply “the way things are.” This is simply human nature. Some of these habits are wonderful and positive and contribute to that sense of knowing and being known. And in any relationship there is going to be some compromise and give and take.

But some of these habits can be less helpful. Sometimes we cannot be the person we’ve become and have the relationship continue to function as it has been. At this point, there are three main choices: to continue the status quo in spite of problems; to go through an adjustment period until the relationship supports you as you are now; or to distance yourself from something that is no longer working. All three of these choices come with their own difficulties, and sometimes they blur one into another. As with anything related to change, there tends to be a lot of inherent pressure to maintain the status quo. And if you actively decide NOT to, things can get…interesting.

Moving, then, becomes an opportunity to work outside the accumulated habits and build new habits without having to work against that pressure. There is no status quo to maintain. There’s no weight of the past. There is, relatively speaking, little to risk and much to gain. There’s simply me and you deciding whether we’re going to be friends and how that friendship is going to work in a way that supports both of us right now. And even existing friendships are naturally in flux in a way that encourages the building of new habits.

So how does a fresh start feel? It feels calm. It is hard in some ways, but it also feels right.

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I am so glad to be here.

Which is not to say things are perfectly easy. The other day I had a moment, and I thought, “I wish I could just sit down with someone who really knows me.”

I have it so good with this move, and I’ve been really aware of this the entire time. I know a lot of people for someone who landed here four weeks ago. Many friends have gone out of their way to include me. I haven’t had any problem getting enough social contact to not go completely insane with isolation. If anything, my first month has been the opposite; I’ve gone to so many events. So very many.

But we don’t really know each other yet, my Seattle friends and I. We’ve never lived in close proximity. And while I have a few friends who aren’t local with whom I talk regularly, I don’t have that many, and none of them live in Seattle. Most of my long-distance friends I talk with once in a while and then get really excited when I see them in person. We’ve built our friendships in fits and starts, often at high levels of intensity and low levels of sleep, bridged by Facebook and Twitter and probably this blog. We’re friends in spite of the plainly felt fact that there is never enough time.

Now there is more time, and we will get to know each other in a different way. We will slowly fill in the gaps of our knowledge and build more memories together and fall into comfortable friend routines. When I think of a particular friend I’d like to see, I’ll have some idea of what that person would like to do, instead of now when I’m often at something of a loss, which means I hesitate to issue invitations. I will get more one-on-one (or one-on-two) time with people, which is what I like best. (There is nothing like a full calendar of large group events to remind me how much I need this.) And some months from now, the landscape of my life will have shifted.

I remind myself of this. There will come a time when I can sit down with someone who really knows me. Here, in my new home. But that shift can’t be forced. It will happen when it happens.

In the meantime, I continue to make a home. I’m mostly unpacked. A friend is going to fix the computer table I’ve had since I was ten in the next month or so (it got smashed in the move). I have a new monitor I need to hook up. I need to hang up art. I need to go buy a new writing chair. And I have a special new addition to the apartment coming soon that I can’t wait to share once it’s here.

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On the whole everyone here is treating me so well. I have my boundaries up and ready to go, but it’s such a sweet relief to not have them being constantly battered against. It actually shocks me what a relief it is because I didn’t expect the contrast to be quite this striking. There have been a few small boundary issues, but only a few, and each time I’ve been able to respond immediately and pro-actively, advocating for my own well-being. Having a prolonged onslaught against my boundaries last fall and winter burned me out really badly, but now, here, I finally feel like I can come up for air.

Yes, I am so very glad to be here. I am so glad to be starting something new.

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A few years ago, I was really struggling to forgive someone. Looking back on it now, I know why I was having such difficulty, but at the time, it really bothered me. So I spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness, both what it means and what it doesn’t mean. At one point, in some desperation for a new perspective, I even began combing through my more philosophical nonfiction.

I found what I was looking for in the book Emotional Awareness, which is a conversation between Paul Ekman, who is well known for his work on facial expressions and micro expressions, and the Dalai Lama.

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At one point the two of them discuss forgiveness, and to this day I have that place marked in the book. Here is the relevant passage:

EKMAN: It is good for the person who forgives. But does it not remove responsibility?

DALAI LAMA: No, no. For example, now, we mentally give forgiveness to the Chinese. That means we try not to keep negative feeling toward them because of their wrong deeds. But that does not mean we accept it, what they have done. So we have little forgiveness against them, as far as their action is concerned.

DALAI LAMA: Forgiveness means not to forget what they have done. But forgiveness means do not keep your negative feeling toward them. As far as their action is concerned, you use your intelligence. You totally have to take countermeasures, but without negative feeling.

This one passage has entirely changed my understanding and practice of forgiveness.

One of the mistakes I make over and over in my life is being too forgiving. I like people, and I tend to believe the best of them, and I feel friendly towards them. I can almost always see their point of view. So it is incredibly easy for me to think, “Oh, maybe it wasn’t that big a deal” or “Yeah, that really sucked, but I like this person, so….” or “maybe if I do xyz, things will go better” or “They’re doing the best they can” or any of a hundred similar thoughts. This tendency can sometimes be a positive one, but for me, it has also often been a negative one.

In the instance above, when I was struggling so with forgiveness, it was because my natural tendency was to allow the issue to be swept under the rug and go back to the status quo. But at the same time, I now felt unsafe with this person, who I didn’t think had taken appropriate responsibility for their actions and who hadn’t responded well to my boundaries thus far.

So the idea that I could forgive this person, as I both wanted to do and felt a lot of pressure to do, while also keeping myself safe by taking countermeasures (aka setting whatever boundaries I needed to ensure my safety), was, at that time, completely revolutionary for me.

This is when I realized on a deep level the difference between the kind of forgiveness I’d been taught, which meant huge amounts of self-sacrifice and suffering and exhaustion, and the kind of forgiveness the Dalai Lama was talking about, which leads to inner peace and strength and compassion not only towards others but also towards myself.

This is also when I learned that my safety, both physical and emotional, matters. This might seem obvious, but it was not what I was taught, and it is not always how I am treated by others even now. But it is how I strive to treat myself, and that is the most critical–and life-changing–thing. It is when I stop feeling guilty for prioritizing my safety that I find myself surrounded by the supportive and kind people who don’t feel entitled to me, and those are the people I want in my life.

Being given permission to use your intelligence can be a powerful thing.  

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Last weekend my friend apologized to me.

It hadn’t been that big a deal, the thing for which he apologized, but the timing was bad. I didn’t think about an apology. I didn’t ask for one.

He gave me one anyway. He made amends, and then he offered the apology up to me like an unexpected jewel, and then he made some more amends. I watched him take responsibility for his actions, and I watched him not have to take credit for doing so. He did it without any fuss.

The apology was actually for me.

I accepted it, and I took it in, and it changed me. I hadn’t realized how hungry I had been for that very thing until I sucked it down and felt a palpable relief. I had forgotten such a thing was possible. I am used to being asked to dance in a mirror maze in which I am a mere spectre. And here I was, being offered the chance to be me.

I said yes, of course.

I’ve gotten pretty good at being me, in the privacy of these temple bones, in the sanctuary of this muscle heart, in the safety of this rib cage.

He could have said, “You’re too sensitive, Amy.” He could have said, “Well, it only happened because of x and y and z.” He could have gotten angry at me. He could have thought I didn’t think he was a good person. He could have thought for himself that he wasn’t a good person. He could have asked me to comfort him. He could have asked me to pretend nothing had happened, and I might have, because I have larger battles to fight.

He could have left me sitting there alone. The only consequence would have been me staying in my cage of bones, unwilling to come out where I would not be seen.

But he didn’t do that.

And so I have a stronger friendship than I did before.

And so I can begin to see a path to being myself outside these temple bones.

And so I have hope.

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I write a lot about friendship.

A few days ago I saw someone share an article about friendship, and someone else responded to their post by saying that this was literally the first article about friendship they’d ever read. This made me feel good that I’m already writing about it, and also sad there is a relative dearth of information and thought about friendship out there.

When I write about boundaries and friendships, I know some of you are wondering what kinds of boundaries are common to need to set in the context of friendship. I think this varies a lot from person to person and from friendship to friendship, but I do have some general thoughts on what I look for in my friends and what kinds of boundaries sometimes come up.

Kinds of issues that come up in friendships that sometimes require boundary setting/enforcing:

  • Responding to invitations
  • Responding to favor requests
  • Having to cancel plans due to illness or emergency
  • Arranging logistics (including scheduling, timing, transport, choosing restaurants, choosing activities, issues of payment)
  • Addressing mobility/health issues
  • Asking for empathy instead of advice
  • Negotiating the flow of the house guest (either being one or hosting one)
  • Figuring out frequency of communication/visits, response time, safeguarding work time, etc.
  • Seeking safe spaces at public (or semi-public) events
  • Dealing with problematic behavior in communities and friend groups
  • Responding to sexual requests
  • Responding to peer pressure
  • Asking for and giving emotional support
  • Speaking up on issues of social justice
  • Asking for consideration
  • Taking someone into your confidence

I’ll be honest for you: I look for friends who don’t need much boundary enforcing because that’s the part I find the most difficult and tiring. I can often set a boundary now, especially if I have a little time to consider, but enforcing it against push-back wears me out extremely fast. And no wonder. Boundary enforcing means your boundary has already been crossed (or is not being taken seriously after being stated), and it often involves hurt feelings, or at the very least disappointment, especially if it’s a repetitive issue. So it’s much easier to reach a point of diminishing returns if you’re having to enforce regularly. (Also, one way of enforcing is to introduce space into the friendship, and if you have to introduce enough space, you’re not interacting much with that person anymore anyway, so selecting for low levels of enforcement tends to happen at least somewhat organically.)

I look for friends to whom I can say no. Sometimes that will be no to a favor, and sometimes that will be no to an invitation. In an ideal world, I could say yes to everything, but the reality is that I have lots of commitments to fulfill, as does any adult: in my case, to my work, to my own physical and mental well-being, to my dog, to my boyfriend, etc. I have idiosyncracies to work around for maximum well-being, like my general dislike of driving too much, especially in traffic, and my sleep issues. I have budgetary restraints. I get sick and injured. All of these things mean that sometimes I have to say no, and I look for friends who will understand that it’s not personal and that I would help them or hang out with them if I could.

I look for friends who will make a commensurate effort. This doesn’t have to be equal in an obvious sense: for example, I have friends who always come over to my place and other friends who I always visit at their places, and as long as everyone is cool with that, it works fine. But both people have to be willing to find time for each other and to care about how the other person is doing. And both people have to be getting some of their friendship needs met.

I look for friends who are generally kind. I used to think, oh, it’s okay if my friend is sort of an asshole, as long as they treat me well. But I’m not as on board with that line of thinking anymore because it’s so easy for that kind of behavior to eventually spread out to include you. Obviously no one is perfect, but I think kindness is probably the most important trait I look for in friends.

And in that vein, my closest friends are generally pretty good at empathy. I become closest to people with whom I can be honest and genuine about myself and my life without fear of judgment, with whom I can share openly and who will share openly with me, who can listen well, and where there is interest and care on both sides.

Finally, one of the great part about friendships I’ve learned while negotiating these things is that they can be flexible. They do not need to be all things, all at once. While my closest friendships are usually built on empathy, I also have great friendships based upon a shared interest (shocking, I know!) and great friendships based on compatible senses of humor. I have friends who I get to see one-on-one and friends that I almost always see in groups. I have friends who I talk to all the time and friends I only get to see once a year. I have friends who I don’t ask for certain things because I know they cannot give them to me, and I appreciate what they do bring to the friendship and ask for those other things elsewhere.

I used to think friendship came in one certain mold, but in learning the many ways friendship can present itself, I’ve found a lot more interest and connection with the world. I thought by setting boundaries I’d be limiting myself, but instead my boundaries allow me to be more present and more accepting of who my friends are.

Even myself. Maybe especially myself.

Oh look, it's my best doggie friend.

Oh look, it’s my best doggie friend.

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Several months ago, a friend came up to me and said, “Hey, you know how you’re always writing about boundaries and stuff like that? I don’t really get what you’re talking about. That’s never come up in my life.” And I wasn’t surprised, because this friend has great boundaries and is one of my boundary role models, so boundary situations don’t come up very much in his life, and when they do, he doesn’t notice that’s what they are because he has healthy instincts and just, you know, sets boundaries and goes on with his life.

I remembered this conversation when I read the post The Asshole Filter, which is about how you can go about unconsciously arranging your life so you end up dealing with assholes a lot, even when you’re not an asshole yourself. (Warning: that post is yellow font on a purple background and causes my eyes some pain. It may or may not also cause your eyes pain. But it is super interesting.) Anyway, the post is mostly in the context of accidentally developing an asshole filter in an organizational context, but a lot of it is also true in an interpersonal context.

So, here is one way to unconsciously develop an asshole filter in your personal life:

You start out with poor skills at setting and enforcing personal boundaries, probably because your home life as a child was kind of dysfunctional.

Then, as an adult, you meet a random bunch of people. Some of these people are mostly great. Some of these people are mostly assholes. You might be starting out with a few assholes from childhood as well.

What happens next? Well, the assholes will be thrilled to know you. Meanwhile, some of the great people aren’t going to end up being very close to you because the fact you can’t set boundaries makes them uncomfortable. Others of the great people are going to watch you not dealing effectively with the assholes, and this is going to train them into acting more like assholes to you too, because they’re going to think that kind of behavior doesn’t bother you. Also, a lot of people are pretty great overall…except when they’re not met with firm boundaries, in which case everything gets really messy instead. (When boundaries aren’t clear, mess tends to result, even if all people involved are otherwise amazing.)

Finally, dealing with assholes takes up a lot of time and energy. A LOT. So you end up being exhausted all the time, and therefore you aren’t putting that time and energy into your relationships with the great people, because they don’t need that much maintenance, so they gradually drift away. And you become more and more tired, even while you keep making excuses for the bad behavior that seems to be becoming more prevalent and thinking that if you could only be more patient or more kind or more understanding or more [fill in the blank here], everything would improve drastically.

At some point, you maybe stop and look around you and realize your situation is really unfortunate. You might even realize the whole “it’s always all my fault and everything in the world is my responsibility” thing isn’t ever going to bear fruit. But at this point you are incredibly tired, and it kind of seems like everyone in the whole world sucks, or at the very least takes an awful lot of energy to deal with. All you want is to be less tired all of the time.

So then, acting in self-preservation, perhaps you begin to isolate yourself. Which, unfortunately, makes complete sense given the faulty assumptions the data seems to imply but is actually a terrible idea. Because then you are cutting off ways of ever figuring out that actually, there are some really great people out there. All you can see, at this point, are the assholes.

Dark night of the soul time.

Then, if you’re really lucky, the writing community steps up and shows you incontrovertible evidence that not everyone is an asshole. People are unexpectedly kind to you. You start working as hard as you can on learning how to set and enforce boundaries and begin building a community of people who care about you and are good for you.

And then your asshole filter starts working in the opposite direction, and life is infinitely better.

No assholes beyond this point. (Photo Credit: derekbruff via Compfight cc)

No assholes beyond this point. (Photo Credit: derekbruff via Compfight cc)

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A year ago I imagined a better life for myself.

I didn’t really believe it could happen, but I did believe it was what I wanted. So it was worth going all out for, even though I thought my efforts might very well end in failure.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as intensely social as I have been during the last year. I’ve been to so many parties and so many events, so many dances and movies and shows and luncheons and bruncheons and dinners and coffees and teas and outings. I’ve had the same small talk conversations maybe hundreds of times, and I’ve gone deeper whenever I saw the chance. I’ve spent time with hundreds of people, many of whom I’d never previously met.

I thought, I will find my people. I will find my balance. I will figure out what gives me joy and what does not. I thought, I will practice setting boundaries until it gets a little bit easier. I will practice saying no until that gets a little bit easier.

I thought, I will find the people who believe me and are patient with me and love me as I am. I will find the people who see me. I will find the people who make me feel safe, and I will love them with everything I have.

I thought, I know these people exist because I’ve already met a bunch of them. And I want to spend more time with the ones I’ve already met. And I want to meet more of them. And so that is what I’ll do, even though I kind of hate humanity right now and all I really want to do is wrap myself in a blanket and watch Pride and Prejudice over and over again. (The A&E miniseries version, if you really need to ask.) And maybe also Star Trek: The Next Generation because I’d just started watching that and it seemed like a good idea.

I thought, do the things you know you should do and be as hopeful as you can, and then if it all ends in misery, you will totally have an excuse to do something drastic like become a hermit or move to a foreign country or write angsty beat poetry.

And now a year has gone by, and it turns out it did NOT all end in misery. It turns out all those things I knew I should do were actually great ideas. It turns out all that social time resulted in me starting and/or continuing some fabulous friendships and feeling connected and getting a lot of practice and becoming more and more clear on what is important to me.

And now I am very happy with my friends and my communities and my boyfriend.

And I am also really freaking tired.

Nala is also tired.

Nala is also tired.

I get invited to large events where I’ll know hardly anyone, and I think, do I really have to go? And then I think, hahahaha, no, I do not! And that is very exciting for me. I look at the week ahead, and I know I should schedule-fu things up. And then I think, hahahaha, no, I can take things easy this week. And, you know, maybe wait for people to invite me. And in the meantime do an Orphan Black rewatch, because when is that not a good idea?

My sprained toe has forced me to take a slower pace, but once I realized that didn’t mean I’d be sitting around in enforced isolation for two months, it’s actually been kind of nice. Well, minus the pain and frustration and cabin fever, anyway. The slower pace has been nice. The reduced volume of small talk has been nice. The permission to focus more on self-care has been nice.

I’m so glad I made all the efforts I made, and they have paid off in spades. Enough so that now I can give myself a little break.

And soon I’ll be going on vacation, and it feels like the perfect time. But, more about that next week!

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