Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Boundaries. Again. Because we (I) still struggle to set them...

I don't know about you but no matter how much I recognize the value in and need for boundaries, I still struggle. Years and years of being a pleaser has made "sure, I can do that" or "that's okay" my reflexive response to pretty much anything. You didn't have time to do that one thing I asked you to do? "That's okay." You need me to finish up a job for you? "Sure, I can do that."

Just this morning, I agreed to pay $40 at the dentist for a fluoride treatment that I kinda think is a gimmick because I wanted to be agreeable. Dammit, right? 

I'm getting better. I'm learning to build in a pause before I respond. Though it almost pains me, I now (mostly!) say, "let me think about that" when I'm being asked to do something that I'm not sure I want to. Too often, I don't know what I feel about something until I sit with it. My desire to please others remains, in the moment, stronger than my desire to please myself. But if I give myself that moment, if I allow myself time to check in with myself, then I remember: My job is to keep myself safe and my relationships free of resentment. And I can't do that when I'm agreeing to things that are disagreeable to me, or when I'm letting people off the hook for letting me down.

And so, here we are again: Boundaries.

Let's revisit what boundaries are not:

People think boundaries are a wall or moat around your heart, but they’re not

~Brené Brown

So what are they?

Good boundaries are a drawbridge to self-respect.

~also Brené Brown

Put another way, boundaries are about behaviours, not people. 

Put another, another way: Our problem isn't with the people in our lives, necessarily. It's with what they are/are not doing. And when we keep our focus on their behaviour and not on them personally, it's a lot easier to understand how to keep ourselves safe and to have the necessary conversation. These people can still be welcome in our lives but we can put limits on what we will and will not tolerate from them.

What's more, boundaries can change. What feels unacceptable to you right now (going to your husband's company BBQ because he cheated with his assistant) might feel acceptable in a year, or two, or three. In my case, I put limits on how often I saw my husband's family after D-Day. I found them critical and cruel and I decided I no longer would put myself through that. With time, I was able to see them more often while still respecting my limitations.

Boundaries confuse a lot of people because they feel dictatorial. Or selfish. But let's let Brené Brown's words be our guide. They are not a wall or a moat, they are a drawbridge to our self-respect. What do you need to be respectful of ourselves? 

•People may not _______________ (For me: People may not lie to me or be dishonest by omission)

•I have a right to ask for ________ (I have a right to ask for honesty)

• It’s okay for me to _______________ (It’s okay for me to say no to things I don't want to do or to take time to figure out what I want to do)

What might you add? I have the right to ask for...what I need to heal (counselling, a separation, a babysitter for time away). People may not...consistently be late. It's okay for me to...prioritize my needs.

It's hard if you don't have a lot of practice. And far too many of us have spent a lifetime squelching our own wants and needs to the point that we often can't identify what ours are. What makes me happy? Well, when everyone else is happy. Sad, huh? 

But, I'm learning. Slowly. But I'm learning. 

Stay tuned for a post on consequences. What they are and what they're not. Inspired by a Twitter conversation!


Saturday, March 27, 2021

When healing hurts (which it always does)

And healing is rarely comfortable. It’s a good thing, healing — but it’s not a pure thing, a perfect thing. It’s stitches, it’s resetting of bone, it’s relearning how to walk, it’s a limb in a cast, it’s the itch of cells rejoining. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. It feels strange. That, I suspect, is where we’re at right now. At the point just past trauma’s last mile marker, and onto the healing road. But healing takes time, and healing is painful.

~Chuck Wendig, author

We just want to feel better, don't we? We're so tired of being tired. So sick of feeling sick. So sad that all we can seem to feel is sadness. That's, of course, if we're feeling anything at all. I spent months (and months!) feeling...nothing much at all. Which, honestly, was a relief. It was a reprieve from feeling so so much. So much pain. So much confusion. So much grief. So much loss. Just. So. Much.

Healing often feels like a destination. "Aren't you over this yet?" he asks us and we resist the urge to either curl into a ball or punch him in the face. "This", of course, refers to the pain he's wrought. "This" is the destruction of the life we thought we had. The detonation of a bomb we never saw coming. "This" feels like the joke's on us. 

The truth, however, is that healing "is a good thing....but it's not a pure thing." It doesn't happen all at once. Abracadabra. You're healed. It doesn't happen in a therapist's office. Or the bedroom. Or the boardroom across from your lawyer and his. It happens while you're at the sink washing the dishes. It happens while you're tucking your kids into bed. It happens in your tears, it happens in your laughter, it happens even as you remain convinced it's not happening.

Wendig nails it when he reminds that healing is stitches, the resetting of bone, relearning how to walk.

We have been injured. Shattered. Healing is collecting those pieces and reassembling them. It can be a chance to curate your life. To examine each piece and make a conscious choice about whether to include it in this new life. Because it is a new life you're assembling. The old one is gone. And as much as we long to "be back to normal", we say, or to "just have things the way they were", the truth is that normal wasn't working out so great. The way things were was problematic. We just didn't yet know it. Not yet.

Healing can be an opportunity, if we take it. Will we keep this friend or let her go? Will we continue to show up for the boss who never supports us? Will we continue to prioritize everyone else over our own needs, our own health, our own joy? Or will be assemble a life with us at the center of it? A life that honors ourselves and models to those around us that they can build a life that honors themselves too. It won't be easy. It won't be a pure thing, a perfect thing. But, as Wendig says, we can pass trauma's last mile marker by doing the work. By looking that monster straight in the eye and saying, I'm not going to live my life running from you. I'm not going to let you keep me scared and small. Trauma has shaped who we are but we can learn to stand firm in the  knowledge that we are grown-ass adults. We have stocked our toolboxes so that we can restabilize whenever we're thrown off-balance by trauma. 

We are on the healing road. And we will need to be patient. "Healing takes time," we are reminded. "And healing is painful." But it will take us where we want to go.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

No, your suffering isn't noble nor is it meaningful. Unless we make it so...

It’s a very narrow-minded idea that comes out of religion, that all suffering has a purpose. Suffering is just suffering. And after you’ve been through the suffering, perhaps your relationship to the world is changed, and perhaps it isn’t; but suffering shouldn’t be glorified. 

~Andrew Solomon, From The Pause, On Being with Krista Tippett

I've been thinking and writing lately about platitudes, about this idea that suffering has some sort of higher meaning. It's tempting to believe that our pain has a purpose. To accept that sometimes bad things happen just because is to accept chaos in the universe, which means that it can happen again.

I confess I used to believe that, because of childhood trauma, I had somehow met my pain quota. Surely only good things would happen to me because so much bad already had. I had a vague sense of some universal ledger that kept track: good things on one side, bad on the other, until everyone had achieved some sort of balance.

I blush now at my hubris. At my ridiculousness. I mean...the Holocaust! Car accidents that wipe out entire families! Childhood sex abuse! How does any good balance out those horrors? It's nonsensical. And yet, we still want to believe that our pain has a purpose, that our suffering contains something of value.

And perhaps it does. 

But only if we transform it.

The suffering itself is just...suffering. And no amount of good will erase it or balance it out. But though I wouldn't wish it on anyone, it can illuminate our lives. It can, if we let it, give our lives a meaning we might not have considered.

That's not to say we need suffering to make our lives meaningful. Not at all. It is to say, however, that those who've known suffering often find a way to use what they learned in that pain to help themselves and others. It is to say that suffering can become a light we shine forward.

I had a conversation with a friend this morning. Her son, a beautiful boy who'd been abused by his father and became addicted to drugs, continues to live on the streets, usually in a state of psychotic delusion. Nothing will erase my friend's suffering. She continues to ache for the boy she loves. What she has done, however, is extend compassion to other people on the streets. She gathers clothes and food. She supports organizations that offer outreach and medical care to drug addicts and those without homes. Her suffering didn't generate her empathy but it did direct it in a way that helps others and offers some soothing to her own broken heart. Does her suffering have meaning? I don't think so. How can watching a promising child abandon everything to a need for drugs offer meaning? But she has found a way to use her suffering to shine a light forward. She hopes others will do the same so that her son might one day benefit from their kindness.

There is no great meaning to why my husband cheated. He was in pain and he transmitted that pain, hurting so many. He made a stupid stupid choice.

But my own suffering, which I couldn't have imagined when I only heard of others going through infidelity became a light that I could use to shine the way forward for others. There seemed no point to my pain so I made a point of using it, of transforming it. I know so many of you have done the same, from creating local support groups, to reaching out to someone on Twitter who is hurting. It is comes from the same fountain of suffering transformed.

Suffering is just suffering. There are times when we can release it. And there are times when we can put it to work. But it should never be glorified.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Making Space for Your Reality

It may sound innocuous on the surface, but when you share something difficult with someone and they insist that you turn it into a positive, what they're really saying is, My comfort is more important than your reality.

~Dr. Susan David, Author of Emotional Agility

My friend Diana is a good person. She's kind and funny and generous. A couple of weeks ago, she called me. It was a day after I'd had a run-in with my brother. Long-time readers of this site might recall that my former therapist attributes much of my issues with anger to my brother. She insists that what I always chalked up to normal sibling stuff was actually full-on emotional and physical abuse that my parents largely ignored. I suspect she's right. But I'm a grown woman now. So when my brother called to scream at me because he doesn't believe I'm taking good enough care of my elderly dad, I told him, calmly and clearly, to stop speaking to me that way. He responded by hanging up on me then texting me to "grow up and step up".

A few years ago, that would have sent me into a tailspin. I would have questioned myself (Am I really not doing enough for my dad?" Am I a bad daughter? A bad sister? A bad human being?). I would have lain awake at night beating myself up while also mentally cataloging all the ways in which my brother is a jerk. I felt angry, absolutely. But a healthy anger. An anger that says, "you don't get to treat me like that".

But here's the story: I was filling in my friend, Diana, about what happened. Matter-of-fact. Telling her that I'm done with letting my brother take his fury out on me, I'm done dutifully following his instructions. Just...done. 

Diana responded with some murmurs of support but then she said, "you don't really mean that. You want your brother in your life. You'll get over this."

I felt...unheard. I felt disrespected. I felt patronized. And so, when I read the above quote on Brené Brown's Instagram, it resonated. Because that's exactly how it feels, right? When we share something that feels personal, that feels...raw, and the person in whom we've confided responds with platitudes or minimizing, well, it's clear that our feelings are putting them in supreme discomfort and they want it to stop.

A whole lot of us know that experience, don't we? It took me more than 40 years to finally understand what people were really saying to me when they called me "too sensitive" or "too emotional". What they were saying is, "your feelings are making me uncomfortable. Please stop having them."

I've learned over the years to not share a lot with Diana. She minimizes her own feelings too.  No matter what is happening in her life, it's "all good" even when it's clear to all that it's not. So what I learned from my most recent conversation with her confirmed what I already knew: Feelings make her horribly uncomfortable. She can't show up for me because she hasn't yet figured out how to show up for herself.

What does any of this have to do with betrayal and infidelity? Infidelity triggers strong feelings in people, uncomfortable feelings. And if, when you confide in someone you trust (please be discerning) their response is to minimize or to try to turn this into a positive, then I want you to recognize what's happening. 

You are entitled to your feelings, no matter what they are. They are real and deserving of acknowledgement. Your job is never to prioritize others' comfort over your reality. Never. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

Coming out of a pandemic is not unlike coming out of betrayal

Grief metastasizes when neglected. I have experienced it in the form of full body-wracking sobs when a song comes on the radio, and in dreams I wake up from with tears streaming down my face — but also in shitty behavior towards boyfriends and friends, in steaming, misdirected anger, in embarrassment and jealousy and shame. Processing loss entails acknowledging so much more than sadness.

~Anne Helen Peterson, Culture Study

"No, I'm not ready," says writer Anne Helen Peterson, about our imminent emergence from pandemic lockdown. 

As I read her newsletter about the jumble of emotions she's experienced this past unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes year of global grief, it reads like a survival guide to infidelity too. The confusion, the loss of something difficult to name, the fear, the suspicion, the occasional unexpected euphoria. She categorizes all of it under a block-letter heading: TRAUMA. And that's true for those of us emerging from betrayal too. It doesn't matter if our trauma feels small and insignificant – we didn't experience sexual assault, or war, for instance – it nonetheless registers in our psyche. As Peterson writes, "Processing loss entails acknowledging so much more than sadness."

We need a vocabulary for infidelity. It's part of why I organized Encyclopedia for the Betrayed as, well, an encyclopedia. An A to Z examination of infidelity because it's hard to process an experience for which we lack the words. Loss is so much more than sadness.

What's more, like our feelings around this past year of lockdown and mask wars and concern for people we often don't give a second thought (grocery store workers, for instance), it can feel so destabilizing. I often cried at the strangest times – the cereal aisle at the grocery store – and other times felt long stretches of nothing when crying would have convenient. This past year has felt similar. I ache at odd moments and feel numb at others. I snap at my children when I'm angry with the anti-maskers jeopardizing the health of my 91-year-old father. 

So much more than sadness.

It's a comment I read often on this site, a sort of confused, "I'm beginning to feel better but am terrified" plea for explanation. 

I felt it then, when I, too, was emerging from betrayal, when I was beginning to live again rather than simply survive each day – and I'm feeling it now with news of friends being vaccinated, with my father's first vaccination, with promises that I, too, have a vaccination in my not-too-distant future. On the one hand, hurray! On the other, terror. What will this new world look like when we venture back into it? So much has changed. Everything, in fact.

See what I mean? It's hard to discern whether I'm talking about emerging from betrayal or from the pandemic. 

For me, healing from betrayal is far behind so what looms ahead is emerging from the pandemic. And the approach I plan to take, outlined by Anne Helen Peterson, is one I urge you all to take as well, emerging as many of you are from twin traumas: betrayal and pandemic.

It's an approach I took instinctually way back when: To move forward at my own pace. To pay close attention to what I could manage and what I could not. To listen to my body. To honor my needs. To curate my life with an intentionality that was new to me. Yes, to this event. No, to that one. Yes, to keeping this friend in my life. No, to that one.

Peterson puts it this way: "We can start clearing trail for our paths away from this pandemic year. We just have to make them meandering, with ample stops for rest. We will be collectively discombobulated and bewildered, working through layers of bittersweetness, anxious and angry and thrilled. Our post-pandemic selves will continue multitudes, and I cannot wait to get reacquainted with myself, with all of you. But it’s okay that I’m not there, not quite yet.'

It's okay that you're not there, not quite yet. You must allow yourself to rest. To heal on your timeline, not anyone else's. You, too, are working through layers of bittersweetness, anxiety and anger. And, perhaps, you're also experiencing a certain euphoria too. You, like all of us, contain multitudes. You, too, are getting reacquainted with yourself. Don't rush it. You deserve all the time you need. 


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