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Category Archives: Relationships

Boundaries, Part 3

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Last night I was reading “The Girl on the Train” for book club, and one of the characters describes how she feels like someone has been in her house and has touched all of her stuff, even though nothing is out of place. I don’t know why yet, but my guess is that her intuition is correct.

It reminded me of this time when I came home and felt the same way. Except something was out of place. The TV was on some channel that I never watch. I was momentarily afraid. Then I called my boyfriend at the time and he said he had gone into my house to hang out for a while because he was hiding from his ex-wife. I thought that was weird. Why in the world would he not have told me that? Or asked me if he could go to my place? Why did he just feel like he could go over there like it belonged to him?

There were other similar things that he did that used to drive me crazy. Use my mugs and then take them home and put them in his cabinets. Go into my drawers and wear my t-shirts and then take them home and put them in his drawers. Pick up my computer and start using it without asking me. Change the saved radio stations in my car to the ones that he listened to. No matter how many times I told him not to do these things. It enraged me.

There were psychological boundary violations, too. He would purposely not respond to my calls and texts when he was up to something and would then accuse me of being too needy. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that he was the one who needed me, but it struck a cord with me, so I didn’t know which one of us was crazy. Maybe we both were.

Although it was mostly him.

When these memories come up, I’m glad that I’m not in a relationship. I continue to struggle with not knowing when I’m feeling someone else’s feelings. It all feels the same to me. It makes it a little easier if there’s no one here in my life, invading my physical and psychological space. But how long do I have to be alone before I know that it’s safe to invite someone back in?

This ex who could not differentiate my stuff from his own once told me that as a kid he used to have nightmares of being in a room with no walls. That would be a terrifying thing. I imagine maintaining or protecting boundaries is easier to do if there are already walls built into the spaces in your mind. But how do you know where to put them, if all of your life there’s just been this undefined space?

I still don’t have the answer for that. Although one clue seems to be that, if I meet someone and the thought of them makes me anxious or angry, that’s probably a sign that I might not want to go out with them.

Two Year Progress Report

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Today is my blog’s 2nd birthday. Woo hoo! And I have to say, I’m really proud of myself. I started this blog because I wanted to write a book and this seemed like the best way to force myself to show my writing to other people and to develop content. I also wanted to prove to myself, and to others, that sharing our vulnerabilities is the best way to accept ourselves.

I did not, however, expect to make so many meaningful connections with other people–even though intellectually I knew this is also one of the benefits of sharing our vulnerabilities. And I did not expect my blog to be the best therapy I’ve ever received.

I know a lot of people share tips on how to have a successful blog on their birthdays, but I thought I’d share the things I’ve learned about myself through blogging that have made my life better instead.

1. Self-care is hard work. As a therapist, I preach about self-care all the time. And I thought I was pretty good about taking care of myself. But through blogging, I now realize there have been obstacles to my self-care that I have overlooked because I think I am superhuman.

Like, if I play tennis 6 times in a row, I’m too tired to function the next day. And it hurts my knees. Or if I spend all my energy on helping my family and my clients and my romantic partners, I get depressed. And I have a lot of expectations about how much I should be able to do that my body and mind don’t always agree with.

So now I treat taking care of myself as though my life depends on it. And it kind of does.

2. I can have more faith in God. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about the fact that I have very little money in savings. Or that if I were to become disabled, I don’t have anyone else’s income to rely on. Or if I were to fall and couldn’t get up, no one would find me until I didn’t show up for my tennis match. Which is partly why I play so much.

I’m not going to lie and say I don’t worry about those things anymore, but I worry about them less. Because blogging has shown me that somehow, things always work out. Like that time when I had a nail in my tire and my ex just happened to see it and let me know.

So I try to stop worrying so much about how things will work out and just trust that God will take care of me.

3. It pays to be nice to yourself. I used to spend a lot of time motivating myself with shame. Yelling at myself to get out of bed, get off the couch, go to work, and go to the grocery store like a normal person. Other people who have spouses and kids do it. What’s your excuse? But practicing compassion has helped tremendously, and I accomplish much more by motivating myself with kindness than I do with shame.

So now I tell myself things like, I’m doing the best that I can. And I really am.

4. I can be alone and still feel loved. Before I started my blog, I had been in relationships non-stop since I was 14. The thought of not being in one was anxiety-provoking. Now I’ve been single for almost 2 years, and it is the most mentally stable I’ve ever felt. Apparently, relationships make me crazy.  But more importantly, I have become much more aware of how many people are there for me. My family loves me. My friends look out for me. Even readers care about when I’m having a bad day.

Perhaps some day I will find someone who I can add to this list, but in the mean time, I’m pretty happy with things just as they are.

That’s it for this year. Looking forward to seeing the person I become in the next year. And thanks for accompanying me on the journey!

Social Pain

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I’m all into social pain right now. I mean, not experiencing social pain. I’m not masochistic or anything. At least I don’t think I am. Actually, maybe I am, based on my relationship history. But that’s beside the point.

Let me start over. I’m reading this book on Social Pain, and it is really fascinating. Probably not something you would be interested in reading unless you enjoy learning about brain research, so I’ll just tell you about it, since that’s what I do.

It turns out that social pain–things like rejection, bullying, loss, and separation–registers in the same parts of the brain where we register physical pain. So some researchers thought, hey, I wonder if pain relievers might help people who are experiencing social pain? So they gave people Tylenol for 3 weeks and it turns out that it works! How cool is that?

The other thing that I learned is that we can relive social pain but not physical pain. Which is so true. I hurt my knee 2 months ago playing tennis, and I remember being in pain, but I don’t re-experience the pain when I remember it. But I can remember how rejected I felt when my tennis partner broke up with me because we didn’t win enough.

That’s the other major difference. I take social pain more personally. I felt humiliated by the whole thing. It’s hard to talk to that person now. The rejection is always there, hovering between us. And it has undermined my confidence in my game.

It turns out that social pain hurts so deeply because in our ancestral history, being accepted by your group meant that you would be taken care of. Being an outcast meant that they might tell you to wait in the cave while they go out to hunt and gather and never come back to get you. So being accepted was actually a matter of life or death.

Which is why people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Because speaking in front of others could result in humiliation and rejection, which can feel like death. More so than actual death, apparently.

I guess that’s why I didn’t have to practice compassion when my knee was hurting. I would ice it and take ibuprofen and try not to play. And I’d sort of be pissed off at myself when I played and reinjured it, but I didn’t really beat myself up over it.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I haven’t practiced self-compassion over the tennis breakup. So I guess I’ll do it now.

It hurts to be rejected. Everyone feels hurt when they’re rejected. That’s how our brains work. At some point, it will stop hurting, and I will be here with you until it does. In the mean time, I want you to think about something else, because I don’t want you to suffer unnecessarily.

I guess I’ll see if that helps. Maybe I’ll kick ass in tennis tomorrow night.

Prince Eggshell

Humpty Dumpty

I have another guest post today from one of my former clients, Elizabeth Barbour, who also wrote the post Self-Disclosure is the Hardest Work I know. In today’s post, Elizabeth talks openly and honestly about the dark side of knights in shining armor and rescue fantasies.

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A previous entry in this blog identified a tendency to judge ourselves harshly for negatively judging the inappropriate behavior of our romantic partners. As if forgiveness trumps self-preservation. As if our emotional freedom and mental health are not in the balance. As if denial is an option. As if yelling is not…well, yelling.

But enough is enough. I have learned that verbal abuse is dangerous to my emotional freedom and mental health. After decades of robust living, four careers, adopting a child during a 20 year marriage that ultimately ended, earning a couple of advanced degrees, and a lot of therapy, I feel blessed with a sense of entitlement to living without being anyone’s emotional hostage or whipping boy. Like the Princess and the pea I developed a feeling for eggshell in my slipper.

My post-divorce Prince swept in on a white horse, a Mercedes and a Porsche and sent poems. Dressed me from head to toe. Added to my larder. And my coffers. He asked me to marry him after, three weeks.

A Prince coming to my rescue fulfilled a story I had inside about being a damsel-in-distress who needed to be rescued. He was as charming, as the sky is blue.  As accommodating, as the day is long. His smile could melt a sidewalk in January. His European accent rang my bell. For a while there was no eggshell in a stocking, on the floor, or anywhere at all.

Then came a few tantrums which my self-possessed teenage child and my wise-best-friend overheard. They both assessed the Prince as needy and over-sensitive. I began to think I was being backed into some kind of submission. The Prince has broken horses and trained hunting dogs and has bred, raised and trained racing pigeons, too. He called me every morning at 8:30 sharp, because it made him feel less anxious about our relationship. He called every night at 9:30 sharp or as soon as I returned home. The reason he gave for this was that as a child his father had beat his mother most often at night, so knowing I was safe allowed him to rest easy. I began to feel over scheduled. He was paranoid and anxious if I did not return his calls or texts right away—and snippy about it happening even when at the time of the not-taken call or text I had clients in front of me. Nipping at my backside, eggshell in my shoe.

Eggshells chaffed the soles of my feet as he talked non-stop for an entire surreal day about our future together. The present moment was nowhere in sight. I felt controlled and exhausted by his incessant chatter and could not claim any inner peace. From the bottom of my soles I said firmly—Enough. Enough. Enough. Stop talking. This was met with a lengthy, heated diatribe about my breach of manners.

Over 16 months a pattern arose of romantic dinners, shopping and gifts, trips to sunny places; and, occasional royal hissy fits over petty items, a few stern talking-tos about what will not do; and, heightened insight into the Prince’s emotional makeup.

On the last day of our union, I mentioned my hope to go on an adventure in a foreign country with my daughter next summer.   The Prince blanched and proceeded to label me too financially reckless; and, therefore fatally flawed to be his wife. My financial state has never stopped me from traveling. If it had, I would never have used a passport. He nearly blew smoke out of his ears as he yelled at me for 30 minutes before he stormed out of my life. I know he was yelling because I worried the neighbors would complain. It wasn’t the first time I knew he was yelling, because several times before I worried about others overhearing his outbursts.

The Prince has shown a pattern of reacting in a hot-tempered, hostile, vitriolic and condemning manner when he does not like what I say. I am not in this lifetime to be upbraided. Nor, am I a damsel in distress. I can meet life on its own terms. The Prince is out of my life and so is the damsel.

Elizabeth Barbour is a perennial student of Life, recent law grad, avowed Late Bloomer, proud Mother, and writer coming into fruition. 

Journaling, Part 2

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There is this space that exists between the relationship that you’re in and the one you dream of. The land of if only. If only he would call more. Compliment me. Say I love you. Put me first. Then everything would be perfect.

I lived in that space for a long time. But it required a lot of denial and distortion. Like a really extreme version of tunnel vision. If I looked at the relationship through one eye and squinted so that everything was sort of blurry, it would faintly resemble something that might give me what I needed.

Until I opened my eyes again.

I often say that the thing I miss the most about being in a relationship is having someone to share my day with. Someone to witness my life–even the mundane things. But recently, when I thought back on my previous relationships, I realized that I actually haven’t had someone to listen to me in a long time, even when I was in a relationship.

At the time I was angry with them for not wanting to listen, but after the relationship ended I was angry with myself for not seeing what was there–or not there–all along.

I so enjoyed reading old journal entries last month when I was feeling down that I’ve been writing every day since then. Not only does it help in the moment, but it provides my future self with ample entertainment.

At first journaling felt like a lame substitute for talking to another person. But now I look forward to it. It has become my favorite nighttime ritual. I keep a running tally throughout the day of the things I want to talk about, just like I did when I was in a relationship.

And there are lots of advantages to writing about my day rather than telling someone about it. Like:

If I want to talk about a dream where I ordered a burger at some diner and they wouldn’t let me add anything other than cheese because that would be too fancy, I can retell every insignificant detail of the dream without boring myself.

Or if I want to talk about every random association I had about this story I heard on the radio about this guy in China who jumped in the river on his wedding day when he saw his bride-to-be for the first time, I can do so without seeming obsessive. (Was he trying to kill himself? Did he still marry her after he got out of the water? Were his parents pissed off? That must have made the bride feel like crap.)

Or if I want to talk about how I cried in session yesterday because I felt my client’s pain, I can do so without worrying about violating confidentiality. And without judging myself for getting so emotional.

Or if I write about the exact same problem for the hundredth time, even though I’ve written about it for pages and pages, I can give myself permission to do so. For as many times and as many pages as I need to, until I no longer feel the need to talk about it.

And when I need to practice self-compassion without being judged or criticized, I can give myself permission to list every single thing that is hurting me in that moment and respond to myself by affirming that this is pain. This is suffering. And I am sorry that you are suffering.

And at some point in the future, when I have forgotten the details of each day, I will delight in rereading these entries–even the sad ones. Because they capture my experience in the moment so perfectly. Because they help me put my life in perspective. Because I’m interested in what that person has to say. She fascinates me. She reminds me a lot of myself.

So now I no longer worry about when I will meet someone who will take pleasure in hearing about all the mundane details of my life. Because I can give myself exactly what I need right now, in this moment.

Empathy vs. Compassion

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I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.

Undeserving, Part 2

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There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Will and Skylar are in bed, basking in the glory of love, when Skylar asks Will to move to California with her. This scene ends in an argument in which Skylar asks Will to look her in the eye and tell her he doesn’t love her, and he does. Even though he obviously loves her.

People think that when we get the thing we want–the loving relationship, the great job, the coveted degree–we will be happy. But sometimes when we get what we want we get depressed, like I did after I got my Ph.D. Or we start a fight, like Will did. Or we sabotage our marriage, like my first husband did.

I’ve had several students in the past few weeks who became suicidal in the midst of good fortune. I explained to them that sometimes we have to bargain with that part of ourselves that tells us we are not worthwhile. If you just let me have this one good thing, I promise I will pay for it by making myself suffer. I still won’t let myself believe I deserve it. Which they totally understood.

After having this conversation several times on Friday, I finally understood that this is what ended my first marriage. Everyone told me he thought he didn’t deserve me, which I sort of understood on an intellectual level, since he called himself a poor, half-breed bastard. But I never really believed it, because I thought he was the best guy I had ever known. And I still think that.

And I realized intellectually that he tried to end our marriage a month after we finally got the house of his dreams, and we were finally making money, and our lives were finally stable. But it still didn’t make sense in my heart, because even after we signed the divorce papers, he told me it was the saddest day of his life. Which was consistent with what he said on our wedding day, which he said was the happiest day of his life.

But on Friday, I finally understood how he felt. He didn’t deserve to have all of these good things happen to him. He felt like my clients did, who became suicidal when they were about to get what they wanted. Except instead of killing himself, he destroyed our marriage. And it hurt my heart to feel how worthless he felt. I could finally feel his sadness instead of my own.

When I explained the bargain we make with our inner demons to one of these clients, he commented on how overwhelming it was to believe he thought he was that bad. But I reminded him that there is also a part of him that knows he is good. Which is why he is in therapy. Why he is alive today.

This is also why, at the end of the movie, Will decides to move to California with Skylar. Because even though some part of ourselves may tell us we are undeserving, we can ignore that part and choose to love ourselves, anyway.