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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.

Sensitivity

I am reading The Secret Life of Bees for book club, and I love it! I know it’s old, but in our last meeting we discussed which books made us wish we could spend more time with the characters, and one of the members mentioned this one. I can see why. I love all of the characters, too. Well, maybe not June so much. She’s a little too guarded for me. Although I wish I could be more like August, the matriarch of the sisters, I am actually more like May–the fragile one who feels other people’s pain too deeply. Not as deeply as she did, thank goodness. But more so than I would like sometimes.

On the one hand, I recognize that it is a gift to have such a keen sense of empathy. I know I have helped a lot of people because of it. But I am also easily thrown off balance when the people I care about are in pain–especially since I am also prone to depression and anxiety. I have always assumed this meant that I was weak. Fragile. Too sensitive.

I spent time with my brother this weekend–the only one of the four siblings who does not have a mood disorder. In talking to him, it was clear that he does not experience his feelings as intensely as I do. He does not get his feelings hurt very often. He is better able to maintain distance from family drama, and his advice really is to tell them to suck it up.

I envy him for this, but I cannot be him. I can only be me. I feel things intensely. My feelings get hurt easily. And when someone is in pain, I feel what they feel and try to help them, even if it hurts me.

But rather than berate myself for it, I am learning to accept that this is who I am. We all have different vulnerabilities. Some people may be prone to heart disease. Other people have diabetes. I am a hyperempath with depression and anxiety. Therefore, I have to be sure to take care of myself in certain ways: make alone time a priority, set boundaries, and be more selective about who I spend time with.

I used to joke that I’m not trying to save the world–just the people that I meet. But perhaps I will have to narrow down my scope in my life-saving efforts, too.

Positively Selfish

One of the hazards of working in the helping professions is burnout. People who are drawn to helping others run the risk of giving too much of themselves. In my case, however, I run the risk of burnout in my personal relationships more so than I do at work.

There are a lot of advantages to working in a counseling center. Even though you don’t make as much money, you have access to a lot of resources that you don’t have in private practice. I have colleagues, the student health center, deans, RA’s, and peer counselors who share the load. The most stressful periods of my job are predictable and time-limited: they occur around the middle of the semester and end around finals week. There are boundaries that are built into our schedule, as well. Appointments are 50 minutes long at the most. We don’t schedule clients past 5 pm or on the weekends. Students go home for breaks. We don’t see students after they graduate.

My personal life is a different story. Many of the people I love have emotional needs that they expect me to fulfill. Appointments are not time-limited. I am on call 24-7. I usually cannot terminate these relationships, nor do I want to. I have a hard time saying no to whatever they ask of me. And in many cases, I do not feel I am getting back as much as I am putting into the relationship because their emotional resources are more limited than my own. Which is not their fault. It’s just unfortunate for me.

That is part of the reason why I want a hiatus from loving and caring for anyone or anything new. No dating. No pets. Just me and my plants. I’m burned out; I want a more solitary job in my personal life.

I was telling my therapist the other day how this makes me feel selfish. She told me that I’m being honest with myself–more authentic. That we need another word that conveys positive selfishness. Which is kind of sad, really. What does it say about our culture that there would be no word for a healthy focus on oneself?

She nominated the word selful. Full of oneself, but in a good way. More like being whole. But it doesn’t roll off the tongue the way selfish and selfless do. Plus it looks weird. So I am open to suggestions.

Psychological Energy Conservation

Being single has its advantages. I never realized how much energy I was expending on compromising and trying to make things work. It’s lonely at times but much more relaxing. So much so that I think I’m going to give up all of my high maintenance relationships. Maybe it will help me cut down on my crash and burn days.
 
In fact, I’m thinking about promoting a psychological energy conservation campaign modeled after Go Green. Instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, my slogan is Refrain, Reframe, Reevaluate. Since my tag line is less intuitive, let me elaborate.
 
1.  Refrain.  I’m going to do a better job of setting boundaries. Before, if someone asked me to do something, I felt like I had to do it if I was capable of doing so. Whether I wanted to or not was irrelevant. Or whether it was in my best interest to do so. But you know what? I can just say no. No, I’m not available at that time. No, I don’t want to go to that wedding. No, I don’t have room for you on my team.
 
I can also resist the urge to help people when helping them means hurting myself. My rationale in the past has been that I can take it, so it’s OK. I can lose sleep. I can get my heart broken. I can sacrifice my time. But it’s not OK. I always tell clients that you have to put yourself first, because you can’t rely on other people to do so, even if they love you. If its a choice between you and someone else, pick you. So I’m picking me.
 
2.  Reframe.  I waste a lot of time beating myself up for things I can’t control. Like being angry, or anxious, or exhausted. So I’m trying to reframe my feelings in a way that helps me to be more accepting of them.
 
Lately, when my inner critic gives me a hard time for obsessing, I stand up for myself. Of course I’m obsessing! That’s my thing. That’s what I do. Why wouldn’t I be doing it right now? That shuts him up. And it actually helps me to stop obsessing.
 
And I’ve come up with another part to help me be more forgiving of myself for my anger. I think of my anger as a bouncer who is trying to keep people who have hurt me from getting back into the club. Because I’m standing at the door saying, of course you can come in! Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything? The bouncer gets mad at me when I do this, and who can blame him, really. Someone needs to be strong enough to kick these people out.
 
3.  Reevaluate.  I need to do an energy assessment after I crash and burn, rather than assume it happened because I’m a crazy, weak, bad person. If I choose to blog during lunch instead of take a nap and catch up on sleep, I might be tired later in the week.  Same thing with staying up until 2 a.m. Or choosing to captain 2 teams at the same time. Or playing 5 times a week. I can do it, but I have to be ready to pay the consequences later.
 
I can become more aware of what I need, rather than judge myself for what I think I should need, if I were a normal person. I can allow myself to do what works best for me. I’m the most productive after 7 p.m., so that’s when I’m going to get my chores done. I’d rather work nonstop for 2 hours than leisurely spend the day working. And my favorite time of day is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I’m going to let myself enjoy those hours, even if it means that I’ll sleep until noon the next day.
 
I’m thinking this campaign could really catch on. Think how much more energy we would all have for the things that are important to us if we used it more wisely. Heck, I might even win the Nobel Prize like Al Gore.
 

New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t ordinarily give specific psychological advice in my blog, but since I think New Year’s resolutions are an important opportunity for personal growth, I’m breaking that pattern.The #1 New Year’s resolution every year is to lose weight. I’m not advocating that you give up this goal, but I encourage you to add goals that will help you move closer to the person that you want to be–ways to live according to your values.

If you’ve been reading my blog, my resolutions will come as no surprise.  They are to:

  1. Blog 2-3x/week.
  2. Ask for help when I need it.
  3. Say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want.

The biggest problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they are usually forgotten by February. But not this year! Here are some tips for making the most out of your resolutions:

  1. Make your goals public. Tell your friends and family.  Tweet, post, and blog about it. Whatever will keep you accountable.
  2. Use positive language.  Rather than having the goal of losing weight, reframe it as eating healthier, exercising more, learning a new sport.
  3. Make specific goals.  Make a plan for how you will exercise more: I’ll go to the gym 3x/week, I’ll take tennis lessons.
  4. Focus on the process.  Life is more about how we choose to live it than the end result.  Most of our lives are spent in the process; the outcome is just a pit stop.
  5. Take stock of your progress.  I suggest that you do it periodically throughout the year. At the end of the year you can decide if you want to recommit to this goal.
If you feel discouraged about your progress this past year, I leave you with one of my favorite inspirational poems. My favorite lines are: “You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and stars; you have a right to be here.  Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
So take heart that you are on the right path, even if it seems that you are lost.  And take this opportunity to set an intention for the direction that you want your life to take.

Empathy

Sometimes you can have too much empathy.

One of the reasons why it seems like I want to save the world (which I don’t–just the people I’ve met) is because I can feel other people’s pain as though it were my own.  When they are hurting, I’m hurting. So it’s really for selfish reasons that I help other people; I don’t like being in pain.

When I worked in day care after I graduated from college, the children who had the most difficult time adjusting were the ones who were attached to me.  In case you are worried about your children being in day care, rest assured that there were some kids who loved it so much that they didn’t want to go home. 

But not these kids.  These were the kids who cried from the moment their parents dropped them off until they picked them up in the afternoon.  And this would go on for weeks.  It actually drove me crazy.  I didn’t feel positively towards them at all.  Which is why I could never understand why they were attached to me.

Now I think it’s because I could feel their pain, so I would break the rules and hold them all day because it’s the only thing that comforted them.  And it turns out that being held is one of the best ways to soothe people.  So next time you’re feeling upset, ask for a hug from someone you care about.  Or do something that feels like a hug, like take a warm bath or wrap yourself up in a blanket.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a receiver that picks up the emotional equivalent of radio waves.  I’m bombarded by all of these feelings, all the time.  Sometimes I don’t even know where they’re coming from.  I wish I could just turn the receiver off every now and then, or at least turn down the volume.  Anything to have some relief from the constant noise.

The best solution I’ve been able to come up with is the yes and no thing: yes to what I want, no to what I don’t want.  I need to choose the people who I’m around more carefully.  If it’s someone who doesn’t take responsibility for dealing with their own feelings, I need to stay away.  I can barely deal with my own feelings.

It sounds cold and calculated, but I always tell clients that if it comes down to you and someone else, you have to pick you, because there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.

So from now on, I’m going to try to pick me.

Photo courtesy of  Maria Roman

Yes and No

Being alone isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  Relationships are an area where I take on challenges without asking myself whether it is worth the effort, so it’s a nice change of pace to have energy to expend on myself. 

When I was in school, the reason why I was a good student is that I did what teachers told me to do.  It never occurred to me that not doing the reading or homework and not studying were an option.  I also try to fulfill my job responsibilities because I’m afraid that if I make one mistake I’ll get fired.  

I think it’s partly due to my Catholic upbringing.  I’m a rule-follower to begin with, but I also fear that if I break the rules I will go to hell.  If I call a ball out, I’m afraid I’ll go to hell because I wanted the point so badly.  So usually I just call everything in, which is sometimes to my advantage because my opponent wasn’t expecting to play a ball that was a foot out.

I used to have this prayer where I would ask God to forgive me for all my sins, intentional and unintentional, because I thought, what if I’ve sinned and I didn’t realize it?  Then I couldn’t ask for forgiveness and I might go to hell.  So I figured this prayer covered all the bases.

Most of my relationships weren’t of my choosing.  If someone liked me, I would date him because I thought that would make him happy.  Feeling ambivalent was not a good enough reason to say no because my feelings didn’t count.  And it’s hard for me to end relationships because I’m not allowed to hurt anyone.  Although I often ended up hurting them, anyway.

This is also the reason I became a psychologist and feel compelled to save the world.  If someone is hurting, then it’s my job to help them if I’m able to do so.  It doesn’t matter if I want to do so, whether I like the person or not, how stressed I am, or how much energy I have to expend.

My superhero family members also share this sentiment, as I mentioned in a previous post.  They are even more extreme in terms of putting other people’s needs first, even if it hurts them.  So I really haven’t had good role models for setting limits.

But thanks to this blog, I’m beginning to set limits.  I’ve quit that crazy writing job where I was spending 10-12 hours on articles that gave the most superficial advice possible for $25.  I ended a relationship and am learning to be alone.  I have narrowed down my extra-curricular activities to tennis, knitting that dress for my niece, and writing/promoting my blog.  Which is still a lot, but it’s an improvement for me.

My new rule is to say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want.  I said this 3 years ago, but sometimes it takes awhile to do what you know you need to do.  So I’m trying not to beat myself up about that. 

So from now on, it’s yes and no.  Hopefully.

Self-Care

Remember how I said I was following all the stress management guidelines and still feeling overwhelmed? Well that day there was a car accident with 11 students involved, 1 who died and 3 who are still in critical condition. The entire college community is grieving, and we have been slammed at the counseling center.

Every day, multiple times a day, I preach the importance of self-care, which includes:

  • Sleep: I get at least 6 hours but could use more.
  • Eating:  I never skip a meal and eat relatively healthy.
  • Exercise:  I try to play tennis 3x/week and stretch before bedtime.
  • Down Time:  I give myself plenty of down time. One of the perks of living alone.
  • Putting your needs first:  I am terrible at this.

In my defense, most helping professionals are pathologically helpful and run the risk of burnout. In fact, if there were an award for Most Likely to Help Other People Until You Collapse, the physicians in my family would be competing for first place.

I forced my dad to read the blog about him, and after he read it he admitted that spending decades on call 24-7, covering every physician who went out of town over the holidays while we stayed home, probably contributed to his depression. When my dad was sick, my mom saw both of their patients and took care of my dad. My brother recently had sinus surgery and was told to take off at least a week from work but went back after 3 days.

So relatively speaking, I’m actually a slacker in my family.

I have been feeling the loss of not having someone to come home to, someone who I can talk about my day with. I have made an effort to reach out to friends, and they have been incredibly helpful, but it doesn’t take the place of having that person who knows everything that’s going on with you on a day-to-day basis, whether they want to or not.

So I’m doing what I can to take care of myself. I went to dinner with friends last night. I was dead tired but it was a rare opportunity to see my tennis mom, who recently abandoned me by moving to South Carolina. She reminded me of the hazards of my “save the world” mentality. I defended myself by saying that I’m not trying to save the world–just the people I meet. It just so happens that I’m meeting a lot of people right now.

And I’m going to a movie tonight after I go into work to facilitate a debriefing session. I’m a little worried about being too drained afterwards but I’m making an effort to do something other than sit at home alone all weekend.

And I’m writing this blog. This is the one place where everything gets to be about me. I get to talk as much as I want without being interrupted, there are people who are interested in what I have to say, and the feedback is almost always positive. And for this I am thankful.

Boundaries, Part 2

As I reflect on my day in Big Stone Gap, I am reminded that parents often do know best. Here are just a few of the reasons why it was good to come home:

  1. It is rare for all of my brothers to be here at once, and when I’m with them I feel like I did when we were kids, no matter how old we get.
  2. Karaoke.
  3. I got to carve a pumpkin with two of my nieces, and now they want to make it an annual ritual.
  4. They’re filming the movie “Big Stone Gap” on location, and one of the locations is my parents’ neighborhood.
  5. Lechon.
  6. The entire Filipino community is reading my blog and they aren’t mad at me.  In fact, I’m probably going to get a lot of gigantic wooden spoons and forks for Christmas.
  7. Birthday cake.
  8. It turns out that blogging about not being assertive is a good way to let people know that you don’t want to hear that you’ve gained weight.  
  9. I got to take some great pictures.
  10. Sometimes my family drives me crazy, but at the end of the day, they are also the people who love me the most.



Boundaries

When I was in grad school, everyone talked about how important it was to have good boundaries.  At first I thought, boundaries?  What are those?  I guess that was a sign that I didn’t have good ones.

In my defense, Asian cultures have a different definition of boundaries than American culture.  For example, it’s perfectly acceptable for any Filipino adult to tell you that you’ve gained weight and look fat now, that you should have a baby, that maybe you look fat because you’re about to have a baby?  OK then you’re just fat.  This is one of the downsides of having all of those aunts and uncles that aren’t actually related to you.

These kinds of conversations are difficult for many people, and this is where therapists are supposed to be helpful.  In assertiveness training, you learn how to say things like, it hurts my feelings when you say things like that.  Or I’m not comfortable with this conversation. 

However, in Asian cultures, you are expected to be respectful of your elders, so they can say whatever they want to you, but you really don’t get to say whatever you want to them in response.  I have found this difficult to explain to my therapists.  Sure you can!  Just tell them.  No big deal.  Except it is a big deal. 

In fact, it’s because of this power differential that people engage in passive-aggressive behavior.  You’re not allowed to say, well you’ve gained 20 lbs. yourself!  I guess we’re both fat.  Instead you might do something like ask in your most sincere voice, how is your son doing?  The one who got a DUI?  Is he out of rehab yet?  Then they get to be the ones who feel bad about themselves.

Another option is to be completely passive and not go to any Filipino functions.  Or leave early.  Or hide in some room somewhere with your siblings who also don’t want to have to answer rude questions and only come out for food.  This is actually the route that I’m more likely to take.

This weekend I am going to a mandatory family gathering.  Since it’s so hard for all of my brothers and me to come home at the same time, my parents have decided that they are going to force us all to come home for my nephew’s birthday, and no amount of inconvenience is an acceptable excuse. 

I’m nervous about it because my dad keeps asking me if I’ve lost weight (I have not) and if I’m taking the appetite suppressants he gave me (I am).  I talked to my brother this weekend and my dad is telling him the same thing–that he’s fat and needs to eat less.  I think this sudden interest in our weight gain is because he has gained about 20 lbs., but like I said, I’m not allowed to point that out.

I am sure that there is some way to set boundaries even in Asian cultures, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do so.  So I’m just going to grab my food and hide out in the TV room and play with my niece.