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In my last post I discussed our very real need for good boundary-drawing skills in our fight with anxiety. I wanted to share some examples of good boundary-drawing (and learning to deal with the consequences, good and scary, of that work) in today’s post.

Good Fences make Good Neighbors

As I have said in earlier posts one of the debilitating things about learning to be an anxious thinker is also learning that self-care is selfish, or cruel, or ungodly, or some other untrue thing. Let’s make sure we’re all clear on this: learning to draw healthy boundaries IS self-care. I would argue that good self-care can’t really flourish in the absence of our ability to draw clear, self-respecting boundaries where other people end and where we start…

One of the most common places people walk over our boundaries is the use (and abuse) of our personal time/support. Those people will ask for baby-sitting help, a long-suffering listening ear to stuff you’ve already heard, assistance with a project they want to get done, company for them to an activity they don’t want to do alone, etc.

Here’s the thing: them ASKING isn’t the problem. It is us not thinking we can say NO, thank you that’s the problem. They are actually allowed to ask all they want. We humans don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a community, a culture, a city or neighborhood or town, and we both have the need and the right to ASK.

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But we also have both the NEED and the RIGHT to say no, I’m sorry, I’m not going to help you with that. I know. That sounds a lot like “I hate you and wish you were dead” to some of us. 🙂 We learned deeply in our younger days that ANY no was risky, selfish, arrogant, mean, or other silly and untrue words.

It was certainly true with me. I can say (with a certain amount of embarrassment these days) that I couldn’t tell anyone in my universe a simple, direct “no, sorry, I’m not willing to do that.” So instead what I did was made stuff up – that was one tool I used to avoid having to say no. Holy crap, I had to build some pretty elaborate stories!

You might know some of these tall tales. I was already committed to helping someone else (makes me sounds pretty great, yes? Can’t help you because someone else got to me first, and I just can’t cancel on them to help you.) I didn’t feel well (like anybody believed me – but I used it a LOT.) There was a crisis at work and I HAD to take care of that. (I wonder what my friends thought of the companies I worked for – clearly they were in crisis a LOT.) And one of my tried and true favorites: a friend of mine was in crisis and had asked me to come over. (Again, I come off sounding anything but selfish, right?)

Go ahead, ask me how often those people found out or figured out that I wasn’t being truthful with them. Ask me how that impacted those friendships. Ask me about the complicated stories I had to remember and maintain – lies, really – and how often I failed to keep them all juggled.

Maybe more to the point ask me how frustrated and angry I was at the people who were asking me for having the sheer audacity TO ask me. Yikes! And all of this because I didn’t feel safe simply saying “no, doesn’t work for me – love you, ask another day, but today, no, I’m not going to help you.”

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But wait – the story gets better. As I found the tools to get under my what if thinking and challenge the assumptions that had been scaring me for two decades I also began to realize that I needed to start taking into account what I wanted (see my post HERE on this basic human need and right.)

Which meant that if I was really listening to ME then I had to also start RESPECTING me and my needs/wants. Guess what happened? I stalled, I found reasons to not say no, all the while getting more frustrated and more annoyed, both with myself and the people that were asking stuff of me.

Finally, driven by desperation, I started one day saying no. A friend really wanted me to help them move. (Let me tell you, I’ve done a LOT of time as a semi-pro mover for my friends. Sometimes it was great fun and it was something I wanted to do – but sometimes it was the last thing I wanted to do, I did it anyway and then bitterly resented the person I was helping…)

Heart in my hands, voice shaking, I said “uh, listen, I, uh, I don’t have the time to give away right now. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help you move.” I waited for the upset, the shouting, the accusations of how bad a person I was, etc.

What I got, however, was “Oh, OK. No worries. I’ll find someone else.” I felt like I had just been let off with a not-guilty plea after murdering someone! 🙂

It wasn’t always that easy. People got upset with me too. And some of THAT was on me too. After all I had been the guy who always said yes, yes? They had counted on me to be the Yes Man again. THAT DIDN’T MEAN I HAD TO OBLIGE THEM.

I was in a real sense changing the rules on the people in my life. And that was MORE than OK. It was time for new rules – for how I managed my own time and energy. It was more than legal – it was vital to my health and the health of the relationships in my life. It took some practice. I wasn’t great at it for a while. I sometimes gave in to fear and said yes when I needed to say no.

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This is an art, way more than a science, and we can only get better if we’re willing to practice.

It isn’t Just about Doing or Not Doing

And of course boundaries are not just about what we can DO. Boundaries are also about what we think, what matters to us, what our opinions are, etc. These are also places that healthy boundaries help us maintain good self-care.

Liberal? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Conservative? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Don’t like shrimp? Legal – totally legal. Hate shrimp? (Man, I HATE shrimp. It’s like serving erasers for dinner!) It’s legal to hate shrimp too. Want to be a professional Alpine Skier? Knock yourself out. Want to build a child-care center, or be an art critic, or get a 20-hour-a-week job because the kids are gone and you want to make some cash for YOU? Go for it.

The challenge with this is that almost everyone in our lives has THEIR opinion, expert as they are, about what you should think, want, feel or believe.  And while that’s nice it is still up to YOU, dear reader, to make your own evaluations, your own decisions about what you think, want, feel or believe.

Here’s some weird news: if what someone else thinks or feels or wants makes you upset guess what? You’re what iffing about their stuff. Same thing is true about other people’s reactions to you. Here’s some more weird news: just because other people don’t like what you think or believe or want or feel doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have those thoughts, beliefs or feelings.

I’m not saying that all thoughts, beliefs or feelings are equal! Far from it. The validity or accuracy of a thought or belief is very much something that can be weighed and measured and evaluated. But guess what? You STILL get to have it. You STILL get to decide what to do about it. And as far as feelings are concerned, well, NOBODY gets to decide how you feel. That doesn’t make all your (or my) feelings true or useful – but they are still things that belong to us, and we still get to have them.

Will people get upset with us for having thoughts, beliefs or feelings different from the ones they have? You already know the answer to that. Just look at Fox News, MSNBC or any of the daytime shows like Maury to see what happens when frightened people disagree. Ugh. Not useful.

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Here’s an example: my partner loves to go to parties and gatherings of people he only barely knows, or doesn’t know at all. He’s got that never-met-a-stranger thing in his soul, and he’s great at meeting with and chatting people up. He loves it.

Me? Not so much. I can do it when necessary, and now and again I enjoy it, but I’m much more the hang-with-my-peeps kinda guy. My partner thinks I’m a crazy person for not wanting to meet lots of new people. I think he’s overextending himself and missing opportunities to get to know a few folks well.

Guess what? That’s what we think! Who says we have to agree? And more importantly we have the need to respect our own boundaries. He might change his mind one day. He might not. Same for me. But we each get to think what we think.

That doesn’t mean I can’t sometimes make an effort to change his mind. (I don’t when it comes to this topic, but there are so many other things he’s thinking wrong about I HAVE to try on others…) 🙂 Same thing for him with me. It’s utterly OK that we sometimes work to get people over to our point of view.

That doesn’t mean we have an obligation to take anyone else’s perspective! We can also choose to listen or not listen when they try to change our minds. NEVER listening probably isn’t useful, all the time. On the other hand you may decide that some people DO need to get tuned out, at least for a long, long time. That’s legal too.

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Putting up fences – drawing healthy boundaries – will trouble some people. They get over it. That might mean they move on to other folks that don’t have healthy boundaries (adios, I say – better for them and for us if they make that choice.) They will more likely go hey, that’s cool, once they get over the news that you’re no longer a doormat.

Yes, but it’s SCARY to say no…

Sure it is. We learned to literally think we were at risk for injury when we first learned that we shouldn’t or couldn’t say no. Lots and lots of people have trouble with boundaries – either enforcing their own, respecting other people’s or both.

Maybe we’re afraid we’ll wind up alone if we say no, sorry, not going to do or think the thing that someone is asking of us. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll have to look after ourselves, take care of ourselves – and we’re afraid that we can’t. Maybe we’re STILL afraid, consciously or unconsciously, that we’ll be hurt, beat up or otherwise threatened with harm if we say no.

The real question is what do we need to do to respect ourselves, take care of ourselves? If, God forbid, we’re actually physically at risk, well, that’s one thing, and we need to think through and take steps to get clear of that context. But even THAT is an example of boundary-drawing. Nobody should have the right to physically abuse us, trap us, control us.

And that’s an interesting thing to extend to our personal boundaries. Because if we’re NOT at risk for physical injury then it’s time we started drawing the boundaries that work for us.

Some of that will be a negotiation process. Sometimes, because of how we live, who we live with, the obligations that we have taken on, etc., we may not always get to, 100% of the time, have the boundaries we’d like. That’s OK too, because we’re still the ones in the driver’s seat. And nobody says we can’t go back to the negotiation table and reopen discussions, yes?

You’ll feel MUCH Better – and you’ll BE Healthier too

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Let me close this discussion by recommending a brilliant book: Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. Don’t let the title stop you (in case you think it applies only to people who wrestle with co-dependency.) This is a book about drawing boundaries, big, medium and small. She’s a great, straight-ahead writer and she won’t pull any punches. It’s a great instruction manual for the understanding and practice of drawing healthy boundaries.

Expect this work to make you uncomfortable. Expect to find yourself reverting to old behaviors rather than holding these new boundaries you want to hold. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself mad, or frustrated, or just pissed off, and maybe not even being sure why in that moment. This is scratchy work – anxiety-creating, in a great way, work, for awhile.

This is a skill (just like overcoming anxiety is a set of skills) and you’ll come to be very, very glad you have it.

When I was in college (way back before the invention of the wheel, but after we humans had discovered fire) I read some pretty interesting stuff by a guy named C.S. Lewis. Old C.S. was a professor in the United Kingdom, a smarty-pants thinker and one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

What he wrote changed my whole perspective on what the words kindness and love mean. Up to that point I had used the words interchangeably – love was kindness, and kindness was love. But I was wrong, and C.S. Lewis helped me understand why.

I think this distinction – understanding this crucial difference in the two words – has a lot of use to those of us who fight anxiety, and especially in reference to a couple of blog posts I’m going to put up right after this one this month about the need for all of us to be much, much better at drawing boundaries in our lives.

Let’s see how I do explaining the difference between kindness and love to you.


C.S. Lewis uses the example of a gracious, sweet grandmother when he starts his discussion of kindness vs. love. Picture a lovely lady in an apron, the smell of freshly-baked cookies in her kitchen, and hungry grandkids clamoring for some of those cookies – just before dinner-time.

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What does grandma do? Well, if she’s a kind grandma she says oh, OK, of course you can have some cookies. The kids scream YAHHHH and devour those cookies. And why shouldn’t they? Those kids are hungry, the cookies are tasty, and kindness demands that we give those kids some cookies.

But is that necessarily the best thing we can do? Be kind? Because there are consequences to eating those cookies before dinner. Those kids will fill up on sugar and chocolate, they won’t really have much room for serious food, so they won’t eat much dinner. And we’re not even talking about the carb rush and crash they’ll get to ride, or how grumpy and irritable they’ll be as a result of this nutritional mayhem they’ll get to experience.

Yes, we might say – but if we say no cookies the kids will be upset, mad, frustrated, and we’ll be the bad guy! (Or, in Grandma’s case, the bad gal.) Who wants to be the person who makes kids mad and frustrated?

The answer surprised me when I first read this thinking. The answer is someone who loves those kids.


Love, C.S. Lewis insists, is the Grandma that can say no kids, you can have a couple of cookies after dinner – but for the moment, given that it is almost dinner-time, the answer is no to cookies. And this gets wackier: love continues to say no even when those same kids cry and say that’s not fair and we’re really hungry and how can you be so mean to us?

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Now if you’re a grandma, or even simply a parent, you might be thinking “well, hell, sure, it isn’t a good idea to give those kids cookies before dinner. Everyone knows that.” Well, sure – except do we? Really understand this difference between kindness and love?

Because this discussion isn’t just about grandmas and kids who want cookies. Let’s get clearer first on why kindness says yes to those cookies and love says no, sorry kids, you can have cookies later.

Kindness doesn’t like the notion that other people might be unhappy – and especially with itself. I.e., if our focus is “everyone should be happy and nobody should be uncomfortable” then of course we’ll hand over the cookies – it’s the only sensible answer. We then look like the good guy, the one that people like and want to be around, because we don’t rock the boat or make any trouble.

Here’s the kicker that blew me out of the water in this distinction: kindness is in a sense being terribly, terribly selfish. Kindness says nobody can be upset or angry with me, nobody can feel uncomfortable, and I must NEVER be seen as a point of friction or the source of another’s discomfort.

Love, on the other hand, says to itself “what’s best for the other person and what’s best for me?” Both questions matter in Love’s thinking. What’s best for the kids AND for Grandma is that those hungry little ankle-biters hang tough in the cookie department – wait for cookies until after dinner. Everybody wins in that scenario – the kids and Grandma.

In other words love is looking at a larger context, and in that context is willing to suffer some discomfort, for themselves and for other people, in order to reach what’s best in that larger context. Yikes. Love sounds kinda, in this situation, like a hard-ass sometimes… but a hard ass with a clear mission of CARING for others AND for themselves.

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We say Love – but we mean Kindness – way too often…

As I said earlier, this conversation isn’t limited to grandmas and cookies. It has all kinds of applications to our lives – and especially to us anxiety fighters.

Maybe we have a teenager or young adult in our lives that is, well, not taking responsibility for their own life. And maybe we’re part of the problem – i.e., we practicing kindness (as defined in this discussion) instead of love with them. Maybe they need to get out of the house, get a regular job, pay their own bills, learn to manage their own money…

In other words, make some mistakes and grow up some as a result. Except they don’t want to – and why should they? We, afraid to say hey, you need to go grow up and learn some life skills on your own time, afraid that they’ll be mad and upset with us, hesitate to tell them this, fearful that we’ll be seen as the bad guy (or gal).

So we let them stay home, let them continue to not manage their money, or pay their own way We let them stay out late, do whatever they please because of… our fear. Kindness trumps love because kindness (in this definition) doesn’t have the courage of its convictions. Yikes. Pretty tough stuff, yes?

Because love says what’s best for everyone in this discussion? What’s best for this teen/young adult, and what’s best for me? What will help this young person in the long run, and what will (believe it or not) be best for this relationship?

Make no mistake – kindness gets resentful over time, resentful of always saying yes, of always doing what other people want. Kindness sees that always saying yes leads to kids with upset stomachs and young adults who can’t effectively manage their own lives. Maybe worst of all kindness comes to understand at some level that constantly saying “yes” actually damages the quality and strength of the relationships in our lives.

Ah, but the rub is that somebody will be upset for a while! Love risks discomfort, and upset, and even anger, for the sake of focusing on what’s most useful to everyone in the room. Holy crap. And love is willing to wait out the discomfort, even if it stretches on, even if it means pouting and foot-stomping – or long silences and unreturned phone calls.

Better imperfect Love than perfect Kindness

This doesn’t have to be kids still living at home when they need to get on with growing up. (And btw don’t think that I’m saying EVERY kid living at home needs to get kicked out on his or her butt. What I’m saying is that we have to be honest with ourselves about what is needed in this situation, whatever the situation is, and be clear when we’re practicing kindness – and avoiding discomfort – and when we need to practice love, for them and for ourselves.)

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No, this also applies to abusive and crappy relationships with parents, or the friend who is constantly taking advantage of us, or the co-worker that can’t seem to get their own work done and finds ways to pass it to us.

Love makes us honest. Who would have guessed that? 🙂 Love insists that we tell ourselves and other people the truth. Because love really is interested in EVERYONE’s best interests, and is willing to fight for those best interests.

Of course we’re only human. We won’t do perfect love – not going to happen. In some respects kindness (in this definition) is easy, and love is hard. Kindness doesn’t need much practice – but love takes effort, has a learning curve, and will make mistakes as it develops some skill at being loving.

I have another challenging notion in this discussion of kindness vs. love: kindness is a control freak. Kindness says I, myself, must manage other people’s feelings and reactions. It’s my responsibility, my fault if I don’t, and I’m the only one who can do it.

(Of course kindness also gets pissed as hell about this burden – see more about this in my next couple of blog posts on drawing boundaries.)

Love says hey, I can only really manage myself, but I can behave in loving ways towards other people, trusting that they have to find their own way. I can help them, for sure, I can support and encourage and stand with them, but I can’t do it for them, I can’t live their lives for them.

This love stuff is kinda challenging… and absolutely essential.

Remember the Serenity Prayer? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Guess what? When we say this little prayer we are in a very real sense asking for a greater capacity to love – ourselves and other people.

Are you ready to practice being more loving? 🙂

Love is not easy, a lot of the time. Stepping back enough to be honest about what is really loving takes courage and patience and practice. Staying in love this way takes more courage and love and practice. It’s easy to be kind (even if it becomes, sooner or later, life-sucking and life-corroding) but love is a skill learned over time.

Next post – learning to draw boundaries – in my view, one way of practicing love.

Safety First 7

It is my personal experience that those of us who wrestle with anxiety, worry and fear are often the same people who have one hell of a time taking care of ourselves. Sound familiar? We, the people who are often giving away blood and treasure in our own bodies fighting to keep our concerns at bay, are also the people who seem to always say yes to other people’s needs, giving away blood and treasure to other people – very often blood and treasure we don’t have to spare.

In other words, we kinda suck at drawing boundaries with other people. We, the folks who could really use some self-love and self-care, are the ones who tend to not give it to ourselves. I’ve blogged about this before here, a while ago, and felt it was time to bring it up again. Because one of the things that WAY too many of us who are on the march against anxiety in our lives don’t do is draw the boundaries in our lives that would help us live healthier, smarter, happier, and yes, more loving lives.

It’s Gotta Start With YOU

I can hardly throw stones, at least historically. I have been, for most of my life, the guy who couldn’t say no. Need me to help you move? Sure. Need me to drive you someplace? You bet. You need to burn an hour of my life to fix your TV set or get your meds at the Kaiser Clinic or bring you lunch? No problem. I usually couldn’t say no. I admired the people who could, even envied them, but I found myself incapable of drawing any boundaries in my own life.

Unless, of course, I was really tired and mad – then I was hell on wheels when it came to drawing boundaries. And that made it even worse – because then I’d feel badly for saying no, so I’d attempt to go back and do even more to make up for having the temerity to actually do what I wanted, this one time. (Not to mention feel guilty for the WAY I said no…) Ugh! You don’t have any experience with this, right?

But What if I Piss Somebody Off?

Isn’t that one of the great all-time phrases those of us who fight anxiety and fear use – “what if?” In this case we’re worried about what someone else will think or do if we say what we want or need. We get so busy projecting our fears into the future – doing the whole Worry Engine and Indefinite Negative Future thing – that we can’t bring ourselves to simply stop and ask ourselves “OK, self, what the heck do YOU want first?”

I know for myself that just this simple, basic step was the work of years to start doing, and it took some outside help. I had (from both family histories and the fears I’d acquired in my years of living) learned so deeply to NOT ask myself what I want that, when pressed, I often couldn’t tell myself or anyone else!

I was surprised (and more than a little angry) when I began to first realize this. I could sit by myself in a room with nobody else around, on a day that belonged only to me, and still be unable to tell myself what I really wanted – that’s how well trained I was to avoid the risk of drawing a boundary for me with someone else.

This is so important that it bears repeating: so much (if not all) of our problem with taking care of ourselves and drawing personal boundaries that work for US comes from fear. And that fear gets driven so deeply into our Comfort Zones, so strongly implanted, that some of us can’t even ask ourselves what we want…

With a little work I began to discover that there was still a part of me that DID have some idea of what I wanted. And the more I gave it voice the more it had to say. Which was by itself scary… Holy crap, I wanted more than I had known!

I discovered something else in that beginning work – that being able to tell myself what I wanted didn’t necessarily mean that I had to have it my way right then, or that I couldn’t accommodate other people’s needs or desires. The difference was suddenly I was approaching the issue as a peer, an equal, at least in my own thinking, and that in turn made me feel less afraid and anxious.

Another way to say this is that I was starting to RESPECT myself, treat myself as at least as important as the people I was rushing around to please in my life. That meant practicing asking myself about things small and big…

You’re Saying I’m NOT Telepathic?

That wasn’t the whole picture – not by a long shot. Years, decades of automatically deferring to what other people wanted from me took some additional effort to change as a behavior. And there was something else in this work to take care of myself – I was very, very busy anticipating what other people wanted, even before they told me. Yikes. I was responding to people before they had a chance to engage me – or I them.

This would bite me in the butt again and again, but I didn’t see it, so determined was I to not offend or upset anyone. I would guess wrong, I would get mad because I had done things other people didn’t actually need me to do (or gave up activities and plans they never asked me to give up) – and all because I wouldn’t engage them in a conversation about what I assumed they wanted FIRST.

Isn’t it amazing what we will do to avoid our fears? Not only had I learned to shut down my own needs and desires, but I had developed a literal reflex of anticipating and acting on what I ASSUMED other people wanted, whether or not I really knew that – all in an effort to stay away from people being upset or disappointed in me.

To get free of this really, really bad habit meant the following things:

1) I had to actually tell other people what I thought, felt and wanted (or didn’t want).
2) I had to ask other people what they wanted, THEN decide if I was willing to do that or not.
3) I had to risk someone being disappointed or frustrated or annoyed with me if they didn’t agree with me.
4) I had to let other people, at least sometimes, take care of themselves.

In other words I had to take some chances – push my Comfort Zone – face my fears. And if you have anything like the histories I have around the topic then you know how scary that can be.

Oddly, It Was More Than OK

A number of interesting things have happened since I began this work (and let’s be clear – I haven’t marched through this work in a straight line – there have been plenty of stops, stalls, detours and retreats in this work, and it has covered years.) One interesting thing is how often nobody gets upset. Isn’t that odd?

All the worry and concern, and then when I actually drew a boundary, said no, I wasn’t able to do this or that, or even (gasp!) that I wasn’t interested or wasn’t willing to change my plans to do this or that, the other person in the conversation would say something like “Ok, thanks”, or “No problem man.”

HUH? You mean I got myself worked into a frenzy over NOTHING?

Or, if they did have some reaction of frustration or disappointment (or even anger), I was surprised how quickly they got over it, and how little impact it had on our relationship. Again – HUH? What was possibly most annoying about this non-reaction was how little credit I had given either the other person (to manage their feelings and needs) or the strength/importance of our relationship from their side…

I also learned that people developed better respect for me when I began to draw these boundaries. I don’t know what human quality it is that tends to not respect people who won’t draw lines in the sand, but I’ve experienced first-hand the improved credibility, respect and even trust when I draw boundaries for myself, take care of myself in relation to other people.

And this doesn’t even touch what drawing boundaries does for diminishing fear! And (to link with my last post here at the blog) how it improves our self-confidence.

So What Does This Mean for Me, The Consumer?

As I have urged in other posts here at the blog, this work is usually most effective (and easiest to start) when we start small. Something as simple as deciding what YOU want for dinner, or what movie YOU’D like to see, can be a great first step for many of us. It may mean taking a minute (or more, in my case, at the start) to figure out just what you DO want – and don’t be surprised if it takes more than a little effort sometimes.

Expect to feel very scratchy when you’re starting this work. You may find your Comfort Zone pulling out all the stops, working to scare you back into submission, tossing up visions of disaster and doom if you really tell your husband/wife/son/best friend/co-worker/etc. that you don’t want burritos today. But hey, in most cases the worst that will happen is someone might scowl, or be irritated – and then move on. (And if their reaction is something more explosive, well, what’s that say for this relationship anyway? Maybe there are other boundaries that need to be drawn in those cases?)

Drawing boundaries and listening to ourselves can be hard, even scary. But it isn’t complicated to do. It starts with listening to ourselves – pushing on our Comfort Zone enough to actually make contact with what WE want and need. It then means taking the chance of telling other people what we want and need, and letting them have their feelings and reactions to that. It means letting other people sometimes take care of themselves.

The fight to learn to draw boundaries has been long and checkered for me. The bottom-line summary of that work has been this:

1) Nobody knows as well as I do what I need to care for myself, so I have to be able to actually ask myself what I want before I can take care of myself.
2) The more I take honest care of myself, the more I can actually care for the people around me.
3) The more I take honest care of myself, the more respect and credibility I get from the people around me.
4) The more I take honest care of myself, the more I challenge and master my fear.

Interesting, yes?

First off, my apologies for taking so long to get this current blog post up.  I have been reviewing the style and format of this blog with a brilliant woman named Kirsty Hall, and have been thinking through how to implement her recommendations.  Secondly, I received a LOT of responses to the last blog post!  Holy crap!  I had no less than nine people hit me by email and demand to know if I was using THEM as the example for the blog post!  Guess this example thing has some uses here on the blog…

OK, here’s another example that has recently surfaced around this conversation about making our fears conscious, addressing them directly and unpacking what we’re afraid of: one of my friends is heading home for Christmas next week.  He is a guy in his mid-40’s, successful at his job, in a healthy marriage and liking his life – except when he heads home for the holidays.  He loves his parents – that isn’t the issue – but they have a real gift for turning his visits into a kind of protracted torture.

They’ve never been crazy about his wife, for example.  She is remarkably patient with them given their attitude, but it makes this friend of mine very upset.  He tells stories about not being in his parent’s house 10 minutes before one or the other of his folks have dropped a comment about how great it is to see them both, since her job makes visits so rare, and they used to see him so much more before he was married.  (Nice one, yes?) 

Or they will be eating dinner with his parents and local siblings, and Mom or Dad will engage in conversation with him, but will (politely) listen to something she has to say, then change the subject to something they want to talk about, shutting her down in the process.  (If I was her I think I’d be tempted to decorate one or both parents with some mashed potatoes at high velocity.)  And of course the capper to him on these visits is how enthusiastic they are about whatever he gives them, but how cool and disinterested they are (however politely they say it) about her gifts to them.

I can almost hear some of you right now saying “I’d never put up with that!  What he ought to do is…” etc.  I’m guilty of this myself.  As I’ve said in earlier posts it is very easy to offer good advice if YOU are not dealing with anxiety or fear, if you are not in the middle of Flight or Fight.  But that’s just the problem with my friend – he is not comfortable confronting his parents over their behavior.  He has a number of Indefinite Negative Futures running in his thinking when he considers calling them on their rudeness towards his wife.

You can probably list the questions yourself – what if they are hurt?  What if they get angry and won’t talk to me anymore?  What if they ignore me and it gets even worse?  What if they cut me out of the will?  (I have both said this about my own family, and have heard others say it as well.)  And of course every time we ask ourselves a “what if?” question we invite Flight or Fight to power up and start its efforts to get us away from our fear, which in turn slows down our thinking, clouds our lucid reasoning, and feeds back on itself in more worry. 

If you’ve been reading this blog you already know what I’m going to say – that my friend needs to practice triad.  He needs to sit down for a moment, consciously deciding to face his fears about calling his parents on their inappropriate behavior towards his wife.  He needs to ride out the physical and emotional responses that will happen when he does that, as Flight or Fight activates in his body.  And as he’s doing that, KNOWING that nothing bad or dangerous is really happening, he needs to get clear on what he’s really afraid of, what specific fear or fears is stopping him, and then make a decision to DO something about it.

For example, maybe his primary concern is that they’ll shut him down, not talk to him after he confronts them.  That would be sad, and frustrating.  But is it really a disaster?  And will it really last forever?  Because most of us know that reactions fade, anger cools, and sooner or later his parents will ease up and want BOTH of them back at the holidays.  They may miss a Christmas or two – they may not – but in either case he will have addressed the problem and taken steps to correct it.  Nobody will die, nobody will be mauled by a tiger – really.

It really comes down to drawing some healthy boundaries.  I’m going to discuss boundaries more in upcoming blog posts, but I suspect you already know where I’m going with this idea.  He needs (as do many of us) to sit with his parents, in a quiet and calm way, and clearly state what he’s not liking in their behavior, and what he wants.  Heck, they may be only semi-aware of what they’re doing.  And he’s been allowing it all this time, hasn’t he?  And let’s not forget THEY are dealing with fears of their own, which are likely the source of this crappy behavior towards his wife.  Fear is flowing in both directions, most of the time, in situations like this.

Will he stop being afraid instantly?  No.  Will he waffle 3, 4, 10 times before he actually has the conversation with his parents?  You bet.  Will his Comfort Zone find a zillion reasons why this is really a bad idea, and he shouldn’t do it?  Absolutely.  But the moment he makes his move, steps through his fear and makes an effort to solve this problem, he’s going to feel a freedom and a peace in this situation he hasn’t felt in years.  And that freedom will, in turn, give him room to think about, just maybe, taking on some other fears in his life…

Easy?  Probably not.  Dangerous?  Nah.  It may FEEL that way – but that’s all.  (I can hear some of you now shouting “yes, but what IF they cut him out of the will?”)  Cut it out!  Unless this is a brutally, savagely dysfunctional family, that’s pretty unlikely, and we know it!  (And if the family is that bad, well, why are you visiting them anyway, or trusting them to leave you any money?) 

Next up – more examples, and a more detailed discussion of boundary-drawing and dealing with our fears.

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