values

the reality of this moment

Yesterday I had one of those days that chews you up and spits you out. I got all caught up in multitasking on a bunch of complex and somewhat frustrating projects at work, as well as reading the news, as well as trying to get everything ready for my upcoming vacation. By the end of the day, I could tell that my fuse was much shorter than usual. I went home and sat down with some marinated mozzarella and a small tot of bourbon, all riled up but still aware that in order to be OK, I needed to recharge my batteries. After 10 minutes, I felt calmer and more at ease. I could laugh at my reaction to the day’s events. But I needed enough self-awareness to pamper myself first.

Now is the only reality we know. If it’s stressful, if it’s blissful, it’s all we’re capable of being fully aware of. It’s distracting and all-encompassing—even while it’s utterly transient. Now never lasts for long. Even hours of jury duty, even the worst date, the worst relationship, ends eventually. It might take time, months or even years, but ultimately the state we’re living in will change, end, transform and bring us to another state. More often than not, states last less than a day, to the point where we could look back in five days, five weeks, five months or five years and not remember what happened.

When I look back at the worst times in my life, drenching and awful as they were, I clearly see how they were also transient. They passed, though I couldn’t see the future at the time of their passing—they did pass. Most of my early adulthood was worst times and all-right times. There weren’t a lot of best times. Now that I’m in a better place, I can look back on the last four years as really, really good times. I don’t see it in terms of bad and OK. I see it as my life, with temporary periods, mostly days or partial days, when I’m not at my best, when I fight with my partner or fight a cold, when I’m cranky at work or things just aren’t going my way. But the baseline is good. The status quo, the reality of now, is good. I feel at home with myself, I feel free to create my life as I need to, I feel aligned with what matters to me.

This wasn’t always the case. And I have endless empathy for anyone struggling with a baseline, with a whole series of days or weeks, which doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t bring them joy, doesn’t open them up to greater understanding or compassion or gratitude. Instead life brings them confusion, pain and suffering—which they survive, as if living in post-apocalyptic Earth, scrambling for basic needs, hoping for a release. I lived through that with my ex-husband, who didn’t feel like he would ever measure up to the world and decided not to try, eventually embracing the soothing torture of Oxycontin addiction to ease his pain. I lived it even more with my ex-boyfriend, a manipulative ex-addict who created drama for drama’s sake, stole from me and used me mercilessly to achieve his own ends. I lived it within myself, a person confined and smothered by the expectations and approval of others, unable to truly see or acknowledge myself.

Life will never be perfectly easy or purely delightful. No matter what we do, how much money we have, who we love, what we value, life challenges and irritates and surprises us. But we can live aligned with our values, and feel centered in that.

We can stand in our own truth, surrounded by those who support us, keeping at an emotional or physical difference those who don’t, and feel strong.

We can ride the news of each day with a balance of attachment and distance, recognizing that change is possible, that hope is not foolish, that united we are stronger, and each small step is valid—and now is not forever.

Now is our reality. Our consciousness only exists in this moment, for better or worse. We can’t go back, we can’t fast forward. Life is now, as we build it, as we create it, as we submit to it.

We can’t control it. But we can control the self we bring to it. We can determine how we act in it—not our reaction, necessarily, but the choices we make, what we say, what action we take.

The only way to thrive is to see, feel, and honor yourself in this now. Not to live only for now, because now leads to an endless series of nows, and one now’s impulse can create a lifetime of consequences. But to live within the now. To understand that it’s both transient and forever. To be self-aware enough to recognize the options and actions we’re presented with, to give ourselves the time and space to think through the consequences and sit with our inner wisdom.

It isn’t always possible, but there’s always another opportunity coming, another now, to practice in.

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the people who take it personally

In the worst times of my life, I’ve found that my immediate network falls into two groups of people: My People, and The People Who Take It Personally. It becomes very clear, very quickly, which group someone belongs in.

In his book Boundaries and Relationships,* Dr. Charles Whitfield calls this latter group unsafe people, and describes them as those who: “may not really listen to you or hear what you are actually saying, although they may pretend to do so. They may or may not make eye contact with you. They often reject or invalidate the real you and your inner life experience. They may be judgmental or false with you. They are often unclear in their communications. Their boundaries may be blurred, and they may often send you mixed messages. They may be indirect with you, often triangling in another or others when they are in conflict with you. Rather than being supportive, they may be competitive and may even betray you. Overall, the relationship just feels contrived.” [Kindle Location 1747].

I came across the above passage and it really stood out—while I’d experienced what he describes, I’d never formally recognized in my own mind what it means for someone to be unsafe. It certainly doesn’t imply that they’re toxic or abusive in relationships, but rather that they probably aren’t the best people to turn to or place your trust in.

The takeaway for me is that unsafe people will generally not own what’s theirs, will not be accountable for their own projections, feelings, boundaries, mistakes, and ultimately will not be true, trustworthy or loyal friends.

The way I see it, those who are unsafe aren’t bad or ill-intentioned, they aren’t predators or psychopaths (who should be avoided at all costs), out to manipulate or control for their own agenda. But they do have an agenda, of sorts—to be righteous, to be right, to be victims, to not take personal accountability for their actions, words, choices or feelings and to project their fears and negative thoughts about themselves out onto other people. They may be extremely nice, friendly, generous, attentive, and loving, but I find that they’re often lacking in self-awareness, healthy boundaries or both, and they tend to see problems as the fault of others (or the world at large). Their loyalty isn’t assured. They’re more inclined toward judgment and projection than compassion and empathy. When it seems appropriate to them, they may very well betray, dismiss, demean, devalue, accuse or stomp on those who they see as a problem or threat. Their values are different—not wrong, just incompatible with mine.

It’s possible to have good relationships with unsafe people, even close relationships. But at the same time, it isn’t wise to trust them with your intimate secrets, thoughts or feelings, to expect them to be loyal or empathic, to place confidence in their judgment or authentic responses, or to be vulnerable around them. They could snap if provoked, they could intentionally cross your boundaries if it serves them and get angry if you protest, they could betray your trust, they could kick you when you’re down—not without conscience, but with a large dose of rationalized entitlement. Their rationales and assumptions can be elaborate and rigid. Unsafe people may even feel guilty for their actions—and then project that guilt into even more antagonism toward you, the person they mistreated. Projecting blame, unable to simply own their choices.

I had a number of people show themselves as unsafe during a particularly traumatic crisis I went through some years ago. Seeing me at my most conveniently vulnerable, rather than support me, express empathy and understanding or step forward with practical help, they chose to violate my boundaries, attack, dismiss, judge and demean me, accuse me of all sorts of juicy faults, withhold needed help and demand that I admit to my failures. They took what happened to me personally and blamed me accordingly. It was upsetting and damaging, the way those friends and family members turned on me, and it changed how I feel about all of them. As opposed to those I considered My People, who were all just as sincerely concerned for me, who wanted to make sure I made healthy choices for myself just as much if not more—and yet only made me feel safe, supported, loved, valued, understood and trusted to do what was best for me. Those were the people who got me through it.

I now recognize my accountability in both types of relationships. I can choose to confide in unsafe people and get burned for it, or I can choose not to let them into my inner circles, keeping a comfortable, relaxed distance. I can choose to build my support system of only safe people, My People, and understand and accept that even though someone is counted as my nearest and dearest, they may not fit into that definition. It’s up to me to know the difference. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to separate the two.

Safe people don’t intentionally cross lines—nor do they get offended, accusatory, antagonistic and defensive when they unintentionally violate a boundary and are called on it. They don’t project their baggage onto anyone else—they own it, and for the most part leave it out of the equation when it comes to others. And if they can’t leave it out, they own that. They don’t use someone’s vulnerability or weakness against them, taking the chance to devalue, accuse, find fault with, lecture or dictate to those who are suffering. They don’t bring piles of steaming judgment to the table, forgetting the compassion and empathy in the other room. They don’t feel entitled to tell you EXACTLY what’s wrong with you (in their opinion, stated as truth) and how wrong you’ve been for years now. They don’t store up kindnesses and grudges to pull out when they feel like they need ammunition. They don’t create triangles by bringing third people into conflicts—and they don’t handle all conflicts in a dysfunctional way by never speaking openly about the conflict nor owning or apologizing for their part in it, ensuring that there’s plenty of drama and little real resolution.

My safe people aren’t afraid to admit they’re wrong, that they made a mistake, that they’re sorry. They have generally healthy boundaries, and are conscious and respectful of the boundaries of others. They recognize the consequences of their choices, and they allow others to make choices, screw up and confide honestly without judgment, accusations, blame, shame or dismissal. And my safe people never, ever crazy-make others.

To be a safe person doesn’t mean being a perfect person or perfect friend. But it does mean choosing respect and validation over dismissal and disrespect, empathy over judgment, compassion over impatience, trust over fear. It means not taking what happens to others personally, and not assuming that what you think or feel is true or right. It means being self-aware, having the intention to listen with an open mind.

I’m grateful beyond words for My People, who allow me to not only make mistakes and falter, but to ask for and receive help, advice and validation when I do, unconditionally and authentically.

And I’m grateful for The People Who Take It Personally—for teaching me that there’s no place in intimacy for blurred boundaries, disrespect or judgment, and for reminding me how lucky I am to have safe people in my life.

 
*Whitfield, Charles L. Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self. Kindle Location 1747. Health Communications. Kindle Edition. 2003, 2010.

 

ending one chapter and starting the next

I’m on the verge of a new chapter in my life. In a month or so, I’ll be moving in with my boyfriend of almost a year. It’s a change we’ve come to see as right and necessary, one that we’re both excited about. The weight of maintaining two households with pets has become an increasingly awkward and heavy burden on both of us. We want to share a home base, to have the chance to create routines that don’t involve one of us racing 15 minutes away to the other house.

I’ve lived with two other men, one of them two separate times. Moving in together wasn’t deliberate or planned, but either horrifically premature or a haphazard decision based on circumstances—or both. I didn’t get a chance to think about what it meant, if I really even wanted it, what I would be gaining and losing. I jumped in blindly, head first, with the assumption that of course I wanted to live with this guy, why wouldn’t I? Even if I had some doubts, it was just for a couple of months, so what was the big deal?

With hindsight, I see the big deal.

Even now, coming at this from a totally different place, it’s so easy to be distracted by the pull of everyday tasks, the mounting to-do lists and plans that come with big decisions and moves. But it’s not enough to just know I want it and get busy doing. This is a pretty profound beginning, and if I don’t take some time to honor that—to recognize the ending that’s inherent in any beginning, to consciously let go as I move forward—I feel like I’ll miss out on some important steps. I might wind up feeling more lost and confused than excited and gratified and grateful.

Like what I felt right after my wedding. I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I got married. I don’t regret marrying my college boyfriend, but I wish we’d taken the time to talk through a lot of things before we got engaged, and I’d understood what a huge transition it was. When I got back to work after the honeymoon, I felt disoriented, depressed and hopeless. Post-wedding blues aren’t uncommon, some of it due to the fact that you’ve been frantically working on a project for months and of course there’s a letdown once it’s over. For me, a lot of it was because I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I was changing my identity, taking on a whole new role as a wife and life partner, without taking any time to recognize that I was losing something, too.

And then it was backwards during my divorce—I struggled to let go of the identity I’d built during the marriage, belonging to someone. That period was all about the ending, versus getting married being all about the beginning—and each time I didn’t see that I needed to process and honor BOTH. Meeting my toxic ex just as I was stumbling toward a new truth, right on the cusp of learning who I was without my ex-husband, slowed the process down by about two years. Once I got out of that relationship/nightmare, I was finally free to get to know myself. Date myself. Give all my time and energy and attention to ME.

For the first time in my life, I was my only priority. I got to decide what I did and when I did it. I reclaimed myself, rediscovered my self-respect, and enjoyed the heck out of it.

After a year, when I decided to start dating again, I did it knowing exactly why I wanted to eventually find a partner, with a clear set of intentions and a deep attachment to my singlehood. I had fun with the experience, and eventually stumbled across someone who I grew to love, respect and appreciate, someone who shares my core values. I’m not with my boyfriend because I was unhappy alone—the opposite. I’m with him because I finally figured out what it means to be happy, what it means to be aligned with what matters most to me.

It means being authentically myself. Caring about myself and allowing myself to screw up and say no and have needs. Writing new rules.

It means feeling free. Relaxed. Safe. Loved.

It means taking care of my life, my health, my cats, my home, my friends, my family, my money, my job. All the things I’m responsible for—and not being manipulated into taking care of any person or obligation I’m not responsible for.

It means making sure I have empty moments to stare up at the sky and quiet my mind.

It means curling up with a book for hours, only getting up to find snacks or go to the bathroom.

It means experimenting and exploring and having adventures. Traveling to new places. Doing activities that I love and trying new ones.

It means feeling whole within myself.

It means carrying all of that forward with me, always, through every new chapter and every transition, not taking any of it for granted or forgetting how important it is.

I really treasured my single life, my tiny cozy apartment. It was so straightforward and fulfilling. I loved coming home on a Friday night and reading until I fell asleep at 9 p.m., waking up early to a quiet Saturday alone, making myself a special Christmas dinner of steak salad, creating small everyday rituals. I’ll miss those things. There’s loss in most big changes, and these things are what I’m losing. At the same time, I’ll be coming home on a Friday to make dinner with someone who loves me, waking up early on a Saturday to a quiet day of bike rides, gardening and cooking together, celebrating holidays and creating rituals as a couple. A new fulfilling life with my partner in our new home.

Being on the cusp of change is a really powerful thing, if we remember to check in and pay attention to how we’re experiencing it. It’s an opportunity to take stock of what matters to us, what we’re leaving behind and what we’re taking on. Every new beginning marks an ending of something else, every ending a new beginning, and all that we feel about both deserves to be fully honored.