How To Live a Fragmented Life


*Warning: this is a processing post. I’m disclosing with this preface that I may not come to any spectacular conclusions about anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m not in this boat alone.

This last week I was finally able to put my finger on something that has been driving me crazy for quite a while. I’ve been living with an underlying current of unease or stress, and could not figure out with actual language and thoughts what was feeling so off. But this week, as I was constantly changing gears and rushing off to the next thing, it finally hit me: my life is a mish-mash of disconnection that I have to figure out every week how to fit together into some semblance of a “whole” life.

Let me try to explain. As I’ve mentioned many times, I was married for just shy of 12 years. During that time I had three kids. I worked as a lab scientist part of the time during those early years of being a mother, but gradually transitioned into being a full-time stay at home mom, a role I functioned in for the better part of nine years.

When you’re married and a stay at home mom of children, everything in life just naturally becomes about family.  And everything feels pretty integrated. Other than the occasional girls’ night out or solo run to Barnes and Noble to try and regain some weeknight sanity through solitude and books, most everything I did revolved around my husband and my kids.  Even if they weren’t directly involved in what I was doing, there was still the coordinating of care for them, making sure that we touched based numerous times each day, and we came back together in the same house each night for bed….except for when business trips interfered and I was solo mom-ming it.

Even if life wasn’t necessarily “happy”, there was flow.  There was a pattern to things that I could generally count on. Where I went, the kids went.  Where the kids went, I went. All the different spheres of my existence somehow included my husband and my kids, and I felt like I understood my role as a person in those years because it was rather continuous and fairly predictable.

Those roles and that continuity have changed so very dramatically over the last several years.  It probably started five or so years ago as I began to gradually unhinge myself from my marriage, and my ex and I became roommates who shared kids, more than functioning partners in a relationship. But my responsibilities, and my kids, and my friends, and the things I did every day were constants that made me feel grounded in some sense.

It occurred to me the other day that my life is nothing short of fragmented. This epiphany helped to suddenly shine some light on this background stress frequency that permeates my life.  There is little continuity in my life these days, and that is something I keep striving for. This flying by the seat of my pants from one thing to another, day after day, feels so hard, and I’m constantly wondering which ball I’m going to drop, or which particular role I’m going to be shitty at on any given day.

Yesterday someone told me they think I’m very settled.  I inwardly rolled my eyes.  Stuck maybe, but not settled.  They later said I’m a very steady person.  That made me inwardly laugh really hard because I usually feel about as steady as a fainting goat at any given moment. My life is chaos all the time. And I’m realizing, especially through my “aha” moment, how much of it I do to myself.  The big question is: why?


I have determined that I have at least five realms of existence in my life, and much of these realms don’t overlap. It’s a really bad Venn diagram of a life where the circles don’t touch, which makes going from one thing to the other a matter of alot of hard stops and abrupt changes of direction.  Here are some of the realms I’m alluding to:

  1. I have my kids only so many days each week, and every other weekend.  When they are with me, my focus is parenting, trying to hit off items on their to do lists, reconnect with them when I haven’t seen them for a while, and actually cook at least two decent meals a day. But, because of the weird dynamics I have with their father, it’s like when they’re not with me, I suddenly lose them and there are these big “kid-holes’ in my life…very abrupt snatching away of that realm of parenting. Thank God now they have phones and we can stay kind of connected through texting.  I hate this, though.  I feel like a mom half of my life, and the other half…I don’t know what I am.
  2. I’m in online graduate school doing a program that is relatively new to the discipline of nursing, so nobody else I personally know in life is pursuing or has pursued this degree.  I interact with my professors and classmates via email, text, and Zoom; they are a chunk of life I interact with a few times a week over the web. Nothing about this portion of my life interacts much with any other portion, so again, it feels very disconnected and abrupt when I enter and exit this realm.
  3. I go to work about 3 times a week at the hospital as a nurse. I love my job, where I work, and all the people I work with.  But this is another separate chunk of life.  Nothing about my job or the people that I know there spill over into my personal life…other than that my work friends post some freaking amazing FB content that gives me alot of joy.
  4. Most of my friends are spread out all over Indianapolis and surrounding areas. So I go to one town to see one friend, then another town to see another friend.  Up to 86th street to see that person, and down to Bloomington to see that person.  Straight into Broad Ripple to see that one person, and off to Chicago to see that one other person.  If I’m really lucky I’ll occasionally be able to get two of my friends in the same place at one time, and that’s just because I’ve been very rigorous about trying to introduce all of my friends to each other because 1) I know they’ll hit it off, and 2) I need a little more connection between the people in my life, and 3) I think I know half of the divorced women in Indiana and I recognize that we all need each other.
  5. I’m not really hitting up church on Sundays much these days, but for the last several years I had another chunk of life through a congregation I attended and was a part of. I valued it greatly, but it was just another disconnected aspect of my life; it was another hard stop and direction change to go to church and then head back to a different Venn circle in my life. It’s strange to pursue Mennonite values so hard when only a small piece of my life pays attention to those values in any real way.
  6. And then finally, at least I think, my actual extended family is a chunk in my life. But they are spread across Texas and Missouri and I probably feel most disconnected from them and un-integrated with the rest of my life. It’s hard to stay integrated with and know/be known by people you see twice a year.


So, this is what I realized:  my life has become, not a continuous daily journey with the same people doing much the same things, but a constant jumping from one thing to another.  Something that has hurt me in this, I’m realizing, is that I don’t have very good processes in place to help me transition from one Venn circle to the other, and so I’m constantly feeling disoriented, and very…unsettled.

I don’t think this problem is unique to me.  I have several divorced female friends whose lives have been upended and are trying to piece together a meaningful and joyful existence as I am, while earning a living, parenting, and pursuing the things we are passionate about.  I also think some of these friends are also rocking it so much better than I am.

I pontificate all the time that I’m so glad I’m not tied down in a marriage like I was before, but this is one thing that I’m recognizing:  I do miss some of the certainty, security, and stability that comes with having a family dynamic that is predictable and steady. It’s hard having completely different routines every single day because of the nature of my life and roles; it’s really hard going to sleep one night with a kiddo snuggled up next to me knowing that my other two are dreaming on the other side of the house, and then the next night, I”m sleeping cold and alone in an empty house…hoping maybe at least the cat will come and snuggle with me.

It’s hard trying to talk to people about things in my life when all of those people aren’t involved in other areas of my life and have little clue what I’m talking about and so struggle to relate. The last three years have really been the very first time in my life when the bulk of the people in my life didn’t fit into more than one of my Venn circles.


I’ve started exercising like crazy again.  I was running, swimming, and cycling alot a couple of years ago, but pretty much dropped them when I started my first nursing job and did nothing but cry and think I was going to die for a solid six months. But, now, I no longer consistently cry and I’ve realized that I can, in fact, work out on days that I work, and it has become a real lifesaver.  I think I’ve figured out why: these long periods of running, or swimming (not biking yet because I haven’t worn a good enough callous on my hiney yet for long rides) are a way to help me transition during all of these hard stops and role changes in my life. It feels kind of like EMDR…that psychotherapy modality where trauma victims are helped to process traumatic memories through bilateral eye movements or bilateral body stimulation. The exercise becomes a meditative experience that helps me physically work out the stress and makes me feel like I can move on to the next thing in a more whole-bodied way.  That may sound really stupid, but I think its legit.  And probably why then, exercise has become so addictive over the last six to eight months….sometimes I feel like its the only thing that is actually keeping me grounded.


So, what I’m trying to figure out now is how to live an integrated, whole life when you struggle with dissociative lifestyle disorder.  When the people, things that I’m involved in, and things that are important to me are so widely varied and unrelated to each other….how do I hold this all together?  Is it even worth it to try and hold all of these things together in one existence?  My great fear in life is that in the attempt to manage all of these things and people that I hold dear, I’m inevitably going to drop the ball and fail someone miserably. Or, in my whole-hearted attempts to do everything well, the end results will simply be alot of half-assed outcomes.  How do you really know what to keep and what to let go of?   I really hate it when people tell me to make lists and prioritize. My brain does not work that way. Everything, everyone….is important to me.


I always feel a little self-conscious about the fact that I have some crazy and out of control ADHD.  This contributes alot to the fact that my life fragments so much – I get interested in everything and everyone and so constantly fly off in different directions and say yes to too much and try to do everything right NOW. In my crazy running around I make to-do lists and then forget I made them, I start projects that I hope I’ll eventually finish, and every day becomes a process of making up things as I go along.

My nursing career coach told me the other day that his own therapist’s opinion is that people with ADHD might actually be primed to be the most healthy people in today’s nutty world with too much information and stressors and activity because we can flit superficially over things and not get too bogged down.  I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I trust his opinion, so I’m tentatively going with it.

Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Yes, my life is fragmented, and definitely messy, but maybe it’s just because my life is big and I’m blessed to have good people and good things happening in every direction I turn. There are some adventure and thrill to the unpredictability of my life, and I am certainly never bored.  I’m finally getting to do things I’ve always wanted to do that I never thought were possible or would actually happen.

And yes, I may be a hot mess express the majority of the time, but I’m definitely not sitting back and letting life pass me by.  I’m not letting my fears control what I do or get involved in. I’m trying really hard every day to grow as a person and become better, and be more authentic than I was the day before.

But, it gets exhausting, feeling like on almost a daily basis I’m teleporting from one alternate universe to another.  It’s frustrating sometimes to be the only common denominator between a bunch of Venn circles, knowing that I’m doing all the transitions by myself, knowing that it’s up to me to hold my world and life together.

So, look, as I promised, no fantastic, helpful conclusions! But if anyone out there knows what it’s like to live a fragmented life and has somehow remained or achieved integration, please….please….share your wisdom.

The Other Shoe Will Inevitably Drop, And It’s Ok.


seaI had a rough day this week.  It came out of nowhere, really.  I woke up and knew within a few minutes that an old familiar cloud was hanging over me…Churchhill’s black dog that used to hound me on a regular basis had come for an unexpected visit.

I hardly ever get depressed anymore.  It’s such a sweet relief after years and years of a cycling battle against despair and anxiety. When days come like the one I had a few days ago, I am made so much more grateful for the hope that has learned to float in me.

The thing about these days when I do get depressed is that it’s usually not rational; I can sit there and tell myself all day long that I’m not being rational, and that all is well, but it’s not always possible to talk myself out of places with logic and words.  I’m so very thankful for the people I have in my life that hang with me on the dark days that I do have, and remind me of truth and peace that seem a bit fuzzy and evasive to grasp at the time.

On this particular morning, I woke up missing my mom dreadfully. She and I had a complicated relationship, and we could bicker and pick at each other like nobody’s business, but she was my mom.  She was a constant that I had known for 33 years, a soft place of comfort, someone who always came back even after we had another stupid fight, someone who would shoot the bull with me on the phone and never fail to answer when I just wanted to chat or have a shopping partner.

Next came a wave missing of other people in my life that are now dead and gone.  The dreadful part about loving people deeply is that eventually they will die on you and then you have to spend the rest of your life with a terrible missing-them-ache in your heart.  I’ve been fortunate in this life to have loved deeply and been loved deeply by wonderful people, and many of them left me long ago….left me with many years to remember and miss them.

And finally, my dark day brought fear…not a sharp terror, but a dull blanketing ache of apprehension that everything was going to fall apart and I would be helpless to avert it. As I’ve written about before, the last three and a half years have been about me stepping out of all of my safety nets, trying to do brave things, trying to make up things as I go along while not really knowing what I’m doing, trying to walk on water.  On this day I remembered that I am only one person with alot of limitations, alot of things that I don’t know I don’t know, living in an uncertain world….and fear of losing everything rose up and threatened to choke me as I externally tried to look chill and calm while internally panicking, struggling to push the fear back down.


Looking back with a little perspective, I was probably hormonal that day.  But hormonal or not, fear is fear and trying to rationalize your fear away with a “hormonal” label never works, and will usually piss off every woman when you tell her this even if she knows it to be true. But I made it through the day, got some sleep, and the next morning the cloud had lifted and the fear had abated, and in its place I found joy and peace and quick laughter again.  Thank God for the recalibration and recentering that can happen with a good night’s sleep.

I’ve been reflecting on how I felt that day, processing it, wondering where it came from, and considering how I can avoid days like that in the future. Days where you’re holding your breath, afraid that the other shoe is about to drop.

Then it occurred to me….something that feels like truth to me that I’ve never consciously thought out before:  the other shoe is inevitably going to drop, but it’s going to be OK.

Most of us spend so much time trying to build security around ourselves, whether it be material goods, wealth, or people that will stand with us for the long haul.  And then we spend so much time and effort worrying about how to keep them.  Our lives become about building and building, amassing and amassing….it’s not even necessarily about gaining luxury and comfort, but just trying to construct life bubbles that make us feel safe and not alone.  We in the Western world are extra great at trying to build these big, safe, static lives where we get to a place of security and then try to brick off its boundaries so it will always be there.

But this is such an illusion, such a cause of extra suffering for us when we try to blockade ourselves off from what “could” happen, when we try desperately to avoid losing what we value, when we dread the potential end of all those things our identities become wrapped up in.

Who will we be when we lose that job or career?  How will we survive if that particular person dies or leaves us? What if our external world crumbles and we have nothing extra special to differentiate ourselves from everyone around us? What then?  What will become of us? Will we simply slide off into an abysmal forgottenness?

I honestly think that one of humankind’s greatest fears is that of nihilism or irrelevance. We are afraid of losing ourselves and becoming unseen, and we unconsciously fear this happening when we lose the external selves that we have worked so hard to create over our lifetimes.


Buddhism teaches us that all things are impermanent and passing. In fact, so many of the things we believe to be solid and stationary are really just illusions. Everything exists in relationship to each other; quantum physics shows us this, with atomic particles all moving in space and time around each other. Isn’t it remarkable that the specific combination and proximity of the right kinds of atoms and molecules with these relational particles can somehow create a chair that will hold us up?

I think one of our greatest shortcomings is to strive endlessly for perfection…perfection as in a static state where nothing goes wrong and there’s no pain and nothing will ever jump out and surprise us. I grew up believing this is what heaven is supposed to be like, and I remember thinking that it sounded as boring as hell and I might as well just exist as a fork if that’s what I had to look forward to.

As much as we hate to admit it, joy and peace and thankfulness are functions of a greater whole, a bigger picture….where the dark and loss and constant change are necessary. Otherwise, “being” would be flat and shapeless, and probably not worth having.

I think a better way to define perfection is not the goal of reaching a blissful, unchanging realm of existence…but rather, a state of “wholebeing-ness”, where we are always fully where we are, knowing that each moment will pass and change into something new and different, and that fundamentally we are still there, still loved by whatever it was that created and is still creating us, and that we will be well.


If you stop and think about it, the shoe is eventually going to drop at some point….we just don’t always know when that point is.

Find the love of your life….you’re going to lose them at some point.  They may walk out on you tomorrow, they may die of cancer in five years, they may outlive you and die of a ripe old age.  But, you’re going to “lose” them at some point. Or, they will lose you first.

Build the perfect career and gain a stellar reputation in your field.  Write books, publish papers, dazzle audiences with your charisma.  It will all eventually fade away and at some point, you will be laid off, or some other bright and smart youngster will come up with greater ideas and your accomplishments will no longer seem so glorious, or you will reach the age where retirement looms and you are too tired to trudge into work each day. You will eventually “lose” your vocation and career.

Build a big house; it may burn or be hit by a tornado or be foreclosed on. Or your toddlers will render it an unlivable shambles.

Have children and raise them the best you know how: they may move states away or refuse to speak to you or become so absorbed in their lives that they forget to call.

Save all your money for travel after you retire and then receive the dreadful diagnosis that suddenly drains that travel bank account dry before you’ve stepped foot on the tarmac to fly off to an exotic location.

Have amazing beauty, or athleticism, or sex appeal and charm:  we’re all going to get old or ugly at some point, and no measure of lotions, creams, or exercise will save us from all that telomere shortening and DNA fraying and cells deciding they’re too tired to keep replicating.

The shoe IS going to drop at some point, and the things we don’t want to happen are going to happen. I just can’t see any other way around it.  Where we run into certain trouble is when we try to convince ourselves that we can avoid the shoe-drop, or that we can control it and postpone it to our liking. We can’t…and attempting to do so just causes us fear, and stress, and suffering.


It feels increasingly clear to me, as illuminated by my black dog day this week, that most things are pretty much out of our control.  This could seem scary, but I think if we reframe it, it might seem better.

We don’t have much control over the hard things that come into our lives, but when you think about it, we don’t really control the good things that come into our lives, either….yet those good things still come.  We are also so quick to label everything and every event that comes our way:  this is good, that is bad, I like this, I hate that.  We look at individual data points instead of overall trends. This shortsightedness and rush to draw conclusions doesn’t serve us so well.

I can look back on so many times in my life where something didn’t go the way I wanted, and I thought it would be better to just lay down and die because life had passed me over.  And then, down the road a ways, I would look back and thank the sweet Jesus that I hadn’t gotten what I wanted in that moment…or I could see so clearly how that terrible moment had brought me to something so much better now, or had grown me into a bigger and better person.  Sometimes….sometimes….what we need most is for that shoe to drop.  Sometimes the shoe drop is the vehicle that can carry us forward into the joy and peace and new life that we didn’t once think possible.


There’s a great parable that makes the point that we should be careful to label what happens in our lives as blessings or curses.  My experience has shown me that this tale is true.  The version I found was from Max Lucado, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard similar stories from Buddhist writers, too. Here it is:

The Old Man and The White Horse

There’s an old parable about an old man and his white horse. In this parable, the old man has a beautiful white horse. He could sell it and amass a large fortune.

The old man chooses to keep it in a stable and never sells the horse, His neighbors think he is crazy, telling him that there will come a day the horse is stolen and the man will have nothing.

That day came. Waking up one morning, the horse was not in its stable and was nowhere to be found.

The man’s neighbors were right all along and they rushed to tell the man he was now cursed because he had lost everything.

The man’s response is profound: “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people were offended by what the man said. “How can you say this?” they asked, “it is clear that you are cursed no matter what your perspective might be.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

What a fool the neighbors thought.

After several days the horse returned, he’d not been stolen, but ran away. On his return, he brought with him a dozen wild horses.

Now the neighbors had to come out to tell the man that he was right all along and in fact, he’s a blessed man because now he has a whole herd of horses.

The man responds again: “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

The man’s neighbors found it hard to argue with this. “Maybe he’s right,” they said. But deep down they knew the old man was wrong. He had one horse now he has thirteen — how could he say he isn’t blessed?

The old man had a son — his only child. The son went to breaking these wild horses when one of them flung him off, landing he broke both of his legs.

The neighbors were awestruck at the man’s wisdom. “He was right we were wrong,” they thought. The old man, being too old to do much on the farm, no longer had his son available to work the land. With no one tending the farm, he would likely lose his income.

Not long after this, a war broke out in the old man’s country. All young men were called up to serve in the army where most would perish, leaving many fathers without their sons.

This was true for the old man’s neighbors who had sons that were to never return home. They went to the old man weeping, “you were right, we were wrong.”

“Your son’s accident is a blessing and while his legs are broken you will have many more years with him,” they said, “We will not, our sons are gone. You are blessed, we are cursed.”

The old man responded once again: “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this. Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”


I think the whole point of the parable above is that the best way to live life is to take what comes to us, accept it, and stop our incessant labeling of every, single thing that happens.  This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grieve the hard things we face (and I have more thoughts on this in a future post), but we cause ourselves more hurt when we insist that we know how life is supposed to be all the time.  We DON’T know.  Our lives are so infinitesimally short; we are a blip on the cosmic timeline, and REALLY, what do we know and truly understand about all the great and unimaginable things going on all around us in our galaxy and beyond.

Finally, I think we have to learn to go inward as well as very far outward to know that we are OK when our shoes drop. If we only look at our lives with what our five senses can perceive, it can seem terrifying and difficult, cruel and often pointless. It can feel like nothing and nobody is in control, and the whole world is just a goddamned mess.

This is where we must learn from the mystics, those who have different eyes to see. The mystics are the ones who have survived the shoe drops and can tell us what lies on the other side. When my soul is in distress, I turn to Rumi again and again for comfort, to remember how to see things in a new way when my physical eyes are burdened with all the pain, unfairness, inequity, and grief that people are experiencing around me.  I love these words….these are soul words:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

Let the shoe drops come; don’t fear them, don’t fight them, because we don’t know what lies on the other side; we can’t say if we will encounter a blessing or a curse. What we have is now, and now, and now.  I, for one, want to enjoy the hell out of each of my now’s, catching and releasing, and resting in that field where we don’t have to label every single thing and we don’t even have to understand every single thing.  We are just free to be, and be loved, by this life that keeps bringing itself to us, day after day.

Relationships Are Not “Clean Your Plate” Clubs

Photo credit: Dan with PieLab

When I was growing up, my family very much pushed the whole “clean your plate” value.  I frequently recall my mother admonishing me to “remember the starving children in Armenia!”  I had no clue at the time where Armenia was and why the children were starving there.  I think by that point perhaps her imperative was a little dated.

My dad grew up as a son of poor hill country ranchers, so he definitely was not one to turn up food, even if he didn’t like it.  He pushed this ethic onto my brother and me, especially the importance of being careful with how you dole out food so you don’t waste any or take more than what is rightfully yours.

I remember one time we were eating a meal with HEB BBQ sauce.  I particularly liked BBQ sauce, and this night, in my enthusiasm, I accidentally poured half the bottle of the sauce onto my place. My dad, in an effort to teach me proper bottle holding and sauce pouring, made me eat that plate of BBQ sauce.  Questionable parenting tactic, perhaps, but I guarantee you I never poured out a sauce or condiment from a 90-degree angle ever again!

In general, I was not a picky eater, and in general, I really like food. That being said, there were a few foods that I just had no appetite for.  I wasn’t a fan of cooked broccoli until high school, and olives (especially, when my mom ruined her amazing chicken spaghetti by adding them), just didn’t do too much for me.  But the most God-awful thing my mom ever made was boiled eggs sliced over cooked spinach from a can.

Now, I grew up outside the Wintergarden region of Texas, where basically an Eden of produce exists.  Why my mom felt the need to serve us nasty canned spinach when there was inexpensive, lovely, fresh spinach abundantly available, I’ll never know.  But even with this dish that I despised, my family’s “clean your plate” club rule was enforced.  I would stomach down that nasty spinach and eggs, praying I wouldn’t gag and resupply my plate with what I had worked so hard to get in me.

I know I’m not the only person that grew up in this kind of household.  While there are definite harms that can be done by forcing children to eat what they don’t want and and when they feel the sense of being full, it is also important to learn not to waste what we are given, and to tread lightly on the Earth by only taking what we need.

A friend of mine, while not a card-carrying member of the “clean your plate” club, is pretty emphatic with her kids that what ends up on their plates is really not up to them.  Her kids taught my boys the following sing-song response they had become so accustomed to hearing from her:  “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!”


For most of my life, I believed that people and relationships were sent my way directly via Providence.  Which meant, I was to accept them and all that came with them, including their opinions of me and words about me.  As a result, I never had very good boundaries until recently.  In fact, I rather think I used to approach relationships and friendships like “clean your plate clubs”:  I was to take all that was offered without throwing a fit.

For whatever reason, I have always been terrible about internalizing what people say to me. It’s like I trusted their opinions about me more than I trusted myself.  I don’t’ really know how I got to this place, but it’s definitely hard to learn to fight against this tendency.

I can think of so many stingers that people have thrown at me over the years that I swallowed hook, line, and sinker:  “Julie, you’re lazy.  Julie, you’re a quitter.  Julie, you’ll never succeed at such and such.  Julie, that’s a really stupid idea. ”  Etc, etc., etc. For years, it never occurred to me to question what these people were saying, to think that maybe they were the ones who were completely wrong and not me.

I think one of the biggest game-changers for me was when I finally began to learn how to say, metaphorically speaking:  “You are not my parent, I am not five, and this is not the dinner table.  I do not have to choke down anything that you believe about me, even if it is true.  I have the freedom to accept or reject what I wish from you.”


One of the “clean your plate” club categories that seems to most plague many of us is when people slap broad labels on to us, like “SELFISH”, or “HATEFUL” or “LAZY” or “STUPID” or “CLUMSY” or “QUITTER”.  It’s these labels that tie themselves to our identities and hurt and immobilize us the most; it is much easier to swallow condemnations on individual behaviors that we exhibit than who we fundamentally are as people.

The crazy thing is, we often, without thinking, believe whatever people tell us.  Like we don’t stop and question our own thoughts, so do we frequently fail to actually question what people are saying to us.  Is what they are saying actually accurate?  Has the person who is saying something to us actually even earned the right to speak into our lives? Is the person simply projecting their own hurts and fears and insecurities onto us?


I”m old enough to know now that no relationship or friendship is going to be perfect.  Everyone is beautifully flawed, and everyone is going to say and do stupid stuff at times.  But I firmly believe that we can fully accept a person we are in relationship with without accepting everything they try to give us or push on us. In fact, I now also believe that we don’t have to be in relationship with every single person that comes our way, which good grief, it only took me like 33 years to learn.

Here are my qualifications for how relationships should ideally work, and how we should know which people to keep close and which we should distance ourselves from:

  1. Relationships should always be a give and take.  This may not be equal 50/50 all the time, but if you’re constantly putting all the effort in the relationship and the other person is just taking and taking without offering anything useful in return….you have probably fallen into the “clean your plate” club.
  2.   If a person in your relationship is constantly slapping labels on you that negatively speak to your identity as a human being, shove that plate away and push back from the table. Insist that people express “I” statements about how they feel, not pointed “You” statements that throw all the blame for their feelings onto you.
  3. This one is big for me:  if a person can never, ever offer a sincere apology for wrongs they have committed against you….this is probably not someone you want in your life, or at least in your inner circle.  Each of us screw up from time to time, and real love is able to honestly convey to our loved one that we are wrong and want to make amends.
  4.  As Maya Angelou ( I believe) said, if you are only an option to a person, and not a priority, then be very careful what advice and words you are willing to receive from them. You are under no obligation to accept their opinions or criticisms of you.
  5. If someone also attempts to gaslight you, and twist words and situations to place the blame squarely on you all the time…again, push back from the table and walk away.
  6. If someone feels the need to opinion vomit all over you, but they have not shown themselves trustworthy in your friendship, and they are making no attempts to work on their own shadow selves….yep, scrape that plate straight in the trash.

So, then, who are the kind of people that we want to keep around…the people whose opinions are nourishing and good eats for our souls?

  1. Keep people that know you have shit you struggle with but who choose to focus on your strengths.
  2. Listen closely to the people who are willing to shut their mouths and listen.
  3.  People need to earn trust and respect; save your deep stuff and your traumas for the people who have proven they are willing to hang with you for the long haul.  Like it says in the Gospels….don’t throw your pearls before swine.  Don’t reveal your big heart hurts to those who can’t handle them carefully.
  4. Keep close to the people who know where you are now, but can dream with you about where you one day can be.  These are the people who have a vested interest in you and will help pick you up again when you fall down.
  5. Keep the people near you, who may completely fuck up but apologize and keep working on their stuff, getting up again and again…these are the people who can empathize with you when you yourself completely fuck up.
  6. Hold tight to the people who understand that life is mostly about love, and forgiveness, and grace…not things, success, and status.


I think one of the markers of “growing up” as a human is the realization that we don’t have to automatically receive whatever is handed to us in life. We have the agency to accept or reject people’s opinions, beliefs, and words about us. It is this realization that really has the power to start transforming the way we live because it breaks chains in our minds that hold us stuck in certain thought and behavior patterns.

I used to absolutely fall apart when someone said something really awful about me, because I assumed that somehow, it must be true.  I have been so pleasantly surprised with myself lately to discover that those kinds of harsh words tend to bounce off me much more rapidly than they used to…it’s like I have some kind of Kevlar protection on my outside that keep hurtful labels form penetrating me.

Relationships are no longer a “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” kind of dynamic.  Maybe I don’t need to throw fits, but I can certainly refuse to engage in hurtful, toxic relationships because that is my right.  I can also choose to engage in difficult relationships that take alot of work and hard communication because that is also my right.  No one has the right to say how I, or you, are to engage in relationships.  We don’t just have to accept whatever appears on the plate in front of us.  This, I believe, is what develops the best, truest, most loving relationships:  where we come freely, giving, receiving, and never forcing anything on anyone.

And as a final note, just don’t ever buy spinach in a can.  Seek out good quality nourishing relationships, and consider yourself valuable enough to eat fresh greens.