Relationships Are Not “Clean Your Plate” Clubs

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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!”

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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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

One thought on “Relationships Are Not “Clean Your Plate” Clubs

  1. Good, you have covered a good point, whatever we are offered we need not accept altogether..what is good , worth..decide , if required , accept.. We fail to do this , because we have been forced to accept whether good of bad, want or do not want..

    Like

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