I have this troublesome trait of tending toward all or nothing. When I latch onto things, I usually dive all in. I frequently experience big pendulum swings in how I approach new projects, ideals, and just about everything else. I can be wicked intense, too often for my own good.
I’ve been working really, really hard on improving this, because while fierce loyalty and commitment and doing deep dives are often necessary and can do alot of good when solid buy-in is needed, this steering wheel jerk hard to the right or left often causes me to be miserable and get stuck – both in relationships and in what I consider to be my responsibilities in life.
It seems pretty clear to me when parts of my life get stuck with my rigid thinking of this or that, black or white, all or none, I pay the price in specific ways. The following are a little of what I’ve been discovering and pondering over the years.
What Is Mine, and What is Not
The other day I was driving back country roads to work, listening to NPR. A story came on about how the concrete industry is contributing massively to the climate problem. My ears perked up (I kind of geek over environmental policy and stuff) as I listened to the reporters talk about innovative ways to make concrete while diminishing the deleterious effects on the atmosphere. Midway through the broadcast, I immediately began trying to formulate ways in my mind that I could help the process, that I could contribute something useful to the science of concrete manufacturing, and I was wondering how I could reduce my use of concrete in life.
Try not to roll your eyes so hard. I was really doing this. Earnestly.
This is just one of many examples in my life where I try to take on problems that are not mine to carry, and are not problems that I am even equipped to solve. And even if I dramatically reduced my concrete usage ( I have no clue how I would even do that), my miniscule efforts would have literally no impact on the overall global concrete usage. Yet, there I was, at 8 in the morning, stressing about how I was single handedly ruining the environment because I have a cement driveway and sidewalks in front of my house.
I have SKILLZ, y’all, in taking on what is not mine. But it’s not because I’m selfish or greedy or think I need more to be happy. My big problem has always been twofold, depending on the situation, although sometimes, both of the following have felt true: 1) I’m not enough, meaning that I have to make up for my deficits and prove that I deserve to have a place in this world, and 2) I’m too much for everyone, and so I have to help everyone deal with my intensity and “otherness” by making their lives easier and filling in whatever gaps I perceive in their lives that I could have possibly contributed to or could address..
If I can just make this problem go away, or if I can help this person and make his/her life better, then I will have earned my keep…or I will be less of a burden because I decreased their burdens.
This mentality developed over decades, and like so many things seem to do, they stem from beliefs and untruths that I internalized as a child. I love Jesus, but rigid, dogmatic religion didn’t help me much back then other than to make me neurotic while slapping labels on it that said “piety” and “spiritual”.
It’s kind of funny that just now, at age 41, I’m finally getting a decent sense of what is mine and what is not. I don’t really appreciate the fact that the Universe decided to fast track much of these lessons and compress them into the year of COVID, but…whatcha gonna do? I’m really grateful that I finally believe that it is not my responsibility to fix every problem that exists, and that, in fact, I don’t have to take any sort responsibility for every problem that exists. Stop snickering, you all know I’ve been a hot mess for a long time. There is SO much freedom in finally coming to the deep, true, gut knowing that I am only responsible for a doing my best in a very small chunk of life, and that it is NOT my responsibility to fix people or to single handedly overhaul the world’s broken systems and institutions. Because when you carry the belief your entire life, as stupid as the belief is, that you have to do this…it is WEARISOME. DEFEATING. Makes you just want to check out because it is all impossible.
If I’m honest about it, Life has only really given me a small little plot of people and tasks to tend. And, I’m not responsible for the outcomes. The point is to just live, and do the next thing, and when I know better, do better.
Setting Real Boundaries is a Pipe Dream…Or is it?
Years ago I read a book called Boundaries, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud. I really enjoyed the book, and loved the idea that you could create protective fences around yourself, so that you could moderate what and who you would accept into your personal life space and what you wouldn’t.
Even though I liked the book alot, and thought it would be so freaking amazing to have strong boundaries with people, I sucked at it. I used to have the absolute worst boundaries. Because the thing is, to have boundaries that stay put, you have to believe that you’re worth protecting yourself…that your wants matter as much as the next person’s….that you are not required to take on everything that people want to dump on you.
This is where alot of religion failed me. Or maybe, it was the interpretation and application of sacred texts that failed me. All those great stories about giving people your cloak AND tunic, or how no greater love exists than when you lay down your life for someone else, or how you should just keep turning the other cheek and allow yourself to be assaulted by people who were thoughtless or wanted to exploit you. Clear hyperbole there, folks….I know that’s not what the text said explicitly. But the problem is, when sacred texts are read without nuance and without a good healthy psychological foundation, you can teach people that accepting abusive behavior is loving. That sacrificing your dignity and desires and giving into what makes you uncomfortable for the sake of others’ comfort is virtuous. Misapplication of religious texts in general, and so freaking often, the Bible, is what leads to an absolute obliteration of healthy boundaries and creates codependent, abused, and exploited people….and it also empower those who are in a position to abuse and exploit.
Not all that long ago, I read a new book on boundaries. I picked it up because I kept having that nagging, soul feeling that I was being exploited by specific people in my life for what I could offer without an equal exchange in return. As I did the exercises in the book, I took a hard look at the boundaries in place at the time. And to my utter amazement, it was a STRUGGLE to identify good, solid boundaries. Now, I definitely had some hard core ones that I never waiver on…like “No one is allowed to put their feet on my dining room table, ever”, or “If you want to ride in my car, you put a seatbelt on.” You know, some of the big stuff. But when I looked at more of the specific boundaries, the ones that are more subtle in relationships…well….I realized that most of my fences were trampled down far enough that they could just be stepped over. Except they couldn’t be trampled because they’d never really been built properly in the first place. Because I believed from a young age that those fences were bad. “If we say no to things that come our way in life, then we are thoughtless. If we don’t give when people ask then we are selfish. If we are not vulnerable and transparent with everyone all the time, then we are frigid and uncaring.”
This time, when I read about boundaries, I actually had enough years of shadow work and therapy under my belt to lean towards believing that I”m worth getting to decide who and what comes into my space. Although it still blew my mind a while back when my therapist told me it was perfectly OK and legit to walk away from anyone the first time they wronged me and had not interest in recognizing they did so or trying to make amends. I was seriously like, “WTF? I can DO that? And it doesn’t make me a horrible person?” Pipe dream…(’cause y’all, with certain people, I’ve taken hundreds of hits, day after day, and thought I couldn’t walk away with a good conscience),….and yet, this has been one of the most liberating ideas that I have ever encountered.. That it is my right and freedom to not accept everything that comes my way, and it is my right and freedom to welcome and accept the things and people that I want to. Mind still blown.
By the way, if you want to read an amazing book on boundaries (but be forewarned, you may be like me and feel like someone was videotaping your life secretly and then actually writing a book about you), then check out Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free.
Life is Like a TightRope…but Really More Like a Slackline
I’ve dabbled a bit in Buddhist thought over the last decade, find myself returning to certain teachers again and again, especially in the time of COVID. Buddhism often refers to the idea of the Middle Way…where you avoid overindulgence on one hand, and asceticism and severe restriction on the other. Other philosophies teach, similarly, the ideas of moderation. Some of my favorite progressive Christian thinkers speak of the “both, and…”. Different scenarios in life also make me think of the gray areas that lie in between the polar opposites of black and white.
I’m a rule follower. I always have been, although now I would call myself a recovering rule follower. I like picking a side, whether it’s picking a sports team, or self-identity labels, or deciding clearly what is right and wrong. I like doing this because it lets me know where I stand; it gives me a sense of security, albeit an illusion. I like knowing the rules to play by because life can feel topsy turvy and chaotic when I don’t know the rules of the particular game of the moment.
But, polar extremes have sharp edges. They hurt people. They close our minds up and keep us small. They tether us on short leashes. The place of freedom is to walk the middle places, to know that everything belongs and multiple things can be true at once.
Staying in this middle place is like walking on a tightrope. Though, I actually think it’s harder than that, and is more like a slackline…because there is movement and non-rigidity in the middle paths. It takes concentration, and work, and letting go of judgements and fears and our need for control to stay there. Falling off to one side or the other is the easy route to take. And when we’re tired and beat up and uncertain of where we, and this world, and this life are headed, it can be tempting to just let our focus go, and collapse into our familiar, rigid, sharp places, no matter how deeply and often we and others get cut as a result.
The Problem of Living By Exception
I have learned that one of my greatest faults (as in the fault that hurts me personally the most) is my tendency to deal with people according to their exceptions. There are multiple people in my life that I can think of who have shown me on a daily basis for years exactly who they are, and yet I’ve failed to believe them. I have tended to latch on to those exceptions in their behaviors….where they actually were kind or thoughtful or generous, or even just acknowledged me in a meaningful way…and I held on to those moments, thinking they were signs that the person would change, or move my way, or understand my point of view finally.
These exceptions are polar extremes, and their edges are knife blade sharp.
This is a hard lesson for me to learn, and I’m not really sure why, but I’m working on it. Why do I spend so much time and energy on the people who will never change, who have no interest in changing.? Why do I go to the far ends of their behavior spectrums to find those isolated moments that felt loving to me and hold on to them for dear life? I know in my head that I need to pull back to the middle, and to work off the average of their behaviors and actions. It’s that damned tendency of mine again to fall off to the edges…
Paralyzed by Hope
I once thought that hope was a ALWAYS good thing. There’s my polar extreme thinking again. Because I’ve learned recently that hope can also keep you absolutely stuck and unmoving; it can pull you in to holding tight to people’s exceptions; it tells you to let people machete slash at your boundaries and treat you like shit, and all the while you take it because “there’s always a chance for redemption, right? People can change, miracles can happen, things can get better, one day they will see us for who we truly are.” Hope is what keeps us codependent, abused, exploited, overlooked, dismissed. Instead of allowing us to walk away in search of better, we wait just a little bit longer, rationalizing away our pain and our gut voices that are desperately trying to get our attention.
But, at the same time, you can’t just throw out hope, either, right? Because then, why bother getting up in the morning? We’d all just be despairing or completely emotionless because we would never expect anything to ever change for the better. This is my great pressing question these days: when do you hold out hope for people and when do you leave them where you found them and move on? When do you try to continually resurrect broken situations or worn out projects or fractured systems, and when do you let go of that last flicker of hope? And how do you approach the broken things in life without being directed by cynicism or the fear of exploitation?
The Middle Path of Holding to Ourselves
Glennon Doyle talks about how it is so important to disappoint others as often as necessary so that we don’t disappoint ourselves. This feels like the biggest slackline ever to try and walk. To choose myself before everyone else. To create that space around me that allows in what is good for me and does not allow what doesn’t feel right to my soul. While deep down, my gut tells me this is truth, my fears ask the following questions: “Isn’t this how a narcissist would live? Didn’t Jesus say we must die to ourselves? Don’t we have a responsibility and duty to give to the greater good and sacrifice our wants? What if people need you and you write them off because they don’t feel good to you?”
I have to tell myself repeatedly, often, that each of these statements has a little truth to them, but they are not individually the entire truth. I have to ask myself almost the polar opposite question to get myself somewhere aligned back in the middle. “If I were a narcissist, would I really even be concerned about any of these matters to begin with? And, didn’t Jesus mean that we need to die to our false selves, the illusions of ego and attachment to identity? And is it possible for us to give to the greater good if we are depleted or exhausted or in unhealthy and abusive places? And the biggest question for me, that I have to ask myself again and again and again….why do you have to sacrifice yourself every time for others? What makes their life worth more than yours? And why should you take more responsibility for someone else’s life and health than they do?
I realized this weekend that I”m really, really tired. There was a long time early in my adult life when I was miserable and depressed, and I didn’t do much. I was beaten up by others for it, and I beat myself up plenty. Now I have discovered that I swung to the other extreme. I’m curious and happy about life, and have taken on more and more. All good things, but way too many good things to fit in my one little plot. And, alongside my curiosity and excitement about all that I want to do and achieve (both out of healthy and admittedly unhealthy motivations), I’ve let myself become paralyzed by hope instead of believing what has been right in my face all along, instead of leaving things where I found them and passing by,
I’ need to come back to the all the things in the middle. The places of balance between rest and activity, work and play, catching and releasing without fear of missing out, knowing what is mine and what is not, and tending my little plot in life with fluid, flexible boundaries that allow in safe people and protect my heart and soul from those people and things that are careless and prone to dropping fragile things.