When People Don’t Finish Their Thoughts…

Photo credit: Tartantastic

Remember those “choose your own adventure” books that were really popular back in the 80s and 90s? I think maybe they’ve made a comeback now, too, because my kids know about them. I despised those books as a kid, scoffing at them as poor quality literature even while not knowing that’s what I was doing. I don’t read books to create my own ending, I would think to myself. I read the book so the characters in the book can tell me their story and show me how it ends. The end of the story is supposed to show me where the meaning and gravitas of the whole narrative really lay. I would rather, both then as a child and now as an adult, encounter a heartbreaking or absurd end to a story than being told I have to decide how it’s going to end. I think it puts an unfair amount of responsibility on me….I’ve hung with the characters through their adventures and struggle and suddenly I”m told that I have to carry their fate in my hands? What if I pick the wrong ending? I don’t want to play God with anyone’s life. And anyway, doesn’t having multiple possibilities to end the story make the bulk of the story meaningless in the first place?

As much as I hate “choose your own adventure” stories, I even more so hate the stories that leave you hanging, ending abruptly, without any closure or solid understanding of what just happened. I mainly hate these because they resemble so many of our stories in real life….where things that you thought were solid and going somewhere suddenly derail with little warning…and you can see no path forward, no way to tidily wrap up what happened, and you’re left once again to try and find meaning in all of it or resign yourself to the belief that maybe it was all just a bunch of random experiences strung together that didn’t ultimately mean anything at all. That’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to anyone in life, I think. When you live through something…maybe that you completely invested your heart and soul into….and then without warning a sinkhole opens up beneath you and you are swallowed into a black abyss of “did any of that matter or mean anything at all?”


I”ve had multiple people pass through my life who are terrible about not being able to finish their spoken thoughts. Some of these people couldn’t finish a thought out loud about the most mundane or trite thing (ahem…my ex husband), while others could speak eloquently about the minutiae and superficial of life….but once the conversation went deep or became difficult….out came the dangling thoughts that went nowhere and left me grasping to understand what was being said. Some people will do this, having a complete thought ready to go in their brain…and then either can’t complete it for you out loud because they refuse to or because, I think, the finality of speaking their deepest selves out into the world scares the hell out of them. Some words, once released, can’t so easily be retracted…and the vulnerability that comes with that is too much for some people to bear.

At other times, people can’t finish their thoughts because inside their brains, the thought is tangled and rambling and can’t be laid out clearly into structured sentences. This makes me think of Michael Scott on The Office, with the following meme:

I know I’ve been guilty of this….where my ADHD kicks in, usually while I”m feeling a strong emotion, and I’m trying to express what I”m feeling and thinking but also don’t entirely know what it is at the time….so I just start talking out loud hoping I’ll eventually find my way. You know how some people who are really culturally insensitive will just start talking louder to others who don’t understand English….thinking that words at a staggering volume will suddenly translate meaning across the language divide? I think I do that when I’m emotionally rocked and trying to communicate and it’s clearly not getting received by the listener….so I get louder and louder until I discover I’m hollering and the whole thing has just gone to hell in one moment. Ugh. I so hate this about myself.

I never actually realized I was a verbal processor until last year. Most of the time I have to get things down on paper or spoken out into the air so that I can know what I feel and believe about something. This need can get me into trouble alot because 1) It’s sometimes difficult to be able to verbally process when the person I need to process with has to retreat into a silent cave within to process, and 2) When I’m processing out loud and figuring out what I think about something, people tend to believe what I”m saying is my conclusion or final decision about something, when it often is not at all where I am eventually going to land. Then the misunderstanding about all of my verbal rambling is often used against me later, when people are like….”but you said….!” And all the while I was literally just trying to think and work through something out loud.

Either way, the point I am getting at is that unfinished conversations make me crazy, especially when I’m trying desperately to understand someone and learn to speak their language so that I can communicate more effectively with them. Unfinished thoughts feel like carrots being dangled in front of me as I chase after them…in hopes that at some point I’ll be able to catch the whole thought, gain understanding, and the conversation or relationship will progress forward in a meaningful way.

The thing that sometimes undoes me is that you can’t make people finish their thoughts. You can’t make people come your direction if they don’t truly want to or if they are unable to for whatever reason. And, in fact, people that are determined to misunderstand you, will misunderstand you. You can try and make the path as smooth as possible for you to connect, you can try and try and try to use your best communication tools and practice new ones. But I think, maybe, sometimes in life certain conversations will remain unfinished, and as much as it pains you and as hard as you try to bridge the gaps, there’s not a goddamned thing you can do to resolve it.

And so you are left with the abruptly ending story, and the gut-wrenching question of whether or not there was ever any meaning or “real-ness” there at all.


For much of my life, I always assumed that all the bad story endings in my life or the failed communication attempts were entirely my fault. This was actually a learned pattern because in the bulk of my familial and friend relationships early on in life, when there was a rift or break or argument, it fell to me to repair things and restore the relationship. In a huge chunk of those cases, especially within my family., I really had no clue what I had done wrong. But I would desperately want and need to resume connection with the person, and so I would search deep within to figure out what I had done wrong and then go apologize for it so that I would be drawn back into the fold, so to speak. The problem was, most of the time, as I mentioned, I could never actually determine what I had done wrong that incited anger or estrangement against me, and so I began to accept the belief that it was just inherently ME. I was bad. I was the problem.

Over the years, this belief became so entrenched within that any time a relationship strained or broke, I would assume the fault lay squarely on me. Even in the moments following arguments where I felt righteously indignant or justified in the belief that I had been wronged by another person ( or that there was shared responsibility for an issue), I would inevitably slip back into that old familiar neural groove that reminded me that I was the problem and that if I didn’t want to be alone I would have to figure out some way to prove to myself that I had entirely fucked the situation up single-handedly, and then go groveling back to the person I was at odds with so I could patch things up. Whew. Catching my breath. Sorry for that long sentence.

This belief that rooted itself in me did alot of damage along the way. Narcissists and others with those tendencies could spot me a mile away. Energy vampires loved me because I would always validate all of their personal tragedies, let them suck me dry, and then not complain when they would leave lying me empty and gasping for air on the floor. Then, of course, when I would voice my own needs and wants, I often got the “this isn’t a good time” or “I’ve got too much of my own stuff going on to focus on you” in response.

The thing is, it was easy to hang on to that belief about myself…that it’s all just my fault and I’m the problem….because, from a very close perspective, it made sense. It was the puzzle piece that could explain why my life functioned the way it did for so long. It ascribed meaning, or at least explanation, to alot of sucky experiences. To be a little melodramatic here…..”Julie went through this struggle, she tried to make things work and it failed spectacularly.” And the final line of the story…..” It all failed because Julie is too much for most people, or isn’t worthy of x, y, z, or Julie is just inherently bad.” It’s an unpleasant ending, for sure, but at least it’s an ending, right? One small thing in life that I can point to and be certain of?


I’m not writing this blog post, nor do I write any blog posts, as a means to elicit sympathy or pity. I write about this stuff, and how I’ve struggled with being secure and safe in myself, because I know so very many other people who have struggled and still struggle with the same things. So many people are afraid to talk about these things out loud, or they can’t put the thoughts together to do so, or they’re worried that if they speak their truth they might piss off someone or ruin someone’s reputation.

And I write about this stupid kind of stuff to get my own self through each day. When a story ends that I was so invested in and I can’t find my way forward….I have to get all the thoughts out….to mold them and look at them from every angle, and wrestle with the wise words from my great cloud of witnesses that have carried me on their shoulders this far. Because….when I can’t find meaning in the hard things and tragedies and endings…I just completely despair.

Today, Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, is saving me. I’ve scarcely gotten out of bed the last day and a half after feeling broken and like a zombie for a week, and am wondering how I’m going to make myself go to work tomorrow, or parent my boys when they come back to my house from their dad’s, or actually cook the next meal beyond what comes out of the french press. Even the dog is despairing that he’ll never be walked again in this lifetime.

I signed up for Master Class almost a year ago and have successfully donated monthly to the cause without ever actually watching more than one episode. Today though, while debating on going to get a bottle of wine or retreating back to my safe cave beneath the covers, I flipped open Gladwell’s master class on writing on my phone. He began his lessons on writing with: jigsaw puzzles.


Clearly, one has to pay for Master Class, so I’m not going to go into much detail on Gladwell’s content other than to expound upon one metaphor that he hit on. He was making the point that for alot of people (including me) jigsaw puzzles can be incredibly compelling and can really suck you in, even if other equally compelling entertainment might be around you….in his example, the awaiting French countryside. He went on to talk about how when we’re putting together puzzles, sometimes we can interlock two pieces together and convince ourselves for a while that they were a matching pair…until finally we have to admit that we can see a gap here and then also here, so they weren’t truly the pieces for each other. We are trying to achieve a complete puzzle….the one that matches the lovely picture on the puzzle box. But, Gladwell says, sometimes the most compelling metaphor…the one that should really be loooked at more closely and appreciated, is an imperfect puzzle.

Moving back into my broader ideas in this post about unfinished thoughts and story with the foundational metaphor of unfinished puzzles….Gladwell alluded to the idea that it’s these imperfect puzzles in life, the stories that leave you hanging and uncertain….these are the things that are actually the most interesting and compelling. And maybe, I’m telling myself, they are the things that actually bring meaning. Because if everything worked out perfectly every time, exactly as you were hoping and expected, what kind of meaning lives in that? Where you never have to wrestle or engage or search hard for what you’re really longing for?


One of my greatest struggles in life has been trying to figure out the rules for the game. Evangelical Christianity worked for a while, until I finally threw up my hands in frustration with it’s breathtaking ability to stick it’s head in the sand and ignore crucial phenomena and facts. Science has appeased me at times, but it can really only speak to things that are objectively observable, and is only sometimes a decent finger pointing to the moon of the meaning of life that we are all searching for.

I keep trying to put all the puzzle pices that I have together, and I keep hoping that i’ll eventually stumble across that final puzzle piece that will make it all make sense. The problem is….the further I travel, the more puzzle pieces I think I’m missing, and that also, the puzzle pieces haven’t been cut to fit each other perfectly. There’s always gaps. The older I get the more I realize the less I know, the less I believe in with real certainty. I have no clue what is going to happen when we die. I don’t know for absolute sure if there is really a loving, intelligent whatever holding everything together, although I’m asymptotically close. Honestly, the only thing I think that I know for absolute sure is that I have been invited, by something, to either engage in this life and try to live into my humanity as fully as possible, or to just try to hang on and survive it until I die. OK, maybe I know one other thing: I’m trying really hard to learn to love people and love myself, as much as I royally fuck it up on the regular.

Point I’m trying to make here….I don’t think there is really a structured set of rules for this existence. And maybe striving relentlessly to discover those rules and create perfect explanations for everything is really what contributes most to our suffering. Maybe the whole point is to accept an imperfect puzzle with gaps and missing pieces because those are the ones that keep us moving forward and growing and living deeply into our humanity. Where things aren’t just handed to us in nice tidy packages, but must be sought out and uncovered and carefully considered.

And so maybe, too, unfinished thoughts and abruptly ending stories aren’t “nothing”, but are part of the imperfect puzzles that keep us engaged, and asking questions, and interested in what life is ultimately about.

Maybe when people don’t finish their thoughts or can’t be completely and fully present and open with you…you aren’t really being offered an either/or statement with only two choices: 1) keep pushing, prodding, and begging for answers, and 2) just saying “fuck you and fuck this” and storming off in anger and self pity. Maybe there’s a third option….one that isn’t neat and pretty…that doesn’t succinctly wrap up the experience or story or necessarily make you feel better quickly… but encourages you to keep looking for answers and finished thoughts in new places while listening to new voices. And maybe most imporantly, the third option is to discover your own unfinished thoughts where you’ve left yourself hanging, and unveil and release the words that your own voice has struggled to speak out of fear or uncertainty, and find ways to communicate clearly with your own self that is longing to be heard and validated and understood.


Other than thoughts and stories, I really hate unfinished things in general. Really hate them. I get so angry at myself because I’m one of those people who is great at coming up with ideas and starting projects….but my ability to follow through and bring them to completion is dismal. So my life is a sordid display of numerous projects and relationships that are scattered around in varying degrees of “done-ness”. I think this is one reason why I get so frustrated with people I’m in relationship with who can’t speak their stories or communicate who they are, or when I get so frustrated at myself for not being able to communicate myself well….because it ends up being just one more incomplete thing in my life that started well and is now laying unfinished and dusty on the kitchen floor….and I never know which ones will be resurrected.

This all brings up yet another question within me….how do you know for sure when things are finished? How do you know when you should walk away with finality or try one more time? How do you know when projects or people or expereinces in your life have given you what they were meant to and now need to move on? How do you KNOW when you’ve reached a necessary ending? What are the rules for this? What do you do when those last puzzle pieces just aren’t fitting together very tightly?

I could clearly keep at this, but I”m caught a bit in a cyclical argument of my own making. I’m trying to put together a puzzle and finish a story that can’t achieve perfect completeness in the way that I want. Malcolm Gladwell said, “If we can’t solve the problem, all we can do is digress.”

So, with that I’m going to leave these thoughts hanging, abruptly end this post, hope that maybe somewhere along the way we’ll find some meaning in it, and digress back to my safe place beneath the covers.

Getting Better At Relationship, Through Relationship

Photo credit: Koen Jacobs

I’ve got three boys….one is a teenager and the other two aren’t far behind. They are by far three of the best things that have ever happened to me. But, they are also the hardest things that have ever happened to me. Like so hard, that I will say that if I had known all those years ago how hard parenting would be, I can’t honestly say I would have chosen it. That’s not saying that I don’t love my boys to the moon and back, and it’s not saying that they aren’t amazing people. It’s saying that the human-est side of me is not always as woke as I’d like to be, and being a parent involves sacrifice, difficult decisions (meaning having to pick the least of several terrible options sometimes), and it’s a wicked painful experience of these little people holding up a mirror to you and pointing out all the stuff about yourself you’d really rather just avoid or pretend wasn’t there.

The damned thing about parenting is that you have to parent to learn how to parent.

There are some really great parenting books out there (there are also a plethora of shitty ones), and there are wonderful people that have mentored me along the way and shared from their own parenting journeys. But the thing is, no one ever has the same type of kids, and every parent is trying to parent from their own individual backgrounds, which includes all the good and bad stuff. So, there has never been and will never be a one size fits all approach to parenting. Parenting is all about general principles, I think. And every so often one of those principles is to tell everyone judging your parenting to fuck off while you keep doing what you feel your gut is telling you is best for your kids. A key point is learning when it is appropriate to fall on this principle and when you’re just fooling yourself.

Like the dumb FB meme says about adulting: Parenting is like flying a helicopter. I don’t know how to fly a helicopter.

When I was in college, I was required to take two semesters of organic chemistry for my science degree. I liked the class in general, but most of the concepts took a while to actually click in my head. On so many occasions I would finally “get” the material, but it usually happened after I had already bombed a test and the ink of my grade was then dry in the gradebook. This is the way I frequently feel about parenting. I learn how to do things better way after the fact, and by then, there is little to do but store it in my back pocket for the off chance I end up being a grandparent, or when some younger parent comes to me desperate for any kind of advice. But I feel so bad for my kids….and everyone’s kids for that matter….that the universe evolved in such a way that children are raised by people who are trying to grow up themselves. (As a side note: I don’t trust parenting books written by anyone with kids under the age of 10. I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there who were super enlightened and rocked it from day one, but I’m pretty suspicious about all that. Sharing anecdotes or routines or whatever…that’s cool, but claiming to have a corner on parenting before puberty even hits….nope. Don’t buy it at all.)

Parenting means having to make spur of the moment decisions for things that you never saw coming or weren’t sure you were equipped to speak well to. Like the time my youngest barfed on one of those moving walkways in the Boston airport. Or the time I didn’t have a diaper bag and my kid pooped inside a covered slide at a playground…leaving poop behind on the actual slide. Or when one of my kids came to me questioning his sexuality and needing support. Or having to help the one kid struggle through public school that wasn’t designed for souls like his. Or trying to comfort a son who locks himself into the dog crate crying after you tell him that you and his dad are getting a divorce.

And so many other questions and dilemmas….do I push hard on this? Do I let it go? How do I handle it when an angry child yells at me and says I’m a fucking piece of bullshit? When do I let my kids experience failure, and when do I save them? This learning to parent while being a parent is so very hard. I’m starting to think that at some level you absolutely have to let go of outcomes in order to save your sanity….because there’s no way to parent perfectly, or even at a certain point, know how you’re doing as a parent. Although, this is what many spiritual teachers and Zen Buddhists would say is the point of everything….to give yourself wholeheartedly to the process at hand, but detach from the outcomes. Easier said than done, for sure. Ultimately, I just hope I’m a “good enough” parent.

***********************************************************************************************************************This post is meant to be a bit of a sequel to the last post I wrote, titled Bass Notes, Resonance, and Additive Relationship. It’s likely going to be a meandering mess. I ponder relationship all the time because it’s one of those core fundamentals of existence and not something we can entirely avoid, nor do I want to. But, I recognize that I grew up with some really jacked up relationships, learned some horrible ways to be in relationship, and then unconsciously created my own unhealthy relationship patterns while stumbling along trying to cope and deal with the life situations that were handed me. Just like everyone else.

And like I mentioned above, I’m trying to parent and teach my kids how to do relationship well, right when I’m trying to learn how to do relationship well. God help them.

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BUT….I am now, thankfully, aware that I don’t have to keep living the same patterns and hurts over and over and over again, so I’m doing my darndest to unearth and examine all my neuroses and unhealthy patterns so that I can make necessary changes and continue to improve in my relationships…with the aim of loving people well and hurting them AND me less.

***********************************************************************************************************************The older I get, the more that it feels like life is full of paradox….two or more things that are true at the same time, and it seems impossible for them to be true at the same time, and yet, there it is. I’ve decided that learning to be comfortable with paradox is one of the big secrets to making it through this life with less suffering. When we insist on only one option being correct all the time, we end up just bloodying ourselves senseless with confusion and anxiety, because we are arguing with reality. Reality always wins. Always.

Beyond the idea of paradox is the concept of living on “the edge”. By that, I don’t mean that you’re necessarily living dangerously or out in the margins of society or something….but rather, that you’re constantly trying to balance on a razor-thin way of being, because that thin place is truest, most life-giving place to be at. And within this itself is a paradox….because to live on this razor-thin edge takes alot of work, but that work typically consists of letting go and accepting what is. This is exactly the type of work that most of us are terrible at because we want to logic and willpower and intellectualize our way through everything. Buddhists talk about the Middle Way, away from extremes, and Jesus talked about how the true path is a narrow way. I totally don’t interpret that as a path as a means to heaven and not hell, but rather that way of doing things that gives life, but you have to search for it, and it does not always come easy.

So, why am I even talking about paradox in this post? It’s because I think that relationship is, at it’s core, a matter of two things being true at once, and to do relationship really, really well, maybe we have to walk a razor thin edge where it is easy to slip and fall one way or the other….it requires awareness and extreme presence. I don’t know……maybe this just feels like a razor thin edge to me, and it comes easy to everyone else.

The paradox I see is that we (each of us and the people we are in relationship with) both need each other, and at the same time we are complete in ourselves, each as individuals. We are unique waves, but we are all part of a bigger ocean. And the line we have to walk when we do relationship with people is to not fall one way into codependence, and yet to also not fall the other way into ultra-indepedence.

Interdepedence is a key word. Humans are interdependent on each other; we need each other at some fundamental level….even those people who say that they hate all things peopley. This has been proven just on the level of basic science…..do a quick google search about babies and young children who were isolated when they were young and denied affection and genuine attachment. The outcomes for those little ones is never great. But even beyond that, the COVID pandemic has helped alot of us remember how very important quality relationship and human interaction is. During those early months of the pandemic, I had plenty of days where I ugly cried because I missed genuine, authentic relational interactions with important people in my life. And now, even though the pandemic is still with us, I have eschewed housework and other responsibilities so many times for chances to hang out with friends and loved ones. The pandemic made it abundantly clear how very imporant they are to me.

Relationship and interdependence is a big theme in much of both spirituality and science. Things exist in relation to each other, and many times can’t really be spoken of or described when they are separate. We in the West like to think of things in a causal, linear fashion, but this concept breaks down at some points. Subatomic particles are a good example of this. Classical Newtonian physics would say that with the right equipment, we should be able to measure all the variables of a particle. But quantum mechanics, at the atomic and subatomic levels, reveals the uncertainty that arises in one variable of a particle when we try to definitively measure a different variable. You can really only understand the system when you look at it as a relationship. And on a more psychological level, we can’t really talk about the Self in isolation from others. The Self doesn’t really exist by itself, as Alan Watts has said. We can only see it and describe it based on it’s relationship with other “Selfs”.

One of my favorite teachers, Richard Rohr, wrote a book several years back called The Divine Dance. In it, he discussed the Christian concept of the Trinity, and the relationship that lies therein. People can get really hung up on (and angry about) this notion of one God but in three persons. I think there’s all kinds of interesting cultural and theological rabbit trails concerning that I could explore, but I’ll save those for another day. Point being, the idea of the Trinity explains how existence is about relationship. We are inidivudal, yet we are not. We are all interconnected, and yet we have our own individual qualities when in physical form. Life is about this dance that we do with each other….indepedent and yet depedent. Since this is my blog and I get to say what I want, I’ve decided that my definition of the Trinity is not really about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I like to think of it more in terms of Truth, Action, and the “Magic Sauce”. All of these have to be present, or things in life go awry. And while I no longer believe in a theistic Christian God, the concept of the Trinity still completely works for me, especially based on my definition. I might explore all of this another time in another post.


So, going back to learning how to do relationship while being in relationship….

When you grow up not knowing how to do relationship well, things can get pretty painful, and there is the real temptation to take one of two easy ways out:

  1. You just completely check out and insist on minimizing interactions with people entirely, or you put up huge walls in your relationships to protect yourself from further hurt. Either you only let people that are closest to you have access to very select parts of you, or you refuse to commit, or you leave yourself wide-open escape routes in case things start to go south.
  2. You start to feel hopeless that things will get better, so you just turn the tables and start doing relationship with the arbitrary rules you learned growing up, getting whatever you need out of relationship even if you have to exploit others to do it.

The third option, which is really difficult to do, is learning to ask the right questions, uncover patterns and hurts and belief systems, and to endeavor to sit with the pain and tough feelings and try again and again in hopes that things will improve. The third option is the hardest, because it asks you to be vulnerable over and over again, to keep your heart soft, and to attempt to trust people that come into your life. As you who have relationship PTSD know, those trust triggers die hard….and when you are hurt to your core by people you love and trust, trying again with new people is freaking scary.

There’s a concept called the wheel of samsara, or the wheel of suffering. This is an area that I really have no business talking about, but I’m going to appropriate it anyway for my purposes of needing a metaphor. The basic concept, as I understand it, is that the wheel is the cycle of birth and rebirth to work out old karma, until you eventually spin off into Nirvana. I only bring this up because it came to mind the other day when I was talking to my therapist about these relationship cycles I seem to go through. It seems like, espeically in romantic relationships, I repeat the same damn cycles again and again, only each time I do it with better people (by better, I typically mean kinder or more awake) or I do it with someone who helps me learn a particiular lesson. I was bemoaning this to my therapist, and she surprised me by saying that this was sort of the point. You have an insight about yourself, or learn a lesson, and so you go back and try again at a relationship….either with the same person (if they are safe and open and also wanting to grow), or with someone new. Theoretically, at some point, maybe one would spin off the wheel? Doubtful probably, but maybe you get to the point where you spin yourself into a solid, healthy relationship with a safe person.

My therapist affirming this pattern of spiraling cycles, instead of voicing concern, was really helpful for me. I realized that I had slipped into this mindset where I believed that if I just did all the right work beforehand, if I met the right person I could just slam dunk it and immediately have a great relationship free of my old neuroses. But like parenting, that doesn’t make any sense. You don’t entirely learn to be a parent by reading the right books or babysitting other people’s kids once in a while. You have to jump in and actually truly parent yourself….doing the practice….to improve. The same thing with other kinds of relationships: you take what you have learned, and you keep practicing until it gets easier to do the hard things and you are able to replace unhelpful patterns and dynamics with new, healthy ones.


As a slight segue to my last point, I just want to talk about the importance of safe people. NOT everyone is safe. Some people may think they are safe, but they are not safe. Some people may pretend to be safe, but aren’t really. Some people are absolutely not safe and make no attempts to hide it….but these are the people we typically know right away to stay away from. Ultimate takeaway: we don’t have to….and shouldn’t….try to learn how to do relationship with unsafe people. We don’t owe them anything, and we do owe it to ourselves and deserve to be in relationship with people that genuinely care about us, want to be present with us, and are working on growing themselves.

The problem with growing up surrounded by and involved in dysfunctional relationships is that you don’t always stop to think about whether or not someone is truly safe, or even what that actually means. Sometimes we confuse “safe” with “famliar”. And we like famliar and tend to stick with it even if it is not really “good” for us. It took me a very long time to realize what safe people look like, and every once in a while I still get fooled. This has required alot of therapy on my end, and learning what healthy relationships are supposed to look like.

Here is my personal definition of what safe people are. It is not formal or referenced from anyone smart. A safe person is somone who:

  1. Will stay in the room with you when things get hard and communication feels uncomfortable, but growing the relationship feels more important to them than escaping discomfort
  2. Will attempt to communicate even when they don’t really know how, or fumble their words
  3. Will accept your own fumbles at communication, and assume you’re coming with good intentions, no matter how your words come out
  4. Recognizes that they are hearing you through a filter and vice versa, but really attempts to hear and understand you
  5. Wants what is best for you and does their best to not exploit you to serve their own purposes
  6. Is willing to wholeheartedly apolgize and make amends for when they’ve wronged you or see that you’ve been hurt by them in some way

Maybe it would be easier to point out safe people by pointing out what unsafe people do (and I can say these from having experienced and trusted plenty of unsafe people). Here are just a handful:

  1. Someone is unsafe is they gaslight you or keep you constantly questioning what you thought to be true, or making you feel crazy all the time
  2. Someone is unsafe if they are forever telling you how you should feel about things, or that you don’t have the right to feel certain ways
  3. People who refuse to sincerely apologize or acknowledge their part in anything, are unsafe
  4. People who constantly ditch you when a better “alternative” is available, are unsafe
  5. People who are constantly badmouthing other people when they are with you, are unsafe. Because they are more than likely talking about you behind your back, too.
  6. People who are constantly popping your balloons (i.e. poo-pooing your successes or excitements or dreams or great ideas) are unsafe.
  7. If someone repeatedly comes at you aggressively with a blaming “You” statement, you should probably be wary of their ultimate safety.


On the flip side of learning to spot unsafe people, is the important job of learning to be safe people ourselves This is where, for me especially, walking that razor thin edge is important. I’m pretty sure that I’m not unsafe for people in a malevolent way. I do my very best to not hurt people. But, we can also unintentionally be unsafe towards those we are trying to do relationship with when we are blind to our own hurts and unconscious patterns.

When I was growing up, I was immeshed in multiple codependent relationships…through really no fault of my own. I was a kid employing coping mechanisms to try and just get by. But, I’m also a 2 on the enneagram, meaning I naturally tend toward people pleasing and way over the top self-sacrificing. And let’s just be honest….I can play a great martyr role when I really want.

I know from my weird attachment styles and codependent dynamics as a kid that I can slip into those roles again with people if I’m not careful. I have to be very mindful that I’m not grasping onto anyone out of my own insecurities or sense of unworthiness. And yes, to a degree we all do this to each other all the time….being in relationship with people that make you feel good about yourself, but I personally have to be really careful not to abandon myself and become too reliant on others. I’m prety convinced that being overreliant on someone, espeically for emotional needs and if they aren’t able to set up their own strong boundaries, is just as unsafe for them as actually being mean and hurtful. But again, this is walking that narrow path….attaching and committing to people, and being interdepdent, without going too far in an unhealthy way.

************************************************************************************************************************I’ve probably rambled on enough incoherently about this topic. My big take-away, my own personal “aha!”, is that learning to do rleationship well is like everything else…..the obstacle is the path. You can’t learn how be in relationship in a vacuum from reading a book or watching others from the sidelines. You have to jump in yourself and just do it. And then do it again with someone else. And then someone else. Only through these interactions do you really have mirrors that help show you who you are, which are necessary to help you grow and let go of attachments, and actually realize that you are whole and complete apart from being in relationship. It’s like the saying: “you have a guru to teach you that you don’t NEED a guru.”

We need each other to learn that we are just fine on our own.

It’s a beautiful, mysterious paradox.

Bass Notes, Resonance, and Additive Relationship

Photo credit: Me

One of my best friends is a bass player, of both the bass guitar and upright bass varieties. Watching him play is amazing, and there is nothing like feeling a good deep note vibrate away from the instrument and right through your body.

I’m a very amateur musician and don’t quite have the language and vocabulary to speak all that intelligently about music, but I have always believed that bass notes are what ground it….they keep it from being too superficial and safe from flying off into the unicorn land of pretty melodies that sound nice but lack real substance. Rob Bell, one of my other best friends (who I’ve never actually met in person or ever talked to and in fact he has no clue that I even exist) frequently talks about many things/people/etc having too much treble and not enough bass. The first time I heard him use this analogy on his podcast, I loved it and now I frequently reference it. So many things in life aren’t well rooted in anything, aren’t grounded, lack wisdom, are unbalanced, or are a mile wide and inch deep, as the saying goes. Bass is essential; like the deep roots of a great old tree, it holds us steady and firm.

A couple of months ago I was listening to my friend jam with some other musicians in an informal setting…him on his upright, a saxophonist, and a drummer. They didn’t seem to have a plan in place when they started to play, and the saxophonist took the lead, and then the drummer and my friend followed on their instruments. The impromput jazz that resulted for the next 45 minutes was mesmerizing. As someone who has played piano since I was nine, and led my church congregation in hymns on the piano for 5 years as a young adult, I had never spontaneously jammed with anyone. Most of the time, I’m one of those people who has to be told what key we’re playing in, and I’m not great at improvisation. So, I was amazed when this little group of musicians started playing jazz and there was no discussion ahead of time of what key was going to be played, or what direction the music was going to take.

Later that evening, after the show was over, I asked me friend how he knew what key to play in, when it was the saxophonist who took the lead but never specified this detail. My friend told me it was hard to explain, but that when they started playing, they would just kind of “find each other”, and thus, land on the same key. My heart broke wide open when I heard him say that, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. People finding each other and the right key on instruments by listening and being sensitive and paying attention to each other. Which then led me to thinking about moments when people will meet each other at just the right time, in just the right place, sometimes completely unexpectedly. Or how people might pass by each other in life for a while, as acquaitances or friends, but then something happens that interwines you at some deep level and you know that you and that person are going to somehow be bonded forever. Which led me to thinking about standing waves and resonance and how sometimes magic happens out of nowhere with people…and there’s no real explanation for any of it, and all that is left is it to just be grateful that it happened and receive the lessons and gifts it has brought with its arrival.


So, super quick physics lesson. On standing waves. Don’t groan….there’s a reason I’m bringing this up, and I think it will help better illustrate a point I want to make later, which is basically the crux of this whole blog post.

A standing wave occurs when two waves going the opposite direction, that have the same frequency, superimpose on top of each other through interference. They just line up and fit each other perfectly. The end result is that they either completely cancel each other out, or they add to each other. When this happens, it oftens creates an illusion that the wave is standing still, which is where “standing wave” comes from. While you may not off hand recognize what I’m talking about, you’ve experienced a standing wave when you pluck a guitar string. If you want to geek out a bit and really understand the point, watch this video:

We often use the phrase “I resonate with that” or “I resonate with that person”, meaning that we ‘get’ or feel like we fundamentally connect with “that person”, or what was just said. Something about whatever we resonated with feels true to us at more of a core level….our frequency of being seems to match up with the frequency that that person or thought is operating from.

Finding resonance, especially with people, is kind of magical, and it feels like, at least to me, that in those moments I’m a little more connected with everything outside of me and I feel a little less alone in the world. Sometimes, it is so strong that it feels like life is standing still, just like those standing waves. It is such a good thing to feel understood, and to think that, at least to a certain point, you really understand another person in a meaningful way. When you meet someone who plays a bass note, figuratively speaking, that you’re also playing….when your values, or goals, or things that bring you deep joy, or even life pain, match up with that person and you feel “okay-er” because now you know you’re not out alone by yourself in the universe… when you’re not the only one playing that particular bass note.


Photo credit: Me, requisite blog photo eye candy

My understanding of relationships, especially romantic relationships, has evolved significantly over the last twenty years. For much of my life, although I don’t think I always consciously knew how strongly I believed it, I thought that a big factor in women reaching their full potential and happiness was to find partnership and contentment in relationship with a man. But, because of my religious background, this understanding was pretty skewed. Eve screwed up in the garden, which pretty much tainted the rest of female-dom, and it was now our job to redeem ourselves by becoming Proverbs 31 women, raising perfect children, and supporting our men. I’ve written about this before, but in churches I was a part of, there was definitely a sense of lower class citizenship if women were unmarried, and if, God forbid, you got divorced, you fell to a negative status, even below that of spinsters or not-yet married virgins who hadn’t landed a man yet. Yes, a little hyperbole and snark here, but hopefully you get my point.

After I got married and had been married for quite a number of years, my understanding of husband/wife relationships shifted…away from the idea of the wife needing to submit and be a helpmeet ( “Ugh, I despise that concept now”) to her husband who was supposedly appointed by God to be the head of household. I moved to more of a complementary mindset that was being propogated by slightly more progressive Christians….basically saying that men and women bring their own strengths to the relationships and create a “whole” by the uniqueness that they each contribute. Thus, the marriage becomes complete by the two parts brought to it. I am not intending to jump into theology much here, and I clearly do not hold to traditional marriage concepts in many ways, or think that marriage or committed relationships are only for men with women. I’m bringing this up simply as a foundation for a later point.


Photo credit: Me, more requisite eye candy. Also, squirrels are awesome.

I definitely grew up with a sense that I was not fundamentally OK, and I have been working my way out of this state of being since I was a child. I remember, from the age of about 4/5 to around 11, I would be doing normal life things and suddenly an invisible energy would come over me and kind of paralyze me for a minute, and I would get this horrible, uncomfortable sense that I didn’t belong….that things were not right in the world….that I wasn’t OK for being here. I have no clue what triggered these experiences, other than that they usually happened when I was alone. I also don’t know what eventually made them stop coming, but it was definitely good riddance. Each time I experienced that energy, I would literally want to crawl out of my skin. Next to panic attacks, they were some of the worst things I’ve ever exprienced in life. Thankfully, they typically only lasted about 30 seconds to a minute at a time.

For so many other reasons, which I’ve probably blogged about ad nauseum in the past, I grew up so wicked insecure and untrusting of myself. I always needed external validation to feel OK, I needed an outside committee to help me make any major decisions, and I clung so tightly to rigid rule-based paradigms because, while I hated being a rule-follower, doing so made me feel safe.

These insecurities naturally extended out to my relationships with people. When you don’t feel like you’re inherently good and worthy and deserving, you don’t particularly want to be around people but at the same time you absolutely want and need to be around people so that maybe some of them will make you feel OK. Or, you search like crazy for the person who will fill the gaps in you, or complete you. And then, when you try and try and try to get valiation you need, and people won’t offer it to you for whatever reason, or you finally realize that outside validation isn’t actually as satisfying and fulfilling as what you once thought…it can all feel like a hopeless, damn mess.

I felt like a hopeless damn mess for the first 30 years of my life.


A good friend of mine recently reminded me of a Shel Silverstein book I first read years ago and then forgot about. When I reread the story this time, it hit me hard, and I finally “got” it in a way that I never had before. As a prelude to that book, watch this video on another of his books first.

If you skipped over the vidoe, take the time to watch it. It’s clearly dramatized for kids, but it is brilliant. The incomplete circle is constantly searching for it’s missing piece, only to be discouraged or rejected. And then, finally, it finds a missing piece that fits it perfectly, and actually want to fit it, and they end up combining, thinking that at long last, they had reached fullfillment and that they were both now complete and OK. But, as it turned out, this sense of finding completeness in each other, and relying on that other person to HAVE to be there in order to be complete, was stifling. And the incomplete circle ended up discarding something that actually was probably not a bad thing for him simply because too much was put on that piece to carry and be responsible for.

But then!!!!!! Silverstein’s brilliant message comes across in this next book, the one my friend reminded me of. In this case, it is from the perspective of the missing piece, not the incomplete circle.

OH my GOD I love this story so much. It really resonates me with me. (See what I did there?). Starting with the desperate search to find the piece that would complete me, then finding what I thought was that peice when I got married only to discover that my missing piece didn’t want to grow with me and DID NOT like the directions I was growing….to the parts about feeling so completely stuck and incapable of movement…..to meeting a handful of people who were complete in themselves and encouraged me that I could be, too…..all the way to me finally getting brave, flopping over a couple of times, and starting to wear off the hurt, sharp edges of myself…..and beginning to learn to feel more OK in myself, a complete circle on my own.

OK, now I want to try to bring all of these ideas full circle (see, I did it again. :D) and tie in what it means to be complete, and experience resonance with someone, but in an additive and not subtractive way.

Like I talked about earlier, finding deep resonance with a person can be magical, and it can definitely make the universe feel a little more personal, a little more connected. But one thing I know of myself is that it can be easy to grasp hard on to that resonance…to be like, “Look! I found my missing piece! Don’t you see this resonance we have?!” And there’s nothing wrong with finding resonance and connecting deeply with someone. But where we, (I) can get into trouble is when we see that resonance as a source of validation that we are fundamentally OK, or when we start to lose ourselves in that resonance permanently.

Standing waves have two types of points called nodes and antinodes. Nodes are where the passing waves intefere with each other in a way that they cancel each other out. Antinodes are the places where the two waves create constructive interference, resulting in an increase of amplitude….they become additive together to what they were individually. I really like nodes/antinodes as a metaphor for what can happen when we are in a deep, bonded relationship with someone. If we lose ourselves in the relationship, or think that it completes us, then there is the potential to completely cancel out any of the power and good things that come from the relationship. But, if you can stay in the relationship in such a way that you recognize you are complete and the other person is complete and there is no sense of grasping, then your energies can combine in a beneficial and healthy way.

I hope I’m making a little sense. This all makes sense it my head, but it’s hard to get out into words.

Photo credit: Me. Even more requisite eye candy.


I had a conversation a few weeks ago with my therapist about some of these ideas I’m writing about here, especially Silverstein’s books. I told her that after rereading the Big O story that my friend reminded me about, I was simultaneously both in love with it and also extremely uncomfortable. I explained that the idea of rolling along through life BY someone, but never actually physically or deeply connected as the story implies, felt so paralyzingly lonely to me. Parallel play, with two people in their own little boxes/worlds, is all I could envision from the story. I don’t want to be codependent with anyone, but strong, deep, safe, trusting, meaningful connection is so very important to me.

Right there on the spot, my therapist came up with a metaphor that helped me tremendously. I value her opinion so much because at age 70, she has lived an abundant life, is a freaking badass, and I want to be just like her when I grow up. She explained that a healthy relationship with someone in who you find resonance, is like a set of train tracks that merge together for a bit, but then split back apart to run parallel to each other, only to merge together again. It’s a constant coming together and moving apart

Photo caption: Terence Tay

My therapist’s metaphor and helpful words were the bass note I needed. Being whole and complete isn’t about ultra-indepenence or never committing and connecting intimately with another person. And resonating with someone on a deep and meaningful level isn’t about merging together so tightly forever that you completely lose yourself in each other.

Real love….real, authentic, meaningful relationship is about having the freedom to come together and move apart without fear of grasping or being rejected….without the NEED to have someone with you every moment so that you’ll feel validated, but WANTING that person there often because you see their presence in your life ( and vice versa) as additive and not complementary. And beyond all of that, real love, even with someone whom you resonate deeply with, doesn’t grab and cling and despair when one of you wants to leave the relationship….because being complete in yourself means knowing that the lack of that other person may be sad and you may grieve hard, but it’s not going to invalidate you as a person, or make you any less, or break you. I also think, as I’ve mentioned in other blog posts….when you bond strongly with someone in a healthy, good way that is additive to both of your lives, you’re never truly going to lose that person….you will always be connected in some way, and the love will never just go away.


Yep, feeling these things deeply today. None of this comes easy. It’s not like you can just wake up one day and say, “Well, hey! I feel super complete in myself and I will no longer strive to find my missing piece, and if I meet someone who resonates strongly with me I promise to never grasp or cling!” So much of this involves learning about the attachment styles that formed you when you were growing up, and rerouting your neural grooves in you brain so that you can start operating out of new belief patterns. It involves allowing yourself to get really uncomfortable for a while, facing your feelings and biggest fears.

I’m not a Big O yet. I don’t roll smoothly along next to people. I still get stuck sometimes and do more of an awkward flip-flop motion than cruising breezily along. But these big bass note lessons have been working their way into me over the past many years, and they’re finally starting to take.

May we all know that we are good and worthy and complete, just as we are. May we be able to “find” our way to the people that we can resonate deeply with. And may we all learn to love well, and be loved well.