“Wow! This looks beautiful! You really brightened things up!”
I was talking to someone who was cleaning up a small garden after the winter. He had removed leaves and other debris, planted a few additional plugs of ground cover, hosed pavers off and watered the new plugs. Everything had bright, new green growth and the leaves glowed against the darker, now damp, soil.
“Yeah,” he said, giving me a half smile. “It’s amazing what a little water will do.”
It feels like a dull thud to me these days when I acknowledge someone and they refuse to accept the acknowledgement. The way I see it, I acknowledged what he just did and he deflected the acknowledgement. Maybe he didn’t want acknowledgement from me—that is certainly possible as I was merely a passing acquaintance—but his deflection felt more like the kind of enforced humility so many of us have learned from our families. You know, the way we learned—or at least I learned—that excellence and selflessness was expected, acknowledgement isn’t necessary, it goes to your head (or mine), and shouldn’t really matter, anyway.
We’re all just doing what we’re supposed to do.
Bullshit. I call bullshit on that line of thinking.
Last night I was coaching someone in a dream. (Yeah, it happens.) His name was Steve, no relation to any actual person, and he had a problem with self-confidence because, he told me, throughout his childhood, his mother got a bit too after him about his clothes and general appearance and his father enforced the notion that Steve had to be humble with a bit too much enthusiasm. So he picked at himself about his appearance, never felt quite right about the way he looked, and maintained a humble demeanor—at all costs.
And the costs were great: he had social anxiety and, at work, he couldn’t put himself and his ideas and his work product forward. He could champion others, no problem. But himself, that was another story.
I don’t know how we approached that because I woke up. I hope Steve, whoever he is, somehow gets along better in life going forward. Me, I’m going to keep acknowledging people who seem like they can accept it and, when I acknowledge myself, or someone acknowledges me, I’m going to work to take it in.
From my experience coaching and being coached, and working with spiritual teachers, acknowledgement is one of the most powerful tools we have. I’m using acknowledgement here mainly as a tool to recognize and accept the positive in us and in our efforts, letting us actually own our own ability to make a difference. Without that, we can too easily fall prey to a narrative that we are helpless, that we and our efforts aren’t seen, that what we do doesn’t actually matter. For many of us, that narrative has a basis in reality. To change the narrative, we must find those data points that demonstrate that we, and what we do, matters.
But we also need to acknowledge our pain and disappointment. By doing so we can feel those feelings, allow them to arise as physical phenomena, and let our body metabolize them. Like a big dinner we might enjoy, we may feel sluggish until our body metabolizes what we put in it. The same with some pill we might take that doesn’t agree with us. We are physical beings and we need to physically metabolize our emotional experience so that we can let it go—because at that point, once it completes, it is actually gone! We never have to deal with those particular feelings again.
What has happened as I practice acknowledgement is this: the population seems to divide itself between those who practice giving and receiving acknowledgement—and those who don’t.
Acknowledgement and accountability
I’ve begun to think that practicing acknowledgement goes along with accountability. When I practice accountability I know what part I can take credit for—and I know what part belongs to the flow of grace and the beneficence of Source. I also know where I might have fallen down on the job with whatever was expected of me. I no longer really understand or see the point of the kind of humility dream-Steve and I grew up with. Life has humbled me. My own mistakes and regrets have humbled me. I am humbled by the wonderful way things work out when I do my part to whatever extent I’m able, accept the limits of my own power and instead, acknowledge the power of the Divine.
I remain puzzled and disappointed when things don’t work out. In other words, I get it that it’s not all about me. There’s a bigger picture.
Arrogance, now, that’s a problem. I’ve had to see my own arrogance and the arrogance that has run through some of my actions in life. But I don’t know that enforced humility did or even could have fixed that. On the other hand, acknowledgement has helped to fix that. As I have acknowledged my gifts and my efforts, and have developed the habit of acknowledging others, I feel that I have a more realistic view of myself, I am more grateful of the Divine, and I am more and more a place where grace can flow.
I see family dynamics repeated throughout all sorts of relationships where some people seem to be trying to get acknowledgement and other members seem bent on withholding it—or, if a speaker acknowledges themselves or someone else, another speaker deflects it for them! In some cases, the acknowledgement never even happens because some people seem to deflect ahead of any possible acknowledgement that might come anyone’s way.
The late Nora Ephron, in her essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” wrote the quintessential example of this kind of pre-emptive deflection:
I am at a party in East Hampton and I am introduced to a woman from Washington. She is a minor celebrity, very pretty and Southern and blond and outspoken, and I am flattered because she has read something I have written. We are talking animatedly, we have been talking no more than five minutes, when a man comes up to join us. "Look at the two of us," the woman says to the man, indicating me and her. "The two of us together couldn't fill an A cup."
The woman from Washington brought breasts into the conversation when they weren’t a stated aspect of the interaction. By doing so, she aggressively undermined Nora Ephron, as if deflecting any possible other acknowledgement of Nora Ephron, presumably as a writer.
So what do we do? My suggestion is that the next time someone acknowledges you or something you’ve done, stop. Feel it. Acknowledge the acknowledgement. Conversely,the next time someone deflects acknowledgement—or even preemptively or otherwise denies acknowledgment—feel that. Feel the aggression in it, feel the devotion to that old style of enforced humility. Decide if that’s going to be you going forward—or not.
And the next time someone shares an aspect of themselves or an effort they have made or an accomplishment, try acknowledging it.
In either case, whether you are giving or receiving acknowledgement, notice what happens. Notice if you begin to empower yourself and, among those who seem to be able to receive acknowledgement, notice if they seem just a little more empowered.
And thank you for reading this. I acknowledge you and I appreciate your presence as you receive these words. You mean the world to me.
How do you know whether your relationship is working? We’re not even compelled to ask that question until we are well into a relationship and, for good or for ill, aspects of our lives are entwined with the aspects of another’s life. Those aspects are like moving parts, one dependent on the next, and living life can get complex enough—and require so much of us—that we are unable to look past the management of all those moving parts to see the state of the relationship that’s holding it all together.
This is especially true if we live together, have children together, share pets or have stressful jobs. The activities of life can overshadow the interactions of the relationship.
But there are clear signs when the relationship isn’t working. It’s just that these signs may have existed in our parents’ relationship—and in relationships we saw all around us. So we may have taken these symptoms of a dysfunctional relationship as just the way a normal relationship acts.
These symptoms aren’t normal and we shouldn’t take them as normal.
So here are the signs:
1. Relationships let you relax. If your relationship isn’t letting you relax, the relationship isn’t working. Relationships exist because they let us relax. A lone Neanderthal is going to be just a bit more nervous than one in a trusting relationship. In other words, if the presence of your partner doesn’t soothe you, doesn’t provide some comfort, it isn’t serving the purpose of a relationship. It may be serving a different purpose and that may be something you need to look at.
2. As one of my teachers once said, “Once you are walking on eggshells, the relationship is over.” If you can’t comfortably communicate with your partner, about most things, and you can’t find some way to talk about some things, you aren’t in a relationship. Again, you might be in an economic arrangement or a living arrangement or a co-parenting arrangement but you are not in a relationship.
3.One or both of you does not keep agreements.
An agreement can be as simple as what time you are both going to leave the house to as complicated as a financial agreement or an agreement to be sexually exclusive. The first task is to actually create an agreement. This requires that someone put forth a verbal agreement and the other person agrees, verbally, to that agreement. Alternatively, the next step may be to put the agreement in writing. Whether the agreement gets committed to writing or not, the agreement must be articulated and then agreed upon and then, of course, kept by both parties. If one person does not keep the agreement, and either the agreement is important to one or both parties or a less important agreement is repeatedly disregarded, the relationship will be jeopardized.
4.One of you (both of you?) uses the silent treatment.
The silent treatment is when one person in a relationship refuses to recognize, acknowledge or speak to the other. Of course, sometimes we can be so hurt or so angry that we can barely look at the person who hurt or angered us. But, in order to show up as a mature person with functional relationships skills, we need to use the tool of the Time Out rather than the silent treatment.
Time Out is when we ask for time out from interacting in the relationship. Time Out is structured. It involves one person declaring a Time Out either by saying they want a Time Out or by crossing one index finger over the other to form the letter “t.” All involvement must stop at that point. No one speaks or gestures or in any way attempts to communication.
The difference between a Time Out and the silent treatment in an intimate relationship is that you both agree—ahead of time—to allow the Time Out to not go more than 24 hours. You agree to meet after 24 hours to talk. If you really can’t resume a dialogue at 24 hours, you at least must meet to say that. And then agree upon a time to meet again within 24 hours. It is important that the Time Out NOT be open-ended but, instead, last for an agreed upon length of time.
5.One or both of you is unable to soothe themselves.
The Time Out requires that you both—but especially the person who must wait out the Time Out at the behest of the other—be able to soothe themselves. Another way to say this is that when we are in a relationship, we need to meet our own needs when our partner is, for any reason, unable to meet our needs, and by meeting our needs, calm ourselves to at least some extent.
6.One of you or both of you is unable to accept “No” for an answer.
7.One of you or both of you is "showing up needless and wantless."
Another way to say this is that at least one of you is not showing up representing some or all of a normal range of wants and needs.
Pia Mellody has defined codependency as "showing up needless and wantless." One way this might look is that someone may not be honestly representing their needs. For instance, they might turn down dessert and then be sneaking food, eating powdered sugar doughnuts at 3 A.M. when no one is around. Another example might be one or both people are no longer showing up representing their sexual needs and then surreptitiously fulfilling their needs on their own or with someone outside the relationship.
8.You treat your partner—or your partner treats you—in ways that are impolite, disrespectful or downright abusive.
Do you recognize any of these signs? You have probably seen a few of them in the relationships of your parents or people in your sphere. Do you recognize any of them in your relationship? Do you recognize more than a few of them in your relationship? If you do, you need to consider rethinking—even reclassifying—your relationship. It may simply be an arrangement. You might want to think about just what the arrangement is, what needs it is fulfilling and what needs it is not fulfilling, and whether or not you want to continue with it.
The “biological imperative”
Relationship has been called a “biological imperative.” What that means is that we are biologically compelled to meet, mate and reproduce. But it may also mean that we are tribal and we are compelled to pair up, form partnerships and, eventually, tribes. These partnerships are meant to satisfy needs, the most important among those needs being the first one, the need to relax.
So, ask yourself, when you are with your partner, or when you think of your partner’s presence in your life, how relaxed are you able to be?
Right now I have a loved one struggling between addiction and recovery. It’s happened before — many times.
There’s the story, a story that seems to be constantly shifting and changing, and yet, somehow, feels consistent. It delivers its familiar body blow. They’re not really addicted, dontcha know. Or they weren’t really using. Or using “that” much (whatever that means). They had things completely under control. And now they’re onto recovery.
Just when I start to relax, just when I start to feel as if maybe I have them back, I get deluged with texts and emails: awful, destructive, lengthy messages full of blame. It takes me more than a day to realize that it is likely a relapse, although I don’t know for sure. I feel like I can almost see the truth — except it’s not the truth I want to see, not the outcome I was hoping for.
And then I get a message of farewell and an order to not contact them again. This seems easy enough to do since I had had no idea what to do, what to say, how to respond to any of the earlier messages. But the messages keep coming until, by the next day, there is the first message of apology.
I still don’t know what to do. And the threat of relapse and death hangs over it all like the sleet and fog that hung in the air when I woke up this morning.
Moving forward, moving on
Today, I feel determined to move forward with my life. Which maybe sounds brave and strong and wise but, actually, I don’t know what else to do. If I let those substances — because there’s likely more than one — invade my life, I’ve allowed the damage to grow and spread beyond my loved one and do more than just threaten me with the loss of the life of someone I love. Those substances threaten me with the loss of my life.
I get up at the same time I usually get up. I make tea and drink it, answer emails and plan my day. Habits take over — I actually don’t know what lets me keep going. I remember when this first began, years ago: I would swing my legs out of bed and when my feet hit the floor I felt as if I had lead boots on. I’d stand up and sway a bit, my heavy feet planted, holding me in place. It seemed as if gravity was heavier where I happened to be. Now there is the thinnest thread of fierceness to my actions, as if I am defying… something. But there isn’t so much fierceness that I don’t also notice that moving on with my life makes me feel as if I don’t care, as if I am horribly crass and unfeeling. A friend tells me I’m numb, that all this has made me tired, drained my emotional energy. Another friend asks me when I’m going to allow myself to feel the grief that I must — obviously — be feeling.
I don’t know if my friends are right or not, but what I know for sure is that I feel flat. The world around me feels flat. It’s almost as if a certain amount of color and depth has somehow been taken from the world — taken from me.
Talking about this and finding the support I need seems like a reflection of my loved one’s addiction and struggle with recovery.
I can tell a few friends, a few family members, what is happening for me but I find myself distributing the pain, telling this awful detail to one person, this other awful detail to another. I feel like I have to scour my thoughts, my words, of the full truth — as well as, with some people, any identifying characteristics, anything that exposes the private struggle of it all. Because I continue to respect this person and want to honor their privacy.
I sometimes wonder how many other people are going through this with someone they love. If there is an opioid epidemic — or whatever the substance — then there is an even larger epidemic of those of us who love the ones effected. We are largely silent because it’s not only our story. It belongs to someone we love.
But as I watch them lay waste to their own life, and attempt to destroy their important relationships, including ours, I know I need to share the story and seek support. Which goes against my old pattern — keeping their suffering and mine close — where it largely remains a secret and can do the most harm.
The real problem
And that’s another problem — and maybe it’s the real problem: that the most basic thing that is happening, whether the person is using or not, in recovery or not, is that they are suffering. They are in the gravest of pain, the most awful misery. They orbit my ordinary life being so miserable that they must make every attempt to share their misery.
Their thoughts and emotions, what happened and why and who did what and when, the sequence changing, the reasons, bending, all of it going around and around like laundry in some dryer that processes misery, blame, shame, guilt, anguish, rationalizations. Around and around.
I listen or I read for some accountability and, so far, do not find it
So I will move forward. Write this. Take the laundry out and fold it. And feel flat. Until things get better or things get much, much worse.
Recently my boyfriend and I moved in together. And I discovered some things about myself that were unexpected.
No, not that I can’t get along with someone or that my habits are too odd. Instead, I discovered that when I concentrate, I concentrate deeply. If my boyfriend asks me a question when I am in deep concentration, I feel myself swimming up into a different level of consciousness to meet him—only to dive deep again with him if the subject warrants it.
I discovered that, by following my emotions, my insights, and, especially, my own physical experience, I can quickly realize that some things just aren’t about me.
I discovered that, again, by getting out of my head and, instead, dropping into my body and following my physical experience in the moment, I can know what I do and do not want, I can accept, sometimes easily, sometimes not so easily, not getting what I want or put up with some condition that I don’t want but that might be unavoidable. And I discovered that I can stand up for myself in small ways in an easy, relaxed, respectful, manner so that I don’t have to do it in big, difficult tension-provoking ways.
Of course, it helps that my boyfriend, at least some of the time, can meet me halfway. (Thank you, boyfriend!) But the real thing, the really valuable thing that I discovered, is that all of these things are the result of meditation, the result of working with a spiritual teacher to learn to be aware of my physical experience and then, in turn, working with my own clients assisting them in the difficult process of learning to not credit their mental narrative quite so much but, instead, to include an awareness of their bodies.
But, most of all, I believe my abilities are the result of years and years of simply practicing presence.
The other night I was walking behind my boyfriend and his adult son. It is winter here so we were dodging snow and ice and cars in a poorly lit parking lot, walking a bit of a serpentine path to go into a makeshift shelter a street food vendor had set up, my boyfriend leading the way. There was the sound of a generator, the smell of Mexican food, the deep cold of a February night. The three of us weren’t usually together, certainly not on a Saturday night.
I felt a flash of jealousy—it’s blackish-greenish poison suddenly flooding my body. For a moment I was disoriented. I still easily recall the scene because that flash of jealousy seemed, at first, to be so incongruous. Why would I be feeling jealous? My confusion seemed to sear the moment into my visual cortex. In my mind’s eye I see the two men, both taller than I am, their broad shoulders in heavy winter coats black against the light of the tent, the distance between us growing as I, wearing dress boots rather than snow boots, walked a little slower than they walked.
And then it hit me: I felt like one of the guys. My boyfriend is usually solicitous of me. In a situation like this, walking on snow or ice, I would be walking beside him—not a few paces behind—and he would offer his arm. In the next instant I realized that he isn’t used to dealing with both me and his son. Instead, he usually is with one or the other of us. He behaves in an entirely different way with his son than he does with me. Even though his son is an adult, he has a different kind of responsibility toward him, especially as he eases his girlfriend in and among his family members. This is about him, I thought, Maybe he doesn’t know how to be with both of us! Other, recent, similar, situations came to my mind. I saw that he has challenges with his son that take up a lot of his resources when they are together and the awkwardness and tension I sometimes feel may be due to their two-some being invaded by me, or, in turn, the two-some my boyfriend and I have created being invaded by his son.
And with that realization, that the situation was, quite likely, about my boyfriend’s learning process as he navigates relationships, the jealousy was gone just as quickly as it had arrived. My boyfriend turned, realizing I was a little behind, and took a few steps toward me as I joined him.
For the rest of the weekend I felt blessed by this experience. I knew I could continue to observe the dynamic among the three of us and speak up if I needed to, either privately or in the moment. Or not. I felt no urgency about it either way. The idea that I might simply experience jealousy, no matter how powerful, and not have it dominate my thoughts, feelings or, worse, my behavior, was liberating. I could allow my experience to arise, I could follow my experience, I could benefit from it—but not be at its mercy.
I remember when I didn’t know what I wanted, when I could hear myself say what I knew someone wanted me to say—not what I really felt. I remember falling into the trap of almost orchestrated, certainly habitual, exchanges with family members that either led nowhere or led down some well-rehearsed path to frustration and disappointment.
How many times during my marriage did one of us threaten divorce and the other one agree—sounding like hurtful, bickering, children before one of us actually took a step in that direction? Countless times.
How many times did I act like that little jab was funny when, in actuality, it was a mean, hurtful little jab?
How many times did I allow the person I was talking to about a problem derail the conversation, avoid addressing my point and turn the conversation toward something they wanted to talk about, riding my wave of assertiveness with their concern and neither of us ever addressing my original issue?
For this last one, let me give you an example. I have Shankar Vedantam and his podcast, “Hidden Brain,” to thank for teaching me what he calls, “Switchtracking.” Here’s my paraphrasing:
In the past, a woman has asked her husband not to give her red roses. She doesn’t like receiving them. For her birthday, he brings home a dozen red roses and she says, “Why did you bring me red roses when I have asked you not to?” He says, “You could have thanked me first!”
And the conversation, the conflict, becomes about her lack of courtesy! He has just ignored both her original request and her objection to his behavior. And they’re off and running, fighting about all the times he believes she has lacked courtesy rather than why he might have given her a gift she has asked him not to give her.
Many of our close relationships have conflicts that spawn other conflicts because of switchtracking. The original conflict might never be addressed. Instead, I am learning to stop, take a breath, and ask that the other person bring up their concern another time but that, right now, I’d like to talk about my concern. It doesn’t always work but making the ask keeps the relationship I have with myself—the relationship I have with the truth and my own understanding and experience of the moment—clearn.
And keeping things clean and mostly true is easier now that I know that my body gives me all the clues I need to know what I do and not like or want, what is or is not good for me, what does and does not matter to me. I have had to unwind years of social conditioning to get at some of these things but underneath a lot of shoulds and should nots is my own, authentic experience. And it is available to me because I have spent so much time not judging myself but, instead, setting aside everything else and sitting with myself, practicing presence, enjoying the deep states within me.
When I was 13 my sister married. A male family member photographed the wedding. I, as a member of the bridal party, sat at the main table, in the middle. The wedding cake sat nearby, on the table, in the middle. The photographer had a grudge against me and was determined to hurt me and so made sure I was in very few of the photos by making sure that the angle of the photos put the wedding cake in front of me. The photographer had higher standing in the family than I did. I knew that complaining got me—got any of us in the family—nowhere. So I said nothing. I still remember the helpless, hopeless feeling I had at that wedding.
The more such slights affect us emotionally, the more we can suppose they have been used against us in the past—sometimes in such a distant past that we have no recollection of it. This is especially true if we were inculcated into this freezing out technique when we were very young. Also called the Silent Treatment, to ignore or overlook a child is extremely cruel when applied by a parent, caregiver or person in authority.
A child is someone who does not have a fully developed ego, identity or sense of self. It is this undeveloped state that we consider precious. A child MUST HAVE reflection and validation to develop a sense of self—or even HAVE a sense of self. To ignore a child is to deny that child a sense of self. To ignore a child—to not include them, to overlook them, or intentionally freeze them out—is equivalent to psychological murder. The silent treatment, when applied to a child, is abuse.
And, again, we can likely tell if we ever received the Silent Treatment or were overlooked or ignored if that technique causes us anxiety and distress as adults--whether we remember experiencing it or not.
The Silent Treatment and Anxiety
A few years ago I was involved with a man whose mother came to visit. The three of us spent the weekend together and our interactions were pleasant. A few visits into the weekend I began having anxiety and anxiety attacks. I had had them a few years previous and I was horrified to have them back. What on earth was causing them?
I turned to my favorite solution to my own psychological mysteries and journaled and meditated and then journaled again. Then the three of us went out in the evening, I had a glass of wine, and to my shock and horror and the shock and horror of my boyfriend and his mother, I said something completely out of character and extremely inappropriate. Mercifully, I don’t remember what it was, although I do remember that it was sexual in nature. My boyfriend stared at me, stunned. I went home and journaled some more.
And then it clicked: his mother had never looked at me! For about two days, she had never actually given me eye contact. Ah-ha! There it was! And, apparently, that caused me anxiety and, apparently, I would do anything, including embarrassing myself, to get her to look at me!
What About Eye Contact?
I had, years before, realized that, as a child, I had been the victim of the Silent Treatment. The technique had found its way into some of my intimate relationships as an adult. A component of the Silent Treatment is a lack of eye contact. A truly adept passive aggressive person chooses a stealth form of the Silent Treatment with what I now believe is its most effective component: to effectively deny another person eye contact.
With relief I continued to participate in the weekend and was able to see that, indeed, the woman couldn’t look at me. And her bland responses to me were only there to make it seem as if she were being courteous. And now that I knew what was going on, I could go into observer mode. I probably continued to journal with a great deal of enthusiasm but my anxiety disappeared and I made no more compulsive remarks.
Eye Contact Is Crucial
In the years since, I have become more and more conscious of the presence—or absence—of eye contact. I sometimes see casual social interactions between two people where someone isn’t giving eye contact and the other person, apparently thinking it is a positional thing, tries to move into the line of sight of their conversation partner—usually with little success. I notice that I have relationships that include eye contact—and when they don’t, the relationship ends.
How about you? Can you begin to be conscious of your desire for eye contact? When you get it and when you don’t? And could there be a hidden cause of anxiety in your life?
We can find clues as to what might have happened in our childhoods by understanding what some people call the Old Paradigm for relationships. The Old Paradigm is what I grew up with. It’s where little is addressed directly or openly among friends and family members, where we’re each supposed to know and anticipate what the other is thinking, feeling or wanting in order to spare them the awful task of actually expressing their thoughts, feelings or desires directly. The Old Paradigm dictates that we say, “Are you going to eat that last brownie?” rather than, “Wait! May I please have that last brownie??”
ROLES BASED ON GENDER AND POSITION
The Old Paradigm dictates roles based on gender, position in the family, or social and business position. It is based on conditioning and what is called Object Referral: I know how to act based on cues you give me for my behavior. Or my behavior is guided by established, often unspoken, rules and traditions. Self Referral says I know how to act based on how I feel, what I want and need, the experience I am having and—WAIT FOR IT—clear, direct, communication from me and from whoever I am interacting with.
The Old Paradigm relies on passive aggression. The best definition I have ever learned for passive aggressive behavior is this: behavior that causes someone else to feel MY anger. We can go further and say that any feeling I don’t want to feel—anger, hate, fear, anxiety, shame—I will do my best to pass on to you through my hostile (disguised but still hostile) actions.
A favorite passive aggressive technique is to freeze someone out, give them the cold shoulder or even, worst case, the Silent Treatment. I can act the innocent while you suffer. “What? I didn’t do anything!”
Freezing out probably originated in the family of origin but can show up in present day family and social relationships. We might be left out of a social event or overlooked in a conversation. We might suddenly, and with very little explanation, be denied use of a vehicle or building or a piece of furniture. Any kind of slight will do. Freezing out can happen in the workplace, as well. Someone might leave us off of an email chain or fail to invite us to a meeting—even a meeting of our own department. Oops!
Anybody feeling cold??
If we narrow and generalize—stay with me here—women, as I said, are often conditioned to be more or less boundaryless WITHIN THEIR RELATIONSHIP and men are often conditioned to be walled off—often, it seems, because of or in spite of their relationship status. In this game of social conditioning, single women are wild cards, as are red Aces.
Some people lend themselves better to conditioning that says they should be boundaryless to the outside world, being available for many different people and purposes through their job, their family, neighborhood or social group or their church. They may set a boundary because their partner insists upon it, “She/He doesn’t like it when I go out on weekends,” or “She/He insists I spend Saturdays with the family.” But the person themselves may not actually set the boundary without prompting from their partner. And, in fact, they might use their partner as an excuse to set the boundary rather than setting the boundary themselves.
The empath may be vulnerable to further conditioning and manipulation through guilt, being ignored or frozen out of interactions or the simple awareness of someone else’s pain. The person who has walled off—denied their empathic nature—may work to either protect their partner or exploit their partner to meet only their needs or the needs they approve of, or both.
What happened in the childhoods of those of us who were not raised to understand or practice the process of setting boundaries? What happened to those of us who retained our ability to be empaths and those of us who somehow gave up or denied the empathic nature we had as very young children?
Although we may have received conditioning around our roles and social behavior we more than likely did not learn how to set boundaries. Instead—and I realize this is probably overly broad and somewhat exaggerated—both men and women were expected to be walled off regarding interactions with the opposite sex. That is, until they met Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Right. Then, miraculously, the walls developed doors, love would reign, and only the Right One would be allowed entry. The two would become one and the wall would now circumscribe them both.
WHO HAS THE POWER?
Because no one had set expectations, no one had articulated boundaries, no one had practiced making direct requests for closeness and intimacy or for separateness and space THAT MIGHT CHANGE OVER TIME, the new couple’s life would be dictated by social convention and whoever had the power. This was usually economic power although power might be held by the person who wanted sex the least or by the person who could produce the most anger or disapproval or by the one who could be silent the longest or by the one who could become ill or who had the most powerful or economically well-off parents or …
The key is that the individuals themselves had not set the rules through a process that was created by both people using clear language to make direct offers and requests. In other words, by setting boundaries.
Without boundaries both men and women will have difficulty maintaining their empathic natures. A common result of this is one person might become walled off and the other person becomes boundaryless. They may even arrive at the relationship that way, having been schooled in childhood and early adulthood. Perhaps one person, the empath, is in charge of asking, “What’s wrong?” and the other person, the one who has learned to become walled off, is in charge of saying, “Nothing.”
This state of boundarylessness or being walled off can become established across the board or the couple can have different roles in different situations. One person can be boundaryless at home and walled off out in the world—or vice versa. Or one person can become boundaryless under the influence of alcohol and walled off the rest of the time. Or one person is boundaryless with their mother or father but walled off with their spouse. Or any number of variations.
The conditioning I received and see the most is that women are encouraged to be boundaryless and men are encouraged to be walled off. Women who dare to set boundaries can be called demanding, difficult, particular, hard to get along with. They can even be called bitches or ball busters or even worse. Men who retain or retrieve their empathic nature are called sissies, wussies (I actually don’t know how to spell that), whipped and worse. Women who become walled off can be called cold. Men who become walled off can be called, um, men.
PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS
The point is that there is no shared process. There is no way, usually, to update what we want or need in most traditional relationships. How many of us simply choose not to bring something up? How many of us know what we can negotiate and what we cannot? How many of us resort to bullying or being bullied because, again, we have no basis for a shared process?
What if I ask my partner not to wear a particular scent? How many cycles am I going to go through as I think about how I ask this because I don’t want to hurt his feelings? Maybe I said I liked it—ten years ago. Is there a process for revisiting this?
I see many people who do not have a process in their first marriage (or long-term relationship) who have such a process in their second marriage (or long-term relationship). Is it a sign of the times? Did we have no such process in the 50s, 60s, 70s and on but, now, maybe, we have such a process?
What about you? Do you have a process with your partner? Friends? Colleagues? Family members?
Another problem—perhaps the most real and pressing problem—is learning to allow our empathic nature while learning to set boundaries around when and where and how we respond to the information we receive empathically.
There is a difference between setting a boundary and walling off. Setting a boundary is a process. It may include things like intention, negotiation, the flow of information, permission and change. On a date, I may have one set of boundaries on the first date and another set on a subsequent date. The nature of the social event, that it is, in fact, a date, is set through intention and through the convention of dating. We, as a society, have decided what dating is and this varies among different ages, classes, religions, ethnicities and other factors but we can probably agree that there is some kind of agreement about what dating is. We are often nervous because we are trying to figure out if our idea of a date matches the other person’s idea of a date.
The dates themselves are a form of negotiation that is revealed through eye contact, body language, words, and tonality. Each date is like some agreed-upon opportunity for change, for further permission to interact more deeply—permission that can be granted or not, depending on each participants’ desire.
A BILATERAL PROCESS
Again, through intention, negotiation, the flow of information, permission and change—through a process based on interaction—we set boundaries. The process itself is bilateral—it goes both ways. Either one of us might participate in very little of the process before setting a boundary. Or, if we both agree, often through agreeing to see one another again, we might participate in the process for a longer period. We might event revisit the process at another time.
Of course, any social interaction qualifies. I’ve used the example of a date but anything from an exchange at a convenience store to a sales meeting to a diplomatic negotiation over a border tax qualifies.
Walling off is the refusal or inability to participate in a process. It is based on not allowing participation—on either person’s part. If I am walled off, I refuse to participate in a process with you. I make a decision on my own—a unilateral decision—and “stick to my guns.” I deny the process. If you are walled off, you do the same. There is no process, no participation, no allowing, no flow of information, no exit or entrance.
REJECTION AND PUNISHMENT
Boundaries are necessary if we are going to allow and develop our empathic nature. Boundaries retain a flow of information of all kinds. Walling off prevents the flow of information, including empathic information. Walling off feels like refusal, deadness, rejection—even punishment—to an empath.
There are several problems that we can experience until we better understand our empathic nature. The first is that we try to limit our empathic nature, we make it conditional: I will be empathic with you but not him. Perhaps this describes the world we live in right now, where we and those around us have to qualify to receive empathy.
You might say, “But I want to block certain feelings I receive! I want to block that person’s fear or anger or be ready to block any aggression that comes from them!”
You get to take care of yourself—I promise. But there is another way to do this without walling off and blocking your ability to receive emotional and felt-sense information. And without necessarily judging the other person.
Imagine, instead, that you understand your empathic nature, that you learn how to stop and feel whatever you are feeling, and notice if it makes sense to suppose that the feeling originates with you—or originates with someone near you physically or someone you are thinking of. You might be guessing at first but that’s okay. Being certain to actually feel the feeling is the most important step.
Set a boundary
Then, notice if you need to set a boundary. Maybe you need to defend yourself or respond in some way or get away from that person or, on the other hand, give them a hug. Whatever you do, do it without judging. Instead, you discern: does what you feel from them feel good? Or not? This can inform what you do.
Send light and love
Then send them light and love. This blocks whatever they are sending you. It also makes it harder for them to see you, identify you as an appropriate victim, unless what you were picking up from them in the first place was the same, light and love, acceptance, allowing.
And, yes, sometimes this is not quite enough because we aren’t able to love certain people. “He hurt me!” “She hates me!” Yes. So that is the challenge, isn’t it? Learning to love ourselves enough to let ourselves feel our feelings and sense whatever we are sensing and take care of ourselves and, sometimes, love other people. But not cut ourselves off from others and not block our own ability to receive powerful and important information through our senses and through our empathic nature.