I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.
This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel I had the ability to do something good.
This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.
So, what does that mean?
If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.
Been there, done that. Not doing it again.
If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.
Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.
Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.
Here’s the hardest thing of all: it may be the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.
I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.
If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.
Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.
We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”
An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.
Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.
Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:
Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
Do I rush in and try to fix problems belonging to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.
We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.
Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.
As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.
It’s the first week of the new year, and many of us are pausing to look back over our shoulders at where we’ve been the last twelve months and then turning to survey the path before us, at least as much of the path as we can see. The Internet is awash with lists of how to make new year resolutions as well as lists of why we shouldn’t make new year resolutions. Advertising for buying our way to a new persona is frenzied.
As usual, I’m out of step. I’ve read a couple of great pieces this week, one about the limits of willpower and a list of 13 things to give up for success. I’ve read and re-read them, thought about them, and discussed the first article extensively with my partner. Normally when material like this catches my interest it develops into a blog post, but this week nothing is happening.
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
All I can think about is simplicity.
Lists are great. I used to be a champion list maker. They guided my whole life during a lot of complicated years.
Now? Not so much.
I have really simplified.
But the thing about simplifying is how complicated it is.
For example, more than a year ago I stopped shaving. But that’s not where it started. It started with me deciding I was no longer going to please people. But that’s not exactly where it started, either. Part of it started when I decided to allow myself to be everything I am and nothing I’m not.
If I hadn’t given up on pleasing others and limiting myself, I never would have stopped shaving. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so. Interrupting this lifelong habit never made it onto a list, though it would have been easy to cross off. One decision and it was over.
Making a list of behaviors to discard is wildly misleading, because it doesn’t address what underlies our inappropriate and ineffective behaviors, and that’s where all the ongoing and time-consuming work is.
Pleasing others and making myself small are two lifelong, deeply entrenched habits, and I work every day to make different choices. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect. (Another deeply entrenched habit – perfectionism!) Any distress or inattention results in automatic reversion to my old habits. I don’t expect to ever be able to cross ‘stop pleasing others’ and ‘stop making yourself small’ off a list.
On the other hand, working to change and challenge these two big things allows a whole cascade of smaller habits to loosen and fall away, the kinds of habits that are reasonable to put in a list. Pleasing others and making myself small create an immensely complicated set of actions.
Anyway, one day it occurred to me to ask myself why I shaved.
Answer: Because everyone does. It’s a social rule that women shave their body hair. Hairy legs are unattractive.
The everything-I-am and nothing-I’m-not me: Oh, yeah?
The not-pleasing-other-people me: I don’t think hairy legs are unattractive. All my lovers have had hairy legs. I didn’t mind. In fact, I like body hair. It adds texture and sensation, especially in erogenous zones. I refuse to accept that male hairy legs and armpits are acceptable and female hairy legs and armpits are ugly. That’s ridiculous.
So I stopped shaving.
No more razors or shaving cream to buy and throw away. No more rashes, nicks or razor burn. Less hot water, less time in the shower. Bonus: In wringing humidity and hot weather, the hair on my legs and under my arms helps me cool more effectively. Another bonus: No more microcuts in my armpits. I worry less about health concerns regarding deodorant. A third bonus: Hairs provide sensory information. If a tick is crawling on me, it stirs the hairs on my body and alerts me to its presence.
I still wear shorts and skirts. I swim every week. My partner appears to be able to deal with a woman in a natural woman’s body without fainting with horror. In fact, I don’t think he even really noticed.
Shaving is just one of many examples of things that can be crossed off lists, but before we can get to those, we have to deal with the big stuff, and that’s hard, ongoing work. The big stuff drives the little stuff. Want to get more exercise? Work on keeping your word to yourself. Want to lose weight? Excavate your relationship with food and redefine it (which means change your life and purge your kitchen).
Simplicity is frequently the end result of complex effort.
On the other hand, some of us have a genius for making simple steps unbelievably complex.
Take exercise, for example. Do you want to exercise more? Really? Then set down the device you’re reading this on, put on clothes appropriate for whatever is outside and (here’s the hard part) walk. You don’t need a dog, a buddy, your mate, special clothes, neon shoes, a Fitbit, a step counter, a timer, a gym membership or a piece of expensive equipment. You don’t need earbuds or entertainment.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
Now you’re getting exercise. Do it every day and you’re getting more exercise.
It’s simple. Nike got it right. Just do it.
If it feels more complex than this, it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s some belief or pattern (often deeply buried and unconscious) that’s sabotaging our efforts. And that’s complex!
It’s been very cold here in Maine, as it has in many other parts of the nation. We had heavy snow on Christmas Day. After my daily stint of three or four hours of writing, I wanted a walk, so I layered up and went out into the storm.
Unbroken fresh snow underfoot. One set of tire tracks going up the hill. The chill kiss of wet flakes against the little bit of exposed skin on my face. Wind, and the sound of the trees groaning and creaking and the snow hitting my hood. The sound of my own breath, which condensed on the scarf wrapped around my face, crusting it with ice. My steady footsteps squeaking up the hill. Everything grey and white and shadow.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Christmas Day, and nothing but swirling snow and breathing, walking, the warmth and vitality of my own life. So simple. So peaceful. So starkly beautiful, and nothing to do but inhabit my body and the day.
In these days, fully in the grasp of winter, life is reduced to the wood stove, hot meals, my daily exercise and my writing practice. At 4:30 p.m. it’s dark. Storm and gale, wind chill and subzero temperatures limit our ability to drive. We delve into our piles of books. The cat snuggles with us on the couch. If the power goes out, we light candles and I’m not displeased. At night, the house pops and cracks, groaning in the cold and the wind. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my feet up and a blanket around my shoulders, I doze off as I’m reading The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. This kind of extreme cold is very simplifying. Eat. Stay warm.
Simplifying my life has made me happier, healthier and more productive. It’s also been frustrating, slow, unpredictable, unexpected, terrifying and painful. It has not looked like an orderly list on a fresh sheet of paper written with my favorite pen. It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn’t it? Lose weight. Check. Get more exercise. Check. Spend more time with family and friends. Check. Get more sleep. Check.
Those are all worthy goals, and perfectly attainable, but not by writing a list or making new year resolutions. Changing behavior is a great deal more complicated than that, and creating a life of simplicity is an enormous undertaking.
In the last couple of years, a lid has been gradually slipping off a container in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM,’ and I suddenly realize the contents of the can are now moving into all the cracks and folds of my memories and experience.
I don’t have much interest in boredom. I’m never bored and I’m greatly irritated by people who are. When I expressed boredom as I child I was either given something “productive” to do or told sometimes everyone has to do things they don’t want to do.
As a parent, when my kids expressed boredom, I gave them a long list of tasks or “productive” things they could do to help me. They usually declined, but they also learned quickly to stop saying they were bored.
I’ve often been told I’m boring.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
There. That’s all I have to say about boredom.
Life was much more cut and dried before I became educated in emotional intelligence. Now I’m suspicious of cut and dried, especially if it has to do with feelings, patterns in my life or things that keep showing up. Boredom keeps showing up. People say they’re bored and I feel disgusted. People say they do self-destructive things because they’re bored and that excuse infuriates me. I take the boredom of others personally, as though I’m not entertaining or interesting enough to keep them engaged.
If I’m not interested in boredom, I ask myself, why does it make me so mad, and why does it keep catching my attention?
A couple of days ago I decided this week’s post would be about boredom, so I really started to think about it. I tossed around the concept of boredom with my partner. I thought about all the places it’s shown up in past relationships. I sat down and Googled boredom and looked at articles, quotes, memes, images and definitions.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve come to the page, either to write or research about something out there — a behavior or pattern I observe around me in other people — and discovered it’s not out there at all, at least not exclusively. It’s in here.
Remember what I said a minute ago? “I’m never bored.”
I’m suddenly realizing that’s not true. In fact, I suspect I’ve been chronically bored my whole life. The feeling of boredom, along with so many other feelings, simply got denied. It wasn’t until I started living more authentically here in Maine and stopped being bored that I could begin to see the colossal depths of my previous boredom.
Naturally, I’ve felt enraged when others express feeling bored while I can’t.
But why can’t I express it? What’s so shameful about boredom?
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
First of all, being bored means you’re not working hard enough. You’re not being productive. You’re wasting time. You’re useless! You’re lazy! You’re a quitter! You’re irresponsible! You’re letting others down! You’re not pulling your weight! You’re a burden! You’re a failure!(This eventually trails away into a wild-eyed, gibbering mental shriek.)
When all the arm-waving drooling hysteria stops and I can think rationally again, what I’m left with is BUSY=GOOD and BOREDOM=BAD. This has the look and feel of first-grade logic to me, and I’m skeptical. I’ve spent a lot of my life staying busy in order to please other people and a lot of that busy was dead boring. School, for example. Busy and bored are not opposites. Busy without purpose is a recipe for compulsivity. On the other hand, the condition of being undisturbed and private with a book, paper and writing or coloring pens or even just a window and a cat with nothing in particular to do is a real pleasure.
Photo by Danny Postma on Unsplash
Somehow, somewhere along the way, boredom became the enemy in our culture. It’s a whine, a complaint, a danger and a discomfort to be avoided. It’s a weakness, even a sin (if you think in such terms). Boredom is a condition that must be fixed. Bored children get into trouble. Bored adults are not productive. Boredom is an excuse to use and abuse substance. People eat out of boredom. People have affairs out of boredom. Boredom, in fact, is to blame for a lot of undesirable behavior and choices.
Really? I don’t accept this. I’ve learned feelings — all feelings — can be thought of as value-equal data. We’re human. We have feelings. Some are more uncomfortable than others, but isn’t that largely a product of the thoughts and judgements we attach to them? Feeling a feeling doesn’t mean we have to act it out in ways to hurt others or ourselves. If we make destructive choices, our feelings are not the problem. What we do with our feelings is the problem.
It follows then, if I’m bored and I can call the feeling by name and recognize it, there’s information there for me. What is my boredom telling me? Here are some things I associate with my own boredom:
I’m not interested.
I’m not engaged.
I’m not authentic.
I don’t feel a connection.
I can’t make a contribution.
It’s too easy; I know how to do this; I can do more.
I don’t understand.
I’m exhausted or ill.
I’m overwhelmed with some other painful feeling, like fear, rage or grief, I’m refusing to deal with.
I have a boundary problem; I’m taking on something belonging to someone else.
I’ve been here and done this — not doing it again!
This entire list is a map informing me where I’ve been, where I am and where I might go next. The feeling of boredom is the ground I stand on to read the map. My boredom doesn’t need to be fixed. There’s nothing shameful about it. On the contrary, it holds essential information and experience for me. It defines choices and supports power. Busy can’t create this essential space and quiet, but boredom can.
So much for not expressing boredom because it’s bad and busy is good. What else stood in my way all these years?
You see, I’m female. (By which I mean uterus, ovaries and menses.) Good girls, nice girls aren’t bored — ever — by males, including but not limited to male teachers, male family members, male romantic/sexual partners, male classmates and colleagues, and male bosses.
Now, before anyone climbs up on their high horse, understand I don’t hate men. Not at all. I’ve historically gotten along better with men than women, in fact. Also, I know things are different now than they were in the 60s and 70s when I was being socialized — sort of. There’s a lot more awareness and discussion of feminism and sexual politics.
However, a big part of my training had to do with “respect,” (also loyalty, responsibility and duty) and just about the only person not included in those I was taught to “respect” was myself. Respect was demonstrated by things like being silent while the men spoke, obedience, and being properly grateful for and attentive to mansplaining . Respect meant adapting, adjusting, and limiting myself so as not to challenge, threaten or compete with men. My role was to learn to “act like a lady” and be compliant, sweet and attractive.
You might not have noticed, but that training wasn’t notably successful.
Boredom and respect are not a happy team, so of course I kicked boredom to the curb. Respect meant love, validation, tribe, straight A’s, husband, children, a good job and a normal life. Boredom with addiction, violence, abuse, rigid thinking, inability to grow, absent creativity and curiosity, uninspired sex, toddler-level communication skills, power and control games, mind fuckery, omnipresent TV, unending housework and financial grind was absolutely out of the question.
As for other people calling me boring, we’ve already covered that in a previous post. It’s a projection. My feeling of boredom is not about others and their boredom is not about me. I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but boring isn’t one of them.
That empty can in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM’ was filled with something I want and need. Who knew? Going forward, I’m reclaiming my boredom. I’m welcoming it like the wise old friend it is, naming it, honoring it, embracing it, standing hip-deep in it and reading the map of my life to chart a course for what I’d like to do next.
And I will never, ever again try to fix, discourage, stifle, diminish or deny someone else’s boredom. I will instead congratulate them for feeling such a vital, vibrant feeling and ask them my favorite question: