I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.
Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.
This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.
I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.
It’s a relief.
I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.
For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.
But I’m getting better all the time.
When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.
Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.
This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.
Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”
Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.
Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.
I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.
Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.
We are not alone.
The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.
Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.
The secret got out.
I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.
This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.
I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.
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Tarot cards appeared in the fourteenth century, when they were used primarily for play. Sometime in the eighteenth century, the cards began to be used for cartomancy. Tarot cards are archetypal (they illustrate recurrent symbols), and countless modern decks are available, some of which are beautiful works of art.
When I work with the Tarot, I use a common classic 10-card spread called the Celtic cross. One of the richest and most enigmatic parts of the Celtic cross spread are the seventh and eighth cards, representing the querent as he/she sees him/herself and the querent as others see him/her.
I’ve learned, after decades of working with the cards, to pay close attention to what lands in those two places. If the cards have similarities, I know I’m living with reasonable authenticity. I’m staying grounded in who I am, and I’m showing up in the world and in my relationships honestly. I have a sense of being at home, of belonging in my own life. My connections feel solid and healthy.
If the cards are wildly opposing, however, I think carefully about what’s going on. In emotional intelligence coaching, this gap is key. Whatever is hidden between our own authentic experience and how others see us can be excavated, examined, healed, released, and/or renewed. The most effective coaches coach to the gaps.
In psychology, this idea is expressed with the Johari window, a model used to illustrate the relationship between ourselves and others.
What’s in that square of the Johari window that nobody knows, not us, and not others? What lies in the cleft between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us? What possibility or potential sleeps or hibernates there, waiting to wake up or be discovered? What insight and information are we missing as we look at others and ourselves?
Here are some possibilities:
We have crafted a highly-polished and highly-defended pseudo self and our authenticity is buried underneath it.
We are keeping too many secrets out of shame or fear; our authenticity is blocked. We are trying to stay safe.
We are low in our ability to emotionally express ourselves.
We have no idea who we really are; we accept the expectations of others about what we should or must be and try to fit those definitions.
Our closest connections are not healthy; those around us are employing abusive tactics like gaslighting, projection, smear campaigns and chronic blaming. We know who we are, but we’re overwhelmed by what they say about who we are. We’re in the wrong place, connected to the wrong people.
We ourselves are a Cluster B disordered person; we are unable to have insight into why we do what we do or the ways our behavior and choices affect those around us. We think of ourselves as victims and blame others.
We are too fearful to explore ourselves or others or ask or answer questions.
It doesn’t matter if we approach these kinds of questions via a mystical route or a more science-based path, to be human is to ponder about who we are and what we are for; to strive to make meaning out of our lives and experience.
We believe we know what we know, and we spend a lot of time defending that knowledge. We’re much less comfortable with what we don’t know, and some people refuse to explore that terrain at all.
For me, however, that uncharted territory, both within and without, is where all the good stuff is. The cracks and crevices, the blind and blank spots, are filled with the possibility and potential of insight and clarity. Healing is there, though it may come about through cautery or amputation. Growth is there, though it might mean our bones ache and we must alter our lives to accommodate that growth.
As humans, we are social, and we need others in order to survive and thrive. When I consider the rift between how I see myself and how others see me, I remember the power we each have in the lives around us, and the power those around us have on us. We can’t change other people, or save them (especially from themselves), but we can and do have influence on others. When we believe in the good things in others, we are making a difference. When we choose to manipulate or tear down others, we are making another kind of difference. This is the line between friends and frenemies.
It makes me squirm to understand the people around me know things about me I’m blind to, and see me in ways I can never access. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Yet the same is true for everyone. If my friends feel the same kind of affection and willingness to allow me to be who I am that I feel for them, I’m both humbled and grateful, but I’m still squirming — just a little!
I learned long ago the people I want to be closely connected to are willing to live with some degree of authenticity. My best friends have been those who told me the truth; the ones who let me know when I’m off the rails, or otherwise acting like an idiot. If we can’t tolerate feedback from others, we lose a quarter of the Johari window; a quarter of our available experience, potential, strength and growth.
Likewise, if we are unable or unwilling to give honest feedback to others, they lose a quarter of their Johari Window.
It’s only in the tension of connection we become greater than the sum of our parts, greater than we could ever be on our own. The powerful friction and shaping that occurs in relationships forces us to explore, discover, question, learn, unlearn, adapt and adjust more than we would ever do in isolation.
Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about hugs.
I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.
I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.
Yet I maintain touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.
This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?
Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.
Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,
I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?
I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize touch, too, has many different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:
Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!
So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) a hug is the best “I love you,” I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.
My friend (another woman) said she learned to think of hugs as a sign of weakness.
Another friend (a man) said to him a hug, or most other kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.
Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder we all carry around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).
It’s amazing to understand the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.
When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!
I can’t help but giggle about this.
I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.
Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.
We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.
I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.
Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding
Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen A sly drop of poison introduced A taint that can never be erased. So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket, Protecting the world from my touch. I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day Concealing shameful curse But at night I return naked to my crystal casket. The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night. I lie with my hands folded on my chest (Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart) And watch the sky storm with stars Galaxies in my eyes. Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away But I love them from within my crystal casket. No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet. No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss. I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow. Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent