The Night it all Changed
In the war zone wake of leaving my husband, I found solace in conversations with a wise man on OK Cupid. We hadn’t met in person yet, and I had no idea I would have a baby and home with him down the road; what I knew is I could connect with him on a deep level that was rare for me to find.
With my ex it was so confusing as to where to draw the line. Wherever I drew it he would battle with me ferociously. His arguments were so convincing, and the fighting so exhausting, I’d eventually collapse. I was searching for guidelines from an authority I could defend as conventionally reasonable.
As an empath I can take someone in–their thoughts and emotions–on such a deep level, it’s as if I momentarily become them. This is a superpower for sure: I use it to heal people and support my family with it, but man has it also gotten me into trouble–especially when paired with someone not above abusing it. It got me into trouble elsewhere for as long as I can remember as well. I once saw a psychic who said “Thank god you’ve learned some discernment! People used to come up to you and attach to you like vacuum hoses and suck you dry.”
So, feeling beleaguered on a particularly bad night, I reached out to this OKC “3DPerson” and asked, “How do I know where I get to make boundaries and draw the line? How do you know what’s reasonable?” What he responded with was earth shattering. He said, “You get to decide where to draw the line. It’s up to you.” What?! All this time I had been trying to find the “reasonable” place, and if someone responded negatively to my boundary, then that must have meant it wasn’t reasonable. This was a revelation to me.
This information is so imortant and powerful it’s worth repeating: you get to decide where to draw your boundaries based on what feels good and right and delightful to you. If someone responds negatively, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your boundary. In fact, people often respond negatively to boundaries. Think about a toddler when you tell them “No.” Inside we’re all essentially toddlers, we just have more tools to cope and conceal it. Because people so often respond negatively to boundaries, I want to give you another tool to deal with their responses: it’s called “Me/Not Me” and I learned it from the masterful Steve Bearman of Interchange Counseling. It is so simple, it’s silly, but to me it was profound.
Find someone to practice with. Sit accross from them. Say “Me” and sweep your arms out to create an invisible shield going out 3-4 feet all around you and stretching at least midway between you and the other person. Now picture yourself filling up all that space. This is your space to take up and fill with your energy, thoughts and emotions. Do not allow the other person to psychically or emotionally come into that space. Now say “Not me” and put your hands out, palms forward as if saying “stop” or doing a verticle push-up in the air, and observe the other person–all their emotions, energy, and thoughts–on the other side of your bubble shield, from a safe distance. They are over there, perhaps reacting to your boundary. Their reaction is in response to you, but it’s their stuff, it is not your responsibility. Some people will delight in your boundaries, and say, “Good for you! I am so glad you are taking care of yourself” and others may attack or crumble, act out or cry and pout in pain and disappointment. It’s about them and their stuff. Consider what they are saying from the distance of your bubble, but do not absorb or swallow it.
You are the Authority
So the gist of what I am saying is this: YOU ARE THE AUTHORITY. You get to decide every minute of how you spend your time, and with whom you share your attention and gifts. As you get better with boundaries you will start to notice your guilt triggers. An old one for me is “selfish.” I thought becuase I had healing gifts I should share them with anyone who needed them any time I could. This was that BD period of my life (Before Discernment), and resulted in huge leaks of energy, some spent on people with “leaky pots” (when you water them, it all pours out because they haven’t done the work yet to hold it). Now that I can work through this trigger, sometimes taking care of myself looks as radical and ridiculous as shopping for tank tops at Forever 21 instead of responding to a client in crisis.
I found and worked through another trigger recently when a potential client wanted to know why I was not longer accepting insurance. I explained that insurance reimburses far below the going rate. My response triggered her and she attacked, saying I was greedy and a contributor to the broken system. This unsettled me for two days. I saw that I am a part of the broken system and I am greedy. Do I really need to make $160 an hour? Do I really need to go to Hawaii? Why isn’t the unusually generous contracted rate of $120 from insurance enough for me? Do I want to change this boundary?
I decided no. Receiving my full rate delights me. It allows me to do stellar work, spend more time with my family, write this blog, and create Wild Women Rising (and offer scholarships to that), a powerful group program that empowers more women than I could possibly reach doing individual work alone.
What to do When Your Boundaries Aren’t Respected
I volunteered on a suicide hotline during my first year in graduate school. I had no former training or experience in psychology–luckily the admissions committee of JFKU, two comical and chummy men in Hawaiian shirts, thought my random path of Peace Corps and other voyages utterly qualified me (“She’s been to the kingdom of Tonga?! She’s perfect!”)–so I was trying to buff up my CV. Following falling asleep on the BART train after field trips with kids with autism (the kid I was paired with calmed himself by inserting my braid in his mouth frequently and suddenly and sucking on my hair–a behavior that unnerved everyone else but somehow didn’t bother me), I’d get off BART and ride my bike up “Holy Hill” in Berkeley where I’d descend into the basement for my shift consoling the lonliest and neediest people on earth.
It is very difficult to get off the phone with someone contemplating suicide. The transitional statement was always, “What are you going to do to take care of yourself now?” 90% of the time it was “Go be with my cat/dog” (animals are such healers!), but invariably they would find a way to keep the conversation going. I am eternally grateful for my trainer, a swarthy and tattooed recovering alcoholic, former river guide and Vietnam vet. Growing up amongst hipppies in West Marin, I had never met anyone like him. He was blunt and often “not nice.” He would listen to my calls from the other room. I was terrrible at ending them. I would say, as trained,
“We have five minutes left,” but when the five minutes were up they’d find a new hook. There was no way to end the call without being “rude.” Growing up as a young goy white woman in a liberal bubble I was indoctrinated to never be rude! Unnervingly when the five minutes were up he would shout sternly and abruptly from the other room: “Hang up the phone Florie! You said you we’re going to hang up. Now hang up!” Now whenever someone is pushing my boundaries and I need to be “rude” to enforce them, his voice echoes these sentences in my head.
Which is to say that you are the enforcer. It’s mostly up to you to enforce and protect the boundaries you create.
Some Closing Thoughts
- Spend time attuning to yourself as you would a child. Ask yourself about your wants and needs.
- Notice your internal response when you say yes or no. When something doesn’t feel right you can change your mind.
- Notice who routinely disrespects your boundaries. Maybe you no longer want them in your life.
- Work on the triggers that cause you to question or collapse your boundaries.
- Practice Me/Not Me.
- Celebrate your successes and have patience with your fumbling. This is all a lot harder in practice than it is in theory.
I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
Good luck and big love,