Tag Archives: needs

Questions Before Engagement

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When I came to Maine in 2015, I had a short list of goals. One of them was to learn everything I could about relationship and connection. I had so many questions. Why did I feel I’d failed practically every relationship I’d ever had? What was different about the ones that did work well? If I was bad, ugly, unlovable and unworthy, why was that? Was it something I could fix? Or was that a false belief, and if so, where did it come from?

Why did it seem so impossible to find the kind of relationships I had always wanted to have with others?

All my life I’ve struggled with these questions.

I realize now that all of us struggle with these questions, at least at some point and to some degree. It’s called being human.

Emotional intelligence training was a revelation, and as I learned about boundaries, needs, reciprocity and many other aspects of relationship, I began to appreciate the complexity and art involved in healthy connections.

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Relationship is a skill, and most of us don’t have great models for how to do it appropriately and effectively. Relating well to others is messy because being human is messy. I learned, and believe, that healthy connection is a primary human need and driver of behavior. I also learned to build and maintain better boundaries and separate what I have power over (myself) from places where I have no power (what others say, believe, think and do).

Over the last years, my partner and I have continued to be fascinated by the way in which we humans interact with each other as parents, family, partners, coworkers and members of the community. We observe ourselves and others and read with interest current research and insight into all the ways humans connect and disconnect, motivate and manipulate, perpetrate acts of violence and hate, build community and parent.

I’m an information junkie on some subjects, so I enjoy all this learning. I don’t want the information so I can speak learnedly or advise or persuade others. I’m not interested in labeling, judging, feeding my fear or getting bogged down in an empathy swamp. I have no ambition to be an expert in anything but my own life.

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What I want to do is see myself and others clearly. I want to understand what I don’t understand. I want to learn how to keep myself safe and meet my needs for connection.

I want to take better care of myself.

My partner and I sat in the sun this morning, watching the birds at the feeders and newly-wakened insects buzz around the rotting wood of the porch looking for summer quarters. I picked up paper and pen and we jotted down a list of things to look for when considering a relationship. I titled the list Rules of Engagement, but then crossed it off and retitled it Questions Before Engagement.

I like questions. I’ve told you that, right?

Does the person you’re interacting with:

  • Accept no for an answer?
  • Demonstrate the desire to cooperate and connect (power-with) or win and be right (power-over)? (Carmine Leo)
  • Consistently treat self and others with respect and kindness in action and word?
  • Speak in either/or black/white terms, or do they appreciate shades of grey?
  • Employ blame and shame tactics or take responsibility for their own choices? If they take responsibility, do they take too much responsibility (a sign of weak boundaries)?
  • Employ DARVO tactics: Deny, attack, reverse victim and offender? Does he/she see him/herself as a victim?
  • Make your life bigger or smaller? (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, How to Love a Woman.)
  • Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently, or avoid responsibility (“I forgot”), gaslight, give inconsistent or mixed messages and refuse to answer questions?
  • Demonstrate consistency between what they say and what they do? Keep their word to self and others? (Chronic lateness, for example, is a red flag).
  • Leave you feeling good about yourself or as though you’re hopelessly bad and wrong and/or completely drained?
  • Have boundaries (even if messy) and respect yours (even if messy)?
  • Present themselves as a whole, healthy, independent person with something to contribute or are they needy and dependent and looking for someone to nurture or “fix” them? (Co-dependency is not a healthy relationship!)
  • Demonstrate a full range of feelings and appropriate expression and management of those feelings? Is their life one long drama and trauma? Do they flip abruptly from rage to affection and back again?
  • Demonstrate flexibility, curiosity and the willingness to learn?
  • Provide an equal and reciprocal level of commitment, time and energy to the relationship that you do? (Carmine Leo) Are you doing CPR on a long-dead connection all by yourself? If so, why?
  • Last but not least: What does your intuition say? Do you feel safe with this person, physically, sexually, creatively, emotionally, financially? Listen/feel for a yes or a no and don’t second guess or negotiate a no! Extricate yourself and move on.

The strength in recognizing these questions and their answers does not derive from judging or labeling others. The power is in our own ability to navigate intelligently through the world of people we all live in. I myself have communicated poorly, been codependent, been self-destructive, made myself small, and had poor boundaries. I’ve also worked hard to learn to be more effective and heal. Now and then we’re all inflexible, or disrespectful, or unkind.

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Perfectionism is a black hole I refuse to get sucked into and certainly don’t expect from others. We need and form all kinds of relationships in life with all kinds of people. Certain behaviors from a colleague or roommate might be acceptable; the same behavior from a lover could be a deal breaker. There is no one size fits all in terms of relationship. We have to figure it out for ourselves.

We all have good days and bad days. This list is intended to specify red flags that might occur intermittently or consistently across time. A pattern of red flags is a sign to go carefully and stay present and aware with our interactions. There are millions of well-meaning people in the world. There are also millions of narcissists, borderline and other Cluster B personality-disordered people, psychopaths, sociopaths and other predators and vampires. It’s up to us to figure out how to spot them and avoid or free ourselves from them. Failure to do so wastes our time, energy and love.

Questions before engagement. My daily crime.

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The Way Ahead

I recently read an essay about honoring our past from one of the minimalism blogs I follow. I moved on to other things without saving it, but it continued to echo in my mind and I realized it held a deeper meaning for me than I first recognized. Of course, now I can’t find it again! Still, the blog is well worth exploring.

As I embrace minimalism , I spend time every day consciously assessing not only my internal clutter but also the objects around me. I’ve moved things around, put things away to see how my space or life felt without them, and let go of many objects and ideas.

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We carry a lot of our past around with us. One belief I’ve carried all my life is that it’s disloyal and even hateful to change, to grow, to yearn for more or to leave jobs, relationships or places. That belief (Who taught me that? Why do I believe that? Is that true?) has caused a lot of pain in my life. It’s made me fearful, ashamed and inauthentic. It’s encouraged me to be much less than I am.

The essay I read proposes almost the opposite idea. The author expresses deep gratitude for her past experience and the people who influenced her, and she honors them by going forward into the future.

What a disconcerting idea! At the same time I recognize some kind of truth in it, a truth I don’t discern in my own beliefs about honoring the past.

As a mother, I want to see both my sons being bigger than I am. That doesn’t mean I want to see them with more to have and to do. I want them to have more to be.

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I want them to fly free, the memory of our time together and the strength of my love and our connection the wind beneath their wings that takes them onward and upward.

Yet I don’t give myself the same permission. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a big step forward in my own growth, health and understanding without feeling it’s at the expense of someone else’s happiness and well-being. It always seems wrong—a betrayal, an abandonment or a rejection.

It comes down to a choice between my own needs and the needs and demands of others. I never seem to be able to accommodate both myself and those around me. Until very recently, I’ve inevitably chosen to meet the needs of others rather than my own.

Today is built on all our yesterdays. If I lived in an empty room with nothing in it, my past would still have shaped today. I’d still remember my personal history, my family, my children, old friends and places, beloved animals, old activities and interests. Past loves and influences wouldn’t disappear from my life without my things. Forgotten or remembered, my past would still be with me and within me.

I can’t live in the past, though, any more than I can in the future. I can only live now.

I love this attic workspace, but one day I’ll leave it, as I left my beloved little home in Colorado four and a half years ago. It’s not the lack of love, respect or gratitude that moves me into the future. It’s the ebb and flow of my life, the call of possibility, the itch of curiosity. My future self calls out to me, holding out her hands in encouragement, and I must answer the call.

Maybe our cultural obsession with things is about fear, or greed, or numbness or nostalgia. Maybe it’s about all those and others, too. I don’t know. But the idea that the best way to honor the past is to be fully in the present and consent to move ahead into the future seems blessedly simple, uncomplicated and unencumbered.

I’ve always longed for security. I’ve longed for relationships that don’t change, love and tenderness I can count on, the ability to give and receive promises and vows that never break.

I’ve also longed to be wild and free, to live a life that feels real and true, to be with others who both give and receive unconditional love and don’t seek power over those around them.

Objects will give me neither security nor freedom. Today I have a few favorite things that I wear, use or live with. Some are new favorites and some are old favorites, handed down from my family.

Everything else is just stuff that’s here. I don’t really notice it unless I think about it, but I don’t need all these things and they’re weighing me down. A year from now my current favorites might no longer serve and I’ll let them go in turn.

As I write about it, this process sounds healthy, normal and natural. As I do it, guilt and shame tear at me. It seems to me that even growing up was hurtful; a deliberate betrayal and abandonment of my family. The least I can do is hang on to all the objects inherited or gifted by earlier generations.

But why? Does hanging on to such things really demonstrate love, respect or gratitude? Would my great-great grandmother expect me to cherish and care for something that belonged to her but has no meaning for me? If she did expect it, are her expectations more important than my wants and desires? Would she want me to make my life a shrine to her memory or go forward into my own life and follow my own path? What honors the memory of our ancestors the best?

Honoring the past by moving toward the future. Could it be that clean and easy? Could it be that elegant? If I live a life of meaning and purpose that does not include reverence for every object, tradition and idea I was brought up with or exposed to, are the ghosts of my past pleased or will they turn away and disown me?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I know what I need to do.

Making my way forward in order to honor my past. My daily crime.

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No Is a Complete Sentence

One of my first posts on this blog was about saying no . As I learned emotional intelligence and began applying it to my life, I started to understand how imprisoned I’d been by my inability to say no.

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In the interests of full disclosure, let me tell you that saying no in the context of long-term relationships in which I’ve never said it before has resulted in unforeseen heartache and grief. I rejoice in reclaiming my power and authenticity, but some of my nearest and dearest are not celebrating my growth and healing, and connections I thought were unbreakable have, in fact, broken.

These days, I immediately exit any relationship in which my no is consistently ignored. At this point in my life I’m not interested in connection, intimate, workplace or social, in which no is not an acceptable answer.

In my experience, people who refuse to accept the answer no fall into two camps. The first camp is the controllers. Their goal is power. They view anyone with the ability to say no as an insult and a threat, and immediately react in the form of intimidation, emotional meltdowns, rage, manipulation and constant pressure to change the no to a yes.

The second camp is those who can’t say no themselves and are infuriated by those who can. Their goal is to undermine the power of others so they can feel better about their own disempowered state. They’ve stored up years of resentment around all the times they said yes when they wanted to say no, resentment which they vomit up at once if someone says no to them. They throw around words like “duty,” “responsibility,” “loyalty” and “obligation.” No is a personal rejection, an abandonment and a cruel betrayal. They frequently have all kinds of expectations of others. They use the weapon of shame.

These camps can and do overlap, but there’s no mistaking the resistance to no.

I confess that it still stuns me that long-term primary relationships have fallen down and died right in front of me because I said no. I’ve even checked out my perception, disbelieving my own experience and the words I was hearing.

“So, from your point of view, me saying no is unforgiveable?”

“Yes, it’s unforgiveable.”

So far, I am still unforgiven, because I stood by my no.

Unbelievable.

I ask myself if it’s possible I’ve never said no in the context of these relationships before. It seems unlikely. Perhaps I’ve just never said it about anything that mattered to the other party? I resolved to mindfully practice saying no, and also to observe carefully the effects of such a response.

I immediately discovered that the effects of saying no on me included panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD and extreme stress. All my life interactions with others has consisted of “reading” them in order to please. Any question they might ask was answered in whatever way I thought they most wanted to hear.

Effectively, every question was a test. If I passed the test, my reward was knowing I had pleased and was temporarily safe and tolerated. If I failed, which usually meant I had forgotten myself and answered honestly, the consequence was displeasure, abuse, guilt and shame and/or (worst of all) some kind of a scene.

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Learning to say yes or no based on my own desires meant finding and reclaiming myself, my needs, my authenticity and my power, and trying to ignore what I knew others wanted from me. Saying yes or no became a test of my own courage and honesty, as well as a test of faith and trust in those close to me.

I could hear no from them. Could they hear it from me?

This has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.

I’ve been reading an important book: The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Every woman in the world would benefit from reading this lifesaving and validating book. Here, too, is a discussion of the universally important red flag of refusing to accept no.

We are shaped by our culture, and in this culture women are taught to be cooperative and accommodating. Men are taught to be persistent. These behaviors are deeply embedded and reinforced in our media, entertainment and arts.

Women are not taught to say a simple, assertive, direct no and stick to it. We weaken our no with explanation, justification, mistrust of our own instincts and the desire to not make a scene, be unkind or hurt or embarrass anyone.

The instant a woman allows her no to be negotiated, she has handed her power over and sent a clear message that she’s prepared to be a victim. Strangers, family members, friends and colleagues who decline to hear no are either seeking control or refusing to give it up.

Sadly, the willingness to say no will not protect us. We may still be murdered, raped and otherwise abused, but the ability to recognize a danger signal like not accepting no for an answer is an important survival skill that can help us avoid violence before the worst happens.

Ultimately, no is about boundaries.  No matter how cherished a relationship may be, it’s not healthy if we’re not free to honestly say yes or no. Those who consistently violate our boundaries or punish us for having them in the first place are those who have benefitted the most from us having none in the past.

I value my power to say yes or no far more than any object, possession, sum of money or relationship. The complete sentences of yes or no allow me to maintain my integrity and authenticity, support appropriate boundaries and contribute everything I am.

Saying no. My daily crime.

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