For most of my life I’ve had an uncanny knack for attracting the very sort of person that drives me nuts.
The boundary pusher.
The neighbor who wouldn’t respect my property, the boss who played games, the friend who was disloyal.
Or there were the people who infantilized me… “caretakers” with a bit of an ego push. They liked to dominate me and make me feel like their child.
I was that stereotypical person who hated drama that always seemed to be in the middle of it.
I’d look around at other people and see that not everyone attracted such obnoxious nonsense into their lives, yet this mess was non-stop for me.
In fact, I used to be sort of enthralled by people who are functional.
How on earth do you do that? You know what I mean? The way you just handled that WITHOUT getting walked on? The way you just walked away from that drama, and it didn’t follow you? The way you interacted with that jerk in a way that made them stop being a jerk for a moment? Please teach me your ways, Obi Wan.
I have a pretty good idea of how I like to be treated. I mean, we all do, right? Most of us know instinctually what feels good to us and what feels bad to us. We even know the varying degrees of intensity from “I love being treated like this,” to “Yeah, I could do without this” to “Holy Moses – please leave my life at once”.
The trouble with me is that when I was young, I learned to shut off those really handy outward signs of dislike. I stopped letting it show in my face and in my body language when something hurt me or upset me. So, instead of informing people pretty clearly of how they were making me feel, a very awkward, sideways, upside down message came out that could be interpreted in a way that someone might think that I either really loved what they just did, I didn’t even notice it, or, at worst, I only very mildly disapproved.
For years, I labored at getting good at showing an outward register of pain. I think I have progressed, but all in all, this is the way I was formed, so there isn’t a whole lot I can do to create an honest-to-God, instantaneous, sincere response to being offended other than to live with coping mechanisms and taught behavior…. which is very very differently than the instinctual behavior.
Anyone who has heard any of my stories knows that once upon a time a kindly old man named Keith spent a year with me in intensive counseling. I consider him to be the man who saved my life. If my life were a plotted timeline or if there was an aerial view of The Life and Times of Heather, you would see a long consistent line of feet print that was heading a very certain direction for most of my life. And then you would see a pause and a redirection. That pause happened when Keith came into my life. He spun me on my heels and sent me off in nearly the opposite direction. I’ve been trekking along that path for seven years now, gaining ground and making up for lost time.
Three to four hours a week, we worked through my lifetime of dysfunction. A lot of what he told me was, at the time, pretty hard to hear and even harder to try to put into motion, but thankfully, I kept a detailed journal of notes from our time together and have used it a thousand times since then as a guide when I can’t remember the way.
He always told me that one day I would finally have enough of being treated badly. I would finally just get plain ole angry enough to make the necessary changes so that this constant bleed of bad relationships stopped needing so many bandages… and sometimes tourniquets.
When it all finally hit the fan for me, the situation wasn’t anything special or spectacular. I’d just finally had enough.
I pulled out my journal and started leafing through page after page of handwritten notes that covered pages from top to bottom, margins and sides. No open space was left. There was just so much that needed changing that I could barely contain it on paper. But there it was… the keys to my change. The change I needed. The one I put off for over 30 years.
In my notes, I came across a simple story Keith had told me about his childhood. I never asked if it was a real story or maybe a made-up story that told the lesson so well that it worked better if it was told as though it was real. Regardless, this is the lesson he shared with me.
He explained that as a young child, the churches in his small town would gather annually for a large church potluck. Because everyone knew everyone else, there was a certain sense of obligation to take at least a bite or two of everything. I mean, no one wanted to find that their dish had been untouched and unwanted at this big affair, so it was seen as one’s duty to scoop piles onto their plates of even the things you’d rather not eat.
He told me that there was this one specific potato salad that was always brought by the same woman. To say “no” to her potato salad was to bring certain chastisement upon one’s self. And to make matters worse, she might even find you and put it on your plate for you if you managed to escape it while in line.
Apparently there are serial potato salad pushers in this world. Who knew, right?
Anyway, he never liked her potato salad. He liked the kind without the mustard. Plus, hers was the only one that made his stomach hurt.
Year after year, he would dutifully eat the mustard salad to appease the Potato Lady. He wasn’t doing it because he liked it. He wasn’t doing it because he wanted to eat it. He was doing it because the bellyache and the displeased palate were easier to deal with than the cranky old woman.
And isn’t that just about how it goes? We would rather deal with being walked on than to face the hot displeasure that accompanies the first time you say “no” to someone who is accustomed to as many free passes over you as they like. We would rather deal with being treated in ways that make us feel miserable than to go through the nerve-wracking job of expressing ourselves honestly, standing up for ourselves, and establishing a good, solid “no”.
Finally he learned that if he was dumb enough to keep scooping salad onto his plate that he did not like and that made him feel sick, it was his own darn fault when he was feeling bad. No one was gonna feel sorry for him and any pity parties he threw for himself were only thrown to help him sidestep this very important, very grown up way of living.
You see, we all bring a dish to the table. And we all get to choose what dishes we want to eat from at the table. You might bring something I don’t like, but it’s up to me to choose whether or not I’m going to keep scooping it onto my plate. If what you bring to the table makes my stomach hurt or makes me feel angry, hurt, used, unloved, or betrayed, it’s me who is the fool if I keep taking “helpings” of what you have to offer.
I have learned that there is no honor or special blessing that comes from not allowing others to know and see how they truly make us feel. For me, this does not necessarily mean that I am going to sit down, spell it out, and make a bulleted list of offenses. If your potato salad is filled with yucky mustard and it makes me vomit, I’m just not going to put it on my plate anymore. Plain and simple. I won’t come across the potluck lawn yelling at you for bringing your nasty concoction, but I also won’t knowingly eat something that makes me sick just so you won’t have to face the fact that what you bring to the table might need some reevaluation. And when you come around with your Serial Potato Salad Pusher Spoon trying to force it onto me, I will say “No thank you. I already filled my plate with what I want.”
Friendly to all; Friends with few.
Hard lessons for the chronically-boundary-challenged person.
Also known as: New Rules to Live By
– Now, I say yes when I mean yes and no when I mean no. Even if it’s hard. “No is a complete sentence.”
– Now, I say “ouch” when it hurts.
– Now, I do not cry over people who will not cry over me.
– Now, I tell people about me but I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve and tell everyone all of my business. When it’s appropriate, I practice being evasive.
– Now, I do not seek to be best friends with everyone. I am selective on who I allow into my trust.
– Now, I understand that true mercy and true patience does not cause damage to another person, so if my mercy and patience is causing damage, it’s probably not mercy and patience after all. It’s probably that I’m a coward who doesn’t want to go to the great lengths of establishing a “no”.
– Now, I am not needy, helpless, or vulnerable. Now, I act. Now, I assert myself.
– Now, I don’t mind if people dislike me. I no longer grovel until their displeasure subsides. I no longer offer kindness as a way to appease.
– Now, I no longer stand between a person and their natural consequences. Though it might cause me pain to watch them suffer for their actions, I know that ultimately, cause-and-effect is our most gentle and most effective teacher.
– Now, I do not punish with a silent treatment. I gather my wits and approach the person with my cause and seek to have a conversation. I do not compromise. Even if I am not heard, I do not compromise. Remaining true to myself is more important than getting someone to treat me the way I think I ought to be treated.
– Now, I do not cover for people.
– Now, I only live with and live in community with people who stand on their own two feet – that is, people who hold themselves accountable for their own actions. I say “no” every time someone tries to get me to accept responsibility for their actions, their emotions, or their feelings.
– Now, I understand that what people say, think, and feel about me is none of my business… that it tells me far more about them than it ever could tell me about myself.
– Now, I have a breaking point. I know when to say “enough is enough”.
– Now, I am not convinced of someone’s love because simply they have spoken it to me. They must show it to me. If their actions are selfish and hateful and hurtful, yet their words are repeated apologies and glorious statements about good intentions, I will remember that actions are more telling than words. “Do not say “I love you”, show me.”
– Now, I am not so hard on myself that I demand total elimination of all my shortcomings.
– Now, I know what I want, I ask for what I want, and I show how I really feel.
– Now, I draw lines and abide by them.
– Now, I refuse to live in fear.
– Now, I no longer hand out permission slips for others to harm me.
– Now, I no longer harm myself.