Boundaries are about Self-Respect

Acknowledging and respecting boundaries and limits is healthy and gives us power, yet I notice often folks seem to set boundaries in ways that are ineffective and self-defeating. Or we set boundaries but then fail to support them. All of this leads to frustration and dissatisfaction in relationships.

What helps me think about boundaries is to start with the most immediate and tangible one: my skin. My skin is a boundary between my body and the external world. It keeps things together. It is somewhat permeable. It delimits that for which I have responsibility and authority. Violating this boundary has immediate consequences and causes me pain. Your skin is your boundary.

Subtler psychic and interpersonal boundaries are not the same but ideally arise similarly from our own center and experience. All I really have control or responsibility over is myself, and even that comes from a process of expanding in consciousness and capacity for responsibility.

Responsibility, power, and consequences all play a role in boundaries. A boundary is not about controlling other people’s behavior; it’s about communicating my expectations and enforcing the consequences. Here’s an example: “I appreciate when you invite me over, but I can’t eat certain foods. When you ignore that, I get sick. I’ve told you my food sensitivities a few times, and every time you ignore them, I feel less interested in having dinner with you.”

This describes a situation in which the person with food sensitivities has been disrespected and endangered. This boundary is communicating both the personal consequences—I get sick—the good faith efforts to work with the other person, and then the interpersonal consequences—I don’t want to come over for dinner. The latter are the consequences that often we find hardest to enforce, but from this frame, there’s actually nothing to “enforce.” I’m simply letting you know how your behavior affects me and listening to my feelings. You can decide what to do with that information.

Image of a person spinning rainbow-neon lights in circles in a dark background.

Photo by Tyler Lastovich

This isn’t an ultimatum or a threat, and doesn’t need to be stated that way. Ultimatums or threats come from the belief that I can coerce you to do what I really want, which is sometimes successful in the short-term but rarely in the long-term. It’s a statement of self-observation. It’s listening to and respecting your self and not enabling others to disrespect you.

“What if they keep making food I can’t eat?” Then you listen to yourself and stop going over for dinner, or if you absolutely cannot stop then you can unapologetically make accommodations for yourself. For some, setting and enforcing boundaries brings up guilt and shame. That happens, but if you’ve told this person what you need and they proved unwilling to listen or adjust their behavior, you’ve done due diligence. It is painful and sad to recognize that people we want to be important to us are not behaving with respect. We can’t control them or force them to change. It is quite vulnerable to decide we are going to behave as though we’re worthy of respect, even if parts of us don’t quite feel that way. But threatening consequences that never happen only diminishes the power of our words. 

Your primary responsibility to the other person is to communicate your expectations and the consequences. In many cases, once you actually begin to have and respect your own boundaries, the folks who are used to disrespecting you will act out and try to guilt, coerce, or force you to continue accommodating them. Yet you owe them no further explanations or compromise. You can reiterate your expectations, or tell them what you need to see to rebuild trust, but you don’t need to sacrifice your health or dignity.

Nothing to Fix

In the past few years my thinking has shifted around the idea of “fixing.” I am of the opinion that when it comes to myself, the idea of being “broken” or needing to be “fixed” comes from internalized shame and is not useful for the work of becoming whole and in integrity.

This is a confrontational idea. We are so beset by ideas of who we are “supposed” to be. When we look to the harm we do to ourselves and our loved ones, or the harm done by others, it sounds bizarre to hear someone say there’s nothing to be “fixed.”

I do not suggest there is no harm being done, and there aren’t people who do and espouse evil. I simply do not think shame offers us anything useful for becoming whole and building harmonious communities. Shame as wielded today is a tool of dominance and social control. “You are bad” is all it has to offer. “You are broken.” “Fixing” has denotations of fastening into place as well as repair. “Fixing” is about maintaining things as they are, not transforming the lead of life into gold.

When we believe that judgment is an essential truth, then we have no room to grow or become better. If I’m bad, then everything I do to become better is still based on the premise of my badness. All of my works, my good efforts, my skills have been built over the shoddy foundation of my badness. As soon as I make any kind of mistake or hurt someone, or am myself hurt—an absolutely inevitable risk and reality of living any kind of enjoyable life—it cuts right to that foundation and seems to confirm it as the underlying bedrock truth. “See? You were bad all along. You simply hid it well.”

From a mindfulness-based perspective, this is an exceptionally convincing illusion. When we sit in meditation, we become aware of a deeper level of awareness and a broader experience of Selfhood that is able to experience pain and joy but is neither and both. It is the field on which these experiences play out. When I connect with that sense of spacious Self, I find myself fully capable of expressing the qualities of life I most desire. It is like I discover I already am the person I always wanted to be.

And then I get stuck in one of these smaller parts of me, the ones that carry all my doubts and fears and anger, and I forget that spaciousness and become convinced that this smallness is my truth. So I have to keep practicing.

This is why there is nothing to “fix.” The idea that I have to “fix” comes from this smallness, this idea that I am “bad” but I can make myself “better.” It is not coming from that spacious Self, and its solutions are inevitably limited and stuck in the smaller thinking that only maintain the problem.

A green glass alembic of Iranian origin

An alchemical Alembic of Iranian origin

If I start with the assumption that I am basically good, that everything in me is striving for wholeness and integrity, then I have to take my inner conflicts seriously without taking sides. The parts of me that cause harm, lash out, and interfere with my goals do so with a notion of my best interests. They try, in their painful ways, to bring something important to my attention, and my work is to—as best as I can today—drop out of my attitude of trying to categorize and fix and into a deeper listening, witnessing state. To really understand what these parts want and fear, and why this upsetting pattern persists in spite of all my efforts to “fix.”

At times this means putting limits on the parts of me that are causing harm, which is in practice easier when I am doing so from a place of acceptance and non-shaming. It is not about accepting all behavior and outcomes. It is about accepting the innate dignity of every part of me and a willingness to seek out what needs liberation within the painful and harmful impulses.

This process of listening and understanding allows these conflicts to soften and dissolve into each other. With time, a solution emerges—including facets of all—a way forward that moves out of the stuckness, reduces harm, and increases efficacy.

Changing the Things We Cannot Accept

At New Year’s Eve 2016, I was at a friend’s house and noticed a book on the astrology of 2017. Some of us picked it up and looked it over, in conversation. From the author’s picture I had immediate (and inaccurate) judgments of the content, thinking it would be a relatively shallow New-Agey text. When I flipped open the book, the first thing I saw was this quote was this epigraph:

“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing things I cannot accept.” – Dr. Angela Davis

Holy shit, I thought. Even the nice white New Age lady is pissed off.

Earlier this year I was thinking about mental hygiene during a propaganda war, which continues to be a worthwhile practice and point of contemplation as the United States’s traditional arbiters of meaning have gone to war against each other and insurgent communities are using this opportunity to flood us with noise, misinformation, and seductively simple answers.

No matter how powerful anger makes us feel, it’s exhausting to be angry and guarded all the time. It’s exhausting to feel overwhelmed and powerless. And as life-transforming as it is to accept what we cannot change, there are times when it is also necessary to change what we cannot accept.*

When I feel the most cynical, despondent, and powerless, that’s when I know I need to get off my ass and do something important to me. If there’s a cause that matters, then I need to make the phone calls to the congresspeople, go to the city hall meeting, even symbolic gestures like lending material support to works I care about. Powerlessness is a significant feature of several mental health disorders, which can lead to a complete surrender of agency like a major depressive episode or, seemingly paradoxically, into destructive expressions of rage.

We are made to be heard and seen, to have an impact on our surroundings, and to belong to a community. These days, it is unfortunately all too easy to lack any of these experiences of connection and personal or social power. And people who have felt powerless or victimized—whether we think it’s warranted or not—are quick to jump onto self-righteousness and gleeful joy in others’ suffering should the balance of power abruptly shift.

None of this is particularly helpful in changing the things we cannot accept. Spite often relishes the conditions that cause it. People nourishing spite love being attacked and persecuted, even if they accuse others of being “victims,” because the high of feeling self-righteous feels more enticing than the vulnerability of acknowledging how one has been hurt and what one truly wants.

This is one of the reasons why I am a proponent of setting aside labels like “good” “bad” “positive” or “negative” for our feelings—fixating on the “good”-feeling feelings and avoiding the “bad”-feeling feelings can turn us into self-absorbed assholes. Whereas embracing the value of all of our feelings, and understanding that taking meaningful action might engender painful or “bad”-feeling feelings ultimately contributes to true personal power. Changing the things we cannot accept is rarely easy and without stress, but these are the experiences that draw upon the virtues of courage and resilience—the qualities we celebrate in our heroes.

* Discerning between the things we can and cannot change is a subject larger than the scope of a blog post. However, I do think they are complementary. As I learn the things about myself that I cannot change and must accept, so am I better able to accept these things in other people. Then my efforts toward changing what I cannot accept are more effective, as I’m wasting less energy on things out of my control.

Thoughts on Resilience

In preparation for a workshop I will be leading at Many Gods West I am contemplating resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”

An orientation toward resilience assumes that one will meet adversity, trauma, tragedy, or stress at some point in life. A blade of grass is resilient because you can step on it, and once the pressure’s off it will eventually return itself to its original angle and shape, or one close enough to keep getting sunlight. A pack of wolves is resilient because it can keep itself intact, responsive, and generative even when it loses members. Forests are resilient when a diversity of species contributes to the ecosystem—if one species suffers significant disease or loss, others could pick up the slack.

All of these models of resilience have limits, of course—paving over the grass will likely override its resilience. Even then, over time as the concrete breaks up and tiny cracks form, life will emerge. The concrete itself has a certain amount of resilience, but lacking life and people willing to invest in infrastructure maintenance, it will inevitably break apart and never put itself back together.

From sandy ground, a tiny plant grows, casting a long shadow.

Photo by Evan Kirby.

Life rebounds. Life repairs itself. Life adapts even to the greatest stressors. If we identified with life itself, thinking through the history of the organism on Earth from the first DNA strands weaving together in some ocean to my fingers typing on a keyboard, life is amazingly resilient. Our species is quite resilient, able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems, catastrophes, food sources. Though we can look at history and see some remarkably self-destructive behavior, in sum we are a species geared toward survival—and not just our own personal survival, but the survival of our groups, of things greater than ourselves.

Here I approach spiritual thinking, but spirituality offers much in terms of resilience. Ritual binds people in an experience of shared meaning and connection with something larger than the self—such as community, nature, deity, or a personified ideal. An intention for one’s life, a commitment to a cause, service to a community or deity, close personal relationships, even a beloved pet may be enough to keep us going through the hard times until we recover.

Though excessive pain and trauma is overwhelming and not desirable, being resilient isn’t about a life free of pain and hardship. Avoiding conflict, hardship, discomfort, and painful experience decreases resilience. Our muscles become stronger when they’re torn apart in concentrated exercise, then allowed to rest and rebuild, then torn apart again.

When I was a barista, I became rather inured to scalding hot water. In my early days, if I spilled the water on my skin, it would obviously hurt a ton and I’d stick my hand under the cold faucet water and shout at my coworkers, “We GIVE that to people to PUT IN THEIR BODY!” After three years, I would simply shake the water off and keep going, then remind myself it was still a good idea to apply the cool water. We can become too insensitive to pain and damage which will affect our long-term resilience in other ways.

We need rest and challenge, and sometimes we need one when we most think we need the other. When I get too comfortable and too fearful of leaving my house to do something challenging, that’s usually the time I need to push myself to take a risk. Likewise when I get super rigid in my practices and keep forcing myself to do things even when it’s hurting my body, that’s often a time when I need to relax, rest, or make a change.

One practice that helps is articulating and returning to intention. If my intention is to run a marathon, then my practices around becoming stronger and giving myself rest should serve that intention. If I get injured, I would want to follow my healer’s recommendations but all in service to the goal of running a marathon. Perhaps I reach a point where that intention no longer seems worth the pain and effort, but then that points to whether I have an even larger intention that running a marathon may or may not serve. Do I want a life filled with exciting experiences? Do I want a life where I live long enough to see great-grandchildren?

Perhaps you can’t state an intention today, because you’re not sure what you want. That’s okay. It can take a while to figure it out, and perhaps the intention today is to explore possibilities until you figure it out. One thing that helps me is to ask myself, “What quality do I want to experience (or express) in my life?” Then sit and listen. Maybe all I get today is a bodily sensation that I cannot name, but even that’s information. It might be the quality I center around, what I seek out and nurture in my interactions. The crushed grass perks back up, pointing toward the sun. This quality could be the sun you seek.

Releasing the Charge of Difficult Memories

Sometimes we carry intense emotional memories that continue to affect us today. I am talking about memories that still bring up feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, regret… all the greatest hits of our emotional repertoire.

Some folks get stuck in these memories, where a core story was born that continues to rule their lives—something like, “That’s when I learned no one would ever take me seriously.” Though they know it’s in the past, they can’t help but recall it often, talk about it, feel trapped by it.

Other folks get stuck as well, but have learned to avoid or suppress the memories. “It happened in the past. There’s no point in talking about it.” The problem is that these memories still carry the emotional charge, they are alive for us just as much as the folks in the previous example.

There are a number of therapeutic approaches to dealing with these kinds of memories. Here is one practice I do with myself and the occasional client to work through memories that carry deeply stuck shame, guilt, or anger. (I do not, however, encourage this exercise for traumatic memories, especially if you are not currently in a strong therapeutic relationship to heal your trauma response. The reasons why would be too long to explain in this post but I suspect most folks with traumatic memories will get it when they read through the exercise.)

Step 1: Identify a specific memory that is highly charged.

Specificity is very important, perfect recall is not. For example, something like, “My mom was always critical when I tried to make her happy” is too general for this exercise. Detail brings up more of the emotional intensity and ultimately reveals more important information that helps us to move. You do not have to get all the details exactly, though, because this isn’t about being right or confronting another person. It’s simply accessing the memory as it is currently alive for you. (For the purpose of this exercise, I would practice with something on a 4-5 in the scale of intensity, with 1 being no intensity and 10 being nuclear meltdown.)

Step 2: Imagine the memory as it occurred, in as much detail as you can recall, and record it.

I like to imagine the memory and type out the memory as I’m having it, but that is easy for me. It might be easier for you to narrate the memory out loud and record it. If you can find a person to listen to you and witness, that is even better.

Step 3: Identify a key figure of someone else involved in the memory. Retell the story of what happened, but this time from their perspective. Record this.

If there is a person in this memory who is a “villain” or a “victim” or simply a person who was part of the conflict, imagine what happened from their perspective. This works surprisingly well if you don’t over think it, analyze it, or try to justify it, just re-imagine the scene as though you were “in their shoes” and tell the story as it unfolds. Unexpected details may come out, things you can’t possibly know, or things you do know but finally make sense from this perspective. Don’t censor it—again, this isn’t evidence for a court of law, it’s to help you bring to light your unconscious beliefs and intuitions about the situation.

Step 4: Imagine the memory one more time, this time as though you were a camera or an impartial observer. Record this.

Step 5: Review all of your recordings.

If you have a trusted ally who saw you narrating these out loud, ask them to tell you what they observed.

Notice what is different from each perspective. What can you learn about yourself and the people involved from these different lenses? What does one lens show that wasn’t available to the other? What does this memory and how it unfolds tell you about ways you deal with similar situations today? What are the strengths and limitations of that approach? What would you have done differently if you had all this information?

A femme person in a pink dress opens her arms toward a wave splashing the rocks.

The joy of bringing flow to the unconscious. Photo by Danka & Peter

Step 6: Think about a next step to honor this work.

If you have felt guilt, shame, or anger about the memory, consider if there is some action you could take to bring closure. Perhaps you need to make restitution for harm done, or offer yourself forgiveness for a situation that can no longer be rectified. Perhaps you need to apologize, or to go confront someone after all.

In some cases, I encourage revisiting the memory and imagining what I would do now if I could intervene in the event as it unfolded. Go help that part of you still stuck in the pain and emotions to get out of it. It doesn’t change the literal events of the past, but it changes the ongoing meaning and emotional charge of those memories, which frees you to rewrite the present and create a future.

The Problem of the Successful Coping Strategy

A long time ago, people would tell me I was hard to read. I didn’t understand their problem, and was a little suspicious of what they wanted to “read” and why. For me, my feelings felt profoundly visible and all-encompassing, a shyness and sensitivity that was easily disturbed. A part of me believed the story of shame, that deep down there was something wrong with me that needed concealment—though, after years of deep reflection, I’ve come to believe there is no secret hidden thing. It was shame itself that didn’t want to be seen.

Yet I came to learn that, no matter how vulnerable I felt inside, most folks around me were unable to sense this. I’d learned how to mask my feelings behind a cool, neutral, unreadable expression. There are many possible reasons for this, but I think the most relevant is likely that as a kid I learned that showing weakness or vulnerability was like throwing blood in the water and attracting sharks. Better to not show how hurt I felt so they wouldn’t know how to hurt me.

As an adult, this became an automatic, unconscious, and crippling protection. While I hid my vulnerabilities well, so too were my warm feelings and my desires concealed. When I wanted to connect with someone, as a friend or a potential partner, I felt terrified of letting down the façade and sometimes couldn’t even figure “how to do it.”

Image of a number of people in silhouette at an aquarium, looking at a wide array of sea creatures.

Georgia Aquarium, by Matt Helbig

This was my coping strategy, this mask, and it worked well. Exquisitely well. People came to appreciate things about my neutrality. They could confide in me things that bothered them. And as I entered the adult working world, I could take on lots and lots of responsibility and I never let on when it was too much or I was struggling. I was rewarded for it, but it made me easier to exploit.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the perils of a coping strategy that is too successful. Coping strategies are the habits, practices, and patterns of being we rely upon to manage stress and pain, often with avoiding or minimizing suffering. A colleague recently distinguished these from true self-care strategies, which I find useful—self-care in this context being about tending and caring for the fullness of myself, even things that feel unpleasant or painful.

We know the coping strategies that are obviously unworkable. These are the ones that leave scars, break apart relationships, consume hours of our time and hundreds of our dollars and leave us feeling emptier and more fragile. The ones that create as many problems as they “solve.”

This time I’m thinking of those coping strategies that work too well, but are still merely containing our suffering rather than relieving it. The tendency to smile and say thank you when inwardly you burn with resentment. The hours spent at work, earning accolades and promotions while your inner life empties out and your home remains a cold, terrifying place. That ability to make people laugh and laugh while inwardly you feel you are dying and desperate for someone to care.

These strategies are pernicious and difficult to surrender. I couldn’t say if they’re easier or harder than the less workable ones, and comparison doesn’t matter. The point is that the person experiencing these, even the people around them, might not see them as problematic. Surrendering these coping strategies might feel irrational but also terrifying. They are the hardened exoskeletons formed around a soft, vulnerable interior, but  this protection also blocks deep nutrition and meaningful connection. Indeed, this might be protected even from our conscious selves.

Unfortunately, it is that which is vulnerable that needs liberation from the outworn coping. At some point we need to learn how to take risks, and with whom. My neutrality is not inherently bad, what was problematic was that it had become so automatic it was no longer a choice. Now I can bring that neutrality to situations where it is useful, where my inner responses need containment or time and I need to attend to others. But I have to work harder than I like to share my vulnerability with the people who have earned it.

Film Response – It Follows

It Follows (2014)

Recently I was home sick for a weekend and decided to catch up on some movie suggestions. It Follows had come up multiple times recently in discussions with a friend, so one night I watched it. The next day, I watched it again. It still haunts me. Note: this is a somewhat dark reflection on the movie, and some details that might be spoilers.

It Follows is a film whose genesis was a nightmare that writer and director David Robert Mitchell had as a child, in which a shapeshifting monster followed the dreamer wherever he went. In the movie, the main character Jay learns after a sweet date and what looked like satisfying car sex that her lover has passed along to her a curse—she will be followed by a nebulous monster, invisible to everyone else but always visible to her, though its forms constantly change. The monster walks slowly, almost constantly, directly toward her at all times. If the monster gets a hold of her, it will kill her, and then start hunting the one who gave the curse to her. The only way out is to pass the curse to another through sex, and hope that they don’t get killed.

The dreamlike quality of this monster and its “rules”—which, will explained precisely in a scene that first appeared over-the-top and later makes complete sense—paradoxically immerse the viewer into the dread and anxiety suffusing mundane reality. The film trains us very quickly to constantly scan the background for people walking very slowly and deliberately toward Jay. Often we are more concerned and attentive than she is, as a few very masterful scenes suggest. We learn we cannot trust the film to communicate danger with the expected tropes of horror camera angles and music. The camera seems dispassionate, taking in all content with equanimity. That person walking could be a random person, or it could be the monster.

The transmission of the curse through sex naturally brings up connotations of sexually transmitted disease and the loss of innocence, but I think the film succeeds in not allowing its symbolism and weight be reduced to those tropes. Jay has had sex before, and she and her friends talk about innocent days of sexual experimentation, when they had no idea what they were doing until adults showed up to instill shame in them. There is a loss of innocence that happens as Jay becomes more conscious of the danger she is in and more calculating about the risks she must take.

It would be easy to demonize the man who passed the curse along to her, but the curse is in many ways like several dilemmas of adulthood: there is no way out without someone getting hurt. If she fails to pass the curse along, she will be killed, and then her ex-lover will be hunted again. If she passes the curse along, she’ll endanger her new lover, and there’s no guarantee she won’t have to deal with this problem again.

This film had me reflecting much on the experience of people with posttraumatic stress disorder: the hypervigilance; becoming alarmed at things others can’t perceive; the disturbing and intrusive images. The deep knowing that you could be hurt at any time, that there is nowhere entirely “safe” where a predator couldn’t emerge at random—It could be a stranger, or as one character says, “Sometimes I think It looks like people you love just to hurt you.”

Adults are curiously peripheral in the film, not sources of strength and support but rather inept, invisible, or themselves sources of potential danger. This could be a social commentary but it also suggests that every person is fallible and part of maturation is confronting that I must be responsible for my life and who I trust with it. Whether to succumb to the horror, to fight back, to pass it along—there is no right option, no choice to forever free one’s self of danger. I think that is the innocence lost in this movie—the belief in a world of safety and easy moral choices.

I think the film illustrates a dilemma trauma survivors in particular have to face, but truly all of us living in the United States (probably beyond) need to wrestle with at one time or another. We do not live in a world where safety is guaranteed, yet we are here and this is the world where our life occurs. How do we manage security and risk without wanting to regress into children seeking a strong adult to keep us safe?

Commentators on the movie suggest that the monster is laughable, as one could simply take a plane across the country and rest easy knowing it will take forever to walk toward you. But that’s the horror again. Eventually It will find you. And what kind of life would you build if you simply ran away each time It did? Instead of living forever isolated and on the run, Jay eventually decides to bring someone she trusts into her dilemma—a conscious partnership of mutual support. Though the film is ambiguous as to whether their fighting back is successful or not, the act of fighting back seems to have empowered her, wisened her, prepared her for an uncertain future.

Heroes and Villains

People say, “everyone is the hero of their own story.” A hero overcomes opposition and adversity to win the day, often possessing some great moral virtue or charisma that makes us align with the hero and against those opposing the hero.

What troubles us is when we flip the story and see that the villain is also the hero of their story, and from their vantage, everything the “villain” does makes sense. We might begin to empathize with them, align against the former “hero.”

An image of a cat in a green lawn, behind which is a fence. Beside the cat is a yellow flag with an image of a cat in a space suit.

The first, by Sticker Mule

In the past twenty or so years, a theme has become prevalent in hero stories in which we see the hero and the villain creating each other. Batman explores this in its many iterations, through many tellings and retellings. Sometimes it is The Joker who kills young Bruce Wayne’s parents, beginning the quest that leads toward Wayne becoming The Joker’s nemesis. In Allan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Batman creates The Joker during a botched robbery by knocking him into a pit of chemicals that leads to The Joker’s eternally frozen clownish face.

We are mirrors for each other, and sometimes we don’t like what we see in those mirrors. Sometimes we define ourselves by our opposition to something else, in which case our opportunities for evolution narrow and we become somewhat dependent upon that opposing force to maintain identity.

Lately I’ve observed a lot of discussion about bullying and abuse, with both “sides” of an issue accusing the other “side” of engaging in this kind of behavior. These discussions are so tricky and rife with miscommunications and egotism. People who are abusive and disruptive to community are so good at leverage the language of being victimized by abuse and bullying. And, people who are truly abusive and bullying are so good at appearing innocuous and likable that their victims are disbelieved.

Sometimes, people can be in conflict with neither being the victim. This happens more often than we want to admit. We can be locked in patterns of mutually hurtful behavior, both of us having completely legitimate reasons to feel hurt and disliking of the other, both deserving of an apology for some things. We are human, fallible, and in a constant state of growth.

Lately I have reflected on defensiveness and justification. Both seem entirely about maintaining the ego—either maintaining the image of myself that I want to believe in, or maintaining the image of myself I want you to believe. When I apologize with justification, I am taking some responsibility for my harm but still trying to make sure you think what I want you to think of me. When I get defensive about your opinions, more often than not it’s because there’s an image of myself that I treasure that your opinions are threatening to expose as inaccurate to downright false.

The more honestly I know myself and openly I express that knowledge, the more easy life becomes. In the short run, this honesty troubles and uproots relationship, but over time my relationships become more intimate, more open, more resilient. I am better able to express my experience without blaming you for it, and hearing your experience without taking it personally. The ego expands to include an honest self-appraisal rather than gripping, white-knuckled, this precious idea of who I want to be.

We take part in many stories, and we’re the hero in very few of them.

Inflated Needs and Vulnerabilities

One expression that’s become common when self-psychologizing is “I have a need for [x].” “I need to be liked.” “I have a need for approval.” Most of us understand what we mean by that—this “need” is unusually forceful and controlling of our behavior. We struggle to hold positions that are not immediately validated, or take actions that upset others, because our “need” is so strong. When we have wounding around these particular needs, they become both inflated and hypersensitive.

Being liked and validated are, to an extent, desires that all humans have in various amounts. We are social creatures, and experiences such as being liked, validated, and approved of are to some extent implicit to belonging. Yet we are also individuals, able to recognize when our relationships and communities need challenging, which requires the willingness to take a stand that may cost us some social currency.

As I explore this in therapy, I find that a “need to be liked,” for example, is only one facet of the problem. Along with that is a sensitivity to being disliked. It seems obvious when written out like this, but the thought was illuminating to me, for it suggests two facets of a problem that may on the surface look singular. Some people truly aspire to being liked, while some people don’t actually care if they’re liked but are really bothered when they’re disliked. 

A blooming flower whose petals are yellow toward the center and bright red at the tips.

Something beautiful. Photo by Paul Morris

More important is that this inflated and hypersensitive “need” for something is akin to a person who is starving yet cannot take in the nutrition they need. We recognize when someone has a “need for approval” (or sensitivity to disapproval) as they seem unable to choose without others’ opinions, or disagree with a person in authority. That person often solicits approval, over and over, in various ways—even putting themself down to invite others to argue with them. One wonders, how much approval do they need before they have enough?

The problem is, though this person is desperate for receiving approval, they never allow themself to take it in. Indeed they may argue with the approval—inwardly or out loud—or become overwhelmed with discomfort. The reasons for this are myriad and unique to each of us.

What this perspective offers, in my opinion, are options on how to work with one’s inflated and hypersensitive needs. In brief:

  1. Recognizing that my “need” is a healthy, normal human need that for whatever reason I have trouble getting met
  2. Practicing being present with and taking in the positive feedback I desperately crave, and not immediately invalidating it
  3. Practicing managing the pain I feel when I feel this need has been invalidated (or my secret fear that I am “not worthy of” the need is validated)

Suggestions for how this could go:

For #1 — When you start getting down on yourself, you might say something like, “It’s okay that I want to be liked/approved of/included, but I would feel the most fulfilled if I could be liked/approved of/included as my true self, even if I say things people don’t agree with.”

For #2 — When someone gives you a compliment, take a deep breath, check in with how your body feels as you hear the compliment, and say “Thank you.” Only “Thank you.”

When you find yourself spinning and needing approval, find someone you feel willing to take a risk with, and acknowledge something like: “I’m feeling a little tender today. Could you tell me something you like about me/my work?” (You might ask for honest critical feedback as well. I’ve learned that people who are honest with me about my faults are also people whom I trust when they compliment me.)

For #3 — To be honest, this one is too big for a blog post, and depends on what arises in you when your secret fears are confirmed or your deep need shrugged away. Perhaps a good place to start is to think about what you’d like to hear in those circumstances—ideally when you’re relatively calm and in a good place. Asking for help effectively when we’re already in the middle of great pain and feel invalidated is incredibly difficult. Some ideas: write a letter to your wounded self that you can read when you’re in the midst of your pain. Or write some tips and pointers and give them to trusted people you can call when in the middle of it.

Another option is to practice what in Internal Family Systems is called “unblending.” Recognize that the pain you’re feeling is a part of you that carries this wounding and vulnerability. It is not the entire truth of you. Inwardly acknowledge that part, let it know you are here and listening, and see what it needs.

Offering Okayness

Some folks who struggle have been convinced they are broken and need fixing. This often appears to come from the rational mind, completely lost amidst overwhelming and conflicting feelings and striving for order.

Emotions are not rational. They have reasons to exist, but not ones that the rational mind grasps. We have to learn to relate to the nonrational world on its own terms, not to demand it work on the mind’s terms.

I am exploring the process of validating, or offering “okayness”, to my emotions. This is in many ways the opposite of “fixing,” and closer to Tara Brach’s process of Radical Acceptance.

In a practice of offering okayness, we turn toward all the feelings and offer them acceptance and safety. This is harder than it sounds, and some of my readers have already tuned out. For the rest of us—instead of trying to understand “why I feel this way,” or trying to decide which of my conflicting feelings are the right ones, or making feeling-based choices while in upheaval, it’s a process of sitting with the storm of emotion.

As always, I like to start by connecting my feet to the ground and sinking my awareness into my body. Some of us struggle to feel anything, but if you’re in a state of emotional overwhelm, you probably have some contact with the physical layer of your emotion.

Here is my current map of mental-emotional anatomy: At bottom is the emotion, the physiological experience that we codify with one word: “sadness,” “fear,” “anger.” We access that through what’s happening in the body—tightness in the heart? Heaviness? Tension in the back? Flushed cheeks and clenching hands?

Then there is the layer where emotion meets mind in an interpretation, commonly called a feeling: “I feel I want to run away,” “I feel threatened.” In the past I would discourage people from using feeling language, but that is a losing and perhaps unnecessary battle. What is important is to recognize that “I feel” is an interpretive strategy that makes sense of the emotion, not necessarily the truth of what’s happening.

Then there is the mental layer, which is often about analysis and planning: “There is no reason to feel this way,” or “What am I supposed to do about this feeling?” or strategizing, thinking, thinking, thinking.

Image of a white man who seems pretty okay, sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a river valley and a mountainous horizon at sunset. Photo by Kalen Emsley.

Image of a white man who seems pretty okay, sitting on a rock outcropping overlooking a river valley and a mountainous horizon at sunset. Photo by Kalen Emsley.

So first notice yourself in the mental layer, and with every deep breath in and out, invite your awareness to drop a layer deeper. Instead of trying to solve the feeling, allow the feeling to be articulated. “I feel I’m in danger.” Then, as best you can, let that feeling know that it is okay.

“It is okay that I feel this way.” or “It is okay for this feeling to be here.”

Then notice another feeling, and offer okayness to that one.

After a few minutes, you might be able to drop even deeper to offer okayness to the emotion itself. “It’s okay that I feel scared.”

Spend at least a minute to five minutes doing this. What I experience is both relaxation of intensity and a sense of warm expansion. The emotions do not go away so much as they shift energy in a way that feels easier.

Notice, too, how this offering of okayness differs in experience from the attitude of “fixing” and “figuring out,” which often increases my feelings of tension, constriction, and irritability.

When the feelings have settled, then you might decide the next step.