Voices on Boundaries and Compassion

My intention is to generally write weekly posts, but it’s also important for me to take in and learn from others. This post offers some links to articles from white women and people of color that I think help unpack and begin to work through the destructive, soul-killing effects of patriarchy and white supremacy. Please look through these and, if they speak to you, consider supporting the writers in whatever way you can.

“What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch'” – Jane Dykema

An essay by a writer and instructor about “who we believe and why.” Particular focus on how language, memory, and emotions, and the ways certain patriarchal norms make it harder to hear, understand, and believe women’s stories of abuse.

“#ExpressiveWriting Prompts to Use If You’ve Been Accused of #WhiteFragility #SpiritualBypass or #WhitePrivilege” – Leesa Renee Hall

Writing exercises to help white people in particular reflect upon our racial identity formation and how it informs the way we relate to the suffering of people of color. Includes an overview of reactions to someone else’s pain and responding as a white person to being called out.

 

“Setting boundaries as a white ally: Why its important, why its challenging and how to do it ethically” – Tada Hozumi

Tada Hozumi offers useful guides to emotional self-management and boundary setting for white people engaged in activism, so that we do not burden people of color with our needs for emotional care.

“How to Set Boundaries with Your Abuser in Mind” – Kellie Jo Holly

This is an excellent primer on boundary-setting in general, with a particular focus on boundary-setting in abusive relationships.

You Matter

One day, during meditation practice, I noticed how much I kept moving out of the practice into fantasies or arguments playing on the movie screen of my brain. When I returned to my breath and presence, I had an unexpected thought.

Ugh, now I’m stuck in here with myself.

That errant thought was a thread attached to a long pattern of ways I’d related to myself and my life for years. All the forms of escapism, fantasy, all the difficulties with investing in myself and taking responsibility for my life. All ways parts of me tried to do anything but be stuck “in here.” Like it was middle school and my consciousness got stuck at the uncool table.

The more I sat with that, the more I saw how allowing that distaste to run me contributed to my unhappiness. If I did not particularly like myself or want to be around myself then I was limited in my ability to develop myself. I was too busy envying other people and putting down my wants and needs. I was unable to see the gifts that I brought. I was unable to savor all the ways that my life was already giving me the things I desired.

Feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, beliefs that I don’t matter—these are some of the most pernicious and hard to unroot weeds in the garden of the Self. They take up space, they choke down the things we want to grow, they come back again and again. For so many, they are so ingrained in a sense of identity that we think they’re “reality,” just facts, confirmed over and over.

Others work themselves to death trying to prove these beliefs are untrue, which is another kind of trap, as trying to disprove something is also a way of giving it credence. “I have to get this person to love me so I can prove I matter.” This implicitly agrees that I don’t matter now.

Three figures in silhouette standing on a peak, looking outward at a star-filled night sky.

“Lost in a sky full of stars,” photo by Benjamin Davies

This doesn’t mean the effort is pointless. So many people grow up in cultures and circumstances that tell them, over and over again, that they don’t matter, such that building that inner certainty of worthiness is incredibly hard. Standing up for ourselves and making the effort to build whatever efficacy, power, and network of supportive relationships we need is all part of the work.

We all have our own journeys to becoming ourselves. For me, what that unexpected thought during meditation started was a process of realizing I needed to start taking interest in myself. I needed to begin to act like I mattered. I needed to recognize that, very literally, I matter. I am material, I take up space and resources, my very existence impacts the people around me, regardless of what my mind or people and systems in my life might say.

To believe I didn’t matter, then, was both self-destructive and an abdication of my responsibility to be in this world. I did a great many hurtful things to people believing I didn’t matter. I didn’t speak up when my voice would have helped. I didn’t reach out to people who cared about me. I didn’t develop my capacities to help, serve, and bring more joy into the world. My mind said I was doing it for others, but others did not want that of me. They wanted me to see I did matter.

My feelings matter. My wants and needs matter. Even when I don’t like them. Even when my mind, or advertising, or oppressive ideologies, or politicians, or spiritually bypassing religious teachers seem to tell me they don’t. Parts of me still don’t fully believe this, but the more I decide to act as if they matter, and take an interest in the Being I have and not what I think I’m supposed to have, the better life seems to go.

You matter, too.

Letting Resentment Guide Us to Intimacy

Resentment poisons love and relationships, and it is a feeling that some of us struggle to acknowledge. Since it’s a “bad” feeling or a sign that something’s wrong, some people may undergo all kinds of mental and emotional gymnastics to deny or suppress the feeling. So, often, resentment is one of many layers of feeling associated with a relationship.

I think of resentment as what happens when we’re carrying someone else’s burden. We exert ourselves on another’s behalf, clean up their messes, save them from distress, make their life easier. Perhaps we start doing this out of love and genuine affection for the people in our lives. Perhaps we do it because we grew up in families and cultures that told us to always put others’ needs before our own. Perhaps we do it because we’re strong people who are afraid to acknowledge our needs and weaknesses.

But after a while, the efforts begin to lose their joyousness. They no longer feel like voluntary acts of service, but things expected of us whether we have the energy to do them or not. We feel a lack of gratitude from the people we help. We feel taken for granted. We feel the pain of our unmet needs. We become brittle, irritable, critical, controlling. We become cold.

Worse, when our loved ones, coworkers, or general fellow-people point out how our behavior affects them, we explode. How dare they criticize me after all I do for them? I let them get away with that shit all the time, but the one time I make a mistake all of sudden I’m in trouble. Like everything good I’ve done doesn’t matter.

The last thing a person in the throes of resentment wants to hear is how we’re contributing to the problem. The thing is—this resentment might be totally justified. The problem is, we are unable or unwilling to stop carrying someone else’s burdens. We’d rather explode about an unrelated issue than acknowledge their painful difficulty with setting boundaries, saying no, disappointing others, giving up control.

For underneath the resentment and compulsive caretaking is often a deeper pain. Perhaps a chronic sense of guilt, a sense that “I’m not doing enough” and “I’m a disappointment.” Perhaps a fear that if they didn’t do everything all the time, no one would care about them. Perhaps a fear that if they stopped maintaining their reputation people would see something awful in their hearts.

Whatever the underlying cause is, so often we would rather keep shouldering burdens and swallowing resentment than actually feel the emotion. We can hardly tolerate leaving a job unfinished or leaving someone unhelped. We need the people in their lives to step up and learn to bear their own responsibilities, but we cannot tolerate watching those people engage in the effort, self-doubt, fear, anger, or lostness that is a necessary part of learning new skills. At the first sign of distress we swoop in and take care of things.

Photo of a lioness in nature.

Photo by Geran de Klerk

It’s easy to take us for granted. The worst part is, some of us insist on doing things for others even when they tell us they don’t want us to. Sometimes we’d rather leave the relationship entirely than deal with the emotions that arise when we decline to help, or ask for what we need, or are honest about how we feel, or let others take care of us, or let our loved ones struggle.

This is troubling for all involved. We don’t get to grow by having the freedom to say no and take care of our needs, and our loved ones don’t get to grow by exercising new skills and developing themselves.

To be free of resentment, we need to start by listening to it. Stop dismissing it, saying it’s unimportant, pretending it’s not happening. The little things matter. Listen to what bothers you, figure out what you don’t want to do anymore, and start figuring out your genuine boundaries.

Maybe you’re tired of sitting in traffic for an hour to pick up a friend who could have taken the bus to meet you. Be done. Let them know you still want to hang out but the effort is draining you. Let them figure out how to make it work. Let them know you have suggestions if they need it.

Then! You get to acquaint yourself with the feelings you’ve avoided. Know that they’re going to come—the parts of you that suddenly want to back down, say it’s okay. The embarrassment, guilt, fear… whatever comes up. It’s scary to try something different. You don’t know what will happen. The relationship will change. It needs to.

When we listen, resentment points us toward opportunities for greater intimacy with ourselves and our loved ones. Clarity about who and what we truly are. Opportunities to find our authentic boundaries and build honest relationships.

Just give up
And admit you’re as asshole
You would be
In some good company
and I think you’d find
That your friends would forgive you
Or maybe I
Am just speaking for me
Ani DiFranco, “As Is”

Forming Solutions from the Center

When I began working with a therapist, I expressed that my problem was being indecisive. He looked up the definition of “to decide” and found its etymological origin of decidere, “to cut off.” What he suggested was that I was “indecisive” because every choice I could think of involved cutting off a piece of me, and none of my pieces wanted to be cut off. When I attempted to cut something away, it rebounded with greater intensity.

Developing a center creates a space in which these parts can speak and be heard, which enables us to find more creative, flexible, and creative choices. So often groups become toxic when people feel unheard and left out of choices that affect them, where those who are making the choices feel that they cannot possibly please everyone and want to push forward or avoid choosing anything.

Most of us understand that nothing can meet all of our needs, yet we long to be heard, seen, and included in the choices that affect us. It costs less, in the long run, to slow down and acknowledge the validity of each person’s perspective. The importance of each part of me, especially the ones that seem irreconcilable. To sit in the messiness of the problem. This allows for a richer solution to form.

In a solution, each part dissolves and integrates into a new whole. We could not separate out its parts without great effort. This person’s need meets this person’s fear and this person’s anger. One’s skills, longings, fears, and resources meld together.

So often we become attached to finding the “right” solution that we think we can decide what elements to exclude. Those exclusions become weaknesses to the solutions we enact. With this kind of solution, emerging from center, often people feel a sense of stillness, of rightness. They may not be able to say why this choice is right, and it may not be the choice they would make at another time, but this is the solution emerging from this confluence of time, place, and perspective.

There’s a lot of anger and fear in people’s’ hearts. Much of it comes from our experiences of being unheard, unseen, cut off, marginalized, deprived of an opportunity to have a say in the choices that affect our lives. Or from our fear that we’ll be put into that situation if someone else has their way. There’s risk that allowing one person a voice will mean someone else’s gets squelched. There’s also a risk that finally allowing someone to have a voice after ignoring them for a long time means learning some uncomfortable and painful truths that are hard to integrate. The avoidance of these fears and risks prevents us from finding solution.

More and more I’m coming to think that people and organizations that are run by rigid, legalistic systems with rules and processes for everything arise in part by avoidance of this conflict. When we are unable to tolerate honest sharing of our experiences, rigidity and tension arise.

People deeply want to be heard and seen. When we feel heard and seen, we feel more safety and trust with each other. Feeling scared, anxious, or afraid of being hurt, we might be inclined to avoid or attempt to control anything that makes us uncomfortable. We respond by not hearing, by invalidating, by mocking. We respond by controlling, threatening, coercing. All of these responses engender mistrust, powerlessness, and rage in the people being marginalized, ignored, and controlled.

Image of John F. Kennedy with the text:

Cover Your Feet, Find Freedom

Common sense says that when a person gets defensive it’s because they’re guilty. But I would suggest there is nuance here when people have grown over a lifetime to feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. People who grow up in certain cultures repeatedly receive the message that they are internally defective, untrustworthy, or wrong and need to “get right” through rigid perfectionism or ongoing displays of guilt and shame. Even when we get out of those families, religions, or other communities, that habit of reacting to any implication of guilt and shame persists.

Discussions about the “isms” are rife with defensiveness and hostility. Cisgender people who experience “cis” or “TERF” as a slur. White people who feel appalled, hurt, and disgusted at being called “racist.” Men who experience being told their behavior is “sexist” as “a disgusting insult.” Here I am focusing on these folks, recognizing that many white cisgender men (of which I am one) feel dogpiled, attacked, that somehow it’s okay to hate on privileged people but they’re not allowed to point out when others are acting with disrespect.

What I’m trying to name, before we even go into that, is that most of us in these conversations are reacting to our own feelings of guilt and shame when we hear these things. We think the person is calling us something awful because their words bring up uncomfortable feelings, and we defend against it like we do many other experiences of shame and guilt. We lose center and the possibility for a real, honest conversation in which there is mutual healing and growth.

Certainly anyone can be an asshole regardless of gender, sex, ethnicity, level of ability, class, etc. And it is certain that these reactions happen in all kinds of conversations, even the most seemingly innocuous ones. In our intimate partnerships, a simple disagreement over folding laundry might bring up these feelings. Sometimes it is necessary to step back and care for ourselves. Developing discernment about when to engage, when to step back, is a process that begins by looking at ourselves.

“Where would I find enough leather
To cover the entire surface of the earth?
But with leather soles beneath my feet,
It’s as if the whole world has been covered.”

― Śāntideva

One way I think of this is that two things happen from the inner and outer world. From the outer world we hear something like, “I’m pissed at you about what you said.” Or “You seem to listen to other men and belittle women.” Or “Black lives matter.” In the inner world, we “hear” more messages that come from our early wounding, like, “You’re terrible and hurt people you love.” Or “You’re worthless and don’t matter.” Though these are “you” statements, they come from within. They are actually “I” statements, my secret fears about myself. And they are all lies with just enough truth to be highly persuasive.

We could spend our lives trying to get people to stop saying things that bring up these painful inner experiences, which is akin to the solution of trying to cover the entire earth with leather. We could also begin to name, defuse from, and heal those inner wounds, which would be to cover our own feet with leather.

It is worthwhile to start small and engage in contemplation. This does not have to be a politically-related conversation but rather any kind of confrontation that left you feeling confused, hurt, or distanced from someone. Journaling is useful, as it helps to get the thoughts out of our head and so we can look at them with greater objectivity. Talking to someone who will simply listen and reflect what they’re hearing is also useful.

  • Think on these questions first—What happened? What was said? What did the other person say and do? What did you say and do?
  • What was your experience? What feelings, memories, imaginations arose? What in particular troubled you?
  • Taking the most troubling part of the interaction, engage in a process of contemplation. Follow the thread of meaning deeper. For example, “What did it mean to me when this person said [X]?” “What does it mean to me that I felt this way?” “What does it mean to me that I believe this?”
  • Review this material and see if a pattern emerges, a theme, a scary/upsetting/angering story about yourself or your relationships with other people.
  • Set an intention to watch how this story plays out over the course of the next two weeks. Whenever you notice that story arising, pause to take a breath, and perhaps journal about it later. Notice how often it comes up, in what circumstances, whether it is fairly constant or limited to certain situations. Also notice when things occur that seem to contradict the story, or times when you might respond.

At this point, we’ve gone far afield of the kind of political arguments with which I framed this, and that’s the point. This is a practice to help you come to greater self-awareness and freedom with your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Rather than taking them for granted as unfailingly accurate interactions with the world, they are material for study and growth as you grow deeper in your understanding of the truth of yourself and your relationships. When we do this, the harder and more nuanced discussions go better.

We are all figuring this out. Life, politics, cultural shifts, new technologies, economic transitions. The stakes are high and yet we’re all stumbling around in the dark with only our experiences and understandings of history to guide us. The more free I am with my guilt and shame, the better able I am to hear and respond to these difficult moments. I can sit with a confrontation and take in the information that is useful and discard what is not. I can withdraw from interactions that have become unproductive and focus my energy on what is life-affirming.

Image of a pair of legs standing at the edge of what appears to be a snow-covered pier. The legs are wearing denim and leather boots.

Photo by Ian Robinson

No Judging, Just Feeling

Begrudging the happiness of others when we feel bitter is normal. Indeed, many of the so-called “negative” experiences that we vilify but nevertheless experience are often experienced—jealousy, bitterness, envy, resentment, vindictiveness, narcissism, hatred, doubt, mistrust.

I know my sample set is skewed as I sit with people who voluntarily come to therapy, but when someone starts getting down on themselves for having these feelings, I often remind them that these feelings are so common in the human experience that we actually have to work to be free with them. Many of the major religions dedicate entire swaths of practice, meditation, and contemplation toward transforming these psychic poisons.

People on a spiritual path, or those exposed to enough spiritual speak that they know what they’re “supposed” to think, tend to minimize or feel shame about having these experiences. The difficulty is that any work on the self, including spiritual work, only makes us more aware of these tendencies and thus stuck in the ambivalence about them.

One person wants to be holy but hates being single and resents everyone they perceive to be in happy relationships. One person wants to be generous but gets resentful when someone volunteers them to do an onerous task.

The language of “higher” and “lower” falls too easily into dualistic traps of “good” and “bad,” but all of this is energy and information that we can harness and transform. As jealousy and resentment can dry up and murder the soul, so too can too much virtue damage us. We can be generous to a fault, hopeful to our own detriment, “positive” in a way that denies the humanity of those who are suffering in our lives.

Image of a couple in silhouette, backlit by the Milky Way.

Photo by Meireles Neto

This is not an easy world in which we’ve become incarnated. The bitter taste of disappointment and resentment has its lessons to offer, insights into the nature of our existence and the limitations of desire and intention. So, too, can the effervescent quality of joy and love show us other possibilities, enliven us and bring us closer to something we crave. Everything in the personality might be a necessary ingredient of the person, but when any one quality becomes stuck and dominant over the rest we are in trouble.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offers the concept of “self-as-context,” a Self that is the container and space wherein experience happens. Rather than clinging tightly to one kind of experience and reactively pushing the rest away, we practice a spaciousness of being and a kind of self-observation that allows for the range of experience to happen. This creates a kind of freedom in which we can set aside judgments about experience and instead see them for what they are, learn from them what we can.

Whether we like our “faults” or not, we have them, and they point to our distinctive pattern of needs and desires. When jealousy arises and we are unwilling to be friendly with it, we must either repress it, attack it, dissociate from it, or blame our partners and loved ones for it. The jealousy has something to teach us, something it wants us to know about our needs and insecurities, but because we feel weak in its grip the temptation is to do whatever it takes to avoid it.

Perhaps jealousy simply wants to be felt and acknowledged. Perhaps jealousy is telling us that our partners are not being honest with us. Perhaps jealousy is telling us that we have limited ourselves unnecessarily in deference to something not asked of us. Perhaps jealousy simply wants us to ask our partners for reassurance that they love and prioritize us. Perhaps jealousy has a message for you that I cannot name because it is unique to you.

You can discover this through being in relationship with the feeling, differentiating your awareness of Self from your experience of the emotion. And a great first step is to stop judging the feelings as “good” or “bad,” to stop asking yourself “What should I feel?” and instead ask “What am I feeling? What is this feeling about?” And then, as best you can, to listen for the answer.

Becoming Hope

I am in love with this world and it breaks my heart.

This hasn’t always been the case. For much of my life I felt divided from the world by a cynical, gray, depressive curtain. Mistrustful of myself and others, wary of being hurt or taken advantage of, I aspired to a spiritual bypassing that one writer about the Enneagram encapsulated perfectly as “The False Buddha.”

As “The False Buddha,” I could make wise or knowing pronouncements and hide behind spiritual notions about the illusory nature of the world. All of which was a way to numb the pain of being in it. If nothing mattered, then there was no reason to take risks, no reason to face disappointment and heartache, no reason to leave my comfort zone. I could swathe myself in cynicism and eat my feelings.

I found teachers who could help me untie those knots in my life force, who taught me that transcending and rising above were not spiritual solutions but forms of avoidance that were not helping anyone. What was being asked of me to fall in love with the world and everything it offers.

Today, I think of nonattachment not as the unwillingness to take action but rather the willingness to act and be with whatever happens as a result. Nonattachment is not numb or distant. Nonattachment acknowledges lust, desire, anger, joy, disappointment, despair, pain, all as worthy and valid experiences of the Self.

Desire is what leads us out of ourselves, out of what is comfortable and into the mystery and expansion available to us. Following desire grows our life and Being, but it is not a guarantee that we will get the results we want.

An image of two white-skinned hands, one elderly and one younger, touching a red rose.

“Touching the Rose”, by Jake Thacker

Which leads me to becoming hope. This expression came to me last year when I saw conflict in my communities and felt despair that people were unable to listen to each other in mutual understanding, a practice that I have long-valued and often strive for. A practice that is, as implied, a practice, something that requires effort and failure and recommitment, something that grows with repetition and learning, something that is not easy or innate.

As I saw this, feeling without hope, I realized what I was seeing was my work. Not to fix my communities and repair all the conflict—that kind of thinking is a trap that both inflates self-importance and deflates efficacy. It leads us to devaluing other people’s power and burning ourselves out. An entire community is needed to mend and strengthen a community. What my community needed was for me to show up as the person I felt needed to exist. To act in a way that would kindle hope in my heart.

Practicing hope in this way invites a practice of the kind of nonattachment I acknowledge above. Because the results are out of my hands, or I may only be able to manage one burst of right action before I need to take a break. And asking us all to step up, to become our bigger selves, is to also be faced with all the ways we limit ourselves and keep ourselves small.

No one needs to be saved so much as they need to see what is possible for them. To see what courage and risk look like, and to know that this risk was undertaken by a fellow human being.

What Gets in the Way of Open-Hearted Conflict

When we feel mistrust in each other, fearful that the other intends us harm or simply is unable to hear and have our best interests at heart, engaging in open-hearted conflict becomes difficult. More often, particularly in Western white-influenced cultures, we retreat from the emotional engagement toward an intellectualization of the problem. Successful conflict thus looks like being technically correct, using proper grammar and argumentative structure, not making any mistakes, having correct evidence. This kind of argumentation is useful for disciplines pursuing truth, such as science and academia, but unhelpful when it comes to building relationships.

When it comes to interpersonal arguments, more often than not what’s at stake are basic human social and survival questions like—”Can I be myself? Will I be safe? Will I be included or rejected? Will I be cared for?” I think conversations about “microaggressions” bring up these questions for all participants. People who live in bodies and identities that experience violence and marginalization walk around with a certain sensitivity to signs of potential exclusion or violence.

For example—as a gay man, when I hear someone use the word “faggot” I do an automatic mental calculus about the context and meaning of that word, particularly how unsafe I should feel. When I was growing up, people used that word primarily in the context of insulting each other and threatening violence. When other queer people are using that word, I usually feel okay because I know that we share certain values and acceptance and that their use of that word typically does not suggest the risk of violence or exclusion. When I’m not sure if the people using the word are queer, or how they feel about queer people, then I feel on edge.

Thus, I understand that different groups might have strong responses to certain words. They want to feel safe and included, as do nearly all humans in social spaces. I also understand that the strong push to control, abolish, or limit the use of certain words and phrases is experienced as an aggression by others.

If I angrily respond to the person who I think is homophobic who uses the word “faggot,” and insist they can’t use that word, that person might experience their own sense of threat of exclusion or marginalization. Perhaps they think I’m being unfair because they do not consider themselves homophobic and do not see a problem with their use of the word. They might think I’m being oppressive by trying to control their language. We could get locked in mutual suspicion and escalate into greater distance. We could also share our experiences with each other in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, and come closer together.

Image of a growling lion.

Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw

We don’t know how powerful we are. When it comes to interpersonal, face to face connections, we have much more influence over each others’ emotional states than we might realize. When two people are meeting, all the decades of history, systemic privilege and marginalization, economic disparity, all of that is present and yet not always fully conscious. Or so I want to believe, but often it seems the person in the position of power “forgets” their relative power and privilege until the moment they are aggrieved, and then retreats into it instead of engaging in conflict as an equal participant.

One’s boss is simply a person who makes mistakes and wants to be liked, and so may engage with their employees in a position of friendliness and equality, but the employees are very aware that they cannot have a simply human relationship with their bosses, for their economic security and job prospects depend upon staying in the boss’s good graces. Inevitably certain things stay unspoken, unaddressed.

Similarly, police officers may start a “consensual conversation” that results in the arrest of the person they are speaking with. Police officers are human beings with their own fears, hopes, strengths, and insecurities, and yet the amount of social and political power granted to them makes any interaction entirely lopsided. There is no possibility of authentic conflict. We are told to treat police officers with respect and that any disrespect we show invites punishment, but depending upon the culture and laws of the precinct, there is not necessarily a similar injunction on the officer to comport themselves with honesty and respect.

When there is no basic level of trust and safety, we turn to legalistic solutions. Rather than meet each other directly with our feelings, share our mutual experiences, name our hopes and fears, and discover the right next step—we turn toward third parties, byzantine systems of rules, authority figures to manage the conflict for us. We retreat from the basic questions of love and belonging and instead try to score points on each other. Instead of improving our sense of community and belonging, though, this leaves our resentments and fears simmering, unprocessed, unwitnessed, and any genuine expression of these ends up punished and demonized. Without open-hearted conflict, all we have is war.

Supporting Your Strong People: Some Suggestions

A friend of mine recently made a Facebook post that went viral about checking in on your strong people, or your “rocks,” that resonated with a lot of people. I can’t speak for all “rocks” but I have some thoughts that might be useful for those unused to thinking of their strong people as needing support.

Your strong people need support.

They may not ask for it or show it. You may think they are inhuman or don’t have feelings. But they are human and they feel.

Often strong people have a deeply rooted instinct to put others’ needs ahead of their own, with a concurrent doubt that others will be available, able, or willing to support them. Strong people might have a long history of feeling failed, ignored, or humiliated by the people who cared for them, so they learned how to care for themselves.

It is a strange paradox that these very independent self-caring people are nevertheless often driven to be available and helpful to others, and struggle to say no. The unconscious belief might be something like, “Once everyone is okay, then I will take care of myself.” Which never happens.

For those who are not used to offering support to your strong people, I wanted to offer some suggestions:

Photo of a Black man in a red striped shirt and ripped blue jeans standing in the middle of a scenic road.

Photo by Mohammed Faruque

  • Be assertive but not pushy.

Reach out and ask how they are, then after a few moments of small talk, ask how they really are. If they say they are fine and don’t need anything, or push you away, let them know you are available and willing to be there for them.

Avoid digging or asking a ton of leading questions, unless you know your rock well enough to ask what you know is the right question. The more you seem to want information or emotional revealing, the more suspicious and withdrawn your rock might become.

 

  • Be open to anything.

Sometimes when your strong person opens up, you won’t even realize it. “I didn’t have anything in my fridge today and had to miss lunch.” Okay? Not the end of the world?

But you may not understand the context—how important it is to them to eat regular meals, the sense of security they feel in opening the fridge and finding food. How this is an indicator that their routines of self-care have gotten lost, and how this symbolizes their sense of failure, overwhelm, inadequacy, and fears of slow decline. You don’t have to get all that right away. The takeaway is: keep in mind that the problem might feel a lot deeper than it seems at first.

On the other extreme, your rock might open up to you with some mind-blowing unexpected shit you couldn’t have predicted or even imagined they would be involved with.

And it is entirely possible that they would say either or both in the same tone. Like it’s not that big of a deal, maybe even kind of silly.

You might laugh. Laughing a bit is not a deal breaker. But once you get that this is important, try to compose yourself quickly and invite more information.

Do not, however, make fun of the problem, or imply that it’s not a big deal. In that case you might be confirming their secret fears that their problems are unimportant or no one they love can take care of them. You will lose the opportunity to support them and likely will not have another for a long time. 

  • Stay focused.

Once your strong person starts opening up, don’t check your phone or shift your focus on other priorities. That might be experienced as a sign that you are uninterested, overwhelmed, or think their problems don’t matter. They may quickly clam back up and continue pretending things are okay without telling you how you affected them.

If you do need to shift your focus, be really up front about it. “Hey, I need to use the restroom but I want to keep listening to you, so I’ll be right back okay?” “I really need to sleep, but can I call you tomorrow to keep talking about this?”

  • Be loving and supportive but don’t make a big deal about it.

It’s useful to try to keep your emotional level matching what they’re giving out. If your emotions get bigger than theirs, they will feel they have to take care of you. Examples include: apologizing excessively for some affront, expressing a lot of outrage on their behalf, or responding to vulnerability with huge expressions of feeling and care.

You may love to get big bear hugs when you’re crying, but your strong person might feel overwhelmed and smothered by it. Try starting smaller, like touching their hand or shoulder. Ask for permission to touch. Ask if they want a hug.

Let your strong person talk and try to listen with as little judgment and as much compassion as you can. Check in before giving advice to see if that’s what they want, and be okay if they say no. You might offer observations and opinions if they’re okay with it. 

“Wow, that would really piss me off,” is helpful empathy. “What the hell is wrong with that person!” might be too big and might feel to your strong person like you are centering your feelings and not interested in theirs. After a few rounds of this, you might be able to have a more free exchange of feelings, but be cautious the first time.

  • Accept dark humor.

You and your rock can make liberal use of dark humor so long as it’s clear that you emotionally understand where your rock is coming from and aren’t judging or shaming them. Laughing with, and not at, is an important distinction.

If you’re not into dark humor, understand that you may hear some of it and you don’t have to laugh along but avoid criticizing it at the outset. Your strong person might be more sensitive to shame than you expect. Perhaps they hold themself to high standards and rarely give themself permission to be messy and ungracious.

Let them be messy for a while. Eventually you can bring in any needed accountability, and they will be more open to your opinion when they’ve processed. 

  • Avoid talking about how much you admire their strength.

Strong people may feel like their strength is a burden, that those around expect them to be superhuman and it’s not okay to be weak and vulnerable. They might have been criticized in the past for being cold and “inhuman,” which is even more painful.

If they are showing you vulnerability, this is an opportunity to let them know it’s okay and you love them for being a whole person. Shifting the conversation back to how strong they are and how much you admire it may end up centering your feelings, minimizing their struggles, and communicating to them that their vulnerability is unacceptable.

  • Be strategic about saying, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”

I can almost guarantee you they’re being too hard on themself, they know it, they’ve been told it before, and probably feel a sense of embarrassment about it. Instead try fostering some curiosity about what in their life makes them feel like they have to be so hard on themself. What are they afraid will happen if they weren’t strong all the time? That’s where they need support.

  • Make suggestions about steps for more support.

Strong people might be so used to taking care of their needs that when you ask “What can I do for you?” they will struggle to come up with any kind of answer at all. Sometimes your caring, effort, and presence will be more than enough. Sometimes they don’t know how to assess their needs and name how others can support them.

You might ask some general questions about what they’re dealing with and make some suggestions. If you’re a person who is comfortable with receiving care and asking for what you want, this is an opportunity to use your experience to teach them. “Sometimes when I’m down it really makes me happy when people bring me a cooked meal. Could I do that for you?” Again, try not to personalize it if the person says no, defers, or doesn’t have an answer for you. It’s really not about how they feel about you, especially if you’ve made it to this point in the conversation.

  • Apologize if needed.

If things don’t go well and you realize you hurt their feelings, all is not lost. Your taking responsibility and offering a genuine apology may be quite healing for your strong person.


Knowing when to check in with your strong folks is a tricky thing. Think about what’s been going on in their lives and how you would feel about it, then factor in that they might have the same feelings but be worse at acknowledging them, and act accordingly. Pay attention to if they seem more tired, forgetful, less gracious, more irritable, less on their game.

If there have been a lot of crises lately but things are starting to settle down, that is a great time. Often strong people learn to postpone their crisis response. When they know everyone’s going to be okay or the worst is over, then they might allow themselves to have their crisis response, but struggle to acknowledge it since everyone else has moved on.

Thank you for taking the time to care for your strong people. They are more vulnerable than they want you to know.

Find Your Dry Land: Cultivating Resilience Instead of Crisis

According to the American Psychological Association, “the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” They further state that the following factors are associated with personal resilience:

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
  • Skills in communication and problem solving.
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.

Link to Source.

One factor that I think is implicit but worth naming as an addition is curiosity, wonder, and an attitude of experimentation or problem-solving in response to challenges.

In contemplating my experience working with people in crisis, it occurred to me that a crisis could be characterized by the lack of these resilience factors. In my observation, a person in a crisis state often experiences some combination of the following:

  • Obstacles or stressors that seem inescapable, untenable, or impossible to cope with/overcome with current resources.
  • Overwhelming emotion—particularly the famous sympathetic nervous response called the “fight, flight, or freeze” reflex—or dissociation from that emotion.
  • Impulsivity in response, difficulty assessing available options and making decisions that are more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
  • Narrowing of perspective and fixation on challenges, setbacks, grievances, or fears.
  • Negative view of self and insecurity in strengths and abilities.
  • Feeling unsupported, alone, or actively opposed.

People in crisis are metaphorically drowning, and they bring up strong emotions in the people around them. When in crisis, we seem to invite others to freak out with us, join in our outrage or our terror, even though that’s not what we really want or need. We also start looking for a savior, anyone who can pull us out of this overwhelming situation and make the crisis end. We feel helpless, alone.

We are thus vulnerable to people who would exploit our crisis for their gain. We’re more likely to agree to harmful “solutions” that seem to fix the problem but get us stuck in worse. We’re more likely to give our power to people who promise us safety and security—two qualities guaranteed to no one in this world—only to learn later how much we’ve given up of our autonomy and values. When politicians and advertisers put out messages that stir up our crisis responses, we would do well to wonder what it is they’re trying to sell us.

People in crisis are like drowning victims. Those who want to help feel like we should get in the water to get them, but that runs a high risk of turning the would-be savior into the victim. (Link to source.) People who are drowning or in crisis want out as quickly as possible by any means necessary, so fixated on the existential threat that their brain’s capacity to evaluate outcomes and make reasoned decisions has been essentially turned off to focus resources on survival.

If you want to help someone who is drowning, the best way is to find your own stable ground, throw a line of some kind out to the person, and pull them back to stability. This is good advice for helping someone in crisis as well. Often what benefits folks in crisis the most is someone who can offer calm, grounding presence, who can listen while they process their distress and help them think through their options, find resources, and come up with a plan of what to do next. You might notice that this fosters resilience, as the supportive person is being that caring and encouraging relationship that helps the person reconnect with their strengths, manage the strong feelings, and think about the problem as something solvable.

If you want to find your stable ground, look to those resilience factors and figure out which ones you need to strengthen. Find someone who has experience and skill those factors, and build a relationship with them. You might start a sitting meditation practice to learn how to remain calm and observant in the midst of distressing emotions, but that is only one of many possible disciplines that can help with that. With practice, we can learn ways to move out into distress, surf its energies, and find our way back to calm.

Image of a man on a surfboard, cresting a wave, while another man watches.

Instead of drowning, we can learn to surf. Photo by Marcus Dall Col.

This post is a variation of a presentation I gave at a recent conference, which was followed by a discussion about community resilience. More on that discussion is written up in this post.