Hi friends! How went the holiday boundary setting? You offered one another really good advice there — you are all such tender buttons. Something that I see in what we talk about (when we talk about my column) (haha, Raymond Carver joke) is how much we all feel stuck by one thing or another in our lives. How much we all feel like a dynamic or relationship has become a pattern that traps us somehow. Every Christmas you have the same argument with your sister. Every time someone asks you for a favor you pull a Giving Tree, even if you should say no. Every time zie calls, you pick up the phone, even though you KNOW you shouldn't. We get stuck in our patterns and rehearse them over and over, driving them deeper in spite of ourselves.
In the spirit of a Fresh New Start, I have some suggestions for shaking things up. I consider these to be less New Year's resolutions and more New Year's experiments – things to try just once to see how they work for you, to see what shifts as a result. It doesn't matter if you do one of these once and then never again. They're not promises to yourself or to anyone else. They're just experiments. Just practice.
So: pick one. Resist the temptation to make it a Rule You Have To Follow All Year Forever And Ever. Instead, think about doing something differently, just this once. When the opportunity arises, give it a shot and see what happens. Sometimes moving things around a little can open up possibility a lot. A new, unexpected experience becomes a doorway through which we can start to see who we might become. But only if we want to. And only if we practice.
1. Stop pursuing an emotionally unavailable person. Do you know how much energy we waste when we keep throwing ourselves after people who communicate in one way or another that they don't have anything to give to us? Emotionally unavailable people come in many forms. Sometimes they're lovers. Sometimes they're parents. Sometimes they're mentors. Sometimes they're friends. They express their unavailability in varying ways. Sometimes you can only get their attention when you're in crisis. Sometimes you can't ever seem to get their attention. Sometimes they can't share your joy with you. Sometimes they undermine you. And yet you keep going back for more, because you're sure that if you just love them in whatever way it seems they want to be loved, they'll open up to you.
Well, listen up. They won't. So knock it off.
See what it's like to just stop putting yourself out there to someone who hasn't appreciated it or reciprocated. See what it's like to decline an invitation to open yourself up into an energetic black hole. Don't reach out. Don't pursue. Let them go. And instead spend your time focused on the people who are already present for you, who already show up.
2. Apologize to someone. But only for what you're responsible for. This is a practice that requires deep self-reflection and humility and healthy limits. While it's hard for me to believe that you behaved badly in 2K11, I guess it's a possibility? So think about one of those (rare) occasions and reach out to whoever you've hurt, even if they've also hurt you. Apologize for your part, but not for the whole thing. There's something very freeing about doing all you can to mend a relationship, because once you've done as much as you can do, the rest of it isn't up to you anymore. You go as far as you can and ask for forgiveness and understanding, and then you let go. (Or, as Rumi said, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing is a field, I will meet you there.")
3. Keep a boundary. If you have set a boundary in a relationship, however tenuous, you can only make it stick if you respect it, too. So if you've asked someone not to contact you, don't pick up the phone when she calls. If you've asked your family to use your preferred name or pronoun when they talk to you, gently remind them to do so when they forget. It's scary to have to reassert a boundary — it's all too easy to try to convince yourself that it wasn't really necessary, that what you've asked for is unfair. But the part of you that set that boundary is your healthiest, best self — the part of you that wants to take care of you, wants you to thrive and flourish. She knew what she was doing. Trust her.
4. Tell someone how you're really doing. This is not a blanket suggestion to apply to every relationship you have. Sometimes it really is better and more appropriate to tell someone (your boss, your barista) that you're "fine, thanks." But think about whether there's a relationship that you wish were more open and more intimate. Maybe it's a dating relationship. Maybe it's a new friendship (or even a very old one). Maybe it's a family tie. The next time they ask you how you're doing, instead of defaulting to whatever your standard reply is, tell them. You're feeling sad today because you were reminded of a breakup by something you saw. You didn't sleep very well so you're kinda tired. You got a really great compliment from someone you work with, so you're feeling pretty good. Your new haircut makes you feel like a million bucks.
Whatever it is, share it. This part is really hard. I know that I'm about to say something true when I feel like I have to push the words out of my mouth, when it feels like I must be standing naked on a tightrope in the quick moment before what I've said becomes what's heard. For me these are never words of anger or words about anyone else — never accusations, never criticisms — and, equally, never facile. They're just true things I read out loud. What I've found is that sharing them might feel deeply, treacherously risky, but when you let yourself be seen in such a way, you invite others to show themselves, too. And when you then ask how they're doing, you might learn something new and unexpected.
5. Ask for something you need. What would you need to live a safer, happier, healthier life? What thing — a small thing — could someone else do for you that would make that possible? Is it that your roommate doesn't clean the litter box or your coworker keeps taking your Diet Coke from the refrigerator or your aunt keeps bringing up your weight? Expecting other people to change is a losing proposition, but that doesn't mean we have to endure others' inconsiderate or unkind habits. Yet we often resist asserting ourselves for fear of appearing mean or unreasonable or because we "know" they'll say no. But asking someone to fulfill an obligation or knock off a crappy habit that negatively affects you — just ONE thing that is a problem in your life that is in their power to change — is totally okay. The people we love want us to be happy. And while no one can REAAAALLLY make anyone happy, and there's a real limit to how much we ought to try, if you ask someone for something you need that they can give, they probably want to say yes. Let them.
6. Let others make stupid choices with impunity. Do you spend a lot of time getting irritated by the stupid things other people do? Do you get annoyed by people who stand in the 15-items-or-less line with 18 items, or by bicyclists who don't wear helmets, or by the fact that Jenelle on Teen Mom 2 keeps going back to Kieffer even though it's obvious he's Bad News? What would it be like to let it go? If it's not your health or safety or happiness — if, in short, it's not your life — let it go. Resist getting worked up. David Foster Wallace called this the work of choosing. Tell yourself a story about why someone made a choice that doesn't make sense to you; decide you're not going to count other people's groceries. Sure, the world would be a better place if everyone did things the way you (I) (we) want them to, but they don't and they won't, and often their stupidity and its consequences are theirs alone.
Previously: Do This No. 6: Festive Holiday Boundary-Setting.
Simone Eastman is a cat lady.