Boundaries 201: Bringing the Skills Home Part 1

If you haven’t read my piece on “How to Set Boundaries” here, you should. It’s basically an intro to this more complicated issue. Setting boundaries with draining/toxic/abusive relatives, friends, loved ones, etc. isn’t easy. Like I said in the intro piece, setting boundaries with loved ones can be hard, “especially if you are used to your boundaries being laughed at, ignored, pushed aside, or not even acknowledged (common in child emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, child neglect, intimate partner violence/domestic violence, etc.).” People in these situations learn to live with the fear that if they set boundaries, even really small ones (like needing alone time or a safe space), they will be punished for it. In the face of danger and/or fear, people mainly talk about fight and flight, but another common response is not resisting. The person begins to believe that no resistance = no pain. Boundaries are our protection and armor, but many people have grown used to going through life with little to no protection. Maybe you feel like there’s no point in having that armor up because nobody will respect it anyway. Maybe you feel like you’ve gotten this far, why do you need protection now? Again, give the intro to boundaries piece a read. Setting and maintaining firm boundaries is playing the long game with your physical and mental health and your life in general. And that all said, it’s one thing to know how to set boundaries, it’s a whole other beast to take this knowledge home. Learning new habits and breaking cycles is literally life changing work. Some of those dynamics in your family and with your friends/loved ones are YEARS in the making and feel hard to break/change after all this time. With this piece, I want to help y’all begin to apply the intro to boundaries information to your real-life, complicated situations. It’s time to start to taking your knowledge home and make some real life changes.

What Are Boundaries? –  Level 201

Aight so boom, when we talked about boundaries back in August, we covered the importance of boundaries as a way to take care of your physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Having clear, firm boundaries is a kind of self care strategy. Self care is often stereotyped as drinking tea and having spa days, but self care is actually paying attention to what your body and mind need and taking steps to meet those needs. Mindfulness techniques (Here’s the intro piece I wrote about mindfulness) are very helpful in connecting with yourself to really get a sense of what your true needs are. I also wrote a intro piece here about self care if you need a deeper explanation of what self care is. Clear, strong boundaries are a sign that someone really knows themselves and knows how to take care of themselves. It’s like working out and knowing just what your body needs to grow without damaging yourself. Or knowing that you can’t stay out late helping someone if it means cutting into your sleep when you have something important happening the next day. Again, it’s playing the long game with your physical and mental health. You can’t be at your best if you are constantly drained and burnt out. That’s not a healthy or satisfying life. Knowing yourself and knowing your own personal limitations is key. Also your personal boundaries will naturally change as you change as a person. Like a snake needing to shed old skin as it gets older. Likewise, it’s okay to need to and want to change boundaries as you change.

Like I’ve said in the intro to boundaries piece, boundaries are not about setting limits on other people’s behaviors. You can’t control other people. You can only change and control yourself. Boundaries are ultimately guidelines for yourself so you can figure out what’s best for you in each situation. Basically, drawing lines in the sand like in old school cartoons. Setting a boundary can be as straightforward as: “If you want to come over, call/text me first” or “It offends/hurts me when you say that if you’re gonna keep doing this, I won’t be around you”. If people don’t make real efforts to respect your boundary, they don’t give a damn about you. So, at that point, where do you go from here? What can you do? I’d suggest separate yourself from people: block them, stop doing business with them, stop giving them money, etc. Setting boundaries requires a realistic awareness of yourself and compassion towards your own psychological/emotional needs. Let me repeat that last bit: Setting boundaries requires having COMPASSION for yourself. Just because you are used to being treated a certain way and that’s how it’s always been, doesn’t mean that’s how it should always be. Like I said before, people change and if your situation doesn’t work for you, it’s time for a change.

“Okay, But It’s Not That Simple”

Sometimes, it’s for real not that easy to cut someone off or to just leave them. There are times and situations where you legit have to be practical and/or think about your safety, unfortunately. And that’s real (and it’s not your fault). Just like with coming out as queer and/or trans, sometimes the situation requires really analyzing the situation. If you are worried about the potential consequences that could come from you setting boundaries with a particular person, pay attention to that intuition. Intuition saves lives and that gut feeling is probably accurate. Speaking of safety: Would trying to cut them off or leaving them have any effect on your safety or livelihood? Are you financially dependent on this person/people? Do you share custody of children? Do you live with them and rely on them to pay their half of the rent? That’s all real and needs to be taken into consideration. If you can’t just cut people off now (or for the foreseeable future while you figure something out), there are still things that can be done to limit your interaction with this person. There are still ways to protect your mental and physical health as much as possible. And this is still a part of the many ways to do self care.

It can feel impossible to set boundaries in these situations, but there are things someone can do even then. Remember, boundaries are not about controlling or changing other people’s behavior. Boundaries are guidelines for yourself. What are some ways you can practice self care by limiting the time/contact spent around draining and/or toxic people in your life? A former client of mine felt suffocated by everyone in her house because she was the main caretaker of everyone in the house (kids & adults) and each person was constantly draining her energy and time. She just wanted some time alone to herself to recharge. She had been trying to set direct boundaries herself with her relatives, but they would outright ignore her or act like they were going to change, but never did. She was burning out fast and crying tears of frustration in my office. We brainstormed possible solutions and we finally decided that I, her therapist, would prescribe mandatory alone time in the park at least 3x a week for an hour as medical treatment for “stress”. In this situation, the woman couldn’t just walk away from the situation or cut people off so we found a way for her to recharge and take time for herself.

Relatedly, who else can you rely on for support? Dealing with draining, toxic, and/or abusive people is not a 1-person job. In fact, toxic and/or abusive people love isolating people because they know people need support from loved ones/their community to break free. Who do you trust to have your back? What kind of community resources can you take advantage of? And I’m not just talking about domestic violence hotlines, etc. What are ways that you can build community and support systems outside of that draining and/or toxic environment? Free/low cost classes, workshops, interest groups, meet ups, etc. all provide opportunities to meet new like-minded people. It’s easy to get brainwashed into the toxic mindset that you don’t deserve to have firm, respected boundaries and that you deserve whatever toxic treatment you are receiving at home. Having friends outside of that circle will breathe some fresh air and new perspectives into your situation because they are not invested in keeping you thinking in the old way. Also taking these classes or going to these meet ups will also remind you that you have well-rounded interests, skills, and talents. You are more than what they say you are. Remembering that goes a long way for a lot of people. And taking even an hour break every week will do wonders for your mental health and will also help you start to think about what your life would look like in a future without all that toxic mess.

The Aftermath

There are many different ways you can feel after setting boundaries with a draining, toxic, and/or abusive loved one. People are complicated. You can feel lots of emotions at once or experience 1 emotion at at time and move from 1 emotion to another as you go through this process. You can feel guilt. Months or years of someone close to you saying and/or implying that you setting boundaries is rude or not even possible can really get into your head. Internalizing the idea that you are selfish for setting boundaries is real…but it’s also not true. That said, it can take a while to unlearn the lies. So feeling guilt post-setting boundaries is a possibility and so is relief. Having draining, toxic or abusive people in your life can be very tiring. One-sided relationships generally are. So lifting that burden off your shoulders can feel like the first breath of fresh air you’ve had in years. You could also worry about retaliation. Toxic people both tend to have vague, weak boundaries themselves and encourage (or enforce) poor boundaries in other people. Like I’ve mentioned before, poor boundaries allows people all kinds of access to you and toxic/abusive people feel entitled to that access. Setting boundaries threatens their level of access to you and they could act out, etc. Trust your instincts. If you are even a little concerned about what they could do, listen to yourself, and take some steps to protect yourself and possibly your valuables.

Finally, another emotion you could experience is nostalgia. Very few people are all bad all the time. Part of what makes it so hard to set limits or cut ties with toxic or abusive people are the memories of when life was good and when y’all were good together. You find yourself missing the person and/or the times and emotions you had with that person. It may hurt to leave them despite knowing that leaving would be good for you in the long run. That’s real. It’s ok to acknowledge those feelings. Don’t run from that feeling or try to push it away. Avoidance always makes people feel worse in the long run. Acknowledge it. Face it. Sit with it. This is where mindfulness techniques, venting to patient loved ones, and/or speaking with a therapist can help. You’re a human being. Your feelings are allowed to be complicated. In therapy, it’s called ambivalence and it’s very common. Coming to terms with your complicated feelings in healthy ways by yourself or with people you trust will go a long way in maintaining your mental health. And don’t let the toxic person’s mind games fool you: ending the relationship with them doesn’t mean you will go without love or support. Part of self care and being your own MVP is building connections with people who help you grow and limiting your time/energy with people who drain you.

Setting and maintaining clear, firm boundaries is definitely 1 of the most important things I feel I could teach someone. Solid boundaries really set the foundation for a satisfying life and for good mental and physical health. I, professionally and personally, cannot talk about them enough. Boundaries can seriously change the quality of someone’s life. Adding to that, it’s 1 thing to learn how to set boundaries, it’s a whole other thing to take these lessons home and apply them to the people closest to you. Especially when the people in question feel entitled to you. Learning to have the compassion for yourself that they have refused to show you is key. You’re worth the effort. You are worth the satisfaction and the clarity that comes with strong boundaries.

Thank you for reading. The next post to be published on Sunday 12/9/18 is a reader request: Explaining your mental health symptoms and/or diagnosis to your parents.

Grief

Loss is a part of life. Whether we’re talking about the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship with a partner or a friend, loss of a job you’ve had for years, etc., loss of some kind happens everyday. And with loss, comes grief. The purpose of this post is to demystify grief: I will be explaining what grief is, what it can look like, and the importance of mourning and mourning/grieving rituals as ways to hold onto the memories of beloved ones in a healthy way. In this piece, I will be mainly talking about grief after the death of a loved one, but again, there are many different kinds of losses one can experience. I hope this piece helps y’all start to make sense of what you have experienced.

What is grief?

Grief is the very common response to loss. Many people are familiar with the idea of the stages of grief, but I don’t like thinking of grief in that way. With the idea of set stages of grief, there is a risk of expecting people to fit into boxes that aren’t real for them.Grief looks different depending on each person. People are complicated. So the process of grieving is just as complicated. Everyone’s journey is their own and depends on life circumstances and the relationship you had with the deceased person. Trauma, issues with abandonment, other stressful things going on in your life, physical and mental health issues, etc. can add to and complicate the grieving process. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are not the only emotions people feel while grieving. You could feel relief. You could be happy the person is no longer suffering. You could be glad on some level to be out of that job. You could be low-key grateful your partner is gone. Feeling emotions beyond those 5 doesn’t mean you are broken or an extra secret special messed up. Again, people are complicated. And while dealing with all these complicated feelings, it may feel like you are being swallowed up by an eternity of feelings. Regardless of how it can feel, grief is not forever. With time and active work towards healing, your often intense, painful feelings of grief will start to go away usually in about a year (in the case of death). I’m not saying you won’t miss your deceased loved one anymore. But you will be able to think about them and miss them without the feelings taking over your life. You could think about them without crying immediately, for example. That difference between actively mourning someone versus remembering someone fondly, etc.

The grieving process becomes a mental health issue when it starts to take over your life and you have been actively grieving for over a year. What do I mean by actively grieving? If 12 months have passed since your loss and your feelings are just as intense as the very first day, you may be experiencing what is known as “complicated grief”. Constantly thinking about the loss, feeling distress that is outside of what is usual for your society and/or culture, being unable to keep up with your commitments at work, school, with family, etc. like you used to, and passive and/or active suicidal ideation are all symptoms of complicated grief. Examples of passive suicidal ideation include wanting to go to sleep and not wake up, wishing you weren’t alive, or wishing you were dead. Examples of active suicidal ideation include thinking about ending your life, having the intention/desire to end your life, having the tools/method to do it, and/or having a specific plan (See my post on suicide here for more information explaining suicide).

Grief and Depression

Grief and depression can feel very cruel because they both can convince people that this is the way they are going to feel forever. They both change the way you see yourself and how you see the world while you’re in the middle of it. A huge difference between major depressive disorder and grief is the subject of the distressing feelings. A grieving person’s thoughts focus on the person who has died. On the other hand, depressive symptoms tend to focus on feelings of personal worthlessness. Basically, if a grieving person is feeling sad, it is most likely going to be related to a sense of loss, to missing the deceased, to wishing they could be with that person, etc. A depressed person’s sadness focuses only on themselves and any flaws (or “flaws”).

In my piece about depression here, I break down the symptoms of depression in more detail. To have clinical depression, someone must have at least a depressed mood most of the time, almost every day, or not able to feel pleasure/joy from things that used to make them happy. Depression is self-critical. A depressed person’s inner monologue/their self-talk/the majority of their thoughts (to be REALLY blunt) is mainly about how they feel they ain’t shit. Depressed thoughts are pessimistic and any related suicidal ideation is about wanting to escape their situation. Again, grief, though, focuses specifically on the loss. And a grieving person’s thoughts are mixed with the positive memories and emotions related to their dead loved one. Even the suicidal ideation that some grieving people experience is usually focused on wanting to be with their loved one, not escaping their misery as it would be with a depressed person.

Now to complicate things a little because life is complicated: Grief and a major depressive episode can happen at the same time. And the loss of a loved one can trigger depressive symptoms in people with a history of depression. Recent loss can kick up past emotions like fears of abandonment from past deaths and other kinds of losses. It’s important to be aware of yourself, especially if you have a history of depression, trauma, anxiety, etc.

Mourning

Mourning rituals and practices are an incredibly important part of healing. These rituals, both personal and public, allow people space and time to express emotions, process thoughts, and reflect on memories. Many cultures have their own mourning rituals and ceremonies in place as a part of community healing. In psychotherapy, therapists encourage clients to practice in their own culture’s mourning rituals and/or create their own personal rituals. These rituals allow for time to think, memorialize, feel feelings while also helping to contain the emotions and give them a proper place. These rituals are a way to set boundaries with yourself and your emotions so mourning doesn’t consume lots of your time and energy. If you need more information on how to set and maintain firm boundaries, I wrote a piece about that here. Learning to balance your thoughts of the deceased with your thoughts of the land of the living is important for the healing process and for your ability to continue to stay on top of bills, keep up the relationships with your living loved ones, etc. Many people feel trapped in their initial pain because they believe, on some level, if they don’t feel this pain, their loved one will be forgotten. And this isn’t true. You don’t need to be in pain to honor them. Your cultural and personal rituals are your special way of remembering them. They keep the memory of your loved one alive.

Some ideas for personal rituals and other ways to personalize your mourning process:

  • Creating physical or online memorials
  • Visiting the gravesite
  • Lighting candles alone or in a small ceremony and reflect on the deceased
  • Writing letters, poetry, or songs to the deceased
  • Going to grief counseling groups to commune with others going through similar situations
  • Having a dinner to celebrate the life of this person

As time passes, the sharp painful feelings of loss will start to fade. In therapy, checking in with clients is an important part of the healing process. I would have clients track their own emotions, their thoughts, etc. so we both can see how they change over time. Are their feelings of grief becoming less intense? Are they able to sleep as well as they used to? How much do their feelings of loss interrupt their day? Are they getting the support they need during this time? Check in with yourself. Try some mindfulness techniques (read more here) as self check-ins to see where you’re at, what you need, and how this changes as you heal. While checking in with yourself, see if there’s anything you can do via self care (my piece about the many types of self care here) to help yourself heal.

A REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: Certain times of the year like holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. can still be hard emotionally for you even years later. This is very common. In my clinical work, clients and I have worked together to make a safety plan (Check out the suicide post linked above for a sample safety plan) to figure out how clients can get the help they need before any problems start. Like a fire drill. That way, when things pop off, there’s no need to panic. Safety plan for yourself in advance for the hard days. And these moments and days when the sadness and grief come back can happen, but they won’t be as debilitating or world-crushing as the day 1. Seek therapy if mourning gets in the way of functioning and/or it has been longer than a year and your feelings feel as intense as it did on the 1st day of loss. You may need some professional assistance with going through the healing process. And that’s okay.

Loss is inescapable. Whether it is loss of a relationship, loss of a loved one via death, etc., everyone is going to grieve something at some point. And though feelings of grief are painful, they are a part of life and important to feel. Un-dealt with grief can build up inside someone and then come out in other, less healthy ways. On the other end, intense feelings of grief that last over a year can get in the way of living one’s life to the fullest. With all things, finding a balance is key. Mourning a loss is an important part of life, especially the death of a loved one. You can love and miss people without those feelings taking over your life. Love never really goes away. That’s facts, but personal and/or cultural mourning rituals and grieving ceremonies help people set boundaries, use mindfulness techniques, and get their support system in order in healthy ways. Beloved people won’t be forgotten because we can keep them alive in our hearts through rituals and remembrance. And we can live our lives to the fullest in their memory.

Thanks for reading. The next piece will be part 1 of a 2-part series in time for the holiday season about setting boundaries specifically with toxic/abusive people in your life.