Reader Request: Boundaries 202: Estrangement

This is another Reader’s Request (Thank you). Feel free to tweet or DM @Queeringpsych on Twitter or email queeringpsychology@gmail.com with any psychotherapy-related topics you would like to see me write about. I’m always open to suggestions. If you aren’t sure if something is relevant to my site, I don’t have a problem looking at the suggestion and letting you know. This requested piece is covering estrangement. Specifically, how setting and maintaining firm, clear boundaries can help you deal with whatever comes with and comes after cutting off contact with biological family, chosen family, close friends, and other people who used to be close to you. I’m going to talk about mourning the loss of relationships when those people are still alive (different from mourning someone who has died), using boundaries to manage the people in your life who may still have connections with the estranged person(s), and potentially rebuilding your team after this loss. Firm boundaries, again, are the tools here to take care of your own mental and physical needs while also keeping trusted people around you.

The Aftermath

Cutting someone off is no small thing. Even if they were incredibly toxic and it made all the logical sense in the world to cut them off, it is STILL no small thing. Especially if the person had clocked in a lot of time in your life. There’s going to be a place of some size in your life that’s gonna feel empty on some level. And that’s legit. I might be preaching to the choir here, but consider this your pep talk. This is a Boundaries 202 post for a reason. If you aren’t sure what I mean by boundaries or aren’t sure where to begin on how to set/maintain boundaries, please check out my Intro to Boundaries piece. Again, setting and maintaining firm boundaries is about having compassion with yourself and setting lines in the sand for what you need, want, tolerate, and don’t tolerate in your life. Boundaries are not about controlling how other people act. Boundaries aren’t punishments for people’s behavior. Boundaries are instead guidelines for yourself and how you act. Boundaries are also a layer of protective armor for your mental and physical health. Like I mention in the Boundaries 201 Part 1 piece here on setting boundaries with toxic, etc. people in your life, many people have gotten used to going through life with little to no protection because there was no real guarantee that those boundaries would even be respected. By cutting someone off who is having a negative effect on your life, you are setting some important boundaries.

Estrangement is another kind of loss, even if you were the one who decided to cut off contact. Grief is a normal response to experiencing a loss, any kind of loss. Like I explain in my grief piece here, grief isn’t just 5 stages with 5 emotions. Grief looks different for every person and for every situation. Life is complicated and so are the ways people deal with loss. Please take a chance to read the grief piece. It will give you another point of understanding about the mix of feelings you can feel for possibly a long time. And give you some ideas of rituals/strategies you can use to start healing from this loss.

Because Life Isn’t Clean-Cut

There was a reason (or reasons) why you decided that this person shouldn’t be in your life anymore. If it helps, write those reasons down somewhere you can always pull it back up. This isn’t to be petty. This isn’t to hold onto emotions in a way that starts to negatively affect you. This is intended to be a helpful reminder for possible future situations where holding up this boundary may feel hard. And you may need a reminder of what makes this boundary so important to keep up. Part of what makes estrangement complicated is you are mourning the lost/ended relationships of still living people. You could still run into these people. They could try to come back into your life on their own. And/or you could have mutuals in common. Managing the people in your life who still have connections with those estranged people takes SERIOUS boundaries and boundary-respecting. Like I mentioned before, setting boundaries is not about controlling other people’s behavior. You can’t control other people, but you can set boundaries around what you will and won’t tolerate in your life. That could mean not wanting to engage in conversation about the estranged person and removing yourself when conversations about them start. Or telling people that you won’t go to events where the other person will be. If the other people respect you, they will respect your boundaries. Again, this could end up being very hard. People are not used to boundary-setting and you might get some push-back. But they can miss you with all that. This is about your health and happiness. They shouldn’t be pressuring you to give the person another chance or to do anything that you aren’t 100% comfortable with. If you want space, you should get space. And everyone should be going at your speed and in the direction you choose. Your emotions may feel complicated and all over the place during this time. That’s where self-reflection, mindfulness techniques, and self-care are key to help you make some sense of it.

If you are having a hard time finding an objective person to vent to and figure out your emotions with, one option can be to speak to a therapist about it. It’s a common myth that you have to have to be dealing with serious mental health symptoms right now in order to get therapy. Therapists are also trained to help people get through what is called “life transitions”. Things like losing a job, a new relationship, moving to college, having a child, marriage, death of a loved one, etc. are all life transitions that people might need help with. So if the process of estranging yourself from a loved one and maintaining those boundaries becomes really difficult, speaking with a professional might help you look at your situation from different angles and work through all the related emotions, etc.

Side note about Guilt:

Like I mentioned in my intro to boundaries piece: Because we live in a society that not only doesn’t teach people what boundaries are and how to set them, but also doesn’t teach people how to respect the boundaries of others, many people feel guilty or rude for saying no or setting other kinds of boundaries. If society and people in your life have basically taught you that no one’s boundaries get respected and “It is what it is,” it can be hard to not see other people’s boundaries as anything but rude or extra. Again, boundaries are about being compassionate with yourself and your physical and mental health. For whatever reason, you felt this person being in your life was causing more stress than the relationship was worth. That’s real and valid. People might be in your ear, saying some other stuff. They might say you reconciling is “good for the family” or that you broke everyone up. Really what they are asking you is for you to sacrifice your mental/physical health and happiness so that everyone else can be comfortable. But at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live this life and deal with the consequences. This would be a great time to pull out that reminder list you made earlier. Stick to your gut.

(Re)Building Your Social Support System

Like I’ve said before in my Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, boundaries aren’t just great armor. Clear, firm boundaries can also be used to nurture and make the rest of the relationships in your life even stronger. You did all this work setting and maintaining boundaries to cut this person out of your life. It would frankly suck to do all of that and not have the rest of the relationships in your life be as strong as they could be. Use boundaries and clear communication to build connections with people who help you grow and make you feel good while limiting time/energy around people who feel draining to be around. Even if that means cutting off more people. Check out my life reassessment piece here. Maybe it’s time for a little life spring cleaning. Like I say in the Boundaries 201 Part 2 piece, being around the people close to you “should be a peaceful break from all the nonsense, not a part of the stress”. Having your boundaries constantly ignored may seem little at first, but each “little” disrespect piles up and starts to weaken/damage those relationships after awhile. It also hurts your physical and mental health to deal with disrespect everyday. And there’s so many things in life we cannot control. Especially the more marginalized you are and the different kinds of systemic oppression you deal with everyday. There’s so much disrespect you probably have to swallow every single day just to survive. So why not make sure that you don’t also have to deal with disrespect in the parts of life you can control?

If you need to start rebuilding your social support system and aren’t sure where to start meeting people, try free/low cost classes, workshops, interest groups, meet ups, etc. (These are just opportunities to meet new, like-minded people. Don’t necessarily come in there hard looking for bffs for life. Just the exercise of meeting new people and seeing things of different points of view can be amazing for your personal growth all by itself. If you find people that you want to develop a mutually close relationship with while exploring your interests, awesome I wanna avoid high expectations and high let-downs here. Things take their time.). Again, the close relationships in your life should be mobile safe spaces. The time you spend around the people closest to you should be the times in your life where you feel free to drop all the fronts and find some peace. That’s what setting and maintaining clear, strong boundaries can do in your close relationships and in your life in general.

It’s a beautiful thing to feel safe and secure in the people close to you. Setting and maintaining clear, firm boundaries is a huge key to having a strong support system. Life is too short and way too real to have a squad that will disappear when things start to get rough or to have people in your life who tear you down instead of having your back. We spend so much energy constantly having our defenses up that being able to at least have some moments where you can chill and be you is healing in and of itself. Cutting people out of your life is just as much self-care as building and growing the other relationships you have going on in your life. You are making an important (and difficult) step towards your future. Congratulations.


Thanks for reading. The next piece, on Sunday 5/12/19 will cover how to tell if a therapist is right for you and your needs right now in 3-ish sessions.

 

 

The Process of Change Part 1: What is Change?

It seems like every day someone is promising to change or promising to lead people towards a larger change. Unfortunately, not every promise turns into real action. Many promises end up falling short of what was promised or end up being outright lies. And there’s a lot of misinformation on what true long-lasting change is, what the process of change looks like, and how to recognize this process/work in others when it’s time to hold people accountable for their actions. Like the other things I’ve written for this site, the information in this piece will be based in psychotherapy and research-supported techniques/strategies. This piece draws from techniques called Motivational Interviewing, created by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick and described in their manual “Motivational Interviewing” 3rd edition. Motivational interviewing was created for people who have chaotic substance use (Drugs use 101 piece here for more information on the different types of drug use, etc.) and who want to change how they use drugs, but are having issues making/maintaining that change in their lives. These techniques are not just for substance use issues. Motivational Interviewing (aka MI) can help people, in general, understand what change looks like and the work realistically necessary for long term change. This piece is not a replacement for therapy and/or working with a mental health professional trained to use MI techniques. The purpose of this 2-part series is to use the values of MI and the knowledge about the psychology of change so that we can all be on the same page about 1)the actual steps of making a change in your life, 2)what it means to have done the work of change, and 3)how to see if someone is pulling the wool over your eyes to avoid actually changing and being held accountable. This part one explains what motivation is, what the process of change generally looks like, and how to give a meaningful apology. 

Motivation

Motivation is basically a person’s desire to do something. Motivation can come from outside a person: rewards/prizes, paychecks, laws/rules, punishments, grades, bribes, etc. are all examples of things that can motivate a person to do something. And those definitely work to some degree and to some level. But at a certain point, after some time, according to research and many people’s personal experiences, outside motivation starts to lose its power after awhile. Especially if that’s the only thing getting them out of bed. As we all could guess, if their heart isn’t really in it and they don’t actually want to do something deep down, eventually they are going to feel less and less like bothering to do it. Whether someone is doing it to please other people, to get some heat off their neck, because they think it’s something they should want to do, etc., outside motivation is a car that will eventually run out of gas. It’s just not a renewable resource. When they eventually run out of that first bit of fuel, they’re gonna need to tap into the rainy-day reserve and that is internal motivation: the desire and drive that comes from inside someone. The person has to want it. That push has to come from inside them for any kind of change to be possible. True, lasting, long-term change can’t be forced into someone or shamed into someone. Again, point blank: a person has to want to change for themselves, for their own personal reasons (whatever those reasons are), and then the change will be real and long-lasting.

The Stages of Change

Change is complicated. The Stages of Change help to make sense of what this complicated process can look like in a way that does not take the humanity and/or power away from people. The process of change doesn’t go in a straight line from stage to stage and it can be very complicated because life and people are complicated. Before I begin explaining the stages of change, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of honest self-reflection and mindfulness. When was the last time you listened to the way you talk to and/or about yourself? 1 exercise you could try to really get a sense of how you talk to and/or about yourself: Pay attention and write down the things you say (and think) to and/or about yourself for a week. And then at the end of the week reflect on what you see. What tone do you have with yourself? How would you feel if somebody else talked to and/or about you like that? How do you usually motivate yourself when you want to change or gain a new habit? MI refers to all that as your “self-talk”. Self-talk is very important in the process of change. If your self-talk is mainly focused on how you aren’t going to be able to change or on all the reasons you should stay the same, it is going to be much harder to keep that motivation to change in the long run. That’s why it is very important to be mindful of your self-talk throughout this process. You are the narrator and the change-maker in your life story.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

Meaning not even considering change. The person isn’t even seeing a legit reason to start thinking about changing at this point. When someone is in the pre-contemplation stage, no amount of pushing, nagging, shaming, reasoning, etc. is going to actually get them to change. All the interventions and even all the tears in the world won’t actually do much because there is not even a drop of motivation to change coming from inside them. As a therapist, I wouldn’t even bother wasting my time on something a client doesn’t see as a problem and I wouldn’t expect them to change that part of their life at all. As a non-therapist, trying to figure out if someone intends on changing or if they are still in pre-contemplation: this is where you’d watch someone’s actions instead of getting distracted with what they’re saying. Someone in the pre-contemplation stage could lie and tell you that they are ready for change, but their actions tell on themselves. What is their track record? And how does that compare with what they are doing right now? Are they making active moves towards learning more, self-reflecting, respecting boundaries, seeking community accountability, etc? What are they doing right now?

Stage 2: Contemplation

This is when a person is starting to think about changing. They start to weigh the pros and cons of changing vs staying the same. In the contemplation stage, people even start to imagine what their future lives would look like if they changed. But someone in the this stage is not feeling fully committed to changing. They’re still thinking it over. MI calls this feeling ambivalence. Ambivalence is something we are all familiar with on some level. Ambivalence is the discomfort, the emotional battle that happens when someone wants multiple conflicting things at the same time.  Both wanting to change and to stay the same. In the seesaw-like battle of ambivalence, once someone leans too close to 1 side, the other side always looks better. As I’ve said before, ambivalence is an important part of the process of change. It’s part of living life. A good example of ambivalence would be when a person (Friend A) is talking to their friend (Friend B) about someone Friend B is thinking about breaking up with. Every time Friend A brings up a reason to stay, Friend B argues passionately to leave. And when Friend A brings up a reason to leave, Friend B argues passionately to stay. It seems really confusing from the outside and it is really confusing for the person dealing with the ambivalence too. Because Friend B BOTH really wants to stay for seemingly strong reasons and really wants to leave for other seemingly strong reasons all at the same time. Ambivalence has to be worked through in order for lasting change to be possible. 

Stage 3: Preparation: 

The person has contemplated change, weighed the pros and cons, started imagining what their future could look like, and now has started planning the steps they would have to take in order to make the changes. Ambivalence can still pop up during this stage, especially as the person really starts to realize how much work it is to make these changes in their lives. Although it is important for the person to have a solid system of people to encourage and support them in changing, the planning has to be led by the person trying to change. No one can do this work for them. That would undermine the whole process and the person would never actually learn and change. Planning should be realistic and should pay attention to the person’s limitations, their personal boundaries, their need for self-care, and their accountability to those who have been harmed and to the wider community. After the planning is over, it is important to look over the plan to make sure that it still works and that the person still wants to do this. There’s always time to see if the plan for change can be updated to be longer-lasting, more realistic, and/or more compassionate to those who have been harmed, for example.

Stage 4: Action

This is where a person turns their plans into action. It may start with small steps, but it is clear that is these are first steps towards a larger goal. Especially in the case of someone having done harm, this is the time for taking active, clear, pretty easy to see steps towards change. Even something as small as saying, “I don’t know enough about that topic to have a knowledgeable opinion on that. So I’d rather not speak on it”. That is a solid starting point by the way. In the action stage, the person’s self-talk focuses much, much more on changing than staying the same. As a person’s ambivalence starts to go away, they feel more and more motivated to do more of the work of change. That all said, ambivalence doesn’t quite go away completely. Motivation to change could go up and down throughout this stage too. Change is work. And it’s not always going to feel glamorous or noble. There are times when doing the work of change feels uncomfortable and someone might wonder if it would just be easier to go back to the way they used to be. That’s why making sure someone’s motivation comes from within and having a solid support system is important. 

Stage 5: Maintenance:

At this point, the person has made the changes in their life. But that’s not the end. Change is not a 1-time deal. No setting it and forgetting it here. Change is, again, a process. A life long process. And you’ll make mistakes because you are human, but a mistake is not the end. Just because you messed up in your journey doesn’t mean you have license to go back to the way you were before. That mistake was a life lesson and can be a stepping stone if you put in the motivation and work afterwards. Life is about change, growth, and taking what you learned from the past and using that constantly evolving wisdom to make better decisions in the future.

Saying “I’m Sorry”

A lot of y’all don’t know what an apology looks like and what an apology means. And this matters because I see these non-apologies written on the Notes app and people defending what’s ready an attempt to shut everyone up and move on. When everyone is on the same page about what an apology is and looks like, it’s easier to spot a front. An apology is an acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a plan for future action. You need both. There’s no change without recognizing the effects your actions have had on your life and the lives of others and THEN taking active steps towards future change.

An apology has 3 parts:

  1. What are they apologizing for? – They should be able to describe what they are apologizing for clearly in their own words. This shows that they are aware of what they did.

  2. How are they acknowledging the effect of what they did on other people? They should be able to describe the impact their actions had on other people clearly (with enough detail so they’re not speaking in general) in their own words. It’s important that they are specific.

  3. How are they acknowledging the effect of what they did on other people? They should be able to describe the impact their actions had on other people clearly (with enough detail so they’re not speaking in general) in their own words. It’s important that they are specific. 

  4. How are they going to change in the future? They should be able to break down specifics of how they are planning to change. They need to show some evidence that they are invested in the long-term work of change. Part of this work is continuing to be open to critique as they continue to learn, unlearn, and change. This isn’t a one and done situation. Especially if we are talking about unlearning bigotry and hatred. 


Change is a process. Change is work. And change is ultimately very obvious. People shouldn’t have to be close the person or “know their heart” to see that they have changed or are working towards change. And I’m not talking about large showy gestures here. I’m stating the obvious: when someone is working to change, they start to walk in the spirit of that change and people can see it on them/in them. Y’all know what I mean. Real growth and learning changes the course of someone’s life. They give up old ways because they know better now. They leave certain things behind them, make other decisions, and act in ways that make it clear that something is different in their lives. 


Thanks for reading. The next post will be the 2nd part of this Process of Change 2-part series, covering looking to the future, the kinds of work needed to change, what accountability is, and how it is important for true change to be possible.

Reflecting After the End of a Romantic Relationship

Maybe you did your life reassessment, looked at your whole life, and you realized that it was time to end a romantic relationship. Or maybe you already ended the relationship and are now trying to decide what your next move will be. The most common advice I hear given to people, especially cis men, after a relationship ends is, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else”. And…nah. Whether you are monogamous, in an open relationship, polyamorous, a relationship anarchist, etc., the end of any kind of romantic relationship is still a loss that has some kind of effect on you. And this kind of effect on any level is worth dealing with as soon as possible. This piece is about the next steps after a romantic relationship ends, whether that is taking a break before moving onto the next relationship and/or taking some time to yourself periodically (and/or with trusted loved ones, a therapist, etc.) to reflect and process what happened and how it affected you. Many people seem to think that closure comes from talking to an ex-partner and coming to some kind of total, complete (and honestly idealistic) understanding. That kind of closure is a myth, to be real, and I mentioned some reasons before (See this short Twitter THREAD about closure in romantic relationships) for why looking for that kind of closure isn’t helpful. Instead, find closure, understanding, and peace within yourself by taking time to work through how you feel, what you’ve learned, and how you can grow from what you have experienced.

How do you know when it is time to take a break and/or reflect?

In general, I’d suggest taking a little time to yourself after every end to a relationship, if anything, just to reflect. You just experienced a loss. Acknowledge that. Your first steps after a relationship ends are important. Any lessons you don’t learn and any wounds you don’t heal are not just gonna go away or heal itself with just time alone. Don’t let the often-repeated lie fool you: Time does not heal all wounds…especially not all by itself. Healing is never passive. It’s never something that just happens to you somehow over time. Healing takes active work. And life lessons have a way of coming back around the longer you are alive. It’s better to take the time and learn the lessons sooner rather than later. No one likes to be stuck in a rut: Repeating similar scenarios, similar relationships, similar dynamics, etc. for years, wondering why you always seem to date the same kinds of people or find yourself in similar situations. That’s a sign that it’s time for you to stop, check in with yourself, and figure out what you need to do to make some active changes in your life.

Again, the ending of any kind of relationship is a kind of loss and with loss comes grief. Grief is a normal response to loss and, like I mentioned in my piece on grief, it looks different for each person depending on the specifics of the situation and the kind of relationship you had with your partner. Grief is also affected by any history of trauma, history of abandonment, other stressful things going on in your life, physical and/or mental health symptoms, etc. And factors like these make no 2 people’s grief look exactly the same. And because humans are complicated and life is complicated, so are the feelings one can feel while grieving. You could feel sad, angry, lonely, relieved that it’s over, glad the partner is out of your life, nostalgic for the good times, etc. Like I mention in the grief post, these feelings are a normal part of the grieving process and they are important to feel/process because “un-dealt with grief can build up inside someone and then come out in other, less healthy ways.” Generally speaking: The worse the break up (meaning the more complicated, the more emotional, the less friendly of a breakup, etc.) the more likely you will need more time/effort to reflect and learn/heal and that’s ok. Scrapes, cuts, and wounds need their right time to heal, even emotional and psychological ones. 

You Know What They Say…”

Do NOT use another person as an object to “get over” a past partner. First of all, it’s a messed up thing to do to someone else. It’s 1 thing if the person actively consents to being your “rebound,” but using people like objects is not how healing works at all. And “getting over someone by getting under someone else” doesn’t actually work. You never actually deal with whatever the problem was. It’s a distraction. In counseling, that would be an example of avoidance. And avoidance almost always makes things worse. It’s like seeing a water leak in your home and “fixing” it by renting a hotel room for a couple weeks. The feelings you try to push away will always come back in some way, usually stronger. Unhandled emotions and psychological unfinished business can come out in your body so you might start to feel achy, sick or drained all the time. You might start treating your other romantic or sexual partners, your friends, your children, and other relationships in your life like crap. You might start believing that you deserve to be treated badly in relationships or that you aren’t meant for real love or relationships. Like a physical injury, emotional wounds shouldn’t be ignored. 

Time for growth

Sex, casually dating, and new romantic relationships are great as long as you are also taking care of yourself in the process. Relationships are not tools for healing. They are relationships. The other person(s) isn’t your therapist. They are your partner(s). This is another example of the need for firm boundaries and an example of how firm boundaries are nurturing for you as an individual and for your relationships. Check out my introduction to boundaries piece here for basic information on setting and maintaining firm boundaries with people and why it’s even important. And here’s the Part 2 of boundaries 201 2-part series where I explain how strong, clear boundaries can be used to make relationships even stronger and more fulfilling. Those boundaries will also give you the time to dive deeply in your search for awareness and understanding. Mindfulness techniques (as I describe and explain in this intro piece to Mindfulness here) can be very helpful for tapping into yourself and getting to know yourself. Take some time to focus on you. Don’t rush or let anyone else rush your healing. Take however long you need. It’s better to be really ready than to be fast with the process. You wanna focus on quality here. Kind of like how I mentioned in the unemployment piece here, people of all genders should take the time to grow yourself after a loss, whether we are talking about losing a job or a relationship. If you don’t grow yourself, you will never learn from your past. Look at yourself. What lessons do you need to learn? Talk to your friends. And if you figure out that you might be stuck in a relationship rut, maybe talking to your friends isn’t enough. It might be time to talk to a mental health professional. 

A lot of the time the messages we get from society around love, relationships, and dating are incredibly toxic. There’s always someone in your life or some self-help book ready to tell you the fastest way to get over someone. However, at the end of the day, motivation and the juice for change is already in you. It’s just a matter of taking some time to yourself and doing some serious reflecting and going through your feelings, etc. It’s pretty easy to bounce from relationship to relationship. It takes a lot of strength to pause and take some time to look into yourself and to be honest about what you see. And it’s powerful to take what you’ve learned about yourself and use this information to begin to do whatever you need to heal and learn from those life lessons. 

Thanks for reading. The next piece will cover how to help friends come back to baseline (meaning how they normally used to live their lives) after a trauma/crisis and how to conduct crisis intervention in the mean time and in between time while y’all are looking for/waiting for professional help.

Boundaries 201: Bringing the Skills Home Part 2

So this piece is both 1)a part 2 to a 2-part series about setting boundaries around family and other people close to you in your life (Here’s a link to Part 1 here) and 2)a sequel to the intro to setting boundaries post I wrote in August (Intro piece here). Please take a chance to check those 2 out just to make sure we’re all on the same page about what boundaries are and how they can improve your personal and professional life generally. Part 1 focused on setting boundaries in regards to letting go of and/or limiting time around toxic people. This part 2 focuses on using boundaries as tools to build and make all the relationships in your life even stronger. Again, setting clear, firm boundaries is a way to take care of yourself. Strong boundaries are both a sign of and what happens when you start to truly know yourself. Building self awareness is key to setting boundaries. Boundaries are also about building community and your social support system. Having a solid set of people who you really trust and who’s really for you is key to having good mental health and life satisfaction. Especially for Black and brown people and ESPECIALLY for LGBTQAI people of color. Community (safe, strong, healthy community) is life.

Like I mentioned in the first part: strong, clear boundaries can be like emotional and psychological armor. Acting as protection and as a way to save your energy levels and your physical and mental health. Weak, vague boundaries are draining. Firm boundaries keep you going for longer, like fixing a leak in the gas tank so you can keep doing what you need to do. Boundaries aren’t always about separating yourself from or limiting time around things and people. They are also about building and nurturing families (blood and chosen) and other relationships/connections in your life. Boundaries are 1 huge part of the foundation of stable, healthy relationships whether we are talking about relationships with family, friends, coworkers/colleagues, romantic relationships, etc. They aren’t just things you set up when times are bad/rough though. Clear, strong boundaries on the regular protect the relationship like watering and caring for a plant and watching it grow. Healthy relationships don’t just grow on their own. People always say relationships take work without really describing the kind of work that needs to be done. Setting clear, strong boundaries and maintaining them together in each relationship is part of that work. Boundaries are about having compassion and respect for 1)your limits and the limits of other people, 2)everyone’s needs for stability and safety, and 3) each other’s wants and goals, etc. Life is hard. Being with the people close to you should be a peaceful break from all the nonsense, not a part of the stress.

Y’all remember my self care piece from earlier this year in March? In that piece, I’ll link it here, I talked about Spoon Theory and I added a quote from the creator of Spoon Theory, Christine Miserandino, as she explains the concept of Spoon Theory to a friend: “I don’t have room for wasted time, or wasted “spoons” and I chose to spend this time with you.” In this quote, she is aware of her limitations (how many spoons she has) so she sets boundaries to avoid draining time/energy AND to stay connected to people she chooses. Again, life is so hard, especially living in a bigoted society that wants you dead/disappeared. Every breath is revolutionary, but it is still draining. Part of self care is being kind to yourself and being aware of the energy you have and how you spend it. Boundaries help you turn your close relationships into mobile safe spaces. They allow you to be more able to open up and to have times in your life where you can really be yourself. Knowing what your limits are, clearly expressing them to people, and then having those limits respected can make spending time with the people closest to you even better.

On the other hand, having your boundaries constantly ignored and/or disrespected weakens and damages relationships after awhile on top of hurting your physical and mental health. There’s a reason so many people feel like they have no one they can really talk to or really trust/be real with. There’s a reason so many people feel like they have to front all the time. Or why there’s this running “joke” of tweeting about depression/suicidal feelings on the TL and then acting like they are “just tweets” when someone asks you about it privately. That’s a clear sign that so many people don’t have real support systems and don’t feel comfortable being real and/or vulnerable with the people around them. That’s how you can feel lonely surrounded by a crowd of people. Clear, firm, mutually respected boundaries between you and your people create an environment where all the fronts can be dropped at the door.

Let’s talk about some specific ways to nourish the relationships in your life through setting and maintaining clear, strong boundaries. All relationships take work. In this society, people are pressured to focus all their efforts and energies into romantic relationships and all the other kinds of relationships in our lives are just supposed to work themselves out somehow. Like I’ve mentioned before in the Part 4 of the parenting series here and in my piece on suicide (link here), it’s “very Western, very colonizer, to rely on a nuclear family (spouse and kids) for everything”. We have all been taught that romantic connections and the relationships we have with spouses are the ultimate relationships to search our whole lives for. That way of thinking is very limiting. When we only focus on 1 type of connection in our lives and that relationship ends or that person dies, what is left? Many of our elders are vulnerable and many people generally feel unfulfilled because this society teaches us to put all of our future plans, hopes, and dreams on 1 person. Some people won’t even go places and will pause whole areas of their lives so they can do it with a romantic partner. A lot of the time, that seems to lead to regrets and resentments for many people in the long run. I’ve noticed that people have stronger support systems and feel like more people truly got their back when they start to give the other kinds of relationships in their lives a similar kind of effort.

Some Basic Suggestions for Boundaries that Strengthen Connections:

Being honest and clear about your needs/wants
  • Even if that honesty feels awkward, etc. It might feel uncomfortable at first because you aren’t used to it, but it will get easier for everyone after awhile.

  • “I feel [xyz] right now and I need to [abc].”

  • “I need time to think about this, let me get back to you in an hour/tomorrow, etc” – Always give a specific time and keep that appt, being respectful of everyone’s time.
Checking in with loved ones

Check in with your homies in general (We good?)


  • Avoid surface level bs. This isn’t like the “How are you?” “I’m good. Chilling. Just trying to be like you” lie we all do. This is about asking and actually wanting to know the real answer. And being ready to really do something if there is something that needs to be handled in y’all’s relationship.

  • It’s better to check in as you go and get in the habit of asking each other “Yo, we good? In general, how we doing on your end?” Again, this kind of thing isn’t just for romantic relationships. Many of you and your homies would feel closer if you were able to talk about the little things you might be keeping inside over the years. Little things add up. Misunderstandings, crossed wires, other not exactly arguments, etc. all add up. Wouldn’t hurt to get it out there and always be on the same page

Or checking in after a disagreement

  • Avoid snark/sarcasm. If you are feeling some type of way, this isn’t the time for a check in. This is where knowing yourself and being accurately aware of your own emotions is key (Check out Mindfulness post here for some suggestions on how to be more attuned with yourself and your emotions. It’s hard to check in with another person and talk to them about what’s going on for you if you don’t know what to look for in yourself. So start there, within yourself.

  • After you take the time to get a clear understanding of your emotions, check in. And if you need to apologize, don’t focus on wanting the person forgive you. Focus on what you can do or not do to help the other person heal in their own time from what you did.

  • “I hear you want x and I’ll respect that.” If you start to slip back into old habits, checking in with yourself regularly will help you keep a handle on that for yourself. Checking in with people does not take the place of doing the work yourself to be self aware. Self awareness makes checking in with people easier.

Checking in as a chance to update old boundaries if necessary

  • People change and our situations in life change so boundaries will probably need to get updated from time to time. Listen to your mind/body and to the people in your lives to know when it’s time for an update.
Respecting physical and psychological limits
  • Ask if people want to be touched.

  • Ask if people want to talk right now and if they don’t, scheduling a time that works for the both of you and keeping to that time out of respect for each other.

  • Gain consent even from people who you have history with, you never know someone too much to seek out enthusiastic consent.


Learning how to set clear and firm boundaries is 1 of the most important skills one can learn in life. The benefits strong boundaries have on life satisfaction, personal happiness, and one’s mental health is amazing. And being able to not only use boundaries for your personal mental health and building your social support system, but also to use boundaries as tools to make all the relationships in your life even stronger/better is a serious pro-tip. Taking care of yourself, your loved ones, and your community all with the same skill.


Thanks for reading. The next post will be after the holidays on Sunday 1/13/19 about checking in with yourself  and reassessing your whole life for the new year.

Reader Request: Explaining Mental Health Status to Parents

This is a reader request (Thank you again, by the way). This post will cover 1)Doing some self-reflection to sort out what is making you want to talk to your parents about your mental health status, 2)Figuring out how safe the situation is for this, 3)Preparing for the talk, 4)Ways to go about having this kind of conversation with your parents, and 5)How to make your own safety plan in case things don’t go as well as you’d like. I want to make sure that whatever you decide to do, it is a decision that you thought all the way through, that was not made in a rush or impulsively, and that your safety and health is a priority.

#1: Self-Reflection  

What is making you want to tell your parents about your mental health status? This is a great time to reflect on what is motivating you to want to make this decision. It’s hard to figure out what to say if you don’t have a clear idea of what the end goal is here. Like writing an essay or making any persuasive argument, it’s always good to have your goal in mind from the very beginning. That will be your compass in navigating this whole thing. Are you telling your parents so they understand why you need money/financial assistance/health insurance (for medication, therapy, etc)? Or maybe because you need emotional support and/or to fit them into your social supports/safety planning? Or you want to tell them so you can set better boundaries with them? Whatever your reasons are and whatever your end goal is, you should hash that out 1st. Mindfulness techniques [101 post here] could be key here if you aren’t sure how to tap into yourself and figure out what your needs specifically are. Talk to your friends and other people you trust to get their perspective too if that will help you look at this situation from every angle possible.

#2: Assess the Situation 

How much do you rely on your parents? Are you a minor/dependent? Are they paying for your college or do you need them to fill out your FAFSA? Are you under their insurance? Do you live with them or rely on them for money? These kinds of things are what you are potentially risking if things don’t go exactly as you hope. This isn’t to scare you. This is to help you plan while looking at the pros and cons of each decision you make. The cons would be what you could be risking here by sharing your mental health status with your parents, who, depending on the situation, could have a lot of power over you. What are the realistic chances they will support you? How did they respond in similar situations in the past and what kind of support did they give you? How did you feel about the support they gave you back then? Do you have any worries that they might not support you or that they might try to harm you? My point here is to help you reflect on what they could probably do according to evidence based in what they have already said and done in their past…not what you hope they could do. 

#3: Prepping for the Talk 

Okay so you’re taking the time to do some self-reflection and you’re assessing your situation for risks and any safety concerns. Great. Now, it’s time to start getting ready for any response, including acceptance, rejection, gaslighting (A type of psychological abuse where someone manipulates another person until they start to question reality or their mental health. The word “gaslighting” was inspired by a 1938 play/1944 movie called “Gas Light”.), or silencing. Some things you can do to prepare for this talk (or any major talk) include:

  1. Safety planning: So what is the worst case scenario? No one likes to think about the worst case scenarios, but it’s important to plan for the worst (while hoping for the best). You’ve already assessed the situation and have a solid idea of the risks here. Now that you have that awareness, how can you protect yourself from those risks the best you can. Like wearing protective gear or like coming up with a Plan B in case things go left. In psychotherapy, therapists and clients work together on creating formal and informal safety plans whenever a client is in a risky situation. See my post on Suicide here for a more detailed description of a safety plan and for questions to get you started on creating your own plan. 

  2. Self Care. Self Care. Self Care. I don’t think y’all hearing me…SELF CARE. If you have not read my piece on self care here before this point, please time a couple mins to check it out. Definitely pay special attention to the reflection questions I asked in the 2nd half for help figuring out which self care strategies and habits work best for you. Self care is about being compassionate and loving to yourself in a harsh world. It is about taking the time to learn yourself and your needs and investing in yourself and in your future health. Not only is self care important for this talk, but it is key for your mental health and general life satisfaction.

  3. It’s also time to revisit the boundaries 101 piece here. I also suggest checking out Part 1 here of a 2-part boundaries 201 piece I wrote for the holidays: the setting boundaries with toxic loved ones. Just like self care, clear strong boundaries are so incredibly important for good whole body health and personal happiness. Like I’ve said before, learning how to set and maintain clear, firm boundaries is 1 of the most important skills to learn in life. Solid boundaries are armor/protection and they are permission/freedom to really be yourself with people in those relationships. Boundaries keep everyone on the same page, nurture the connection you have with them, and can bring you closer. Remember that you cannot control other people’s behavior, but you can control your behavior and, to different degrees, you can control what you tolerate in your life. Firm boundaries are an important part of self care and part of your safety plan. Regardless of how your parents react, your top priority is the protection of your mental health. And this is all easier said than done. It can be hard to set boundaries at home, especially when setting boundaries was never taught at home and/or your parents have fragile, vague boundaries themselves or even no boundaries at all. But this is worth it. Again, you are worth the effort.

  4. You could practice what you want to say and/or role-play with friends or any other trusted person in your life. This could be helpful to make sure that you are getting your point across in a clear, easy-to-understand way. In therapy, therapists and clients also role-play to help clients work through any anxiety they might feel leading up to a talk like this. Or practice by writing down everything you want to say in advance and reading it out loud and/or emailing it to a friend.

#4: The Conversation 

Ultimately, how you want to do this is up to you. No one knows your life like you do. You are an expert on your life and your situation. That’s why I put so much emphasis and went so hard on the importance of self-reflection, mindfulness, setting boundaries, talking/reflecting with people you trust, and self care earlier. Tapping into yourself and digging deeper is going show more revelations and pieces of wisdom than I think a lot of people would give themselves credit for. What I do want to cover here is some suggestions I have for when you are finally ready to have the first actual conversation with your parents about your mental health status:

When?

  • I’d suggest having a private conversation ideally when no one is in a rush to be somewhere else. You want as much of the focus and attention to be on you as possible.

  • If the person isn’t reasonably making time for you, that already says a lot about where their priorities are at (And if people tell you who they are…). That’s new information added to your situation right there. Assessing your situation is never a 1-time thing. Your plan, etc. can always be updated with any new information.

How?

  • You could write a letter/send an email or text. I personally prefer looking into someone’s eyes and seeing body language when having serious conversation, but I can definitely understand the necessity for other ways of communication, depending on the situation and your safety.

  • Another option is writing a letter/text/email as a kickstarter to the in-person conversation (“Read this when you get a chance. I wanna talk about it when we’re both free.”). Assuming the person reads it, this can be a great way to get your points across in an organized, lower pressure way with less chances of being interrupted.

  • Talk in person in private with talking points. Have an idea of what you want to say going into the conversation . This is where all that planning and possibly role-playing helps.

  • You don’t have to go it alone. Tell other people in your family who could help you have this conversation. Maybe, for whatever reason, this isn’t a 1-person job. That’s cool. Who are some allies you could get to help you break this down to your parents? I’m assuming these people were on your safety plan so maybe part of the support they could give you is help you speak to your parents in the moment. Try to find a balance between them helping you and them speaking for you. This is your conversation, not theirs. 

  • Talk in person with a medical/mental health provider in the room with you. The provider could help you explain the medical specifics if you personally have trouble with that. Or if your parents value and put a lot of trust in authority figures, you have someone like that in your corner. 

What?

  • Break down your symptoms in basic language and what it means for your everyday life. For example, “I’m dealing with this, that, and the third…and that is why you see me struggle with xyz or that’s why I’ve been doing abc”. The goal here is to help make your symptoms easier to explain, but also putting the focus on you, your health, and how they can support. 

  • Research and/or find supportive quotes from religious texts if you think your parents would be open to that.

  • Be specific about the kind of support you need from them. This is tied to knowing yourself and having clear communication and clear boundaries. If you don’t know what you really need, it’s hard to ask for help from others. 

The Blame Game: A quick note about blame. When dealing with shocking and/or upsetting news, it’s pretty common to cope with the situation by trying to find the first thing to blame.  Feeling out of control in the face of this new information, it’s very human to want to change the focus and energy on something else as a distraction and/or to feel more in control. Parents, the humans that they are, could react to the conversation by looking for someone or something to blame. Whether they chose to blame themselves, something you did or didn’t do, etc., it actually has nothing to do with you. It is how they’re deciding to cope with the update of your mental health status.  Putting it plainly: This is their mess. This isn’t you. This isn’t even for you. This is for THEIR comfort, not yours. The blame game distracts from the real focus of all this: your very real, life experiences and what you need from your parents here and now.

So, how are you feeling about all this? I know this is a lot to think about. I hope with this piece, you can begin to reflect on your situation and make informed decisions. By making time for self-reflection, taking a step back & looking at your situation closely, doing what you need to do to prep for the talk, including making a safety plan in case things aren’t ideal, setting firm boundaries, etc. you are making yourself and your health a high priority. Always weigh the pros and the cons. Study the benefits and the costs. Assess the risks. You are worth the effort.


Thanks for reading. The next piece will be Part 2 of the 2-Part Boundaries 201: Bringing the Skills Home series in time for the holiday season, focusing on using boundaries as tools to build and make all the relationships in your life even stronger on Sunday 12/23/18.

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.

There’s a Time And a Place for Dating, Etc. And It’s Not At Work

I was inspired to write this when I saw an article of Tavis Smiley, saying, “Where else are you going to meet people in this business?” in response to PBS pulling his distribution deal in light of sexual misconduct accusations. I hear this every single time a work sexual harassment/sexual misconduct situation comes up.  It’s used as a way to try to make someone feel sorry for the person (because now that person looks sad and lonely). The question usually makes people uncomfortable and they don’t have a readily available fix for this situation so this is usually where the conversation dies off. This could be on purpose or it could be them subconsciously doing it. Either way, it’s a way to take the heat off of a person. And it usually gets the job done. But for psychotherapists, like me, this is just the beginning of the conversation. And it should be the same for you.

I am writing this post to address the question, “But where else am I going to meet people?”. The short answer is “…not at work.” I want to talk about 1) the psychological importance of keeping up a balance between the time you spend at work and your personal time, 2) the risks of dating coworkers, and 3) why employers “dating” employees is inappropriate at best because it potentially leads to abuse.

One of the first things that pops into my head when I hear, “But where else am I going to meet people?” is:

Why are you spending so much time at work?

No, but seriously why? Why do people spend so much time at work? Part of it is society’s expectations/pressures. This society values working at least 40 hours a week. Someone’s job/career becomes their whole identity and our jobs can have a huge influence on many of our internal clocks and schedules. This society also values our ability to work. Look at how health insurance is mainly connected to one’s job instead of health and wellness being a basic human right for all. Society (read: capitalism) even sees dedicating your whole self to labor as linked to your morals. How often do you hear someone talking about deserving something because they are “hard-working”? So many people have dedicated years of their lives to companies and were paid in dust. People are used up and spit out when they no longer have that same energy instead of valued for the effort they’ve invested into the company and any wisdom they gained. People are seen as expendable and very easily replaced like machine parts. People are not valued beyond what they can produce right now. And this, along with society teaching people to see their job as their main identity, results in people whose mental health is neglected. An employee’s monthly deliverables are valued over encouraging employees to take breaks, use vacation time, engage in self-care individually and as a team, etc.

And before anyone says “How is that a job’s responsibility?”: Companies ask, strongly encourage, require, and/or demand that their employees work overtime on a regular basis. Many people are often asked to work on their off days. Many people are asked to perform the duties of 2-3 people while only getting paid 1 person’s salary. Employers demand loyalty from their workers, but what do they do to earn that loyalty? What does your job do to earn your over time? Do you get paid enough to justify that effort? Do you get enough time off? How is your health insurance? If your job is sacrificing your mental health and there aren’t even any material benefits…come on.

Time for some self-reflection. If you are noticing that you are spending so much time at work that you don’t have time to date or to make time for hobbies, that is a red flag. Something is wrong with your schedule. Contrary to America’s puritan values, work should not be the center of someone’s life. You are more than a laborer. Work is supposed to be 1 of MANY parts of your life. There’s a reason you aren’t as content or as fulfilled as you’d like to be. There are parts of your life that are unfulfilled while all of your focus is being dedicated to work. More times than not, your job is not worth the unconditional loyalty they demand from you. Clock out and figure out who you are outside of work.

Assuming you want to date someone who is compatible with you, it would make the most sense to use hobbies, events, socials, meet-ups, parties, extracurricular workshops/classes, hookup/dating apps and websites…you know, situations that were basically created for the purpose of meeting other people. You know that saying, “There’s a time and a place for everything”? That’s wisdom. Being on the same page is important. There’s less room for miscommunication. Less room for “I thought they were into me!” when it’s actually “I was just being nice!”.  When people are at work, they’re more likely to focus on being polite to protect feelings rather than being open/clear about their lack of interest. No one wants to be the mean one. It’s easy to get into unrequited love/lust situations at work because you’re looking in the wrong place. Like looking to buy a hammer at a mattress store. Don’t get mad. Look somewhere else.

When you have other things going on in your life, it’s really easy to avoid workplace sexual and romantic relationships. I think because many people spend too much time at their workplace, it is easy to forget why they are there. Keeping an active personal life is an example of self-care and setting boundaries. When you know that you have other things to do after work, you conserve your energy throughout the day to make space for all your activities. That’s a good thing.

I know we hear about all the stories of coworkers meeting each other and falling in love. Or of couples who have started businesses together with little to no stresses on the relationship and they’re “fine” and live happily ever after the end. But that’s rare. The average person has more stories about the coworkers who dated each other and then all the sitcom-level nonsense that went down. So let’s be real. Coworkers dating while working together is distracting. You can say it isn’t, but it is. Everyone at the workplace knows when coworkers are dating and everyone knows when they’re fighting. It stalls the work day in obvious ways (people using coworkers as mouthpieces, which slows things down) and/or subtle ways (going out of your way to communicate only via email as a way to avoid face-to-face contact). It’s poor boundaries because now you’re seeing this same person all day with no breaks, which isn’t the best for most relationships anyway. Eventually y’all are going to get on each other’s nerves. And that’s assuming that there wasn’t any toxicity or abuse in the relationship to start with. That turns a situation from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous, not just for the partners, but for everyone at the workplace. Despite the fairy tale exceptions, it is generally risky for coworkers to date each other while working in the same workplace. And like I said earlier, when you have other things going on in your life, it’s not necessary to take on those kinds of low-benefit, high cost risks.

Although I see gray areas for coworkers dating each other (meaning I admit that there are situations in which coworkers could be in healthy relationships while working together despite the huge risk to the work environment):

Employers having sex with and/or “dating” employees is inappropriate.

This is due to the unequal power dynamics between employer and employee. Healthy interpersonal relationships are ones in which all the people involved respect and treat each other like equal human beings (I am not talking about D/s or M/s sexual dynamics in BDSM here) and where everyone is in a position to be able to give their enthusiastic consent. When the power is not shared equally in a relationship, there is the potential for abuse and neglect. When 1 person makes substantially less than another AND relies on that person financially, that power imbalance creates a potential for abuse [That is what makes paying everyone the same wage for a task regardless of their gender so powerful. It further decreases the opportunities for someone to be taken advantage of]. It is impossible to truly give consent, let alone enthusiastic consent, if the relationship is unbalanced from jump. If 1 person has the power to fire the other person in the relationship, that could mean loss of income, an inability to pay rent and bills, and possible homelessness because of the boss’s personal feelings.

If someone has that kind of power over you, you eventually are probably going to be careful of how you act around them, treading lightly around them, and more likely to agree to things you don’t really wanna do to keep them happy and keep the peace.

On the other side, your happiness is completely linked to their ability to keep a roof over their head. If you have that control over someone, they can never be their full, true selves with you without risking their livelihood. If you are cool with that, well…it definitely says a lot about what you are looking for in a “relationship”.

Because of this inherent inability to consent, this situation is a landmine for abuse. Even if it’s begun with best of intentions, a boss having sex and/or dating an employee is all fine and good until the moment it’s not. And then what? It’s messy for no real reason. The temporary thrill isn’t worth it in the long run. And there are much better thrills without the huge costs/risks.

There’s a time and a place for everything. Work isn’t supposed to be your everything and work was not created for dating. It’s not the most efficient place to date. Look at your job description. Listen to your mind & body. Your dissatisfaction is a sign that you need to diversify your life, not that you need to rely even more on this 1 area of your life. Having better boundaries creates a better work environment (because everyone is on the same page and there’s no room for miscommunication) and creates a better personal life for you.

TLDR: Where else can you go to find people? Clock out and explore the other interests/areas of your life. Again, there’s a time and a place for everything. Thanks for reading.

Next post will be a part 1 of a piece on adults using corporal punishment and public humiliation to discipline children on 2/25/18.