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Trying to Avoid Walls


I have written here many times about promising myself that I won’t go back to my old job every time someone asks me to. When I mention this to people I know, several of them say quickly and succinctly, “You just have to hold to those boundaries.” And they say this as if it is an easy thing to do. For them, no doubt, it is. For me, not so much. Because I have so little practice at it, saying no feels like putting up a gigantic wall between me and the person who is doing the asking.

No one cares about the psychology of my family, but boundaries were not big on our priority list. There was nothing inappropriate, but the neediness was palpable. And, it established in me the feeling that if someone requires something, I should stop what I’m doing and help them. As I grew older and began therapy, I realized that this was not a useful behavior for me, and probably not for the recipients of my attention, either. But the difference between saying that I am working on having better boundaries and actually having them is a little like saying I want $1 million and then saving it. Retirement and the consequent “free time” that comes with it do not help with this dilemma.

As I see it, the problem with having and maintaining boundaries is directly related to the fact that, despite the sophisticated machinations of our lives, few of us are adequately skilled at the millions of tiny, but significant requirements of relationships. It’s tough just being a person; being with a person can take us over the edge. We are primitive beings, every one of us. We seek attention, love, autonomy, success, food, and more attention. We also need to help the folks in our lives to enjoy those same things. Results can vary, as they say in the ads, but in my experience our ability to stay in ourselves and be in relationships can be harder—and messier—than juggling raw eggs.

I am trusting other people to learn about their own boundaries and to respect mine.

I am lucky because I have a partner who is nicely self-contained. She is confident and practical and has made it through enough difficult experiences in her life that she knows her own strength. This means she can usually stand on her own without a lot of support from people around her. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t like attention and assistance, but that's all icing for her. Since I was raised to make sure everyone in the room was happy, my willingness to help her at every turn is probably a little perplexing to her, not unlike a really enthusiastic puppy. We’ve learned to balance this over the years and I appreciate her willingness to work with me on it.

In other relationships, when I've felt my friends and partners employ a stronger pull to help prop them up—and I remember that I’m supposed to have boundaries—I’ve erected big walls, when a simple conversation would have probably done the trick. I’ve learned about the beauty and effectiveness of those conversations from Jodi, but I’m still very much at the practice level with most of the rest of my world. Who knew that retirement would present a whole new set of circumstances to help me learn a graceful way to maintain my autonomy?

So I’m trying now to learn to stand with people, but to stay in myself. I’m working on presuming that each person can utilize his or her own skills and experiences to get through what they need to and that it doesn't require me to continually change my schedule or adapt my plans. This is not a novel thought or even new behavior. What’s unique is that I’m attempting to do it with a little more finesse and grace and fewer gigantic walls. I am trusting other people to learn about their own boundaries and to respect mine. It’s like a very loving chess game among beginners. It’s one more in that long list of things that I’m learning as I go, and I’m eternally grateful to the people in my life who are willing to learn it with me.

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