This is never going to be a professional blog (see: title) or solid resource for mental health information; but as a person with mental health, who works in mental health, you can expect some overlap. There has been a lot of talk about physical space and social distancing lately, which has got me thinking about emotional space and the idea of privacy.
I was talking to someone today and we were talking about how someone in her family asked about her kids and some decision she made. She admitted to being sort of taken aback by it, and responded to avoid conflict but something about it irked her. Was she the topic of conversation? We talked about how her family always held what I called ‘fart parties’. Someone in the family would do something, anything – as insignificant as fart and immediately the news spread. Quickly the family would decide on a meet up spot, who would bring what food and drink and desserts and then they would sit and discuss the fart, and of course, the farter (farter need not be present). These people were so enmeshed in each others lives and business that the idea of privacy or omission was foreign. If the farter didn’t want to disclose what they ate prior to the incident, the group would be incredulous. How could you not tell us? We need to know every detail about the fart, we’re family! If the details weren’t disclosed, the family might talk about the fart for weeks separately and then reference it for months or years to come. She acknowledged my point and countered it that all families are like this. I was hesitant to agree, but couldn’t fully disagree because I vividly remember a game of telephone my mother played with her mom and sisters (both blood and in-law) when I confessed that I had gotten my period in the school bathroom in sixth or seventh grade. Not a fart party, but an overshare for sure.
I have always been an open book, but have joked that you need to come to the library. I am willing to share almost anything about my life from crapping my pants while simultaneously barfing on the church altar in 5th grade to the experience of weight loss surgery, moving 1000 miles away from your family and (finally) deciding on a career path at the tail end of your thirties. The information is available but the way it is dispersed is in my control. Usually. That’s not to say there haven’t been times when something is repeated or shared by someone other than me, but I’ve learned to be more selective with my sharing, considering the potential spread. I’m not ashamed of any of my choices or behaviors, though I know who may use them as ammo, or throw a fart party – it’s important to be clear about what in your life is open for discussion, and what isn’t.
My favorite thing to talk about with clients, and in leading groups, is boundaries. It has become a favorite thing to talk about with friends, too. Boundaries are, simply put: the rules that you make for yourself in terms of how you will let other treat you, what access you will allow them to have to you and your life and how you will respond if these rules aren’t followed. Boundaries can be hard to put in place. A lot of the time it’s because what we have to say or do to set a boundary, is counter to what we have been doing, or been taught to do. Boundaries limit our obligations, in the sense that they keep us from doing and allowing things because “that’s the way it’s always been” or “that’s how we do it”. That we can be a partner, parents, extended family, siblings, friend, neighbor …. anyone who has an attachment to a situation.
It isn’t always family that we need boundaries with, but that seems to be a big one. There may be familial traditions or expectations that, when you distance yourself, make you an outsider or cause a vague bullying. This is typically true when your behavior is counter to the behavior of the group. When people change something, those around them may want to deflect the attention from their own needs, or self examination. A lot of people don’t like the idea, or don’t want the responsibility of self-exploration. The pushback on boundaries is often from people who don’t want to self-examine or don’t like change. That’s not hard and fast; there are plenty of reasons people might push back, but they are not your reasons.
The most important way (I think) to set a boundary is to be direct. As a recovering people-pleaser, I know that this is as harder than it sounds. We want to say yes to people who need something for us, we want to make others happy, we want to avoid conflict, we want to keep things status quo. That’s admirable, but not if it makes you want to die inside. (dramatic) I spent many years saying yes to things out loud and then regretting it and feigning illness, other plans, or following through while being angry about it because I didn’t feel like it was okay to say no. I felt like that might rock the boat or break tradition or disappoint someone else. Know what? It might have … and so what? Why is our sense of obligation often tied to others responses and reactions and not our own? That’s a question for another time, honestly. A few other key ways to approach boundaries are knowing your limits, prioritizing self-care, considering the audience, exploring your feelings and giving yourself permission to alter the boundaries you set when it seems reasonable.
Boundaries can be set for all sorts of life areas; personal space, time and energy, sexuality, belongings, cultural or ethical beliefs. Boundaries are super personal and cannot be decided for us, they are rules that we make up about our own lives and our own needs. There’s no checklist for setting boundaries – only to not be too rigid, or too loose with them. The more rigid your boundaries are you may miss out on experiences or relationships that are beneficial. the more loose your boundaries are you may not feel capable or able of making decisions for your self, or you may feel pressure to give and do for others without hesitation.
The bottom line is we get one life and we have to live it in the way that works best for us – EVEN if it’s different than what your family wants or what your friends expect. You know how when you are on an airplane and they talk about putting your oxygen mask on first, before helping others? We need to get our head out of the clouds and think this way on the ground, too.