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Friendship, Isolation, Boundaries, and Authenticity

9 min read

me behind a brickwall in a watercolor painting

 

While sitting and listening in my recent group therapy I heard a lot of talk about the masks we wear. Like me, many of the people in the group are getting to know themselves. They expressed the desire to be around others who are authentic and genuine. This was a familiar feeling for me. I have struggled to make sense of this as well. Relationships flourish when we are vulnerable, but we can also have boundaries. How do we find balance between the two?

This Is Me

There's a danger in identifying with that which makes us neurally different than others. I have certainly fallen deeper into depression by declaring to the world that depression is all I am. We are not our injuries, disabilities, jobs, or parent's children. Each one of us is an individual. I simply wanted to state this upfront because it is important. If we are to be truly genuine, we are all the worries, feelings, thoughts, victories and failures together. We are not just one part of the whole. I recently heard poet, John O'Donohue, say this in an interview, "Identity is not biography."

Part of learning who I am means letting go, in a way. To really let emotions free is a scary process. I have always held them at bay and tried to control them. For example, I cannot cry in a job interview if a question evokes those emotions. It isn't socially acceptable to express our emotions freely. We must be humble in our success and persevere through pain. This societal messaging can seem like a systematic oppression when you're vulnerably exploring yourself. Once you open the valve, it is much harder to close. Thus, my mind can start to do some unhealthy comparison. I'm open and honest and the world is not. I must be the broken one. Personally, I find blame is often a sign that I'm not being honest with myself. Looking for faults in the world rather than acknowledging that I am hurt is a distraction. I am sad that others are still wearing masks and scared that maybe they are not. Maybe they do want to hurt me? All of these thoughts and emotions are within me, regardless if they are true or not, and it is my responsibility to welcome and respect them.

When I let myself be vulnerable, when I am authentically me, it is an alienating experience. One must be courageous to stay in that space out in a world that is black and white. In the larger society around us, we are right or wrong. There are very few places where emotions are freely accepted. Furthermore, I struggle to stay vulnerable because it is new to me. Going out into the public is like being covered in second degree burns in a sand storm.

"Why can't everyone be vulnerable and honest?" This question, a thought, comes in to bring me out of that emotional space. It builds and the frustration becomes resentment. Was I better off before, when I squashed the emotions? Maybe I am better off being alone because it hurts to get close to people?

Isolation and Solitude

There's a distinction between making space to process emotions and isolating. One I do consciously and the other is subconscious. One is work and the other is not. When I begin to question the world around me, I am once again, avoiding my feelings. I may think that I need some downtime and believe that I am doing some self-care by avoiding social situations. The question I have to ask myself is "what is the emotion behind the decision to stay home?" Is it fear of fitting in? Is it shame?

There's nothing wrong with solitude. At this point for me, it needs to be intentional. I am not protecting myself, but exploring without distraction. Can self-care be a cup of tea, a good book, or a movie? Maybe? For me, those often seem more like distractions from some emotion or situation I am avoiding. When given the opportunity to be social or stay home, 85% of the time the social situation is going to recharge my batteries more than staying home. Humans are social creatures. Anxiety, depression and other neural divergent conditions often encourage us to hide.

Friendship and Boundaries

What about our peeps? Can they be as genuine with us as we are with them? Again, 'maybe' is the answer. If it isn't us, we all have that "Debbie Downer" friend. We have the popular one, the chatty one, the artistic, new age one, etc. Our friends play different roles in our lives, just as we do in theirs. It can feel like rejection when you open up to someone and they do not reciprocate. People have individual tastes, though. My partner would not be open to your numerous stories of gruesome surgical blunders, but I would listen. Boundaries are healthy. If someone is truly your friend, you can explore boundaries with them shame-free. Through, open communication they can say, "I'd rather not discuss that." Likewise, you can say, "That makes me uncomfortable."

It can be very difficult to try to find boundaries in today's world. There's a culture of "Gotcha," a desire to call people out. As friends, I would hope we can respect each other's opinion. That's not always the case in the real world, of course. When we expose our emotions, things get uncomfortable. Maybe that's because we don't often speak with our hearts? If can tell a friend in passionate anger my opinion, can I not apologize with just as much sincere love?

Turning It On and Off

Is the switch to turn off my emotions behind my ear? My interior world before my breakdown was a place of paranoia, anxiety, and self loathing. A comment like, "Nice blog, Chris," would invoke questions of sarcasm. If not sarcastic, is the person feeling pity for me? Are they saying that because they think I want to hear it? In my mind, I could continue deeper and wonder what my late father or my deceased grandmother would think. Am I a disappointment? This is all to say that my interior world is a vast echo chamber. All of that and more can happen in the time it takes me to say thank you to the initial comment. Therefore, I don't have to turn my emotions off with a switch. I have plenty of space to process it.

As I said above, I feel very raw and exposed when I am vulnerable, but the best person to comfort me is always here. It's me. All those questions I asked after the comment are motivated by fear. It's a fear that I do not belong. Rather than express the fear with further questions to echo the fear, I can try to use the space to feel it. Welcoming the pain doesn't mean I have to tell the commenter. Perhaps those deeper issues of my father's opinion and feelings of failure may be better explored in solitude, but I can use my inner space to hold and welcome the emotion rather than more questions. Writing this here seems like one of those "in a perfect world" situations. Truthfully, I am not always capable of sitting with emotions.

Processing emotions is taxing. It can be exhausting. This is why people in my therapy group, and myself, struggle in a world that wears masks. We don't have the energy to put a mask back on. When we do, we feel inauthentic and that hurts. I thought I was finally getting to the core of my issues, but now I have to pretend that I am okay for the benefit of the world around me? It feels like a step backwards. I think my strategy is to be genuine with myself. I'll do my best not to wear a mask, but I will try to have boundaries. We are supposed to choose our battles, right?

Confidant

So, how do we find that close friend who we can be vulnerable with? Maybe we don't. Perhaps I can share my insecurities about my art with other artists, but my fear of being a terrible husband are behind a boundary in that case. Instead, I may address that directly with my partner, or a close friend who is also in a committed relationship. Yet, I cannot talk to my partner or friend about my artwork because I fear they won't understand. Does that make sense?

It can feel like change is impossible, but I like to remind myself that I am not the same person I was twenty minutes ago. Those things we experience can change and influence us. If people change, so do our relationships. Our confidant today, may only be an acquaintance next week. It sounds extreme, I know. Fiction in books and movies like to tell us that emotional bonds are forever, but we don't need to grieve every loss. My best friend lives miles away in another city with his family. If we talk once every three months, that's okay. Before, we may have been much closer, but we both have families now. I can embrace that with joy and some sadness. I can make a new friend and confidant. And, that person could move away, or explore a passion that similarly removes them from my life. I think the key is to value the present moment with those around you.

How do you find friends? There's lots of things written on the internet on this topic. I think the first step is to not isolate so much and be social. This is where I am at. This is the thing I can do at this moment. Before I go, thank you for reading this. I appreciate your encouragement and comments. Maybe we're friends?

The Narrative of a Mind

5 min read

A thorny branch

"This is not an off leash trail! That's why we jog here!"

It was those two simple sentences that spun my mindful walk into a hellish nightmare. I was walking the dog at an off leash park and took a trail that I seldom take because I eventually have to turn around as it dead ends into steps to a neighborhood. However, I was hoping to find some good twisted branches or roots for an art piece. Our rescue dog has been diagnosed with fear aggression. As such, she's more afraid of everyone else than they should be of her. On occasion she will growl or bark behind a dog's back, as to say, "And stay away!" It's a toxic behavior that we are working on and one she displayed on the trail. The jogger had his dog leashed and my dog barked and lunged in their direction after they passed. This resulted in the jogger's dog running in front of him and almost tripping the jogger. I apologized and this is when he stated the quote above and ran away.

Observations

The jogger was angry. The younger man was almost tripped and his morning workout was interrupted. On my way back through the trail, I saw no signs stating I was leaving the off leash park. Although, the boundaries of a park are not typically marked on trails. I ran into 7 other dogs on the trail. The jogger and 1 other person had the dogs on leashes. Both of us had tame, but unpredictable, animals. That is dogs are like people, we don't always get along with everyone else. My dog is my responsibility and the instigator in this situation. I apologized and leashed her, though he didn't see that. The jogger is entitled to his emotional response as am I.

Storytelling

First I fell into shock, but more on that in a bit. My mind went to work instantly desiring to counter his anger with more anger. Fight or flight popped in, adrenaline showed up, and I was ready to use my found branches as blunt instruments instead of art materials. As he ran away the events played back in my head and I saw his rage at me. Wait. He was angry, but not fake TV wrestler steaming. No, he was disgusted with me. Disappointed. I failed him. Wait. He has no investment in me. I failed myself. I should have known it wasn't off leash. I am the worst. What if he jogs back this way? I'd love to get the leash around his neck and see how he likes that. Wait. I will tell the next person I see on the trail about the angry jogger. I'll warn them about him. Wait. Let it go. He was angry and I'm just reacting. Yeah, I need to have some compassion. Why didn't that asshole show me compassion? Wait. I just want to go home.

Respond Not React

In the first two paragraphs above I had a hard time not embellishing what actually occurred. Like the jogger's anger from almost tripping, my emotions are still in the driver's seat as I try to share what happened. Immediately on the trail, I said I was in shock. I was actually caught in a loop, a cycle of shame. After apologizing, I realized the event was triggering the shame inside of me. The terrible husband, loathsome employee, pathetic student, bad brother, and useless son within me awoke. Jogger man becomes another person in my life that wishes I was dead. Of course, that's all in my head. And, this all occurred before he reacted with his angry words. This moment of shock was winning. I knew myself well enough to understand that the events were activating some past emotions.

Then the jogger said, "This is not an off leash trail! That's why we jog here!" I slipped out of the self-aware into despair. It was if he said, "No, really I want you dead. You're a pathetic person who doesn't deserve love." The familiar narrative took over and I thought all those thoughts in the storytelling section above. My desire to tell others on the trail about the jogger was also motivated by my self-loathing. I wanted to be consoled. I wanted someone to tell me that I wasn't to blame. I wanted to continue running from myself and my emotions.

It's difficult when you recognize a pattern and it continues repeats itself. Not so long ago I was reeling because someone said I spoil my dog and another person gave me a broken laptop and felt bad that it caused me turmoil. I'm still here in this pattern, really? I suppose that moment of shock is a progress. Writing this out is therapeutic, even if I cannot retain it. I have also been working to manufacture my own loop or cycle. It goes like this: The jogger triggered all sorts of emotions in me. Perhaps my face, my dog, my reaction, or jogging triggered something emotional in his past? When I am hurting and I want to point a finger and blame someone, I start to wonder what their story is. I like to think this is the beginning of compassion. We all suffer, every single one of us.

We're all individuals and like the dogs in today's adventure we respond differently to each other. It's not what people say, or even how they say it. No, it is how it makes you feel. What you do with those feelings is up to you. If I can have compassion for a stranger who yelled at me, maybe one day I can have compassion for myself.