Are You Putting Out Fires That Aren’t Your Own?

“I’m just so worried about him,” a friend said to me about her on again/ off again boyfriend. “He’s on a path of self-descruction and I don’t know what to do for him.”

This pronouncement came less than a latte after this same friend was crying about the uncertainty in her own life, calling herself a “wreck.”

Yet she had shifted her attentions from her own fires to those of her sometimes boyfriend.

This tendency to attempt to put out fires that are not our own is so common that AA even has an oft-repeated phrase for it – “Keep your own side of the street clean.” And it’s not just those battling addiction that face the temptation of turning on the sirens for other people’s drama.

It’s all of us.

 

 

We hate to see those we care about suffering and we want to alleviate their discomfort.

 

Wanting to help is a testament to your ability to empathize and a reflection of the selflessness of your character. There are times when your willingness to drop everything to come to the rescue is needed and appropriate.

And there are times when it is not.

This was something I struggled with when I first started teaching. I thought that I could “save” all of my students by simply stepping up my effort to deliver them from whatever corner they were currently backed into. I would accept endless excuses, dismiss poor choices and give them opportunity after opportunity with little repercussion.

And it didn’t work. I began exhausted, frustrated and eventually, even resentful as they continued to take advantage of my kindness without making any progress. In my attempt to help, I was actually holding them back by not teaching them how to take responsibility for their own actions and outcomes.

So I changed my approach. And instead of being willing to help no matter what, I vowed to never help someone more than they were willing to help themselves. I set and communicated boundaries with my students – I will go this far for you and only this far; it’s your choice if you want to meet me there.

It wasn’t always easy in the beginning (or sometimes even now). I had to let students fail. I had to allow the tears to fall. I had to give them the space to make the wrong decisions so that they could experience the consequences.

But time and time again, I saw that by allowing them to figure it out on their own, they started to…well, figure it out.

 

 

Someone else’s pain distracts us from our own.

 

This was undoubtedly one of my friend’s motivations as she fixated on her maybe-he’s-her-boyfriend’s problems. She was overwhelmed with her own situation and felt hopeless and scared whenever she began to consider it too closely, so instead, she looked away.

It can become an excuse, “Oh, I don’t have the time/energy/resources to deal with my own stuff right now. I have to put it on the back burner while I attend to this other person’s needs.” This may be true for a while, but if you always find yourself rushing to extinguish the fires of others, you’re ignoring the conflagration that’s right in front of you.

 

 

It’s easier to find clarity in a situation when we have some distance.

 

Even advice columnists need help sometimes. When we’re inside a situation, it can be difficult to see clearly. Yet, when our loved ones are in crisis, we have the gift of perspective born from being just one step removed.

And of course, you want to share your observations and conclusions that you have from your viewpoint. After all, it seems so obvious. So clear-cut. Once they hear your position, surely they will have that same gift of a bird’s eye view.

And maybe they will. Perhaps hearing your perspective is enough for them to see the bigger picture and develop a clear course of action.

Or maybe, they’re not ready to take a step back and see things through a more depersonalized lens. You can’t force someone to see when they’re stubbornly closing their eyes.

Or maybe, your interpretation is off, neglecting elements that are unknown or not understood by you. Imagine trying to describe a painting to someone whose back is turned. You will select words based upon your experiences and understanding. The mental picture formed by your description will likely vary significantly from the person’s own views once they turn around.

 

 

We want to be needed.

 

I have witnessed time and time again a particular type of grief in mothers of young children. Even as they rejoice in their offspring’s newfound independence as they approach school-age, they mourn the feeling of no longer being needed in the same way.

It feels good to be needed. There’s a certain security in knowing that others depend upon us and therefore, won’t want to leave us. Yet this impulse can easily set up an unhealthy dynamic where the goal becomes dependence rather than independence. A bond formed from fear, rather than love.

Because, ultimately, the objective when coming to someone’s aid is to help them learn how to help themselves. When you find yourself no longer needed (and instead, the person is still there because they want to be there), you’re doing something right.

 

 

 

 

 

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Podcast: Cool Things to Look Forward to After Your Divorce

I know. “Looking forward” and “divorce” seem to be oxymoronic when considered together.

But I promise, they’re not.

Without a doubt, divorce sucks. It’s traumatic, painful and life-altering.

And it’s also an opportunity.

A crack in the wall that permits the light that allows you to see yourself clearly.

A rip in the fabric that provides the option of creating a new pattern.

A burning down, that leaves a blank slate, ready to be filled.

 

The event may have been unwanted. The process painful. Yet the results?

They can be amazing.

Learn more on Divorce Sux the Podcast.

How to Survive “Transplant Shock” After Divorce

It was a gift, a full and beautiful French hydrangea, with it’s startling blue pom-poms of flowers perched above the simple white wrapping over the pot. I placed it on a counter, where it was out of the reach of the dogs, and for several weeks, I tended to it carefully with the enclosed fertilizer packet and a carefully metered watering schedule. In return, I was awarded with stunning and tenacious blooms for many days.

Then, so slowly that it was hard to notice at first, the plant began to languish. New buds were no longer forming and the ones that held tight were beginning to turn to parchment with age. The leaves, once a deep, leathery green, began to yellow, their pallor hinting at ill health.

At this point, I was a complete neophyte when it came to plant care. So, I turned to the wisdom held on the shelves of my public library combined with the practical advice delivered by a seasoned gardener who was volunteering at the library that day. I learned that the gifted shrub would only survive for a brief period in its small pot but that, luckily, it was suited to the climate found in Atlanta. I was instructed to purchase some planting soil, pick a suitable spot in my yard, and transfer the plant to its new home where, I was assured, it would thrive.

I followed the instructions as I understood them, holding visions of a huge hydrangea soon becoming the stunning focal point of my tired front yard.

Instead, I found myself pulling its skeletal remains from the earth a mere four weeks after planting. In my ignorance and haste, I had failed to adequately protect my charge against transplant shock, and it succumbed to the stress.

Years later, I again thought of that little plant. I, too, had gone from being in full-flower, content in my small world, to suddenly being ripped out and forced into a new – and harsher – environment. In the interim, I had become a competent gardener, successfully transplanting many plants. Now, it was necessary for me to apply that knowledge to myself so that I could survive the transplant shock after divorce.

 

Timing Matters

With plants, it’s best to move them during their more dormant season and when they will not face the additional stress of extreme weather conditions. When it comes to divorce, we may not have the option to make the move at a time when the rest of life is relatively inert, so we have to be mindful of the additional pressures the timing may entail. As much as possible, try to push the pause button on the non-essential demands for the short term, so that you can direct your energies to getting settled in your new space.

 

Be Mindful About Placement

One of the many mistakes I made with my first hydrangea was siting it where it received afternoon sun, a death sentence for this shrub in the south. I almost made a similar mistake with myself, placing myself in an environment – alone in a rental – where I would receive too little social connection. Instead, I resided with a dear friend, where I had the connection and sanctuary I needed. Don’t worry about what others say you’re “supposed” to do or the mental image you’ve held for this life stage, place yourself where you will thrive.

 

Add a Little Bit of the Old

When I moved my little shrub that day, I carefully brushed away as much of the old soil as I could, thinking that it was stale and barren and needed to be replaced with completely new earth. Except that new soil was a huge blow to the struggling roots, with nothing familiar to comfort them, they simply froze from the shock. We’re not that different. When everything is new, we have nothing to rely on as we begin our exploration. Keep some things constant as you move from your old life to the new.

 

Provide Plenty of Water

It turns out that stressed plants need more water. They’ve not yet acclimated to their site, so they’re not yet completely efficient and the growth of new roots requires plenty of moisture. We also have a tendency to need more of the things that sustain us during a period of translate shock. We require more attention, more sleep and more support.

 

Don’t Try to Grow Too Fast

I fell for the advertising. While purchasing the planting soil for my little shrub, I picked up a gardening magazine from the checkout line. A two-page advertisement showed a glorious hedge of hydrangeas with the tagline, “Brought to you by Miracle Grow.” So, of course, I added the fertilizer to my cart and liberally applied to over the next two weeks. It was a huge mistake. I was forcing the plant to put out new stems and leaves while the rootball beneath the soil was still too small to support the new growth. We can easily fall into the same trap after divorce. The deep work, the root work, that we need to do to thrive isn’t fun. It isn’t sexy or beautiful. It’s easy to try to spread out too far, too fast and ignore what anchors us. And, just like the plant, it cannot be supported long term.

 

Loosen the Barriers

I probably killed that plant in fifteen different ways. When I finally removed its remains, I saw evidence of some root growth. To a point. I had made the planting hole too small and the roots had stopped growing once they reached the barrier of the rock-hard Georgia red clay. Sometimes, after divorce, we can find ourselves in a pocket of compassion and intervention and then once the empathy and concern of others begins to fade, we feel as though we’re up against a rock wall of indifference. Strive to integrate those barriers so that support is slowly decreased as you gain your strength.

 

Patience

So many of my mistakes with my little shrub were made out of impatience. I wanted it to be fully grown. Like yesterday. But, as with anything, there are no shortcuts. Instead, it’s a process of trial and error, adaptation and setbacks, and learning from each mistake. Only then, and with time, will the blooms return in full.

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Are They Like Us? The Fascination With Celebrity Divorce

It’s been cold lately. And dark. And often wet and windy. So in the wisdom (or perhaps wimpiness) of my old age, I have traded in my outdoor runs for time on the treadmill. Which also means I end up watching a lot of HGTV (because it’s that or news and I refuse to subject myself to the latter).

So I’ve become versed in two celebrity couples (Chip and Joanna from Fixer Upper and Tarek and Christina from Flip or Flop) whose marriages – and in one case case, divorce – are frequently being analyzed in the media.

Celebrity marriage can be a strange thing. In our daily lives, the interior of any marriage other than our own tends to be tucked away, kept hidden behind carefully curated Facebook posts and a belief that any blips are somehow abnormal and should be suppressed. Whereas with today’s media, we are often granted an intimate view inside the relationships of the famous. Even though the cameras are only sometimes on and the publicists attempt to control the release of information, we still see quite a lot and, even more importantly, we can begin to feel like we know the people involved.

I used to feel a little let down when I would turn on the TV over the treadmill and see Tarek and Christina’s faces. The show was fine, it certainly followed the formula of “Oh no! This house is worse than we anticipated! We’re over budget because of some sort of surprise repair. But we still have to buy these too-expensive cabinets/floor tiles/solid gold bathtub.”

My discomfort instead came from watching the interplay between the couple. I found myself cringing at Tarek’s visible contempt for his wife’s opinion. It was awkward watching them attempt to force a connection when it seemed as though one no longer existed. They both seemed to be more vibrant, more alive, with other people on the show rather than with their partner.

So I was not surprised when a history of marital trouble (including a secret separation) and impending divorce were announced. It became a bit of train wreck – people didn’t really want to know the salacious details yet they couldn’t make themselves look away.

Reactions were mixed. Overwhelmingly, people expressed concern for those involved, especially for the children. There was also a sense of vindication, of letting themselves off the hook. After all, if the good-looking, rich and famous can’t always make marriage work, how are the rest of us supposed to do any better with our money woes and childcare pressures?

The other couple I frequently see, Chip and Joanna, seem to be polar opposites of the first. They appear to have an overwhelming mutual appreciation and respect for each other and operate well as a team. Yet, the media seems to love to speculate about an impending split. Perhaps because they seem too-perfect and we can’t help but wonder if it’s real. (And maybe even secretly hope that it’s not.)

Celebrity culture is a strange phenomena. It makes us both want to be like them and also invites us to revel in their destruction. We both watch their marriages to feel better about our own and also to question if we are somehow lacking. We watch for signs of trouble brewing to reassure ourselves that we can catch sight of the red flags to convince ourselves that we are “safe” in our relationships. When a divorce does occur, it’s easy to view it as entertainment and to readily assign roles of good guy and evil villain and to minimize the emotional fallout that must be occurring behind the scenes.

My guess is that their marriages really aren’t that different than the rest of ours – sometimes great, sometimes terrible and all-too-often taken for granted. And their divorces may differ in scale and attention, but those at the core are still heartbroken.

As for me, my time on the treadmill these past few months has taught me a few things –

I can’t afford to live in California. I wish I could bring Waco housing prices to Atlanta. Painting everything gold is never a good idea and there is such a thing as too many clocks. And, more than anything else, I’m grateful that I don’t have to face speculation on the state of my marriage in the checkout line at the grocery store.

 

 

 

Slowly Turning Up the Heat: The Dark Side of the “New Normal”

A “new normal” can simply be a period of adjustment, of accepting what has changed and adapting to a new environment. This type of acclimatization may be uncomfortable, but it is ultimately relatively harmless and potentially even provides opportunity for growth.

Learn more about the “new normal” after divorce.

But that’s not always the case.

Like many people, I used to question the decision-making abilities of those who chose to stay in toxic or abusive environments. Don’t they see how poorly they’re being treated? Don’t they expect better for themselves? I just couldn’t understand.

Until I was in a toxic environment myself.

My first known experience with a poisonous atmosphere was when a new administration took over my school. The changes started almost immediately. The email newsletter, where exemplary teachers were highlighted on a weekly basis, was suspended. Meetings began to take on an accusatory tone and trust levels began to decline. By winter break, we all began to feel as though we were walking on eggshells and trying not to wake the sleeping dragon. The image that always comes to mind when I reflect upon that era is a meeting my team had with the principal. A meeting where he sat high behind his desk, yelling at us while we were seated on the floor.

We adapted. We learned when to keep our mouths shut (which was always, as long as we were within the bounds of the school). We learned not to question, because the answers were always in the form of punishment, meted out with what seemed to be a vicious delight. We even joked about the circumstances, trauma funneled into hilarity in an attempt to survive.

And the scary part? It began to feel acceptable. After all, we were ensconced in that environment for 10+ hours a day.

The toxic and abusive environment had become our new normal.

And it was only once we were out that we could see it for what it was. Once we were all back in functional work environments, we could see how crazy of a world we had occupied.

 

It may have become our normal.

But it was far from okay.

It is rare for abuse to go from “off” to “high heat” within the first meeting (because then nobody would ever stay, would they?). Rather, the heat is slowly increased so that the intensification hardly registers and the very-much-not-okay no longer seems unusual or to be of any consequence. That’s definitely how the covert abuse developed in my marriage.

 

There are a few strategies to identify this dark side of the “new normal” and to recognize abuse as it begins to escalate:

  • Be careful if you’re in a fragile state. You may find that you’re attracting people that see you as easy to manipulate or dominate.
  • Listen to your gut. You may not “know” what is wrong, but you’ll have a sense that something is off.
  • Be aware of if you’re creating justifications for situations or behavior. If you’re always making excuses, it’s a sign that something isn’t quite right.
  • Be cognizant of “boundary sliding.” If you always said, “I never put up with…” and now you are, that’s telling you something.
  • Ask for feedback. Describe the situation to a trusted friend or volunteer on a helpline and get their feedback. It’s easier to see clearly when you’re not on the inside.
  • If you have suspicions, begin to document the behaviors. Once you have it in writing, it’s easier to see any patterns and it’s harder to make excuses.

 

Abusive relationships rarely improve. Promises of “This will be the last time” and “I’m going to be better” seldom come to fruition. And while you’re waiting for it to get better, the heat may just reach the boiling point.

Jump out while you can.