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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Five Surprising Ways Trust is Frayed

There are some actions whose impact on trust is obvious and catastrophic. Infidelity, sudden abuse, revealing or withholding important information and financial betrayal all sever the ties of emotional security with one brutal slash.

Yet many times, the erosion of trust is much more subtle and the belief in your partner happens slowly, one frayed stand of reilance at a time. It’s possible (and even common) for neither partner to realize the deleterious and compounding effect of these actions; they remain unnoticed until it becomes too late and trust may be beyond recovery.

Learn to recognize these crafty threats to trust so that you can address them before it’s too late:

 

1 – Not Showing Excitement

Ask any dog guardian about their favorite part about having a dog, and you will most likely hear something about how good it feels to be greeted every time with a wagging tail. Likewise, we want our partners to be excited to see us, no matter if we just returned from a month away or just walked in from a stroll around the block. A lackluster welcome can begin to make your presence feel unnoticed or even unwanted.

Apart from enthusiastic greetings, we want our partners to share in our successes. When we have reached some goal or garnered some praise, we want them to share in our sense of achievement. When we initiate a conversation with excitement and that energy is not returned, it is a feeling of trying to play tennis with a partner who refuses to return the serve.

Over time, you may begin to withhold your good news, refrain from sharing your passion, deciding that it’s less painful to celebrate alone than to have your smile countered with a shrug.

 

2 – Disappointment

Sometime disappointment comes from a person who deliberately fails to follow through on their promises. Their words soon become meaningless as their actions never manifest. You begin to expect that they won’t do as they say and you find yourself surprised when the behavior matches the claim.

Other times, the intention of the promise-maker is good and the lack of follow-through is more sporadic. Strangely, this situation is often more painful and causes more damage to trust than the first case, because the intermittent rewards keep you hoping for the desired outcome.

Especially if you have experienced major betrayal, these disappointments can register at a larger magnitude than they actually are. Furthermore, past injuries may encourage you to assume intent where there is only carelessness.

 

3 – Overreacting

We expect (and rightfully so) our partners to be our “safe space.” We want to be able to express our inner worries and reveal even our ugliest thoughts without the fear of being ridiculed or rejected. And if name-calling commences or the tone turns abusive, the impact on trust is overt and clear.

Yet the damaging impact to trust can occur even without a negative word uttered or a thought belittled. When every reaction to a statement is over-the-top, a five-alarm response to a two-alarm fire, your partner shifts from your safe space to someone you feel you have to keep safe from your thoughts and feelings.

Part of trust comes from consistency. And when you’re unsure how your partner is going to respond in a given moment or to a given piece of information, faith can be replaced with a sense of unease and wariness.

 

 

4 – Dismissing

When your perceptions and conclusions are constantly called into question or continually brushed aside as inconsequential, you can begin to doubt yourself. This doubt and confusion can spread, permeating the relationship. Additionally, a continual disregard of your thoughts and opinions can easily lead you to conclude that you’re not that important to your partner.

There is a balance between overreacting and shrugging everything off as “not that bad.” Trust comes from listening to everything with an open mind and with a mouth that often remains closed.

 

5 – Not Showing Support

When you’re falling and you’ve been led to expect a safety net, the sudden appearance of hard ground will cause you to question the dependability of the person who pledged to have your back. This can be as minute as a late pickup without communication at the airport or not picking up the slack around the house when you’re under a deadline at work.

 

None of these are relationship deal-breakers on their own. They are not unforgivable offenses and, in most cases, no offense was meant by them. In each case, the underlying cause of the erosion of trust comes down to unexpressed expectations and poorly communicated reactions. And the road back to trust is relatively straight forward: Talk more. And assume less.

 

The Unintended Consequences of Overreacting

One of the characteristics of a good marriage is that it is a safe space for both parties. Ideally, it becomes the sanctuary where you can take off your armor and feel comfortable wearing only your thin and vulnerable skin. It’s the place where you don’t have to pretend, where you can say what you feel and be loved for who you are. It’s where the tough conversations happen and wild emotions are tamed in the interest of the team.

I failed my first husband in this regard.

I went into that married scared. Scared of losing him. Scared of being alone. Scared of being unlovable. Scared of the consequences of adult decisions. And scared to face my own fear.

And the result of all this fear was that I didn’t create a space where he could feel safe expressing his own doubts, his own worries, his own fears. I unintentionally communicated the message that he wasn’t able to be open with me because I was too afraid to sit with the uncomfortable feelings it would stir up in me. I went into the marriage feeling abandoned – by my dad and by my friends who had died way too young – and my ex quietly assumed the role of reassuring me that I wouldn’t feel left again.

And so when his own crisis hit, when he began to feel less-than and unworthy and scared, he didn’t feel like he could turn to me. Instead, he turned inward. He tried to drown his shame in drink, he covered his fears with lies and the whole time, he kept me feeling safe. Secure.

I never told him he couldn’t talk to me. I never belittled him or questioned his feelings.I never lied, never raised my voice and never responded with contempt.

I thought I was doing my part to create a safe space for him.

But I wasn’t.

I didn’t give him the freedom to say the hard things without facing the entire brunt of my emotional burden. It must have felt like opening the car door only to fear being flattened by an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. Safer to simply keep the door closed.

I thought I was a good wife because I tried my best to lift him up.

But I wasn’t.

I didn’t understand that, rather than focus on him, I could do more good by focusing on me. By addressing my fears and my reactions, I had the power to help shape the very nature of our marriage, to make it a safer place for both of us to be open and vulnerable and to remove the burden of my emotional well-being from his shoulders.

I thought that I was doing the right thing by ignoring my fears of loss.

But I wasn’t.

Shoving those feelings aside didn’t mean that they were not there. Instead, they became a quiet hum, the perpetual background noise that would rise to a scream anytime it was provoked.

In all the lessons from the end of my marriage, perhaps one of the most important has been learning how to be okay with the idea of loss. To be okay staying with the uncomfortable feelings without erupting into a panic. To be okay hearing the hard words without internalizing them or catastrophizing them. And to make every effort to be calm even when my now-husband is expressing things I would rather not hear.

Because part of making marriage a safe space is to create an environment where each person can feel permitted to speak without excessive consequence. And that ultimately comes down to taking care of your own emotional wounds and narratives.

I still struggle sometimes with not overreacting. But like with anything, practice makes better. And life seems to give plenty of opportunities to keep learning.

 

A quick note here on responsibility – I am not excusing my ex husband’s decisions. What he did was oh-so-very-wrong in every way. I did not make him cheat, lie and turn to addiction. His choices and actions are his responsibility. My role is to look at what I could control, how I contributed to the environment that allowed his actions to occur, and address those things. I can’t change the past, but I can learn from it and keep trying to do and be better.

 

 

Why Love Is About Learning to Sit With Uncomfortable Emotions

What feelings come to mind when you think about love?

Is it the overwhelming tenderness you feel for the child nestled in your arms? Or the passion and desire you feel for a lover? Maybe its the quiet comfort of a shared smile or the intimacy and attachment you feel with a lifelong friend.

When we think about love, we focus on the pleasant sensations, the feelings of seen, being understood, being accepted. Love is the warm hug, the kind words, the desiring glance.

And yes, love is all of those things. It is perhaps our most powerful motivator, our greatest need. All that we do ultimately comes down to being done for love or out of a desire for love.

So if a need for love is universal, why do we struggle so much with finding it, feeling it and expressing it?

Because love is not only about the good feelings.

It’s about learning to sit with the uncomfortable ones.

Because that overwhelming affection is paired with the fear of losing the person that brings you such joy. Love lives alongside of loss. Of rejection. Of abandonment.

Just as love says, “I’m with you,” fear whispers, “But you could end up alone.”

When we focus too much on the fears, by pretending that they are not there, playing mind games to mitigate them or allowing their words to limit us, we inadvertently close the door to love.

Because in order to have love, you have to accept its potential loss. In order to have attachment, you have to risk rejection.

We struggle with love, not because we have difficulty with the positive emotions, but because we try to avoid the uncomfortable ones.

But that’s where love is found.

Sitting right next to fear.

And for you to find it, you have to be willing to find your place between them.

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Find Happiness With a New Partner After An Unwanted Divorce?

“I can’t imagine being happy with any else but her,” the message in my inbox said. The “her” in question was his ex-wife, who had recently initiated an unwanted divorce. “Do you really believe that it is possible to ever be happy with a new person?”

I asked my journal that same question after my divorce, afraid to voice the query aloud as though that would give my concerns more power. Even while I felt disgust at the realization that I had been sleeping with a stranger, I still fought the connection I had forged with him over sixteen years.

I tried to imagine myself with another man – a generic, faceless one – and I would be instantly snapped back to an image of my ex as though industrial strength bungee cords still tied us together. I thought of how comfortable I was with him and I searched the men in my periphery questioning if I could ever be so vulnerable with any of them. I reflected back on the intensity of the love that I had felt for my ex and I wondered if I would ever experience that again.

I couldn’t imagine ever being happy again with anyone else.

And I’m so grateful that I didn’t allow my imagination to keep me from trying.

___

 

Here are five truths to consider if you find yourself wondering if you can be happy in a new relationship:

 

Your happiness is anchored in you.

When you’re with someone for an extended time, the boundaries can begin to blur. Something that makes them happy, makes you happy. And it’s easy to begin to believe that your happiness is dependent upon them.

Yet it’s not and it never was.

True happiness and satisfaction in life comes from living within your own beliefs and values. It is found in living a purpose-driven life where you know who you are and what you have to give. It is in a sense of curiosity and playfulness. And, yes, it is in the relationships you form with others.

Here’s the important part – the root of happiness and the ability to create it is not found in another person or when your external circumstances change. It is in you. Always has been. Always will be.

Believing it only existed with your ex holds you back. Believing that you can find it in someone new leads you astray. Finding containment within will never let you down.

 

Your marriage wasn’t perfect. 

And it may not have even been good.

I know. Tough pill to swallow. I choked on that one myself for a couple years. But once I accepted it, everything else started to fall into place.

You see, I thought I had a good marriage. A great marriage, even. We never fought. We had great intimacy. We had common goals and values (or so I was led to believe). Much of the responsibility for that illusion lies on his shoulders – he needed for me to believe that things were good so that my suspicions would not be altered. And some of the responsibility falls on me. I needed to believe that the marriage was great because I was too afraid to entertain the alternative.

By allowing myself to see the reality of the relationship, it helped to let it go and by recognizing its imperfections, it also aided my belief that I could be in a happy relationship again.

I used to believe that I had a great first marriage. Now, I believe that its ending was proof that it wasn’t great. And I’m okay with that. I can now look back and smile at the good moments while at the same time accepting that not all was good behind the scenes.

And I’ve taken those hard-won lessons from that relationship and put them to good use in my life now. I’m beyond happy in my current marriage and happier still that it isn’t perfect.

 

Different can be better.

After an unwanted divorce, all you feel is the loss and all you know is what you had. There’s a tendency to smooth over the rough edges and idealize the person who left. The sense of deprivation causes a panicked grasping, an almost-obsessive need to try to hold on to whatever you can of your former partner. Every ounce of your being is focused on the void you feel and you naturally seek to want to stuff your ex back into that space to fill that hole.

Sometimes this manifests through repeated attempts to win the ex back or a more subtle yet persistent pining for the one who left. Other times it shows up by trying to sift through the single scene looking for a doppelgänger to replace what was lost.

You miss what you know and you don’t know what you haven’t had.

A new relationship will be different than the one you had. And different can be better (especially if you learned from your mistakes).

The grooves you followed in your old relationship will be rough at first, as you trip and stutter over the worn patterns with a new partner. But soon, you’ll find your own music.

The strengths of your ex may not be mirrored in the new partner. Yet they carry their own gifts and you may find they bring out new ones in you.

You won’t relive your early twenties with them, broke and optimistic. Yet you will share more experience and wisdom and the confidence that comes with them.

Happiness in the new relationship is found in recognizing what makes it unique, not in trying to make it a carbon copy.

Rather than see this as a burden, view it as an opportunity. A chance to start again, to start better.

 

Fear restricts; hope frees.

Fear weaves a web more intricate than any spider. Fear holds you back stronger than any restraints. Fear narrows your vision more than any blinders. And when you’re wondering if you’ll ever be happy with another person again, you’re listening to fear.

And fear lies.

But hope frees.

Fear tells us that the future will be worse than the past. Hope reminds us not to jump to conclusions.

Fear threatens that we’ll always be alone. Hope reminds us that connection is the natural outcome if we’re willing to be open and vulnerable.

Fear warns that we’ll never find happiness again. Hope reminds us that contentment is always present when we know where to find it.

 

Love doesn’t come with lifetime limits.

I’ve never seen love advertised as, “Limit 1 per customer.”

Yet we often live as though that were true.

Just as parents can find the love for each additional child, you can find the space within you to love again.

Eight years ago, I couldn’t ever imagine being happy with anyone else. And now, I can’t imagine having to go back to who I was with before. Because now, I’m happier than ever.