Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Boundaries - Why are they important?

Before I continue writing my thoughts about these issues, I want to add a bit of a disclaimer. I am not officially or clinically educated in the matters that I write about. My education comes from experience, discussion with others, Biblical studies, wise mentors, and lots of praying, thinking and pondering. I welcome discussion, and encourage readers to leave comments if you feel that there is something you want to add, question or correct. I give every effort to not implicate anyone except myself in my posts, with the exception of my daughter, who graciously gives me permission to write about her. It's a trust I honor.

And on that note, why are boundaries so important,anyway? Boundaries make the intricate dance of human relationships possible. They address a very important factor in each one of us - our wills.

When two people with two different sets of desires, wants and needs come together and form a relationship, a certain set of skills is required to enable the couple to move in unison when they need to, and to be freely separate when appropriate. That skill set involves the setting, maintaining, and respecting of each one's personal boundaries.

Without boundaries, every human interaction carries with it the potential for disaster. Chaos ensues as individuals fight to get their own way, each one looking to his own will and desires. Many of us know people who continually expect to get what they want, when they want it, and the idea that others also have needs or desires is a non-issue to them. Whether we are children, teens or adults, when we cannot bend our will to another and respect basic relational boundaries, we become miserable, angry, bitter people.

The fact is that we will never be able to get our own way as often as we want to in this world. We are also unable to develop meaningful, satisfying relationships with others if we are devoted to only ourselves. This combination of constant anger when our wills are frustrated and the lack of healthy relationships to give our lives meaning and joy means that we become truly miserable people. This need not happen.

The need to set and respect boundaries is an issue of control. If my friend and I want to go out to supper together, we may both have different but equally legitimate ideas about which type of food to try. I may want pizza, while my friend may have a taste for Indian food. How do we decide? Unless there's a mall food court near-by, one of us will have to lay down what we want for the sake of the other. We will have to work out a solution that each one is comfortable with. Boundaries will aid in this process, as they provide a basic set of guidelines for negotiating the differences.

So, picture my friend, Sandy, and I sitting in her car in her yard, trying to decide where to go to eat. She's on the Indian team, while I'm rooting for pizza. It may happen that Sandy can tell that her hunger for Indian food is not as strong as my pizza craving, so she will gladly go along with what I want. I may remember that I am planning on making pizza for the family on the week-end, in which case Indian might be a better choice. It may be that I am unable to eat strongly flavored food due to a digestive problem and when I communicate that to Sandy, she agrees that Indian is not a good choice. I may decide that since Sandy is driving, she should be able to choose the restaurant.

There are many ways Sandy and I can work this out. Boundaries work to restrict the negative, manipulative, selfish behaviors that would taint the process, and eventually, our relationship. Boundaries keep our exchange from becoming a power struggle. I should not try to get Sandy to back down by raising my voice, threatening not to go with her if she doesn't choose my way, passively-aggressively sighing and saying, "Well, I don't care, we'll do what you want...again", or agreeing to go to the Indian restaurant but then pouting or not engaging with her in conversation. Even if I do these things, and win the battle, I will lose much more than I gain.

This brings up an important point. People who routinely break the boundaries of others see these differences of desire and opinion as battles to be won. They tend to value the win more than the relationship. Sadly, they often feel the loss of the relationship deeply. Until we are able to admit that it is our intense, self-centred desire to have our own way that is causing us so much pain, we remain stuck in a relational pattern that leaves us perpetually angry, frustrated and lonely. The thrill of the win in no way compensates for the loss of relationship.

More tomorrow....

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Whom have I in heaven but You?

When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:21-26

I love seeing my own feelings written out in Scripture. When I read this passage yesterday, the first four lines especially stood out for me. It is comforting to know that there truly is nothing new under the sun, that the thoughts and feelings that I experience in my small, 21st century life, have been felt and experienced by generations of people before me. Including the wonderfully honest writer of this psalm.

Reading these words gives me courage to be honest about my own struggles and to bring them from the darkness into light. I understand what it is like to have a heart that is so grieved, a spirit that is so embittered that I have become like a brute beast. I have been senseless and ignorant to my surroundings, the people around me and my life, because of pain. Reading these words gives me hope, and a sense of God's love, no matter what I have done.

There was a time, several years ago, when my life was filled with so much pain that I struggled to cope with it. I was in a relationship with an abusive person, and was not coping well. Physically, I was experiencing overwhelming bouts of IC (interstitial cystitis) pain that lasted for weeks, and the anxiety I lived with led to almost constant angina. I was, for the most part, hiding the abuse I was living with. Only a few close friends and one family member knew. During this time, as the pressure of the anger and violence in my relationship grew, I turned to self-harming to find comfort. As odd as it sounds, hurting myself physically relieved some of the emotional pain. It left me open to ridicule from the abuser in my life, but the release from the pain was worth it. I didn't understand why I was doing it, why in the midst of the worst times of shame, fear, frustration and hurt, I felt overwhelming urges to hurt myself.

I told my closest friends what I was doing. I sought counseling with a Christian counselor. I took advantage of every tool at my disposal, especially prayer, and was able after a short while to stop the behavior. Today I have no temptation to hurt myself as I once did.

As I began to understand the effect of the fear and pain I lived with, I also became aware of my anger towards the one who was hurting me. Part of the temptation to self-harm came from a furious desire to strike out at the abuser. Instead, I relieved the urge by striking out at myself. I wasn't trying to induce guilt in him. I had told him about the first few incidents. He began to mock me for what I was doing, claiming that I was mentally ill and therefore my assertion that his behavior towards me was abusive could not be trusted. I then turned to friends that I could trust to help me, not to use my struggle to justify abuse. The fact is, even if I had been mentally ill, the proper response would have been care and concern, not abuse.

When I read the verses in Psalm 73, and I hear the psalmist talk about feeling so grieved and embittered that he became like a brute beast, something inside of me lifts. My feelings are not new. The psalmist is not speaking with shame. He has not lost his voice because his suffering had caused him, at one point in his life, to become senseless and ignorant, a brute. In fact, because he turned to God, his experiences have given him a new voice, a powerful voice of healing and hope. Because the psalmist is willing to be honest about what he has gone through, his words can reach across the generations to my bedroom, my crumpled spirit, my grieved heart.

There are those who would use our weaknesses to shame us into silence. There are those who mock and taunt us and say that our struggles taint our voices. The psalmist begs to differ. God Himself begs to differ. Even if our struggles and pain defeat us physically, our hearts are safe when we put them into God's hands. When we turn to God and courageously allow Him to use our pain and our stories, the world around us is changed for the better. The message? We are not alone. We have never been alone. God understands. God cares. When we tell our stories, we remove the weapons of shame and defeat from the hands of those who would see us silenced.

I have scars from my self-harming days. I have freely shown them to others who have timidly, quietly confessed that they struggle with self-harming. They are battle wounds. From my senseless and ignorant brutish days. The days when God held on extra tightly to me. Others may linger on the truth that I was a senseless brute. That's their choice. I chose verses 23 to 26. That's my choice.

"God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

Friday, May 27, 2011

More thoughts on bullying...

This is just a short one.

When we walk away from the angry, hate-filled words of an aggressor, we are leaving them alone with their hate. They will be in pain, because hate hurts it's carrier. We will be blamed for the pain. It is as if they are banging their head against the wall and cursing us for causing their pain. The pain of hatred and rage belong to the one who hates. As we walk away, we need to let it all go and walk away free. Feel sorrow for the one allowing themselves to be in such pain, if you can, but do not own what you cannot control.

We must not for one moment allow ourselves to think that by banging our heads on the wall beside the one who hates, we will in any way relieve their pain. We will just increase our own.

Walk away. Walk free.

Monday, May 23, 2011

More Thoughts on Setting Boundaries

Since I have been thinking so much about boundaries and controlling behavior, I thought it might be a good idea to write about it. After all, why should I be the only one trying to put two and two together in hopes of coming up with a bit of sanity in my life?

One thing that I think is important to note is that not all people who resort to controlling behavior are habitual bullies. In fact, I think most of us indulge in a bit of controlling behavior at times. If, when you are angry you see another person as the source of your anger and either say or do something to try to make them behave in a way that will not anger you, you have been controlling. If you have ever justified aggressive or threatening behavior like yelling, screaming, swearing, slamming doors, breaking or throwing things, name-calling, rude behavior like pouting, ignoring or snubbing someone, slandering someone's reputation (a fancy word for saying something unkind about someone that you know you shouldn't say, or that you're not 100% sure is true), or in any way trying to hurt, humiliate, shame or anger someone, you have been indulging in bullying behavior. I know that I have done many of these things.

One of the most important things that I have learned through my relationship with God and studying the Bible is that I am responsible for my behavior. All of it. God keeps telling me that there is a better way to handle conflict. When I lose my temper and manage to overpower another person with my anger and words, I have not won an argument. I have failed at being who I want to be. This is significant, because for every failure there is forgiveness and a new start. It is also significant because it means that when others try to overpower me with their anger and aggression, they are not exhibiting strength, but weakness and are failing as human beings. I am not weak for walking away and refusing to fight with someone who is falling apart emotionally.

My daughter reminded me of this recently. She was telling me about someone who had called our house, and when Grace answered the phone, this adult was quite rude to her. This is someone who is habitually rude to my daughter and I, and I told Grace about a sarcastic come-back that I wanted to use the next time I met up with this person's attitude. Grace said, "yeah, Mom, but isn't that sinking to their level?" Of course, she was right.

Another thought that I have been having lately is that controlling people will often interpret our efforts to set healthy boundaries as offensive, or controlling. I remember a time when I walked away from someone who was in a fury and calling me names. As I left the room, the person raged, "Oh yes, you always have to be the one in control!" I was in no way hampering the person's right to say what they wanted to say. I was merely exercising my right not to listen. Of course they were free to continue insulting me, but I would not be there to hear it. I also knew that I was becoming angry at the name-calling, and if I didn't leave, I retaliate. I didn't want to do that. Walking away was a responsible way of controlling my desire to lash back in hurt and frustration.

The aggressor's anger came from my refusal to be controlled and not from any effort on my part to control them. Often controlling behavior comes from people who cannot control their own impulses. They are helpless against their own anger and rage, and instead of admitting that fact and taking responsible steps to gain control over their feelings and actions, they try to control what they see as the triggers of their anger, the behavior of others.

When we set healthy boundaries, we need to be very honest with ourselves as far as our motives are concerned. Am I trying to control the behavior of another by setting this boundary, or am I simply taking responsibility for myself and my actions and making that clear to others? Am I establishing where I end and the other person begins? Am I okay with the possibility that the other person may not respond as I wish them to? It is normal to be sad and disappointed when the other person refuses to respect our boundaries and tries to push further, leaving no way to build or maintain a healthy relationship. Still, we need to accept their choices.

This is really hard stuff. I dislike conflict, and yet when in the middle of one, I can cat-fight with the best of them. I think that's a part of why I hate conflict so much. I hate the temptations that it presents, the depths I can sink to if I am not careful. I hate the anger and what it does to me, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

One thing I love, though, is having a God who understands, who is slow to anger and quick to forgive. I depend on that forgiveness daily. He's the Master Teacher, the Master Counselor, the Master Parent. I need all that and more. Thankfully, God is more. Much, much more.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Bullying - the dialogue doesn't stop until the violence stops!

The topic of bullying is a hot one, and has been for quite a while now. Hopefully, it will continue to be addressed until we as a society understand what it is, why is is so harmful and what the results of bullying behavior is for victims, their families as well as bullies and their families. Sometimes I wonder if we are blurring the issue by using the word "bully" to describe the kind of controlling, aggressive, damaging behavior that it represents. In legal terms, it is called assault. Violence. Criminal.

Using the term "bullying" too often softens the edges and makes the behaviour seem more benign than it actually is. Bullying brings to mind school children being mean or rude to each other. Although it is being taken seriously more often as we begin to see the devastating effects it has on our children, I think that until we identify the behavior for what it is, violence and aggression, assault and battery, we will not be able to grasp the full impact of this problem on our society. For the purposes of this note, I am going to use the term bullying because it identifies aggression in specific situations. The term bullying should not refer to the seriousness of the assault, but the circumstances in which the violence or assault takes place.

We also need to acknowledge that it is not only children who bully and are bullied. As adults, we need to define which behaviors are acceptable in intimate, social and work relationships. We need to develop clear boundaries, knowing within ourselves and communicating to others what we will and will not tolerate.

Bullying is about control. It is entirely selfish. When we have determined for ourselves what is acceptable behavior in our relationships, bullying is also easy to spot. Any aggressive interaction is unacceptable. The threat of physical violence is also unacceptable. Threats of damage to property, reputation, relationship, pets, employment are all wrong. Anything that restricts movement, physically blocking someone from leaving a room, for example, is bullying. Often, in debates, discussions and arguments, people become passionate and voices can be raised. Whether or not a raised voice is bullying depends on the purpose and result. If raising one's voice is meant to silence another, it is controlling and aggressive. If it has the effect of silencing another even if the intention is not there, and one becomes aware of the result, a time-out may need to be called so that calm can be restored. We have the right to refuse to listen to what another is saying. We do not have the right to stop them from saying it. Naturally, throwing, smashing and destroying things is violent and constitutes bullying when it frightens another person into submitting to one's will. The whole idea of bullying is to make someone else feel, think or do something against their will.

Is it possible to have two people yelling at each other in an argument and have it not be bullying? I think it is. Bullying requires an imbalance in strength or ability to control. Two strong-willed people yelling their views at each other may be wasting their time, but if neither one of them feels intimidated or frightened, I don't think bullying is taking place. People argue all the time. Whether it accomplishes anything is debatable, but bullying requires that one person is dominating or over-powering another. The intention is not to avoid all conflict.

I willingly enter into conflicts about issues that I feel are important and worth discussing, but as soon as personal insults, threats and/or aggression start, I walk away. If you don't like the way I live out my faith, or if you don't believe what I believe and you want to discuss it, I'll gladly partake. When the insults begin, the conversation is over. If you don't like the way I parent my child, I can accept that. Make fun of me or her and threaten us and the door between us closes, quickly.

One distinct characteristic of bullies is that when a victim defends themselves, the bully sees themselves as the consummate victim. Gather a group of spouse/child abusers together, especially ones who have had to face the consequences of their actions, and just watch the self-pity flow. I have seen men physically harm their wives, and then maintain that the women deserved it because after the attack, she lashed back at her abuser. Is it logical to assert that your behavior was caused by something that happened as a result of your behavior? Of course not. Logic plays no part in bullying. Therefore, there is no point in trying to discuss the issue with the bully until they are 100% willing to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Boundaries must be set and maintained. We need to find people who understand and support our need to set boundaries. Sometimes, practicing the verbal exercise of setting boundaries with a friend or relative can be helpful. Knowing that not only is it okay to expect to be treated w/respect, but it is also okay to refuse to engage with someone who is violating our boundaries is important.

Standing up to a bully may create more conflict for a time. If physical harm is a part of the dynamic, our safety must be a priority. Violence is a crime, and it's okay to treat it as such, even with a loved one. We do our family and friends no favors when we do not take abuse seriously. Legal consequences for abuse belongs to the abuser, not to the victim. The abuser may think differently, their inner circle may think differently (no one becomes an abuser in a vacuum), but we must know deep within us that where there is choice, there is responsibility. We cannot control whether another person commits a crime, and so we are not responsible for the consequences.

I believe it is important that we continue pondering and discussing these issues. Doing it out-loud, by writing and speaking about it, helps others to know that they are not alone. We can help each other, by supporting and caring for each other. It takes tremendous courage to deal effectively with abuse, and no one can (or should have to) do it alone. By speaking out, we invite others to speak too, and for those wounded hearts listening and reading, we present ourselves as safe places to seek help and encouragement.
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