Thursday, March 3, 2011

Yoo hoo? Is there anybody there?

I know there are many of you who check back with my blog regularly and I think I am not only letting you down, but I have let myself down the last couple of weeks by not just pushing through. I’m not saying I feel pressure to write because I know you read, but your public and private comments have helped me not feel so alone. The process of reading and writing is therapeutic for me, but the dialogue (and even debate) that ensues stretches my understanding.

Sometimes (only sometimes) I wish I felt safe to explain my current life situations on this blog and sometimes I am grateful I have kept things fairly vague. I am also grateful to those of you who know me personally and haven’t pushed or pried.

That said, within days of my last post, my personal fears found footing in reality. Because of this, as with any type of tragedy, I have gone through many of the stages of grief … some of which I have repeated multiple times in the past weeks and over the last six months; some I have barely skimmed through and others I seem to be stuck in:  
1.      Shock & Denial
2.      Pain & Guilt
3.      Anger & Bargaining
4.      Depression, Reflection, Loneliness
5.      The Upward Turn
6.      Reconstruction & Working Through
7.      Acceptance & Hope
I am sure the last three stages will eventually come, but as for now they seem a long, impossible way off.

Knowing I’m not the only person in my world who is struggling, I scheduled to take my boys to the Center for Grieving Children. They have been showing signs of the stress: crying more, blowing up with anger, saying their tummy is doing flip-flops, begging to sleep with me, praying that, “We can have a good day tomorrow, that no one will be sad, that everyone will be happy, and that no one will be sad. Amen.”

Last week was their intake interview and tour of the facility. On our way, they moaned and groaned and said they didn’t want to go. I tried to reassure them it would be okay—that we could just check it out and see what we thought. They were skeptical, at best. After they quickly bonded with the counselor and played in the game room, they didn’t want to leave. Since that introduction, they have each asked multiple times (usually when they were having a hard day or they saw one of their brothers struggling emotionally), “When are we going back to the place that helps kids be happy? Can we go today?” While I nearly burst into tears at hearing them say this, I feel immense gratitude that such a place exists.

Emotions ran high tonight as we drove to the center. None of knew what to expect of an actual group session. On one hand, it is devastating to see the other children there who are suffering, some from circumstances much more tragic than we could imagine. On the other hand, for my boys to realize there are other kids out there, who are also feeling sad or who may be going through similar situations, is a huge blessing of comfort. I felt nervous and hoped it would be an answer to many prayers. Undoubtedly, the wonder and worry from the boys stirred their emotions to the point they were bouncing nervously, fighting, yelling, and crying nearly the entire drive there.

By the time we were in the parking lot, my middle son wouldn’t move from his seat in the car—upset about being punched by his brother. My oldest, looking forward to making new friends, was eager to start chit-chatting with other kids and the volunteers. My youngest had finally calmed down and was even willing to apologize for hitting his brother. I wondered if the roller coaster of emotions would level out and the boys would be receptive to the activities and discussions conducted by the center volunteers.

Within minutes, in walked another family, kids upset and crying. I realized how normal my boys were reacting. I also realized we were in the right place.

In addition to all of this, the same week as my last blog post, my therapist gave me the proverbial shove from the nest, telling me it was essentially time to fly … solo. He had tried to do this a couple of months prior, and I hadn’t handled the news very well. By his third attempt, I accepted my fate. The funny thing with therapy is I think many of us have the opinion that you go until you fix what’s wrong, you go until you “get better.” My therapist pointed out that all of us could benefit from therapy and that any of us have enough issues that we could spend our entire lives in counseling. He’s right. And, some people like me have a surplus of issues that weekly counseling appointments weren’t enough … I also had to blog. Honestly, I began the blog knowing full well that he was going to eventually cut me loose—I had to find an outlet and process that could be long-term. I suppose it’s a little like self-medicating. Self-counseling, anyone? (My new saying, “Just blog it out, blog … it … out.”)

So, my life is in the crapper, I’m on the verge of losing my home, my therapist broke up with me, and with the compounded stress I have been suffering from some medical-related issues. But those weren’t the reasons I hadn’t been able to blog. The real reason is because I have been working three jobs, one of which has been a step toward fulfilling a life-long dream: being paid to write.

The thing is, amid all of my personal struggles, I have been blessed with some of the most amazing experiences, people, and opportunities of my life. Currently, I am working (nights and weekends) doing freelance copywriting for a local big name book publishing/distributing company. This has been a humbling, inebriating, and rewarding experience. Unfortunately, it has taken much of the “spare” time I used to have to read and write things I wanted to, and now I am reading for research and writing for pay. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. Like I said, this is a dream come true!

Additionally, the sitcom treatment and pilot my brother, sister, and I had written is getting serious attention and we are finalizing paperwork to procure a large monetary investment to film a teaser. Even as I type that, I think I should probably delete it and leave it left unsaid for fear of jinxing the project. Instead, I’m going to put it out to the blog universe and ask friends and family to send lots of positive thoughts and prayers to help us realize this dream (which is really just a version of my previously mentioned dream—getting paid for my writing).

Looking for the silver lining is something I have always struggled with and have been trying to practice daily. It is a skill I would like my own sons to develop, as well. Sunday morning, I lay in bed snuggling with my middle child. Hoping to check his barometer, I asked him, “How is life?”

“A little good,” he said, seeming a bit melancholy.

“Just a little good? Why only a little good?” I probed.

He proceeded to announce the reason life for our family has been more difficult than usual. I knew it was coming. I wondered what my new friend would say in this situation to her son. She has been an inspiration to me and I feel stronger each time I talk to her. (I need to make a WWTD ring.)

“What?” I feigned surprise, “You mean you can only tell me one thing that’s wrong in your life and that’s what’s making your life only a little good and keeping your life from being great?!” (Yes, I felt like a hypocrite telling him this—I was giving myself the talk, more than I was giving it to him.) “Let’s name all of the things that are great in your life right now!” For the next few minutes we came up with nearly thirty different reasons life is more than just a little good, it is great! As we did, the smile on his lips grew wider, his eyes brighter, and he hugged me and said, “Let’s go make French toast.” I’m not sure what French toast has to do with it, but we hadn’t made a good, hot, homemade breakfast for awhile. It was time.

So, here I sit, staring at my laptop, the upcoming blog post about Boundaries still in its skeletal form. I guess it can wait a little longer. Besides, I’ve got research to do for some television and radio ads I have been commissioned to write. Oh darn.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Boundaries Part IV: Why Teach Children Boundaries?

In studying my own blurred boundaries, there has been one major issue nagging at me, begging to be written. This is the issue of teaching boundaries to my children. I want to first address the reason we, as parents, should feel compelled to help our kids become competent at constructing and maintaining boundaries. (My next boundary-related blog post will focus on how to do so.) Cloud & Townsend (1992) said it best: “Of all the areas in which boundaries are crucially important, none is more relevant than that of raising children. How we approach boundaries and child rearing will have enormous impact on the characters of our kids. On how they develop values. On how well they do in school. On friends they pick. On whom they marry. And on how well they do in a career” (p.168).

As a compliant person, who fears telling others “no,” I also fear I am creating kids who will imitate my behavior and thereby struggle with their school or career performance and relationships. Admittedly, I have been a pretty controlling parent, expecting exact and prompt obedience from my children. There are some benefits to this training—such as during times of emergency and during, well, other times of, say, an emergency. Yeah, pretty much, I realize that in teaching my children to obey regardless of their desires or preferences, I am teaching them to be just like me. “When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with them as they wish. They are sending their children defenseless into a world that contains much evil. … To feel safe in an evil world, children need to have the power to say things like: ‘No,’ ‘I disagree,’ ‘I will not,’ ‘I choose not to,’ ‘Stop that,’ ‘It hurts,’ ‘It’s wrong,’ ‘That’s bad,’ ‘I don’t like it when you touch me there.’ Blocking a child’s ability to say no handicaps that child for life. Adults with handicaps … [don’t] say no to bad things” (Cloud & Townsend, 1992, p.50).

I remember a time in my parenting when I understood this better. My oldest was young, maybe one or two years old. A relative tried to coerce my son into giving them a hug and a kiss as we left their home, and he didn’t want to. The whole situation made me uncomfortable for several reasons: 1) I wanted this relative to feel close to and have a loving relationship with my son, 2) I wanted my son to love and feel close to this relative, and 3) I believed instinctively if a child were compelled to show affection to any adult they could become an easy target for a sexual predator in the future.

The scenario of the family member demanding the affection, my son throwing a fit and trying to get away, gave me such anxiety. Some moms are overprotective about germs, demanding that friends and family members sanitize their entire bodies before coming into contact with their child. Some moms are overprotective about physical danger, not allowing their child to even leave the house without a helmet and every square inch of their limbs Velcroed with padded gear. And then, some moms are overprotective about emotional danger caused by pedophiles and perverts, not allowing their child to have sleep-overs and giving the “good touch/bad touch” lesson on a weekly basis. That mom would be me. Sadly, I have virtually stolen the strongest protection I could have given my sons in this regard: the ability to say “no.”

In Proverbs 22:6 it reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  However, according to Cloud & Townsend (1992), “Many parents misunderstand this passage. They think ‘the way he should go’ means ‘the way we, the parents think he (or she) should go.’ … The verse actually means ‘the way God has planned for him (or her) to go.’ In other words, good parenting isn’t emotionally bludgeoning the child into some clone or ideal of the perfect child. It’s being a partner in helping young ones discover what God intended for them to be and helping them reach that goal” (p.62-63).

The task of helping my boys discover God’s plan for them seems nearly impossible when I realize that I have no clue what God wants me to be. It reminds me of the time I helped coach a little league basketball team. A friend, and highly-skilled basketball player, had signed up to coach a little league boys’ basketball team. He realized, because of his work responsibilities, he wouldn’t be able to attend every practice or game, and asked if I would help coach. For anyone who knows me, this scenario is fairly comical, since I am one of the most uncoordinated, un-athletic people in the world (I trip over invisible lines). In fact, the likelihood that any of the ten-year-old boys I was coaching could beat me was virtually guaranteed. However, I was eager to help out my friend and hoped the saying, “Those who can’t do, teach,” would apply in a positive way.

In the end, my friend only made it to a few of the practices and games. My sister, who is only slightly less uncoordinated than I, helped me make sure we were following the rules and giving the kids equal playing time. Sadly, our team lost every game. It was rough. Some might say we were stacked with a group of unskilled and uncoordinated players. However, I prefer to blame the coach: me. While I had a basic knowledge of the rules of basketball (I had even played little league ball as a kid), knowledge of rules isn’t equivalent to having an understanding of skill development, comprehending offensive/defensive strategy, or realizing what natural talents each player possessed and helping to hone them. And, that’s exactly how I feel about helping my children through this journey of life.

Often, it seems I am coaching them alone, helping them to do the drills of praying, reading scriptures, going to church – the same drills I ran as a child – and they still might lose the game, either because I am too uncoordinated and inconsistent or because I lack crucial knowledge to help them be successful … Eventually, I realize I am not coaching them alone, because I have a myriad of family, friends, and church members helping me out. Moreover, I remember how blessed I am to have someone more knowledgeable than I who is really the one running the drills, sharing the rule book, and calling the plays.

One of my biggest boundary issues with my children is that I lack consistency, especially with my youngest. Cloud & Townsend (1992) would point out that when “parents combine strict and lax limits, [they are] sending conflicting messages to children. The children don’t know what the rules of family and life are” (p.80). I know I was much more consistent with my oldest children, but when number three came along and I didn’t grow a third arm, it seems I lost my ability to follow through. Consequences became either vague threats or inappropriately harsh. The poor boy doesn’t know when it’s safe to do anything, because, for example, sitting on the counter top is okay on one day and the next day it’s not. The “counter top” could be a metaphor for just about everything with this kid! “Good child rearing involves both preventive training and practice, and correctional consequences” (p.171). In other words, discipline. “The positive facets of discipline are proactivity, prevention, and instruction” (p.170).

Discipline is an external boundary, designed to develop internal boundaries in our children. It provides a structure of safety until the child has enough structure in his character to not need it. Good discipline always moves the child toward more internal structure and more responsibility” (p.171).

Unfortunately for my boys, I have done little to teach them discipline; instead I have taught them to fear punishment. “Punishment is paying for wrongdoing. Legally, it’s paying a penalty for breaking the law. Punishment doesn’t leave a lot of room for practice, however. It’s not a great teacher. … Punishment does not leave much room for mistakes. … Discipline is not payment for a wrong. It’s the natural law of God: our actions reap consequences” (p.171, 172). It is time for me to determine the natural consequences involved with my sons' behavior and allow them to learn from their experiences where appropriate. It’s not like my kids are out killing people or burning down buildings and need punishment. However, we have our share of lying and hitting—both, which could easily be seen as punishable, but that will not teach them anything. I need to allow the consequences to teach.

Today in church, the women's lesson was about the joy of working hard. One mother talked about how they used the concept of service not only to reframe work or chores, but also in the process of forgiveness. For example, if one of her kids had hurt (emotionally, physically, or otherwise) a sibling, the sibling who had been hurt was encouraged to do a secret act of service for the offending child (such as make his/her bed, fold clothes, etc.). This softened the hearts of both children—but more so the child who had been offended. This approach reminded me of a former student talking about conflict in his home. His parents’ solution was to sit the two fighting children together on one step of the stairway, where they were made to either hug or hold hands. They were not allowed to leave the step until they had resolved the issue, and once it was resolved, they were to leave it at the stairs. He said at first they sat there for long periods of time, each refusing to work through the anger or frustration. Eventually, however, they learned to work through conflict quickly, communicating openly, and he said they always felt increased love for the other.

Now, I’m not so sure I would have performed well in either household—being the stubborn soul I am, I imagine if I were compelled to do service for my sister with whom I’d just gotten in a fight, I might plant a few forks under her bed covers. And, if I had to sit and "hug it out" with my brother, it’s likely we would have either sat there until we fell asleep or one of us ended up needing medical attention. Maybe I underestimate the power of these methods. I also imagine, if I were hugging it out with someone, it could quickly turn comedic, and laughter is good medicine no matter what the conflict.

But, back to boundaries (maybe I never left). Cloud & Townsend (1992) also point out that, “Boundaries are our way of protecting and safeguarding our souls. … And skills such as saying no, telling the truth, and maintaining physical distance need to be developed in the family structure to allow the child to take on the responsibility of self-protection” (p.173). When it comes to a child and his physical space (even his body), he needs to have to power to say “no” or “enough is enough.” How many times were we tickle-tortured as children, and truly it was torture, to the point of crying or, worse even, wetting our pants? I was tickled so much by “loving” uncles, aunts, cousins, and others that I am hardly ticklish anymore. When I was first married, my husband tried to tickle me and instead of eliciting a fun and playful response, he was met with anger, bordering on violence. When we had our own children, I was diligent about respecting my sons’ “no” when it came to tickling, often playing the referee and calling “time-out” on the tickler, making sure they realized my boys were no longer enjoying the game. However, just because I allowed my sons to say no in this instance, doesn’t mean I had taught them to really be responsible for themselves.

In Boundaries, the story of two boys, Jimmy and Paul, gave me as close to a crystal ball look into my sons’ future as I think I can get:

Jimmy’s family allowed disagreements between parent and child and gave him practice in the skill of boundary setting, even with them. … he could say no. This little word gave him a sense of power in his life. It took him out of a helpless or compliant position. … [he had] permission to disagree. … they never withdrew or punished him for disagreeing. Instead, they would listen to his reasoning, and, if it seemed appropriate, they would change their minds. If not, they would maintain their boundaries. Jimmy was also given a vote in some family matters. … He didn’t fear abandonment in standing up against his friends. He’d done it many times successfully with his family with no loss of love. (p.174-175)

 [Paul’s] mom would be hurt and withdraw and pout. She would send guilt messages. … to have his way, he had to be externally compliant. He developed a strong yes on the outside … Whatever he thought about a subject … he stuffed inside. … Day by day, Paul was being trained to not set limits. As a result of his learned boundarylessness, Paul seemed to be a content, respectful son. … Resentment and the years of not having boundaries were beginning to erode the compliant, easy-to-live-with false self he’d developed to survive. (p.175)

The word that stands out in Paul’s story is “seemed.” I don’t want my sons to “seem” to be content or respectful, I want them to truly be happy, to respect other’s opinions, but also to respect themselves enough to stand up for what they believe.

I have to get a handle on my own boundaries, so I can help my sons to be successful in setting their own, because “the second fruit of boundary development in our children [is]: the ability to take ownership of, or responsibility for, our own needs. God intends for us to know when we’re hungry, lonely, in trouble, overwhelmed, or in need of a break – and then to take initiative to get what we need” (p.176). I think I have trained my boys, especially my oldest, to be better at recognizing and accommodating the needs of others than recognizing their own needs. For example, my two youngest had expressed a desire to go hang out one afternoon with their dad. My oldest hadn’t said much, so I decided to figure out what he was thinking.

“Did you want to go with your dad, too?”

He nodded sheepishly, and cautiously said, “Yes.”

Concerned, I continued, “Then why didn’t you say you wanted to?”

“Because,” he explained, “I didn’t want you to be left all alone … really, it’s okay, Mom. I don’t need to go. I will just stay and hang out with you.”

I was filled with mixed emotions. First, I felt a great love because of the tenderness of my son, who was more concerned with his mom’s feelings than with himself. He wasn’t playing the martyr, he was sincere in his love and worry. Second, I felt intense guilt that I had betrayed him in some way, leading him to think he couldn’t do what he wanted because he had an obligation to me. Of course, I reassured him I would be fine and that he could go or stay; whatever he wanted. Ultimately, the outing with Dad didn’t happen, so the choice never had to be made.

“Our limits create spiritual and emotional space, a separateness, between ourselves and others. This allows our needs to be heard and understood. Without a solid sense of boundaries, it becomes difficult to filter out our needs from those of others. There is too much static in the relationship. When children can be taught to experience their own needs, as opposed to those of others, they have been given a genuine advantage in life. They are able to better avoid the burnout that comes from not taking care of one’s self. … The best thing a parent can do is to encourage verbal expression of those needs, even when they don’t ‘go with the family flow.’ When children have permission to ask for something that goes against the grain – even though they might not receive it – they develop a sense of what they need” (p.177).

I believe this “going against the grain” also includes emotions. Often, we tell our children they are not allowed to feel a certain way about something—maybe not directly, but we tell them to “stop crying, quit being a baby, not to get so upset, change the attitude, stop whining, calm down, mellow out, watch the tone, smile, laugh” … the list could probably fill an entire page. Just because we tell them to feel a certain way (positive or negative) doesn’t mean they do, and them pretending they do is only aiding their acting (and lying) skills. This is something I need to be better about; I need to allow my sons to feel however they feel about life, and then seek to understand why they feel that way.

So, why teach children boundaries? I think this question can be summed up with one quote: “Developing boundaries in young children is that proverbial ounce of prevention. If we teach responsibility, limit setting, and delay of gratification early on, the smoother our children’s later years of life will be. The later we start, the harder we and they have to work” (p.170).

And, ain’t that the truth? This is hard work.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Boundaries Part III: Setting Boundaries

I recently read that a successful woman does not "continually [dwell] on her past difficulties. You cannot allow your negative experiences to color the way you live your life today." I agree and disagree. All our past experiences are for our "profit and learning." I believe we are given or allowed to go through certain life experiences to teach us, and if we don't learn it the first time, I believe the lesson gets repeated and often more intensely until we do learn. Some of those lessons can be from positive experiences, but I think if we are sufficiently humbled and teachable profound learning can come from negative life events.

While it does little service to dwell on past experiences, it seems impossible to figure out where I need to go, without looking at where I've been. I hope those of you who are reading my blog do not believe I am mired in the muck of my former follies. Rather, this blog is an attempt to make conscious changes to my previous (and often destructive) way of thinking. I do not want to the problems in my past to perpetuate, therefore I must change my behaviors; but in order to change my behaviors, I must change my attitude; and in order to change my attitude, I must change my beliefs; and in order to change my beliefs, I must change the way I think; and to change the way I think, I need new information and a new internal dialogue. (Enter Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky [1995] … but more to come on that in future posts.)

One of the problem areas in my life I am on a quest to change is my blurry boundaries. According to Cloud and Townsend (1992), "The first step in establishing boundaries is becoming aware of old family patterns that you are still continuing in the present. Look at the struggles you are having with boundaries in your family of origin, identify which laws are being broken, and then pinpoint the resulting negative fruit in your life. ... Look at your own life situation and see where boundary problems exist with your parents and siblings. The basic question is this: Where have you lost control of your property? Identify those areas and see their connection with the family you grew up in, and you are on your way” (p.130, 133).

It is important I stop believing I am a victim of other's boundary issues and realize I am the problem. Cloud and Townsend (1992) remind us, “[we] do not act in inappropriate ways for no reason. [We] are often trying to meet some underlying need that [our] family of origin did not meet. Maybe we are still entangled because of a need to be loved, or approved of, or accepted. ... It is not enough to understand your need. You must get it met” (p.133). Sadly, in the past when the people I wanted to show this love, approval, and acceptance did not, I slipped into despair and I searched out self destructive sources to meet my needs.

This brings me back to the situation with my friend (See Boundaries Part I.): Should I have told her “yes” even when I believed I was not in a position to help her? Guaranteed, had I said “yes” I would have taken a sacrificial (not compassionate) position, and resented having to postpone my own plans in order to take care of her needs. In Bonds that Make Us Free, Warner (2001) proposes that “[taking] up a hard, resentful attitude toward others is to have to live in a resented world, a world full of people who oppose and threaten us. How they are in our eyes is reflective of how we are. The punishment for self-betrayal is having to live, in this resented world, a life that’s far more difficult than it needs to be” (p.53). Therefore, my resentment in giving an obligatory “yes,” causes me to suffer a more difficult life.

Warner (2001) also suggests “Self-betrayal occurs when we … do to another what we sense we should not do, or don’t do what we sense we should. … The personal obligations we feel to one another, soul to soul, call us to give of ourselves without reserve. Anything less … is self betrayal” (p.20, 22). Furthermore, “People who own their lives do not feel guilty when they make choices about where they are going. They take other people into consideration, but when they make choices for the wishes of others, they are choosing out of love, not guilt; to advance a good, not to avoid being bad” (Cloud and Townsend, 1992, p.124). Obviously, I had not taken the steps to own my life as I acted more out of guilt and out of not wanting to seem bad. So, how do I say “yes” out of willing compassion? How do I learn to say “no” in appropriate situations? How do I set boundaries that will keep me from betraying myself?

Cloud and Townsend (1992) propose that “establishing boundaries in thinking involves three things.

1. We must own our own thoughts. Many people have not taken ownership of their own thinking processes. They are mechanically thinking the thoughts of others without ever examining them. They swallow others’ opinions and reasonings, never questioning and ‘thinking about their thinking.’ …

2. We must grow in knowledge and expand our minds. …

3. We must clarify distorted thinking. We all have a tendency to not see things clearly, to think and perceive in distorted ways. Probably the easiest distortions to notice are in personal relationships. We rarely see people as they really are; our perceptions are distorted by past relationships and our own preconceptions of who we think they are, even the people we know best. (Matt. 7:3-5).

... Taking ownership of our thinking in relationships requires being active in checking out where we may be wrong. As we assimilate new information, our thinking adapts and grows closer to reality. Also we need to make sure that we are communicating our thoughts to others. … We have our own thoughts, and if we want others to know them, we must tell them” (p.45-46).

Throughout my life, I have passively avoided communicating my boundaries, choosing instead to ignore or retreat into obscurity. When I have tried to verbalize my boundaries, the other party usually pretended to understand, but continued to violate them. Perhaps I was not believable, or maybe as the strength of my fences were tested, they were found to be flimsy and full of holes. Regardless, I have not yet found a way to firmly convey the seriousness of these boundaries.

For example, I had a friend who grew to need my attention, affirmations, support, and communication more than was appropriate or possible to give. When I wasn't available, I was made to feel guilty, as if I were a terrible friend for abandoning them. Finally, when the situation had grown too destructive, I verbalized my boundaries, asking this friend to not contact me for awhile, with no guarantee of ever being able to communicate again as we had. Still, I received texts, phone calls, and emails of apology, filled with baited stories and attempts to draw me out of my retreat. My boundaries had been clearly verbalized, but they had not been respected. Cloud and Townsend (1992) admonish: “We need to respect the boundaries of others. We need to love the boundaries of others in order to command respect for our own. We need to treat their boundaries the way we want them to treat ours” (p.90). Perhaps, I was suffering from a little Boundary Karma.

At first, I found it difficult to reject the calls, ignore the texts, and refuse to respond to my friend’s emails. I realized I missed the interaction, the dependency, the feeling of being needed, loved, and important. Giving up a person who helped meet many of my emotional needs, regardless of how destructive the situation had been, was intensely painful. Often, the perceived loneliness was suffocating. However, with each email I ignored and each call I rejected, I became stronger and more determined to follow through with the boundaries I had set.

Cloud and Townsend (1992) remind me that “[I] own [my] boundaries. They don’t own [me]. If [I] set limits with someone, and she responds maturely and lovingly, [I] can renegotiate the boundary. In addition, [I] can change the boundary if [I am] in a safer place” (p.120). In this instance, my friend did not respond “maturely and lovingly,” and I do not believe I am in a safer place emotionally … yet; therefore, at this point, the boundary cannot be renegotiated. More importantly, in the process I realized the biggest boundary I needed to set was on myself, more than on my friend.

Learning to delay gratification, control appetites, or simply put aside our own desires (even those that may be good) which would not be wise to follow, will help us to strengthen our boundaries with others. “We need to have spaces inside ourselves where we can have a feeling, an impulse, or a desire, without acting it out. We need self-control, without repression. … We need to be able to say no to ourselves” (p.44). I believe if we can tell ourselves no, it will be much easier to tell others no.

However, Cloud and Townsend (1992) point out it is impossible to “start setting limits until you have entered into deep, abiding attachments with people who will love you no matter what. Our deepest need is to belong, to be in a relationship, to have a spiritual and emotional ‘home’” (p.64).

“When we are not secure that we are loved, we are forced to choose between two bad options: 1. We set limits and risk losing a relationship. … 2. We don’t set limits and remain a prisoner to the wishes of another” (p.64). And in my experience, both bad options bring emptiness, loneliness, and bitterness that drive away the Spirit and foster further insecurity.

In evaluating my own relationships, there are very few which I believe are “deep,” “abiding,” where I will be loved “no matter what.” Love is conditional. The only unconditional love comes from or through God and Christ. Love from any other source is conditional; for a person to say it is not conditional usually means they have not yet suffered from inappropriate, abusive, or extreme conditions; they lack experience and maturity. Love within those circumstances isn’t really love; instead it is fear of loss, built upon obsession, desperation, and insecurity.

Even a mother and her child share conditional love, though the threshold of aversive conditions may be much steeper in this close familial bond. But everyone has a breaking point; everyone has a line that when it is crossed, the supposed unconditional love takes off its blindfold and sees what is really going on. There are many more people whose intolerant threshold includes basic human idiosyncrasies—not only that, but their love is so conditional, that by not meeting all expectations you are denied all their love.

Again, the only unconditional love comes through God and Christ—in their perfection they love perfectly, without judgment, without jealousy, without expectation. This concept is eloquently described in The Continuous Atonement:

God is bound to love me. It is his nature to love perfectly and infinitely. He is bound to love me – not because I am good, but because He is good. Love is so central to his character that the scriptures actually say, ‘God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16; emphasis added). … Not only did He require me to have faith and confidence in Him, but He is required to have faith and confidence in me. … God and Jesus are bound to believe in me – in my potential and possibilities – even when I don’t. God is bound to be as close to me as He is to any of His children because He is a perfect parent. (Wilcox, 2009, p.132-133)

Therefore, when my needs of being loved, approved of, and accepted by certain people are not being met, “[I] must face this deficit and accept that it can only be met in [my] new family of God, those who are now [my] true ‘mother, father, brothers, and sisters,’ those who do God’s will and can love [me] the way he designed. God is willing to meet [my] needs through his people, but [I] must humble [myself], reach out to a good support system, and take in the good” (Cloud & Townsend, 1992, p.133).

Gratefully, I have eliminated or minimized most of the destructive and negative influences in my life (still working on my own negativity), and procured a few positive people to help meet my emotional needs. But, this process is far from over …