You may be the lighthouse they need

Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, spoiler alert: So . . . Disney knows how to give us feelings. Oh man. To kick off the movie, the big brother runs into the burning building because he thinks someone is trapped inside it. And in a sudden explosion, he dies. Because that’s what happens in Disney movies: The characters love so much they’ll give up everything. It’s . . . powerful. Incredibly powerful.

People do that. Isn’t that amazing? We love each other so much, that we will die to save somebody else.

But sometimes in life, the thing that seems and sounds self-sacrificial doesn’t work. It’s why you’re told not to fumble around with everyone else’s oxygen masks before you’ve secured your own. Besides a few dramatic, life-and-death storybook moments, you can’t save other people by letting yourself die. Or even just by letting yourself fall apart, working yourself to the bone, or bleeding yourself dry.

Love is a beautiful thing, but it’s also such a strong and blinding emotion that it gets us into messy spots. We think we’re “being there for” someone, “helping” them, “saving” them, “rescuing” them . . . when in reality, we’re just drowning with them.

Feeling torn between the healthy boundaries I was setting with my family and the urge to give up all those boundaries so I could still show up to love and support, “no matter what”–my therapist gave me a thing to think about:

“When you’ve escaped rough waters, and your loved one is drowning, you want to jump in to save them, and they want you to jump in to save them, but if you jump in, you cannot save them. You’ll be drowning, too, and to top it off you’ll probably get bonked on the head as they thrash about trying to hold onto you. No, once you’ve escaped the waters, you can’t go back in. You barely made it out alive to begin with, and you certainly won’t have the capacity to do it again dragging someone else out with you. The loving thing to do is to say no to jumping back in. Instead, you can throw a rope. You can say, ‘hey–it’s safe up here on the dock. I’m here for you if you’ll grab the rope and get out of the water.’ And of course, you’ll feel guilty for not jumping back in, and of course, they will feel you don’t love them. If you loved them, they think, you’d jump back in. As long as you refuse to join them in the dangerous waters, they’ll feel betrayed, unloved. But, there’s another thing: They can see you. They see that someone made it to safety. They see that it’s possible. They see there’s a way to get out. They see that life outside the water is an option. They see you living. They see hope. They may feel bitter, but they see hope. And one day, maybe, just maybe . . . they’ll join you in the safety. And maybe, just maybe, it was your refusal to jump back into the rough waters that made you the proof they needed–proof that they, also, were allowed and able to come on shore.”

You’re a little bit like a lighthouse, showing the way. A lighthouse can’t help a battered boat if the lighthouse jumps in and gets tossed about, too. A lighthouse shows . . . hope.

~

Let’s talk about family. The most dangerous F-word. Dangerous because family is wonderful. It’s maybe literally the absolute top most best. In theory. And because it’s the best, because it “comes first,” its waters get pretty muddy.

If you found your way out of a toxic family environment, and still have family members you love who are trying to fit into that toxic environment, I bet I can tell a couple things about you: You sometimes feel guilty. You want SO badly to help. And love makes you so, so, so tempted to put yourself back in harm’s way. In fact, I bet, like everyone who has escaped toxicity, you’ve cycled in and out, diving back into the waves to try to save your sister, diving back into the waves to “be there for” your brother, diving back into the waves to “help” your mother, diving back into the waves so your father doesn’t have to be alone. . . . . . . Has it ever worked?

I know the deeply unhealthy family dynamic doesn’t resonate with everyone. If this isn’t you, bear with me, because it’s more than just family. But for now imagine with those of us who don’t have to use our imaginations because we remember it: How did you make it out of the abuse? Out of the web? The manipulation? The narcissistic control? How did you make it out of the deeply unhealthy environment?

Maybe you fought and fought and fought and fought and argued and argued and begged and begged and tried every which way to beat the toxicity. Spent years trying to heal the disease. And each day, it wore you out, held you down, as your life slipped away, a life very much not-yours-at-all.

Until one day, as a psychologist mentor of mine puts it, you “started on the other side of the wall.” (He actually uses this concept in a little different sense, but the effect is the same.) In other words: Instead of trying desperately, one brick at a time, to unbuild a wall of dysfunction and abuse and hurt and struggle and betrayal and fear and stuckness, you just . . . start on the other side. Leave the wall alone. You don’t have to unbuild it. You don’t have to “beat” the toxicity. You don’t have to heal the diseased environment. You just choose to start on the other side of the wall. To step out of it. After years and years, one day you stopped trying to calm the waves, held onto the rope being offered by the world outside the toxic environment, and climbed on shore.

I bet you didn’t find your freedom by having other people jump in and live with you in an unhealthy family dynamic. I bet you believed that you could escape the abuse, that you could find freedom, peace, happiness, healthiness. And I bet you believed that because you saw proof. Someone, somewhere, was a picture to you of love. An example of what functional relationships look like. A demonstration to you of healthy life on the other side of the wall . . . up on the shore, above the waves . . . you saw a lighthouse.

So if what saved your life, brought you into freedom and health, wasn’t winning the fight against a toxic environment, but stepping out of it–why do we suppose, again and again and again, that another loved one’s way out will involve staying in the unhealthy environment and trying to beat it? If someone (perhaps completely unknowingly) once held our rope, so we could climb out–why would we think our loved one is going to swim to safety without a rope if we jump back into the raging waters with them?

If what gave us the hope to step out was seeing that there was life to taste on the outside, why wouldn’t we stay on the outside, living a free and beautiful and healthy and functional and fulfilling life, so that the ones we wish we could save could see that there’s another way? Hope?

~

If all this family toxicity talk doesn’t resonate, because no matter how imperfect every family is, some are beautiful, safe places with healthy roots of love and kindness and support–and that’s the family you’ve known–there are still other storms you’ve escaped.

I remember my first job was at a place I eventually learned was absolutely notorious (at least at the time) for chewing up and spitting out its staff. Especially managers. The abuse we all went through was shocking. Fair pay, sufficient staffing, professional treatment–those things aren’t necessary when you can “vision” and “care” and “team-spirit” your people into working themselves to the bone or (surprisingly frequently) working hours and hours off the clock. I heard it described frequently as a “cult.”

There was so. Much. Manipulation. Everyone was drowning. One brave and visionary young manager after another tried to fix it. Things never, ever got better, but we kept thinking “if only I try harder,” because the one thing this place was good at was whipping up the strong emotion of loyalty. We stayed, because we cared.

I watched a lot of beautiful people fall apart under the weight, tirelessly swimming against the current to try to make it better. Nobody wanted to leave, because everybody desperately needed each other. We all needed each drowning other to save each drowning other. Actually–everybody wanted to leave and said so almost every day, but nobody could.

Because . . . we can’t leave the people we care about in alone in a bad place.

Love. We stayed in an impossibly unhealthy situation because we loved each other.

It was beautifully depressing.

Every once in a while, somebody would finally up and walk out. It was like they had woken up.

And then a couple months later, they’d come stop by. We’d share laughs and hugs and memories and they would tell us about how much relief they felt, how much happier they were, how much less stressed, now that they had gotten out.

Weirdly (actually not so weirdly if we understand how strong love is), they would sometimes come back. It was always their people, the fun and love and camaraderie they missed, that brought them back. And, again, they would slowly fall apart until they, again, walked away. Eventually, they learned the lesson that jumping back in would never, ever, ever work.

One lucky day, I became one of those managers who escaped. I had been completely losing myself and finally “woke up” and hopped out. And it was amazing. Afterward I frequently stopped by and said hello to my old team–my friends. I’d listen to the hopeless, exhausted stories of how much worse it had gotten (I hadn’t thought it could get any worse). And they’d ask how I was doing, and I’d get to say, “Oh man, I’m doing so much better now.” And they’d get this longing, dreamlike expression and go, “Man . . . I really need to get out of this place . . .”

Hope.

The lighthouse, proving dry, safe, hopeful land.

~

Maybe the workplace thing doesn’t speak to you, but you’ve got this one friend who is an absolutely beautiful, precious, wonderful person and you love them to death, but they’re deep, deep, deep in a sad place, and they really, really, really need you to join them there.

And you can’t. You can’t spend all day every day letting them hang onto you for dear life, telling you every hurt and every problem and every fear and every dark thought, because . . . well because you’re a person, too, and you have your dreams and your family and your books and your other friends and your sleep that you need.

Maybe you found a really healthy way to be there for them by having some boundaries: Saying “hello” and “I love you” every day, but only having a long chat once a week; Telling them you can’t stay up with them all night every night, but you’ll check in first thing tomorrow morning.

Or maybe, because you are a loving human and they are a human so-worth-loving, you give up your boundaries and you jump in with them. You set aside all your good things, happy things, other friendships, hobbies, tasks, sleep, rest, plans, dreams . . . and you jump in with them, feel every hurt they feel, carry every heaviness they carry.

And soon, you can’t help them anymore.

In fact, soon, you’re right where they are. You’re both falling apart. And you can’t help each other. And you’ve lost all your own hope.

Or maybe that’s not how the story ends, because you did stick to healthy boundaries. You did secure your own oxygen mask first, and that meant that you didn’t leave that friend alone, but you also kept time for yourself and for your other loved ones. You stayed healthy. You had happy times, you did exciting things, you enjoyed your hobbies, and you kept up on sleep.

This one’s tough, because the depression it sounds like this imaginary friend is struggling with doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not quite the same as “starting on the other side of the wall.” Just being a shining example to them that “people can sometimes be happy” might not save them. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance it won’t. But still, there is that chance that your freedom and health does give them hope. Even while they feel let down that you need your own boundaries–feeling let down, because through no fault of their own, they are absolutely drowning and can only see danger and rejection in your boundaries. . . . Even while they feel that betrayal, maybe, maybe you are a sort of a lighthouse. An example of someone doing whatever yucky things it takes to take care of their own mental health.

All these scenarios are tough, actually, because being a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse doesn’t guarantee safety for anyone–not your abused family member, not your burnt out co-worker, not your struggling friend . . .

There’s the rub: You actually can’t save people.

It’s not up to you.

And you certainly can’t save them by jumping back into the thing that almost killed you. By having two people thrashing against the current instead of one.

But you can stand on the dock and hold the rope and when they’re someday able and ready to climb out, you’ll be there for them.

Maybe the very best chance they’ve got is seeing proof that there is freedom.

Actually, if you can’t help but jump back in and drown alongside your loved ones, you’re proving to them a very sad lesson: “There is no way out. You tried to escape, but you’re back here drowning with me again. I guess this is what we’re stuck with. Drowning.”

~

I recently had a tough but hopeful talk with that psychologist mentor of mine I mentioned. What do I do with all the world’s heaviness that is dragging me under? So, so, so many suffer. Needlessly. Unjustly. So much hate, so much prejudice, so much looking the other way, so much carelessness. This massively wealthy world is full of cold, hungry, sick, and homeless. All over the globe. Not just in that remote village or third world city. Like . . . right here. On every corner in Minneapolis. New York. Portland. San Francisco. Atlanta. Everywhere. That’s hard to sleep with. It makes me sad and angry when I think about it. And it makes me sad and angry all the time when I think about it all the time.

How can I carry all this weight?

His answer? “You can’t.”

You can carry some of it. You can carry a lot of it some of the time. But you can’t carry all of it. And you can’t carry any of it all of the time. You can’t help the cold, hungry, sick, and homeless by falling apart under the weight of the entire world.

Absolutely you can help. And you should. And blissful ignorance–turning a blind eye–is gross.

But you can’t carry it all, and you can’t carry it all the time.

It makes your “help” worthless.

You drowning helps no one.

~

Back to where we started–Love is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is wonderful. But it can be so overpowering that we can’t think clearly.

“Love” ignores the flight attendant and tries heroically to strap everyone else’s oxygen mask on first. Heroically and fruitlessly.

“Love” screams deafeningly that you can never, ever, ever leave family behind.

“Love” leaves us feeling guilty and unsettled when we have to tell our struggling friend once again that we have to go now.

“Love” begs us to stay. Always stay. Stay with the ones who are drowning.

“Love” tells us to throw our health and our hopes and our dreams and our needs and our life away because we don’t want our drowning loved ones to drown alone.

~

I’m not saying that the right way is walking away, shutting out, ignoring, giving up on, or always choosing our own happiness.

What I do know, though, is that when “Love” is telling you to go to a place where you’re going to drown with the ones you want to help . . . and your drowning is not going to save them . . . there’s a better way you can love them.

Abusive families, cults, toxic workplaces, depression (for the record, 100%, depression is NOT in the same category as those others. Don’t misunderstand that. It’s just your inability to help if you drown, too, holds true in the face of every type of darkness) . . . one thing all kinds of dark places have in common is that the darkness cannot itself be changed to light. It is . . . darkness. There is not hope in the darkness. The hope is in the light, and the light is in a different place.

If you can hold the hand of someone walking out of darkness–wonderful, beautiful, worth every damn minute.

But if all you have to offer them is losing your own way in the dark, too . . . there’s no real hope for them in that.

If you’ve escaped a dark place, but you’ve left beautiful loved ones there, you have to remember how you escaped:

What did you see on the outside of the darkness that gave you that little glimmer of hope that there was light to be found?

Who was a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse for you?

And can you make the impossible-feeling choice to stand in the light and hold out your hand–your life a proof that freedom is out there? No matter how badly “Love” tells you to jump back in and drown with them?

They don’t need someone to drown with them.

They need a lighthouse.

I’m free now

When I was a kid, I did have happy times. In fact a lot of my childhood memories feel happy. Even some of the stuff that, as an independent-minded adult, I now look back at as creepy or dysfunctional.

I wish people understood that just because someone has some happiness, or feels like things are also good, or has some of what they need (like food or clothes), or smiles sometimes–that doesn’t mean that their situation is okay.

All the dysfunction finally bubbled over. And now, as an adult, a pretty strong person, who has been on my own for years–the effects of my dysfunctional childhood leave me struggling some every day.

Even while I was finding some happiness as a teenager–listening to Ne-Yo and Fergie, watching Modern Family in my closet where my parents couldn’t know, playing out mental fantasies where I actually had friends I got to hang out and spend time with–even when finding my own happiness, I was simultaneously drowning in stress and fear and anger and hopelessness. And all the happiness volume in the world doesn’t somehow balance out toxicity.

It’s good to remind myself that I’ve come a long way.

Now, day to day stresses get to me. I feel frustrated when I can’t slow down and breathe or think, like when my phone rings fifty times in a day. It makes my heart beat harder. Or when I see yucky things on the news. Or can’t see friends face-to-face for the duration of a pandemic. Or keep having to take breaks from running with leg and back pain.

But.

And here’s where I want to sit today:

Now, I come home to someone who loves me. Someone who will hold my hands when things feel too big. Someone who lets me have feelings and needs and wants and dreams, and who encourages me to chase them all, even if they’re not her own. Someone who wants to hear me speak from my heart. Someone who deeply values me. And when I walk in the door from a long workday, I have a furry buddy who tells me, with all the whines and jumps and wags and licks, that I am so good and so important. And now I do have those beautiful, wonderful, amazing, fun friends in my life to hang out with that I wished I was allowed to have as a teenager. And now I have all these things in my life and about myself that don’t have a good-or-bad, wise-or-foolish, acceptable-or-unacceptable label to them. Now, I don’t feel like the most important people in my life are ashamed of me for watching my shows or staying up late with my friends or not-still-wanting-to-be-a-preacher-when-I-grow-up, and I never really have anyone raise their voice at me anymore (except, of course, the occasional experience in the any service industry). And nobody snaps at me when I’ve played the same piano piece too many times in a row. And nobody hits me anymore.

The people who don’t love me–I don’t have to be with them. I don’t have to take the phone calls, play the games, suffer through the holidays, bite my tongue at the cruel conversations.

Now, I’m free.

It’s easy to forget how free I am, because nobody graduates from all stress and hurt and struggle, and those things will probably always feel big. It’s easy to forget just how dark things were. Just how NOT free I have been.

Now, life–no matter how lifey it gets, is better. Now, I live with LOVE.

I am thankful for freedom.

I am proud of the courage to step out of toxicity, out into freedom. Proud when I see that courage in myself and proud when I see it in others.

And I am thankful for the life that freedom brings, that courage brings. It’s not too perfect, too fancy. It just has kindness and peace and boundaries and love.

That’s better.

Despite the day-to-day struggles that are a fact of life–has your life gotten better? Have you found some more freedom? Chosen more love? Grown? It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. And it helps to remember it. Feels hopeful.

What about you?

~

P.S. I know navigating unhealthy family situations is a hard, scary, and misunderstood thing in our world. So much pressure. So many expectations. If it’s something you’re struggling with, I’m happy to listen. And if not me–there is someone else in your life, ready to talk, who has had to step out into freedom. Say your stuff, no matter how messy. Find your freedom and love. Rooting for you!

Why not both?

“Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”

~ John Heywood, 1546, in his book, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the english tongue

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” I’ve actually never appreciated this old proverb. It’s not that I think it’s wrong, just that I think we apply it far too often.

The idea is that once you eat your cake, you won’t have it anymore. I do appreciate this problem, and it is a real problem, because when I buy a quarter pound of Humboldt Fog or a block of real Parmigiano-Reggiano, once I finish eating it, it IS gone, and that sort of hurts deep down in my heart. I’ve tried, but even taking elegantly staged pictures before each cheese-eating ritual doesn’t take the sting all the way away. The memory’s not quite the same once it’s gone.

So yes, once you eat your cake, you don’t have it anymore.

I get that. It’s a quick, over-simplified reminder that “you can’t have it both ways.” That when two options are mutually exclusive, you’ve got to pick one.

But I don’t like that saying!

It seems fair to say “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” to your two-year-old who genuinely CAN’T EVEN because you put her shoes on, and then oh also CAN’T EVEN MORE when you take them back off, because she wants them on AND she wants them off, and yes, those two options are mutually exclusive.

But where do you find yourself applying this concept in your own life? Or when you hear others say it–“you can’t have it both ways”–what is the context?

I bet that you’re pushed to pick between a lot of things that aren’t actually mutually exclusive. They even named a logical fallacy after this: “False dichotomy.”

Here are some examples of false dichotomies, or “false dilemmas,” that we impose on each other and on ourselves:

You can’t love someone and be angry with them.

You can’t take care of both me and yourself.

You can’t make a lot of money and have good work-life balance.

You can’t be a strong leader and be gentle with your team.

You can’t stand for peace and march in protests that sometimes turn violent.

You can’t maximize profits and take good care of your people.

You can’t love and accept your family for who they are and establish strict boundaries.

You can’t be a healthy, happy person and eat lots of yummy food.

You can’t care about poverty and spend weekends on your luxurious boat.

You can’t be a quiet, introverted loner and expect people to respect and listen to you.

You can’t commit crimes and possess a right to dignity and life.

You can’t be happy and sad.

There are even some true dichotomies that, though technically true, might have some really healthy workarounds:

You can’t be married and single. (Yes. But maybe the parts about being single that your soul craves–the freedom of time, the occasional aloneness, the pursuing of your own favorite things, the feeling of independence–maybe you can allow each other the space and the times to live like you’re married and single.)

You can’t have kids and not have kids. (Yes. But maybe you still find healthy ways for mom and dad to go adventure all by themselves. Or maybe there’s a complicated-but-manageable way you can build a regular just-you-and-me date night into your schedule.)

You can’t, technically, be both a full-fledged extrovert and a full-fledged introvert. (True, but the two types have their natural strengths and advantages, and maybe you can incorporate helpful aspects from both styles into your day-to-day life.)

How often do we just accept parts of our lives as all-encompassingly-defining, when if we looked a little deeper we could find workarounds, so that we could have our cake and eat it, too?

This year there are two false dichotomies that jump out at me and, I’m sure, at every other person on the face of this 2020-flavored earth:

You can’t . . . stand for peace and justice and safety and stability, supporting those who serve the cause of keeping people safe from crime and danger . . . AND . . . cry foul on America’s history–past and present–of racial oppression, loudly protesting ongoing brutalization of Black people by many police officers and demanding changes to a system that continues to enable racism and abuse.

Why not both?

Why would being passionate about justice for one group of people make you against justice for another?

Why would saying “We have a problem we need to fix” mean that you wholly reject all the good, throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Why would saying “I am proud of our police officers who risk their lives to protect people” keep you from saying “But many of them have prejudices that put Black people and other minorities at an unfair disadvantage, and that needs to be changed, and the ones that are consciously hateful and violent should be separated from their power.”

Why does believing in peaceful “law and order” mean that you have to blindly accept the laws in place, instead of acknowledging that, as expressed by Martin Luther King Jr, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Why can’t you march against police brutality and racism for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and also support your loving, humane, honest, selfless friend who is a wonderful police officer?

A second false dichotomy, courtesy of 2020:

You can’t . . . save the economy, avoid countless permanent closures of small businesses, restaurants, gyms, and airlines, keeping them afloat by providing the funds to help them and their employees ride out a pandemic . . . AND . . . take massive, sweeping precautions to help as many sacred lives as possible make it safely to the other side of this pandemic.

Simply: You can’t take care of the economy AND protect a population from a virus.

Why not both?

Why either or? This world is overflowing with wealth and resources–plenty enough to do good for more than one vulnerable group, to work for more than one cause.

Instead of fighting over whether we’re going to have the cake or eat the cake, what if we just made a bigger cake?

What if the cake is already big enough, but a few people are hogging most of it?

And what if we could put all our energy into sharing the cake and then baking another, but we’re so afraid of losing our piece that we’re just hiding in the corner wolfing down our own share?

Justice and compassion. Progress and people. Us and them.

Why do we keep assuming that we can’t have anything both ways?

Sure, there are a few things in life that you truly have to choose between. But when you feel this pressure to choose between–to pick which cause to support, who to care about, what identity to claim–stop long enough to ask if the two awesome-things are really mutually exclusive or if we really could just make a bigger cake.

The big things, like justice and pandemics. But also the little things, like taking a day off.

Next time someone says “You can’t have it both ways,”

try saying . . .

“Why not both?”

eating my cheese and still having it, too ;)

Can you love humans AND cut people off?

How do you feel about these two “truths?”

  • Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.
  • Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

I bet most of us would agree at least in some sense with each of these statements taken separately.

But. When we put them side by side–these two ideas feel like they don’t fit together: If So-and-so is so toxic and hurts me so much, how come other people can love them? And if I admit that, deep down, they’re still lovable–how can I cut them off?

So which truth will you hang on to, and which one will you let go of?

Think about what happens when you hold onto just one of these truths, and let go of the other.

Rejecting the first truth–that everyone is lovable:

We learn to set boundaries. Some of us have to learn to set pretty big boundaries–tough ones. My own long story very short, I no longer have a relationship with my parents. It took years of therapy and soul-searching and trying and crying. And it wasn’t a clean break–for years and years, I walked away to varying degrees, a number of times, from the family and friends I grew up around. Honestly, it was the way I could be healthy. I was surviving. In the end, walking away brought freedom. But it also taught me a dangerous lesson. See, if the trauma is bad enough to permanently end a family relationship, it probably hurt you more than words can describe. That probably results in extreme emotional reactions when you think about those people who hurt you so badly. It probably means you have a hard time thinking clearly or calmly or kindly about them. Out of self-protection, I learned to label those people in my life “monsters,” totally “bad.” “Toxic.” Never to be trusted, absolutely the worst. And, depending on what you mean by those labels, I wasn’t wrong. So I left that relationship. And it has been incredibly freeing. It feels healthy. My life has become livable and full of hope. But in the end, through this deeply emotional and significant, drawn-out experience, I learned a really loud lesson: People who hurt you badly ARE NOT SAFE and must be cut off. They’re Bad.

So what do you think that did to me? I began to see the world as totally black and white. In his novel, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And that’s what happened to me. When I felt the sort of deep hurt, rejection, or betrayal that I had learned to walk away from once or twice, I began having to walk away from it every time. I began to assume that anyone who hurt me deeply must not be a safe person. And as I discovered that deep hurt is a pretty common and inescapable part of relationships–intimate, personal, professional, all kinds–I found myself walking away from relationships every time the hurt showed up, or even threatened to show up. If people that deeply hurt me are unlovable “monsters,” then I need to watch out for those people. I need to protect myself. When I see “toxic,” I need to turn and run. It hurts me too badly. Since I rejected the truth that even the hurtful people are lovable, I learned to walk away quickly from any hint of “toxic.” Problem is, of course, just about everyone in my life will feel a little “toxic” from time to time. I developed a protective habit of immediately giving up on anyone that hurt me. I couldn’t see that everyone is on a spectrum of kindness and unkindness. And that unless I accepted that people who have “bad” in them also have “good” and “humanity” somewhere inside them, I was going to live a pretty lonely life. (Oh, and–I hurt people, too–so . . . what do I do with that?)

So rejecting the truth that deep down, everyone is human and lovable, left me very much alone. But where does it leave others when we reject their humanity? Well, imagine that you’re the abuser-character. You’re the one that’s been labeled “toxic.” And maybe you really did do a number on someone. Maybe you were an absolutely terrible parent. Maybe you are really arrogant or really disagreeable. Maybe you rub a lot of people the wrong way. But when you wake up in the morning, you don’t think, “Muahahaha, let’s be an asshole today!” You think, “Oh man . . . I hope this day goes better.” Somewhere inside, you’re trying. You want good. You wish you weren’t mean, that you could control your words. You need another chance. Maybe it took you fifty years to see your immaturity for what it is. Maybe it took losing a bunch of relationships. So what will it take to change? To recover? To grow? Well, among other things, you need support. You need friendship. You need someone to give you a chance to do humanness the right way. You need hope. You need good examples. You need people to practice with. You need a shoulder to cry on when you have to face the damage you’ve done in the past. But–we’ve already decided you are “toxic.” So if everyone else rejects that first truth–that everyone is human and lovable–and clings to the idea that every hurtful or bad person must be written off, shunned, shamed, and “cancelled” into oblivion . . . you will never have a chance. Let’s be honest–we all know what regret feels like. We all know the feeling of hoping for another chance, because we screwed up with someone–maybe with a lot of people. We’ve had ours lows. So when you feel tempted to sentence every “toxic,” mean, negative, obnoxious, or immature person to a permanent identity as a hopeless “Bad” person–remember your lows. Remember when you needed people to give you another chance and show you a “love” that they could have said you didn’t deserve. It is wonderful to show up for broken people.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

Rejecting the second truth–that you need to completely walk away from some relationships:

We also learn not to set boundaries. We learn to accept bullying or abuse or mistreatment or disrespect. Some of us learn to accept it from many people, always afraid to stick up for ourselves. Some of us learn to accept it from just a few special people. Case in point, “but they’re still your family” is one of the most dangerous phrases that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Cultural expectations pressure us to patiently, silently accept behavior from family members that we’d never accept from non-family. A parent’s passive aggressive commentary on every single one of our life choices or preferences. A sibling repeatedly guilting us into “lending” money we’ll never get back. A spouse’s constant berating. Sticking up for yourself in the face of abusive treatment from family is not a life skill we talk about. When we do finally stick up for ourselves, we discover whether or not they’re going to listen and accept our boundaries. If they won’t, maybe the relationship is too unhealthy. Maybe it’s too damaging. Maybe it was never really a relationship at all. So can you take care of yourself by walking away? The general cultural expectation is: No. “They’re still your family.” “You only have one set of parents.” Etc. Families aren’t the only area where we can learn not to set boundaries. We can feel too guilty to stick up for ourselves when a friend starts taking advantage of us or hurting us–we don’t want to hurt them. We learn to grin and bear it when co-workers make mean jokes or take their mood out on us–need to be a “team player.” I think deep down we each know that some relationships need to end, but we can’t do it. We’re afraid. We don’t know what others will think. We care about the person we need to walk away from. We worry for them. We want to “be the bigger person,” and give them another chance, and another, and another. So we tell ourselves and each other that Love says that you shouldn’t cut someone off, that you should be there for them, no matter how yucky it gets–after all, maybe one day they’ll hit rock bottom, and if you’re not there for them, who knows what might happen. So “cutting off” a family member, a friend, even a co-worker–establishing such a final boundary–is not cool.

So where does this leave you? It leaves you being abused, mistreated, disrespected, bullied, hurt, taken advantage of, pushed around, made fun of. It leaves you exhausted, crying, fragile, insecure, powerless, hopeless, lifeless, stuck. It leaves you, year after year after year, holding your breath when you show up for a family reunion, and then flying back home in tears, disappointed and crushed and re-traumatized again and again and again. It leaves you stripped bare of energy. Maybe stripped bare financially. It makes your life a living hell. This is not the life you want. This is not a life of love or of purpose or of hope or of beauty or of peace. This is miserable. . . . Please, please, please, please, please hear this: You are worth more than that. . . . You do NOT matter LESS than the people who are systematically hurting you. . . . You are a precious human being. Pretend like you’re your friend–looking at mistreated-You from the outside. You know that the You you’re looking at through a friend’s eyes MATTERS. You matter. You matter. You matter. Your heart matters. Your life matters. Your happiness matters. Your peace matters. Your human dignity matters. Your dreams matter. You absolutely, 100% do not have to put up with abuse. So if someone refuses to have a healthy, functional relationship with you–you absolutely can walk away. Yes, even from your parents. As someone who’s lived this, I can tell you, despite what 99% of the voices around you are saying, it IS better when you end the relationships that are too far broken and damaging to you. Whether it’s because the person you love refuses to stop mistreating you, or because even if they would try there has already been too much trauma–or both or either or–who knows, honestly? If any relationship is suffocating your heart and is not able or willing to be fixed–you can let it go. Rejecting boundaries–really big, final boundaries–can keep you a prisoner of abuse and bullying for your entire life.

Rejecting the idea that some relationships need to be ended doesn’t just hurt you. It’s also not good for anyone around you. There’s a reason on the plane they say you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you put the mask on your kid. A stuck, abused, lifeless, hopeless you isn’t going to be any help to anyone else. A drained, bullied, broken you won’t have much left over to offer your friends, your job, your hobbies, your life, your loved ones. And it actually, really, truly, honestly, for real won’t be any help to the abusers you love too much to walk away from. My therapist put it this way when I was wrestling with whether to travel down to my family’s Thanksgiving–to be there for my siblings in their own stressed and disappointed and anxious journey with what it means to be in our family–to be there for my parents, to spare them some sadness and feelings of rejection–my therapist put it this way, and it’s stuck with me: When you see someone thrashing around, drowning in a raging river, jumping in next to them won’t help. You’ll just get pulled down with them, in their thrashing panic, and besides, you can’t beat the river’s current either. Instead, you throw them the life saver tied onto the dock, and tell them that if they’ll grab on you can help pull them out of the river. The tough part is, your unwillingness to jump back into a toxic river you once lived in and drown right next to them will absolutely feel like a betrayal to them. But jumping back into a place where you’re going to get knocked in the head by the flailing limbs and pulled away in the dangerous current is NOT going to help them. It will only cause you to drown. The only chance at helping those people that have hurt you so deeply and traumatically, or insist on living in that world, might be by standing on the shore, ready to help when they finally decide to hop out of the raging river into a healthy, functional world of freedom. Being, if nothing else, an example–proof for them–that if they want to find love and freedom, it’s out there. A drowning you helps nobody. Let’s be real about this urge to stick around and rescue our abusers: Has our sticking around, trying to please, them, ever made them happy and fulfilled? Nope. And it won’t, as long as we’re in their toxic world. The only chance you have at being there for the world is putting your own mask on first. No matter how “selfish” it feels. It’s just the way it works.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

So how do you hold these truths together?

Well, first, don’t go crazy with either one of them. Don’t take either one to a mindless extreme. Don’t be in a rush to throw a salvageable relationship of love away. But also don’t cling to a relationship that’s not there and drown yourself in the process.

Second, notice that we probably have a tendency to reject each one of these truths in different contexts. In what parts of your world do you champion love and acceptance, but forget to set boundaries? Maybe with family? Work? Politics? And in what parts of your world do you champion boundary-setting and forget that people are all still lovable humans deep down? Social settings? Friends? Social media? See, I think we know each of these truths, and forget each of these truths, and it may all just be an arbitrary tangle. Can we hold them, balance them, mindfully?

Third–and I think this is sort of the kicker: Who you LOVINGLY ACCEPT vs who you HEALTHILY WALK AWAY FROM has EVERYTHING to do with that specific relationship, its dynamic, what it is for, what needs it is fulfilling, and what it is intended to be. I can very healthily and compassionately put up with a kind of immature negativity and judgmentalism from a co-worker that would be devastating coming from a parent. I can put up with some hardcore manipulation from a friend who has very little control over me, whereas if this person were my significant other, I’d have to walk away. What is your relationship with this person who’s showing their “toxic” edges? As my friend Luke suggests asking, “Is your putting up with the mistreatment actually truly helping the other person or the situation, and therefore maybe worth it?” You can also ask, is the level of their immaturity one that you can deal with healthily? Or are they harming your well-being? Can I handle it when a high school friend expects me to solve all their emotional distress for them? Maybe. Can I handle it when my mom expects me to solve all her emotional distress for her? No. One size does not fit all. Re-framing the hurtful behavior around the dynamics and purpose of the specific relationship really helps. What is a parent? What is a child? What is a sibling? What is a friend? What is a co-worker? What is a random stranger? Each relationship has different needs when it comes to support, fulfillment, love, and boundaries.

Fourth, it helps to just acknowledge what is going to be, I think, the hardest part of all this, emotionally: Trusting that there will be other people there to give the “love” your parent or spouse or sibling or friend or co-worker needs to experience–the person you had to call it quits with. In holding that first truth–that every human is lovable–it is so hard to let go of people that are hurting us, because we may truly love them and wish them the best and hope hope hope that they will find and feel some love. It is so hard to trust this, but we have to trust, to remind ourselves, that there are 7.8 billion people in the world who they have not abused and traumatized, and among those 7.8 billion people they will absolutely find the love they need when they are ready. They will have other people there to help them change, other people there to give them hugs and a shoulder to cry on if and when they change and regret their abusive behavior. You do NOT have to stick around to help your abusers recover and grow. So let them be lovable humans that others will show up for. You can’t help them anymore. Let them go, and then trust that there is still a world there to love them when they need it.

And fifth, focus on the flip side. There are far, far, far more people who are still safe for you to show up in love for, to be there for, to make a difference for. Who do you get to show up for? Let your energy live THERE.

A few words to meditate on:

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“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Truth: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

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“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~ attributed to Buddha

Truth: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

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Good luck, my friends. I know that trying to live a life of love for others and love for self, holding these two truths together, can be hard and can include lots of tears shed. Hang in there. You’ve got this. Sending you love and energy.

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