The magic of conversation

How many unsaid things do you have simmering inside of you?

Saying things out loud helps in so many ways. It helps us think through things, solidify things, feel things, get over things. Sometimes just letting out a frustration makes it stop hurting, or putting an anxiety into words suddenly reveals its harmlessness. Many of us learn what we believe and care about by talking through our thoughts.

There is power in saying our stuff.

We are all surrounded by people. If you know a hundred people, you know two hundred ears. That should be enough, right?

And yet . . . how many unsaid things do you STILL have simmering inside of you?

~

A really wise friend likened a marriage to walking on a plank over the Grand Canyon. The view couldn’t be more beautiful, but the height couldn’t be scarier. Lay the same plank on the grass in your backyard, and you’d do it with your eyes closed.

The value and depth of our relationship and attachment to someone significantly impacts the fragility, the fear, the pressure, the importance. Saying the wrong thing–or even saying the right thing the wrong way–to your co-worker is, you know, oh well. . . . Saying it wrong to your best friend, to your life partner, to your mom, dad, daughter, son . . . those moments leave bigger scars.

Obviously–bla-bla-bla get “better” at your close relationships, go to therapy, learn to open up, etc. (Legit, actually do those things.) But the truth is still: The more Companionshipy a relationship, the higher the stakes when it comes to what you say, how you say it, when, why . . .

So we clam up. Because the people we talk to are people that need us to say this, to not say that–people who need us to keep showing up the way we’ve shown up for them, people in whose lives we function a bit as an anchor–stable, consistent, strong–dependably us. They’re people who we want to speak extra gently to, people who we want to be extra positive toward. And sometimes they’re people we’re extra worried might have a problem with who we are becoming. The people I’m close to know Peter as Peter. Some of them need Peter to keep being Peter. They stand to lose more if Peter suddenly sounds more like Jason or Jack or Jimothy. (#fortheofficefans)

On the other hand, we’re surrounded by thousands and thousands of people every day who live and sleep and think and talk and listen less than a mile away from us who don’t know that we’re Peter and don’t need us to sound today like Peter has sounded all his life. What if you could talk to one of those people today? Do you think maybe you’d get some stuff off your chest? Try on a new perspective? Find some freedom to learn who you really are, what you really believe and care about? Would it help to practice the tough, weird, scary topics with people who aren’t going to be as worried or sad or stressed or hurt if you don’t get it just-right today?

I feel like I need to say a thousand times: A good goal is that you feel this freedom in your close relationships. AND . . . I bet that’s a goal you’ll never stop working toward, so in the meantime . . . what freedom is waiting for you in conversations with everyone else? Everyone you haven’t talked to yet?

Conversation is different than companionship. It’s not better, just different. They’re not totally separate: You find companions in conversation. And then you get lifelong conversation from those companions. But we frequently limit our conversation to those with whom we can already claim companionship. And I think this limits us a lot. Robs us of a lot of magic.

I propose that you and I should talk a lot more to a lot of people who we know a lot less.

~

Photo by Micki Benson

This year, I’ve been part of a movement that is spreading across the world. A movement that has connected brave voices with listening ears from Minnesota to California to New Mexico to Florida to Manitoba. I’ve seen people try on their voices and discover they can make an impact. I’ve watched people voice their anger about “those kinds of people” and then learn that “those kinds of people” turn out to be you and me and then discover that we actually can connect. I’ve witnessed people express their biggest fears and insecurities only to find a bunch of people waiting to hold them up in loving support. I’ve heard people open up about their mental health, their traumas, their loneliness, their struggles, their demons, and their dreams.

It’s really not a complicated movement. We call it 5K Everyday Conversations, because every single day, some place (or places) at some time (or times), we gather–three of us or eight of us or twenty-two of us–to spend 3.1 miles (ish) having conversation. Some people run 3.1 miles with each other fast and talk about the stuff they’re angry about, or the habits they’re building. Some run it at a calmer pace, listening to each other share about a stressful family relationship or dream out loud about the work they’d like to do. Some, understanding that that the conversation itself is magic, show up for the conversation without worrying about the movement. And some hop online in Canada to be an ear for someone holding conversation through live video from their home in Wisconsin.

Why the running part? Hmmm . . . helping rid the world of the superfluous statement “I’m not a runner.” And because movement is fun. Happy. Because a few run every mile they can, and a few have been looking for motivation to run. Everyone has their own reason. . . . What I’ve found, though, is that running turns out to be the best anesthetic to the pain and fear of saying hello to someone you don’t know. Nothing quite like panting and sweating to make us immediately drop all the posturing and see that you and I are just two humans. Movement breaks ice and warms hearts. It fuels the conversation.

So yes, it really is as simple as conversation. And it’s a powerful thing.

~

Experiencing so much no-strings-attached conversation this year, I’ve noticed a few magical things about it:

Conversation can hold no expectations for it to be more than conversation. Free. Pressureless.

Saying things out loud helps us get over things, release things.

It helps us see things clearly, helps us think through things.

Helps us feel seen, heard, appreciated, cared about, accepted, loved.

There is something really freeing about talking through the yucky stuff, the hard stuff, the delicate stuff–with a total stranger who doesn’t expect or need anything from you.

The braveness and freedom you get to practice with a stranger is easier to bring back home to the people you love deeper and therefore stress about more. No-strings-attached conversation is like a gym for your speaking-your-truth muscles. . . . Sort of like with that plank-over-the-Grand-Canyon analogy. What if you could practice walking on that narrow plank from not quite so great a height. Like–practice saying how you actually feel but with someone who doesn’t need quite as much from you. I wonder if you walked that plank in the grass every single day if next time you had to walk it over the Grand Canyon, you might trust your feet just a little bit more?

Not only do you get to try on bravery, you get to try on new ideas. Maybe I don’t usually speak kindly, or I’m not usually really open-minded, or not very accepting of this or that “type.” And maybe I want to try changing that–try a new way–see how it goes. What better place to try on a new way than in conversation with somebody I may have never spoken to and may never speak to again? It’s a free space. A safe space to try something new. (For example: I think a group run with a bunch of new faces was the first place I ever answered the “What do you do?” question by saying “I write a blog.” It felt good.)

Conversation with random-people can also be a helpful place to talk a little about your demons. I know there can be great risk in sharing, depending on the context. It’s hard to know where and when to open up. But . . . I’ve been really amazed–in a no-strings-attached conversation space–amazed at the stuff I’ve heard people get off their chests or open up about, and at the acceptance I myself have found as an also-complicated human being. Sometimes it’s easier to finally get words out like “I don’t think I can keep up this façade anymore” or “I think I have a problem” or “I need help” when it’s someone who doesn’t already need stuff from you. There is some safety in . . . strangers. Weird? Yeah . . . but it works.

Sometimes, with life being as complicated as it is, it can be easier to be there for people as an encouraging, accepting, listening ear when we don’t know them. Again–end goal would be this level of acceptance and trust in companionship, too . . . but it’s also true that in no-strings-attached conversation, it can be much easier for us to be there for people. Take, for example, the dad who is estranged from all his kids, because he screwed up a lot as a dad. And it haunts him. His family can’t be there for him anymore. But maybe a stranger . . . can? A stranger can see the very true and very important and very safe reality that, no matter the struggles or weaknesses or history–this is a beautiful human being who is worthy of love. A lot of us have had to let go of some people, and now spend sleepless nights worrying over where they’re getting their needed doses of love and acceptance. Conversation and respect with a family member comes with a ton of baggage that can be too heavy. But that same family member can find baggage-free conversation with a total stranger, a stranger who can be there for them. Maybe you’re that person who needs a stranger’s listening ear. Or maybe you’re that stranger who gets to be there for people who don’t have many people left. Or maybe you’re that stranger who can be there for that kid who just got chewed up and spat out by the unloving world they grew up in. You never know . . . lots of people with lots of weird stories who just need an ear sometimes. Sometimes a conversation with a stranger is exactly what is needed. Hope-giving. Life-saving. Perfect.

Conversation detached from ongoing companionship is also a healthy place for those of us who are struggling, going through rough patches, to shine–to be appreciated for exactly who we are, without this pressure to first graduate to a healthier season of life. That’s powerful and really, really good, too.

There’s another reason conversation with people we’re not close to is super powerful. It’s this: I’m probably, probably, probably close to people who are a lot like me. Think like me, enjoy the same stuff, rant about the same things, see the world through the same lenses. And sticking to the conversation of my closest companions means that I’ll never ever hear all the other truths screaming to be heard. The world is a big place with countless cultures and experiences and hurts and passions and values. And so much suffering in our world comes from “my group” not listening to “your group.” The only way we’ll ever take your experience seriously, care to help, notice how we’re affecting you–the only way to improve our world for each other is by listening to each other. Not listening to each me-clone. Listening to each OTHER. Hearing different perspectives.

Those thousands of people who aren’t your companions . . . they’re holding the eye-opening revelations for you. Waiting for you to say, “Hello, who are you, and what is happening to you, and what do you wish I understood about your world?”

Nothing bad ever came from listening more, understanding more, learning more, seeing people more. And nothing good ever came from settling comfortably into our own way of life and thinking, blocking out the inconvenient reality that our world really is very diverse and complicated.

Especially this year. We clearly haven’t been listening to each other in this world. Listening to our own people, yes. But not to those OTHERS.

So . . . say hello. Start the conversation. Watch the magic. Change the world.

Oh and just because this is one fun little bit of the magic: You never ever ever know where you’re going to find your life-long companions.

~

This year I’ve come to believe that you and I and EVERYONE would benefit from regular conversation with no strings attached, no expectations, no pressures, no agendas. Just conversation for conversation’s sake.

Conversation. Freedom. Magic.

Photo by Micki Benson

~

If all this sounds good to you, sounds . . . intriguing? A little hopeful? Magical, powerful, or like maybe there’s some hope there . . . I invite you to try one of two things:

Start a conversation with somebody.

And . . .

Follow 5K Everyday Conversations on Facebook and find a local time and place to join the conversation.

If you don’t find any local members, pick a time and place and invite a friend . . . or a stranger. Bring the magic of conversation to your own community, and feel your community open its arms a little wider every day. The whole world needs conversation.

And when you show up for a daily convo, and find yourself thinking “How does this work?” you can look back to that simple invitation a few paragraphs ago: Start a conversation with somebody. As simple, scary, and magical as that.

“Everyday in 2020 we have held space for people to meet for conversational movement. At the same time, we have been making the term “conversational movement” a thing. For 285 days we have been working to normalize and inclusivize two things: (1) People talking with people that they don’t know regularly. (2) People feeling safe “running” together. . . . This is what we mean when we say conversational movement. We move at the pace that allows conversation to happen between two or more people. We define running as an act not defined by speed but by the way it makes you feel…alive, full of breath, moved forward by things that are filling you up and people who are lightening your steps.”

JC Lippold, who extended the first 5K Everyday Conversations invitation, sparking the magic

The whole world needs conversation. You need it, I need it. You need my ear, I need yours. We both have some unsaid stuff, and we both have some corners of the world to open our eyes to.

It only happens if one of us gets up the courage to say “Hello.”

And from there–watch the magic unfold.

~

P.S. I feel like I just wrote a bunch about the heavy stuff with conversations–the struggles, the overcoming . . . also, maybe even especiallyconversation is just FUN and BEAUTIFUL and totally AWESOME. It WILL brighten your day.

Photo by Micki Benson

What you focus on

For the first time when I was about seventeen, I noticed a Dodge Charger. Bright red, powerful looking, muscle from bumper to bumper. Wow, I thought, here is a unique and beautiful car. I must have one. Over the next couple weeks, half the population seemed to share my revelation and purchase their own Dodge Chargers. They were everywhere.

You get what I mean, right? You never, ever see something. Then you start looking for it. And suddenly you see it everywhere.

I just tried googling “What you focus on expands” to see who to credit with the quote. It’s attributed to an endless list of thinkers. It has just become one of the universally acknowledged principles in life: We will find more and more of the things we spend our time looking for.

Universally acknowledged, but still worth reminder after reminder.

What are you focusing on too much? What are you not focusing on enough?

And how does that apply to your People? Your relationships? Your community?

Like your significant other, your sibling, your co-worker. What do you think about them these days? The more you think it, the more you see it–right?

Maybe you know me. I’m a really kind person. Every day, you can see me speaking thoughtfully–to someone or about someone. In fact, the more you think about it, the more amazing it is how attentive I am to other people and their needs. Every day that you try to see if I’m a kind person, you will see proof. Pretty soon, if you stare at it every day, you’ll realize I am the kindest person in the world. I’m also a really sensitive person. Every day, you can see me getting my feelings a little hurt or misinterpreting a word or a look. In fact, the more you think about it, the more shocking it is how anxious I am that people mean to hurt me and take advantage of me. Every day that you try to see if I’m a sensitive, fragile-hearted person, you will see proof. Pretty soon, if you stare at it every day, you’ll realize I am the most over-sensitive person in the world. . . . . . Do you get it? I have a thousand different Peter-things for you to know me by. “Good” ones and “bad” ones, “fun” and “hard” ones, “happy” and “sad” ones, “normal” and “weird” ones. And what you think of me, what you expect from me, what you “know” about me has a lot to do with which parts of me you choose to look at the most.

What parts of your People are you looking at the most?

What parts of your People are you forgetting to look at?

If it ever seems like you know the MOST [insert-any-characteristic] people in the world–the MOST frustrating, the MOST toxic, the MOST obnoxious, or even the MOST loving, or the MOST fun–it may have less to do with this unique set of unusually extreme people the world specially assigned you, and more to do with your focus. Because of your focus, they are the “MOST” to you.

Some people really are especially kind. Some people really are especially sensitive.

Some people who have been frustrating you these days are actually really amazing people with really healthy roles to play in your life. Some aren’t.

Some people who have been wowing and attracting and filling your tank these days really are people that you’ll be healthier letting go. Some aren’t.

But two things are for sure: If you decide to focus on someone’s “good,” you will not miss out on knowing a beautiful soul. And if you decide to focus on someone’s “bad,” a beautiful soul will look ugly and dangerous and scary to you.

What you focus on expands.

In all the world of living things, you and I are uniquely developed to see the bad. Your amygdala is why you’ve made it this far. Your amygdala also has the capacity to destroy your relationships and ruin every good thing you’ve ever had. . . . if you forget to look for the good things.

So today, scrub off your lenses a little. Your People–what normal-things of theirs have you been obsessing over and looking for until it’s all you see about them? Can you look at some of their other things today, too? The whole them? What beautiful things have been hiding behind the fog?

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 ;)

The lifelong freedom of not needing approval

I say lifelong for a reason.

Approval feels really wonderful, so it’s hard not to fall back into living for approval after we’ve once found freedom.

When you find independence, you chase the things you’re genuinely interested in, the stuff you really believe in. And then that new version of life brings you new approval from new approvers. People that love you for who you are now. Only, those people are complicated and come with new pressures and expectations for you. And those people change. And so do you. So it’s easy to find yourself right back where you started: Not being true to your heart, walking the tightrope of your new tribe’s approval.

What would happen if you got out of your head? What would happen if you just hit refresh on that independence every couple of months. Mindfully said, “Hey, I don’t have to . . . [fill-in-the-blank].”

We are free. Freedom brings life, life brings community, and community–no matter how wonderful–can be a complicated thing for our codependent little hearts to navigate.

So here’s your reminder, whether you’re on round two or three or four or twelve of rediscovering yourself, reinventing yourself, letting yourself live your genuine life instead of the one expected–here’s your reminder to keep ignoring that loud, persistent longing to be “normal” or approved of–no matter who your current tribe is.

You are you.

P.S. You may just find that you have some true community–some fellow humans who don’t even have the expectations of you that you’re trying to live up to. Who just see you as you.

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” ~ Neil Gaiman

lys louisville

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:

~

“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.

~

“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.

~

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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