Tag Archives: healthy boundaries

Outsmart Your Guilt

 

 

Things go wrong when guilt’s the driving force behind our actions. That’s because guilt doesn’t do a good job of steering us in the right direction. It lacks intelligence.

Dru, 17, is a prime example. She didn’t want to hurt her boyfriend’s feelings, and as a result became pregnant. In our counseling session with tears streaming down her face, she expressed what was going on in her head the night she conceived:

“I didn’t want to do it! I didn’t feel right about it, but I would’ve been consumed with guilt if I let him down!”

The desire to give to others, the concern over disappointing or hurting someone, stems from a kind heart. That’s a good thing. It’s not such a good thing, though, when we hurt or disrespect ourselves in the process.

No question, Dru would be paying a hefty price for being dominated by guilt. Her future suddenly looked quite different, because the demanding responsibilities of motherhood would place her dreams, interests and much of her freedoms on hold.

Dru’s pathway for getting healthy entailed learning that self-neglect is wrong. She cared too much for her boyfriend and too little for herself. Her fear of letting him down resulted in letting herself down.

I remember her telling me that he would have acted hurt if she had said no to him on that fateful night. In the months ahead, Dru came to understand that hurting someone’s feelings isn’t always a bad thing. We all need to be told ‘no’ on occasion and to learn our limits with other people. How else do we become sensitive and respectful of others? We rob people of growing in these ways when we give in to pouts, angry outbursts, or other manipulative ploys.

Dru finally ended the relationship with her boyfriend.

I asked her: “In looking back, what did that experience teach you, Dru?”

“That I can’t let anybody have control over me again,” she said. “I can’t let someone suck my spirit from me. It drains me.”

“Exactly what drains you?” I asked.

“Worrying about people, needing to make them feel better,” she said. “I have this problem of wanting to make everyone happy even if it costs me my own happiness. It’s all so draining! But I’m getting stronger.”

I agreed—Dru was getting stronger. She found a new relationship and to her delight, she isn’t obsessed or burdened with worry about what he’s feeling, thinking, or needing. She describes the relationship as “freeing.”

“How will you know if this relationship turns unhealthy?” I asked.

She thought for a moment and shared her newfound insight—that pleasing someone else at the expense of her own well-being would be wrong. “If that happens, I’ll feel trapped and guilty for not taking care of him.”

She learned that guilt shouldn’t be in charge–she and her intellect should be running things.

It made me smile to see that Dru was “getting it.” Smart girl. 🙂

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2019

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Don’t Be Nice All the Time

 

Over and over again, while growing up, Kari heard: “It’s better to give and be nice than it is to receive.”  Valuing the other person more than yourself was expected. So, today, she tends to be nice to everyone but herself. No surprise. When people mistreat or take advantage of her, she gives them a free pass. But Kari’s been waking up to that unhealthy pattern—seeing how it’s not serving her very well. Her current relationship is a perfect example, and right now, she would like to end the relationship but guilt stands in her way.

Guilt over caring for herself blocks her from doing the right thing.

Doug, another client, received the same training. “The way I feel good about myself is by being a good guy … doing for others.”  He gave me an example.  When an acquaintance of his, John, needed a phone, Doug agreed to sell him his $250 phone for $80. He even agreed that John could pay him later. Doug didn’t hear from the man for several weeks. Finally, when they bumped into each other somewhere, John paid Doug … but he paid him $50 instead of $80. When I asked Doug how he felt about that, he said: “I wanted to do the right thing.”

“Is it right to let others take advantage of you?” I asked. “How do others learn the same morals you were taught if you rob them of that opportunity?”

We talked at length, then Doug arrived at a realization:

“I should have stood up for myself,” he said. “Sometimes it’s right to upset people.”

Several years ago, I created a little story for the sake of illustration:

Imagine a classroom of small children—crayons in hand—each thoroughly absorbed in his/her own drawings. Jenny is sitting beside Joey, and at some point, he reaches over with his crayon and marks on her paper. Jenny objects, “No Joey!” while pushing his hand away. He stops, briefly, then repeats the offense. Again Jenny protests but this time she briskly moves to another spot in the room, taking her sheet of paper with her.

This scenario would have played out quite differently had Jenny been indoctrinated with the directive to always “be nice.” In that case, she would have wilted when Joey marked on her paper, letting him have free rein. Believing that objecting is hurtful, she would be ruled by restraint. Striving to be nice is a worthy ethic to teach children, but it should be a two-way ethic.

Niceness should run both ways.

Yes, Jenny should be nice to others, but she should also hold the belief that virtue applies to everyone else as well. Joey wasn’t being nice and that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Jenny’s actions preserved her well-being and dignity, but she also did Joey a favor. She gave him the opportunity to learn an important lesson: If I mistreat people, I’ll alienate them. They won’t want to be around me.

Had Jenny folded, submitting to Joey’s will and disrespect, she would have sent the opposite message.

We humans don’t grow when others are placating or pretending to go along with us. The best mirror we have available is the authentic response given by other people. No, it’s not always easy to look at ourselves through the eyes of others. It can be painful, but some deeper—truer—part of ourselves finds it gratifying to be shown the truth.

Protesting isn’t hurtful if done correctly. Being enlightened by truth is quite different from being punctured by it. When Jenny voiced her protest, she wasn’t being hurtful.

If Joey was hurt, he was hurt by the truth—not by Jenny.

When someone crosses a line, our instinct tells us to be self-protective. It’s the same instinct that protects us from eating spoiled food, stepping out in front of traffic, getting close to a raging dog. Psychological well-being is no different. Inner distress is a signal announcing the need for change.

Instead of just enduring, we’re supposed to listen to it and take action. Doing so is an act of love, both for ourselves and for the other person.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

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Say Good-bye to Bullies

Don’t put up with bullying just because it’s been your habit since day one and is therefore insanely comfortable.

That was my advice to Nicole who endures verbal abuse from her boss on a regular basis. She’s always belittling her in front of the other employees. For example, she’ll blast her for missing deadlines and she’ll erupt in rage when Nicole expresses an opinion of her own. Let’s face it, she’s supposed to be her boss’s puppet and nothing more.

Nicole just sits and takes it. Why? Because it’s familiar territory—echoing how she was raised. Her father was a bully, and she learned that her role was to submit. Succumbing to bullies is her norm—it’s all she knows. It’s how she was programmed.

Residing beneath Nicole’s facade of niceness lies her anger.

“I would just love to call in sick tomorrow,” she said, “and stick her with all the work!”  Nicole dropped her head, saying, “But it wouldn’t be morally right if I did that.”

“Is it morally right to put yourself through this?” I asked.

“What’s the fine line between abuse and job responsibilities?” she asked.

“You answer that,” I said. “You’re wiser than your boss, you know.”

“There’s never a good excuse for abuse,” she said. “Ever.”

“Does that mean that anybody in a leadership position who doesn’t treat you respectfully doesn’t deserve your dedication?” I asked.

She nodded.

“What do I do about this?” she asked.

“What do you want to do?”

Without the slightest hesitation, she said with a perky little smile: “Find another job.”

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Unexpected Gift

 

“I don’t take responsibility for what’s going on in your head.”

That’s what Gordon wishes he had said when his girlfriend completely misinterpreted him . . . again.

It all started when she called to tell him how bored and miserable she was at work. According to the work schedule, she had the day off, but they needed the money. Bills were starting to pile up because Gordon had been sick for several days and was forced to take time off from work, so he’d been borrowing money from her to handle his half of the bills.

After getting free of the bug, he returned to work and started earning an income once again. But it would take a while before they were completely out of the woods.

Gordon was feeling nothing but respect and gratitude for his girlfriend’s generosity and work ethic.

After the call, he quickly rearranged his schedule so he could surprise her at work and help alleviate her boredom. As he drove to her restaurant, he felt immense tenderness toward her and was looking forward to brightening her day.

He walked in. She looked up and saw him smiling. Her face got very serious. “You need money, don’t you!” she said gruffly.

He froze . . . stunned.  She had completely misread his intentions. Though deeply hurt, he managed to stammer out a few words in defense of himself: “No . . . why would you think that? Nothing like that. You told me how slow things were and that you were bored, so I came!”

As usual, nothing he said made any difference. She didn’t budge from the distorted picture she had of him.

The whole event had a sobering effect on Gordon.  “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She automatically assumed that just because I was visiting her at work—where she makes tips—that I came with my hand out, wanting some of her hard-earned cash.” He thought she might jump into his arms, or smile gratefully, or even just grin a little. The more he thought about it, the more it hurt.

“What kind of guy does she think I am?” he said. “I don’t even come close to the type of person she imagines me to be. Only a cold-hearted jerk would respond to someone’s call for help by showing up with the intent of asking for money. She doesn’t know me at all!  And the person she thinks I am isn’t even someone I’d want to be associated with.”

Once Gordon’s eyes were opened, he realized that this scenario had defined their relationship for the entire three years they were together.  He also saw just how much unhappiness he had swallowed during that time.

This latest event was a reality check. He came to realize that he could no longer stay in a relationship that was so costly to his well-being.

“Without knowing it, she gave me an incredible gift.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Don’t Take the Bait

When Jim returned home from his Saturday fishing trip, his wife, Marlene, was withdrawn—cold as ice. Alas, the all too familiar silent treatment had set in. He asked Marlene if there was a problem. With her head turned away, she murmured a mere, “No.” Remaining calm and unaffected, he said, “Well, you’re not acting as if nothing’s wrong.” He then encouraged her to say more. She didn’t respond. At this point, Jim had two alternatives: either invest agonizing energy into altering her mood, or just let it play out. He chose to let it play out.

A wise choice on his part because silent treatments are best ignored. Attempts to squelch them have a way of simply reinforcing them. Silent treatments are a substitute for verbalizing. As children, indirect communication may have been the sole option for some. Perhaps they were screamed at or ignored for speaking up directly.

As a young child, Marlene may have been taken seriously only when she got quiet and emitted vibes of being annoyed or hurt. If so, she learned that there is a greater payoff for going quiet than for speaking up. Her manner, though, is self-defeating in an adult partnership of equals. How can Jim be attuned to her needs if she alienates him—if he’s left in the dark?

Before he started counseling, whenever Marlene would go silent on him, Jim’s urge to fix the situation would be overwhelming. Tormented with guilt and unrest, he would try anything—short of turning cartwheels—to appease her. It never made a difference. Instead, it only left him feeling disgusted with himself.

Now, Jim doesn’t get caught up in those antics.

He has come to realize that the solution to dealing with Marlene’s silent treatments lies in changing conditions in himself as opposed to changing external factors.

In the past, if someone was withdrawn or angry with him, Jim automatically assumed he was at fault. But Jim is no longer inclined to accept blame that doesn’t belong to him.

In our counseling sessions, I emphasized to Jim: “Don’t be managed by silent treatments. Refuse to take the bait.” Instead, I urged him to practice integrity. Silent treatments are designed to control or punish. Thus the term “punishing silences.”

Inherently, they are an insidious form of aggression. Not only do the aggressors hide their weapons, they don’t see themselves as aggressors. Intent on believing they have been wronged in some way, they view themselves as victims and therefore feel justified to punish.

Being on the receiving end of a cold shoulder can be an intensely frustrating experience. Because there’s an unwillingness to discuss the unspoken complaint, people in Jim’s position are declared guilty without knowing why and without being given the opportunity to defend themselves.

The fair and open approach entails dialogue between both parties, mutually engaged in seeking a satisfying resolution.

Jim made such an attempt soon after returning from his Saturday fishing trip. In a forthright manner he invited open dialogue, giving Marlene ample opportunity to express what was on her mind. He wasn’t nasty about it, nor did he come off like a puppy deserving of a good whipping. He merely attempted to address an obvious problem.

Jim went as far with it as he could—the rest was up to her. Her manner exuded alienation, leaving him no healthy alternative to backing off. In so doing, the responsibility for Marlene’s mood was appropriately placed squarely in her lap.

Jim and Marlene went about their weekend barely speaking a word. The atmosphere was thick with silence—and tension. By Sunday evening the silence broke.

Apologizing for her behavior, Marlene explained what her problem was. She was disappointed when he chose to go fishing because she had been anticipating a romantic weekend—time with just the two of them. Ironically, since Marlene failed to be up front about her desires and expectations she sabotaged the entire weekend with her sulking. Her apology was a victory for integrity.

Had Jim manifested his former pattern of absorbing blame and engaging in feverish attempts to appease his wife, a different outcome could be anticipated. More than likely, the silence would have culminated with Jim groveling apologetically and Marlene enshrined in her self-righteousness.

Instead of surrendering to guilt, though, Jim displayed strength and poise, thus uplifting the dynamic between them. Quite possibly, Jim’s demonstration of unyielding integrity stimulated some healthy soul-searching on Marlene’s part.

Her use of silent treatments may become a relic from her past. Now, at least, Jim is breathing new life into the pattern of their relating. By changing his behavior, he’s stimulating Marlene to follow suit.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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You Really Do Know What’s True

 

Proceeding wisely through life requires a sharply focused awareness of our emotions. Being blind to them handicaps our ability to take effective action in any given situation.

Let’s say, as a small child, you hear a loud noise. Instinctively, you place your hands over your ears. Then you’re told, “It’s not too loud.”

Let’s say you fall down and get hurt and your parents tell you, “You’re not hurt.”

Let’s say you tell your parents you saw two lizards in the backyard and they respond by saying, “No, you didn’t!”

If this happens often enough, you may—understandably—begin to distrust your own experience of reality. The same goes for emotions. If our emotions are continuously discounted instead of being validated, we stop relying on them for useful information. Unfortunately, we learn to rely on how we’ve been programmed to think and feel.

Cheri was raised to doubt her own emotions. Consequently, she second-guesses herself whenever someone treats her disrespectfully. Nate, her 22-year-old son, is no exception. He has been doing it for years.

But Cheri’s waking up. “Enough is enough,” she said in our counseling session. She had reached that point after returning home from a short business trip and discovering that her house had been trashed. Without her knowledge, much less her approval, Nate had thrown a party while she was gone. It really wasn’t out of character for him to ignore his messes. And it wasn’t unusual for him to erupt in a rage when confronted.  He can be cooperative, but only when he wants something, and it’s at those times he pleads for a second chance. Up until now, Cheri has obliged him.

“What can I do?” Cheri asked. “I feel used.”

Merely teaching Cheri better methods for dealing with her adult son would prove futile. That’s because the source of the problem—her major stumbling block—resides in how she dismisses her own feelings.

Like her parents, Cheri tells herself how she should feel and think instead of listening to the wisdom of her emotions and using her better judgment.

Her actual emotional response toward her son’s blatant disrespect is a combination of pain, outrage and disgust. She may love him as a son, but she honestly doesn’t like the person he’s become. According to Cheri, he treats people poorly in all arenas, not just at home. And on several occasions, his troublesome behavior has led to problems with the law and with employers. It distresses her that his sole focus seems to be on self-gratification. Displays of sensitivity toward others or demonstrations of a social conscience are virtually nonexistent.

But Cheri’s criticism of her son—realistic as it may be—immediately activates strong feelings of guilt. She believes she would be mean and selfish if she stopped giving him chances, lending him money, doing his laundry and other such favors.

Ironically, she feels okay about judging herself, but feels wrong about judging her son.

When I pointed that out to Cheri, she said, “I was brought up to believe that it was wrong to judge others.”

I explained that there is a difference between open-eyed clarity and being judgmental. We possess discerning minds. That ability, along with our values and emotions, tells us when someone’s actions are just plain wrong. Emotions alert us to discomfort and repulsion—our mind tells us why. Both provide valuable feedback so we can respond appropriately.

I emphasized to Cheri the importance of listening to her soul’s indigestion.

“It’s telling you something.” I urged her to pay attention to that sick feeling in her gut. “We shouldn’t ignore what we find disturbing,” I said.

“I can’t differentiate between judging and what’s distasteful to my soul,” Cheri said. “In my mind, choosing what’s right for me is equivalent to judging.”

“Where did this idea come from?” I asked.

“I was constantly told as a child that I shouldn’t feel what I feel…that the way I felt was wrong. Any feelings, anger or tears were considered wrong. I wasn’t allowed to say what didn’t work for me. So I don’t feel I have the right to complain or to even expect my son to be different.”

I felt optimistic when Cheri left my office that day because awareness is the first step in re-programming ourselves. Hopefully, she will begin to override her guilt and start validating her emotions. And as a result, she will effectively respond to her son’s disrespectful behaviors.

He just may be in for a bit of a surprise. Hope so.

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Not Guilty!

 

Kara would like to skip getting together with her family over the holidays. But guilt stands in her way.

“I hate to say it but I’d be a whole lot happier spending time with Marc’s family,” she said. Marc is Kara’s husband. “They’re just more pleasant to be around.”

In contrast, Kara’s family gatherings are unbearably stressful. Wounding, in fact. They seem to find it entertaining to make fun of each other, team up, and exchange sarcastic digs.

“And if things get heated up because someone takes offense,” she said, “tempers fly! Why would I want to be around all that?  I always feel judged and anxious . . . mentally beat up!”

So why does she feel so torn?

Kara gave a heavy sigh. “Guilt,” she said. “It’s my mother. She’ll take it as a personal assault if I don’t want to go.” Kara went on to explain that her mom will act hurt while saying something to the effect: “Oh. I see . . . you’d rather be with Marc’s family than with us.”

I understand why Kara feels judged around her family. It happens.

I asked Kara, “Will guilt win or will your preference win?”

She lowered her eyes.

“Hey” I said, “if  you must feel guilty, you might as well feel guilty for doing what you want. Right?” 

She laughed. We both did.

I’m reminded of something my husband, Don, once said.

“One thing is certain, if you fall under the control of guilt, you will end up unhappy.”

Guilt shouldn’t dictate our decisions—reason should. And so should something else . . . our well-being.

Which choice is best for Kara’s overall well-being? The answer is obvious.

Kara made it clear she likes her family. She just doesn’t like it when they’re all congregated under the same roof.

We did some brainstorming and came up with a win-win solution. She will get with each family member on an individual basis. This can happen anytime—around holidays or on any date throughout the year.

Minus the family dynamics, it will be a lot more pleasant.

Kara’s mother and other guilt-manipulators could benefit from thinking about Wayne Dyer’s definition of love:

Love is “the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves, without any insistence that they satisfy you.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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