2.16.2014

"Just" Friends


“Just friends” is an inadequate expression. It’s dismissive of friendship, as though there were some more precious form of relationship and our “just friend” is standing in for the real thing. “Oh, this old thing? It’s just a cubic zirconia friendship I picked up on sale.” That’s bullocks. Any true friendship is as powerful—if not more powerful—than a love partnership. Time and again, friendships outlast love affairs and marriages. My marriage, anyway.

And yet there is such an allure to romantic entanglement! I long for the thrill of the crush, the obsessive intensity, the ache to be together, the electric shock of physical chemistry! Even writing about it gets my heart rate up.

But I decided that I can’t be in a “relationship” (read: romance) right now, meaning that it’s a bad time for me to meet men. That’s because I have some ISSUES to resolve. Nothing big, just your ordinary, self-indulgent, developmental, spiritual, existential, quintessential, heavy-duty, midlife-crisis kind of shit.

So why not attend to that irrelevant drivel AND step out on the town with a hottie at the same time? Because my mind is a crafty thing. I can rationalize my way into, out of, around, and through anything. I can ignore red flags, turn a blind eye to my soul’s flare guns, and act on misguided instinct with the best of them.

And sometimes choices made in the throes of passion are not healthy for me in the long term. Because when I’m coupled up, my focus turns outward... “Me” becomes overshadowed by “we.” I don’t attend to my ISSUES because I’m too wrapped up in developing this “us” thing.

Now you have to understand, this deliberately single idea is remarkable for me. See, I have no problem committing to faithful (or serial) monogamy, but I struggle mightily to remain alone. Struggle. Mightily. Because when I’m alone, those ISSUES are there waiting for me.

So when it came time to acknowledge the need for a dating hiatus, I dutifully disabled my online dating profile. But not before something extraordinary happened.

I had met up with Dave a few weeks earlier, after we made contact on okcupid.com (or okstupid as it is commonly known). Dave turned out to be a handsome, creative, talented, warm, articulate, affectionate, loyal, well-educated, sexy dude. I’ll give you his number later if you want, but first let me explain what happened with Dave and me.

We embarked on our meeting with the intention of being “just friends.” We had discussed briefly the obstacles to anything else, most notably that Dave is moving to New York later this year. Now typically, when I meet a man whom I find attractive AND who is available, I’m gonna’ go for it, baby! That’s what people do when they meet someone compatible, right?

Except when, like me, they need to work on their ISSUES. Distractions like existential questions have never stopped me before. But at my advancing age, I can’t indulge in the “high” of a romance (read: diversion) at the expense of my personal growth process. So what is a woman to do about this handsome, artistic, talented, warm, articulate, affectionate, loyal, well-educated, sexy dude?

Talk to him. Dave and I shared our relationship histories, our codependent narratives, our mutual tendencies to rush in, eyes a-sparkle, only to be disenchanted when things don’t turn out to be as promising as we’d thought. We fondly recollected all the times we’d played and lost... when the chemistry downshifted and we were left with: friendship?
Uh, usually not. Those firecracker moments at the beginning derailed rationality and higher purpose. Real friendship was never established or cultivated in the first place. So after the smoke clears, there’s that stark moment of revelation when we ask: are we even friends? Or were we “just” lovers?

So Dave and I have challenged ourselves-- individually and collectively—to turn down tickets for that codependent rodeo. I have other things I need to accomplish. And along the way, I just might need a friend.

2.11.2014

Heartfelt

I'm in the midst of a Process (capital P).

It's largely a Process of cracking my little heart open and doing nothing. Just giving it freedom to breathe, change, remain the same, or otherwise be heartfelt.

I've been rather fond of labels. I wield my arrogance and credentials to dub this one "Sir Simpleton" and that one "Lady of Lunacy." I carve the same labels into my skin like scars; I affix them to my identity like sticky notes.

Labels are useful to describe certain things, like grocery items, poison chemicals, street names, and laboratory urine specimens. When slapped onto a human being's forehead with a smear of Gorilla Glue, however, they become less useful. Instead, they're downright pesky.

I expect that there are a few labels that are beyond my power to eliminate or that are a fair estimation of some inborn quality used to distinguish me from other animals. But the other labels I wear around have become tiresome. I don't want to discard classification entirely-- I shall still claim the ones I like: Daughter. Sister. Friend. Creative. Artistic. Funny. Geek. Mind Ninja. Platonic Soulmate... I could go on, but, well, I've exhausted the list of labels I intend to keep.

Hear this.
This is my year to care more about others' minds and less about what those minds think of my ideas, words, appearance, beliefs, and behaviors. It's my year of discarding the stigmas I've carried regarding being "different." My year to claim weirdness, non-conformity, quirks, and balls of odd. And any other kind of balls I choose.

This is my year to care more about myself and judge less. To celebrate rather than evaluate, to sympathize rather than criticize. To create more and edit less.

No more disclaimers. No more explanations. I will not apologize for me any more. Or at least I'll do my best. I SAID it was a Process.

(Note: This Process was inspired in part by this book: Born to Freak: A Salty Primer for Irrepressible Humans Read it immediately, if you know what's good for you.)

Moving On

Like many triggers for growth, it came upon me suddenly: an internal knowing that was reinforced by sign after sign.
 
Nine months into a relationship is a natural time to take an emotional inventory, to hold the thing in your hand and feel its texture and heft. The thing I held in my hand felt the same as when it began, safe and companionable, but hollow. Sweet and fluffy, like cotton candy. And with a similarly fleeting experience of joy, a moment of pleasure soon dissolved and forgotten.
 
Friends would ask: "How are things with Kevin?" My consistent response: "The same. We get along and have a good time." I never called him my "boyfriend," just "the man I'm dating." And that was enough.
 
Until it wasn't. After nine months, even that sounded hollow, necessitating justification for the time invested in a relationship synonymous with "meh."
 
This isn't any criticism of Kevin. In fact, he is a lovely man and everyone likes him immediately. I like him. He is sweet, attentive, witty, generous, affectionate... mild, safe, unthreatening, and, ultimately, utterly unlike me.
 
We had little in common, aside from enjoyment of dining out and sex. (And maybe a little Rock Band action here and there with our self-created band “Butter Spank.”) In fact, I felt very much like an unmarried trophy wife. My part of the deal was to be chatty and sexy and fun. His was to wine, dine, admire, and laugh at my jokes. We shared bedroom responsibilities and rewards.
 
It was an unfamiliar arrangement for me, but it was alluring to be desired and spoiled with gourmet meals and gifts. I knew it was superficial, but I savored the taboo, forbidden aspect of it: in my social circles, intelligent women of substance didn't let themselves be objectified. On the contrary, we insisted on being admired for our sharp wit and informed opinions. We split the check at dinner. We certainly didn't enjoy showing cleavage and getting mani-pedi gift cards from our beaus.
 
Yes, that aspect of letting myself be taken care of rather than cared for as an equal... there was something shameful about it which loomed just beyond my field of vision. It caused me to feel that I needed to justify why I stayed in a relationship that didn't intensify, didn't mature, didn't become more intimate. To justify why I preferred cotton candy over tiramisu.
 
I justified it with some valid reasons. There was a simplicity to it. Our roles were clearly defined and there were no demands. We saw each other weekly, and might stay in touch with a daily text message. One, not dozens, or none at all. And it felt fine. Nobody's feathers were ruffled, no resentments built. There were no long phone calls or confessional emails to be savored over and over. No falling in love. No fear of loss or emotional vulnerability.
 
At nine months, I felt the shadow of a year approaching. What did I have to remember this year by? A year with a man whom I barely knew and didn’t love.
 
I started to feel the power shifting, from the excitement of being a toy to the point where I had outgrown the excitement of the forbidden. And just like with a toy, without conscious decision, you reach a point when the toy is no longer your favorite and you leave it behind because it is... the same. You've outgrown it.
 
At some point I realized (guiltily) that I was unconsciously checking for wedding rings on attractive men at the dog park. Despite my adamant commitment to monogamy in relationships, I was moving throughout the world as though I were single and unattached. And I was, in fact, unattached in most senses of the word.
 
Kevin was a mirror, one that reflected back an idealized and attractive image. He was an agreeable and even-keeled presence that didn't threaten my need for attention and validation. Never an argument, never a complaint. Narcissus' reflective pool. And yes, that makes me Narcissus.
 
Buddhism endorses the concept of non-attachment. One can love and be grateful, but in order to be free from suffering one must accept “what is.” I wasn't suffering—not in the least. But I needed to detach from a relationship that was not serving my spiritual truth.
 
Each moment, we make choices about what to hold and what to let go. Each commitment, object, and relationship potentially stands in the way of something else that might better suit the person we are becoming. Or at the very least, it might reinforce patterns that no longer serve us.
 
I want to make my choices conscious. By letting go of Kevin, I choose to engage in a process of reflection and growth to ensure I don't fall prey to habit or safety—especially when change and experimentation might bring me closer to my best self.
 
Thank you, Kevin.  And goodbye.
 

The Move

I wanted to move. As a young(ish), single professional, I reasoned that I could find a home more suited to my personality and lifestyle, with retro bathroom tiles, wood floors, and indie-rock-loving neighbors. I could even get a cheaper place to save money that I desperately needed to pay my stubborn credit card balance.

I was paying too much for my tiny cinder block place surrounded by weeds, stray cats, and inebriated neighbors with junk cars and piles of trash sharing my driveway. Sure, it was close to work, had good neighbors, and a quaint view, but I wanted to walk to my car in the morning without having to traipse through wet grass, loose dirt, and gravel to where I parked my car. I wanted to wear high heels without getting scuffs just walking to the mailbox. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind having house numbers on my apartment, washer and dryer hookups— even central heating and air! A girl could dream.

The hunt began. I scanned Craigslist, met with property managers, and toured a dozen “adorable” apartments. My sights became attuned to any 12”x18” sign proclaiming “for rent.” I drove for hours on the weekend and after work through desirable and affordable neighborhoods, writing down phone numbers of potential leads. I cruised the areas that were home to my favorite restaurants, quirky shops, and cultural venues… Ooh, five minutes from the Florida Theater… walking distance from brunch at Biscotti’s… a short bike ride to Five Points. I was determined to find a better place, one that carried possibilities of dinner parties and redecorating and sexy rendezvous with a newer, more swanky, and less frank boyfriend than the one who kindly reassured me that my place “isn’t that bad.”

I went through cycles of hope, excitement, trepidation, exasperation, and moments of “almost, but not quite.” I excitedly told friends and family about the impending move. I imagined it would revive my flagging spirit and relieve my burnout at work. The move promised a change of scenery… a fresh start in a place more reflective of my quirky, stylish side. A place with curb appeal and a dishwasher. As simple as my needs were, that sounded like a dream come true to me.

At some point, though, the hunt started to lose its luster. Nothing was quite right. I found a great place in a great neighborhood but someone else just put down a deposit. Then there was the perfect duplex apartment: kindly landlord, washer/dryer, big windows, fully renovated and bursting with character! It was a steal and the place I had dreamed of! The moment I walked in I fell in love. I decided to think about it for a few days. That was when, reluctantly, I was forced to acknowledge its not so perfect location right next to a busy— AND LOUD— train track. Yeah, that.

With each near miss, my attention shifted away from the search for my next home to the unique charms of my current one: a neighbor who was now a dear friend and confidant, a safe yard where my dog Luna and I could play after a long day at work, and the picturesque setting of a tidal creek that soothed me with its cypress-framed vista and soft breeze.

"Adorable" and "bungalow" would be overly generous, but I had to admit that my simple surroundings did have the slightest flavor of a rustic cabin getaway. I lived each day amidst herons and birdsong and brushstrokes of of sunrise and sunset— even rainbows— reflected in the lovely water’s surface. The dock welcomed me home and offered a serene platform for yoga stretches after my run. In season, figs and Japanese plums and pecans were ripe and bountiful for eating straight off the tree. Neighbors shared luscious tomatoes and peppers from their gardens with me and always had a smile and a greeting; yet they respected my privacy completely. I felt safe here. At home.

As I started to let go of the urge to find a new apartment, I sensed a wise part of me tug at my spiritual shirt sleeve like an insistent child. When I stopped long enough to listen, it calmly and firmly asserted this truth: you don’t want to move. You want to move forward.

I didn’t want an apartment, I wanted a renovation of my self. I was keeping myself stuck, overlooking important realities just as I had almost been willing to overlook the deafening train that would have been my neighbor had I moved into my “dream” apartment. I lived frugally but was accumulating debt ever since my divorce. I worked long hours for little pay. I told myself I didn’t mind, because I liked my work and was gaining the experience I needed for licensure. I told myself it would get easier, that I was in transition after the divorce, that I would learn to manage my time better, that this was where I needed to be right now. But all the passion and emotional rewards in the world didn’t satisfy a nagging sense of disappointment and dis-ease.

The divorce was 3 years ago, not 3 months ago. In my work I had accrued the necessary hours for licensure months before. Why hadn’t I moved on? Why didn’t I live in a gorgeous apartment, drive a nice car, and have time to unwind and enjoy? Why didn’t I at least have the counseling license to show for my abilities and experience?

Why? Because I sold myself the myth that I didn’t have a choice. I had chosen the yoke of martyrdom and claimed I wouldn’t be able to move on until I had my license. That excuse held for a while, but there was nothing in my way now except my own self-pity, avoidance, and procrastination. The metaphorical blood was on my hands; I held the incriminating knife of self-sabotage. It was a familiar feeling, one associated with a long tradition unfinished projects, abandoned hobbies, procrastination, somedays, and underachievement.

I had a backlog of messes ranging from a rusty grill in need of gas to a pile of documents waiting to be shredded; unread magazines stashed under coffee tables, clothing to be mended, and vacation pictures boxed with empty photo albums; overdue dental appointments and unanswered emails. The piece de resistance was a small stack of pre-addressed thank you cards from my wedding 8 years before. 8 years! Most had been sent just after the ceremony, but somehow I had allowed myself to put off the most important ones— those to our family members who hosted, funded, and attended to the details of that special ceremony. I told myself they needed special sentiments that would take more time to write. But 8 years wasn’t what I had in mind.

Everything was in bad shape. But professionally, the biggest shadow was cast by the foot-dragging of my licensure application. For months I had been qualified to take the exam. I had completed the required supervised hours that took two long years to accrue. Yet I had avoided making a move. Until now.

Once my tragic neglect of self-responsibility was exposed to the light, tasks beckoned me. Instead of guilty, I felt determined. Motivation overtook complacency. I gained momentum with each small step, and my goal appeared more and more manageable. I diligently applied for testing permission, registered for a test date, set a study regimen, and trudged along through the process of studying until I reached the point of saturation.

I passed the test with ease. I took the required continuing education classes, sent the fee, and now I am a licensed mental health counselor. I now have the credentials to do what I’ve been doing for years anyway. Perhaps it’s just a piece of paper. But to me it represents perseverance. Completion. Integrity.

Now, where did I put those wedding thank you cards?

12.20.2012

Life Is Now, Now.

I've taken Life Is Now in a more personal direction. Please join me at http://themindninja.tumblr.com/.

12.10.2009

Conflict Is Relative: Changing Your Role in Family Conflicts

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, so do plans to reunite with relatives. In More Peaceful Holidays, Family Style, I outlined how to use mindful self-awareness to avoid conflict. Because good intentions and self-care aren’t always enough, here I offer ways to handle and repair conflict. I also urge you to consider new perspectives on old family roles and patterns to evaluate whether they still fit with your values and goals— or if it’s time for a change.

Okay, so you assembled your toolkit and implemented your peaceful plan. Nevertheless, you find yourself in the midst of an argument or upsetting situation... maybe even one you’ve replayed in your family for years. Now what?

Repair and Recover

  • Fight fair. If you must argue, don’t dredge up unrelated complaints and criticisms. Staying on topic is the only way to resolve the problem you’re having right now. Respectful communication— which means no name-calling and no insults— will help keep the issue from escalating. Positive outcomes are even more likely when you stay centered on listening, finding common ground, and expressing your own feelings and needs.

  • Take a breather. When you’re upset, your nervous system interferes with rationality. So when you need time alone to calm your nerves or vent to a friend, do it. Surprisingly, our bodies require up to twenty minutes to recover from the physiological components of agitation – and that can’t happen while you sit and stew. It’s more constructive to breathe deeply, take a walk, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

  • Depersonalize and empathize. While being the recipient of anger or criticism feels intensely personal, it actually reveals the insecurity and unmet needs of the aggressor. For example, nagging stems from fear and protective impulses; criticism from a sense of inferiority or powerlessness; and tantrums from a need for attention and control. See if you can detect the vulnerability that hides beneath the surface of offensive words and actions.

  • Check in with your values. When arguments concern past hurts, politics, religion, or personal values, there isn’t much potential for change of mind or heart. It’s up to you to examine the balance between self-respect and boundaries on the one hand, and the need to be “right” or to change someone else on the other. Ask yourself which is more important: proving your point of view? Or preserving your relationship?

Take the Long View

  • Let it go. Is there any chance that you can let this issue drop, even if someone else won’t? Clinging to blame or resentment blocks you from being present. Plus, it leaves you holding some heavy baggage. Apply a generous dose of open-minded acceptance to your respective idiosyncrasies and past mistakes. All relationships benefit from tolerance and forgiveness but not everyone has mastered these skills. It’s not about being saintly or a doormat. For your own growth and well-being, practice letting go of the burdens of expectations, judgment, and regret.

  • Learn. Even if you lose your cool, don’t punish yourself. Own your part in what happened, apologize if necessary, and forgive yourself and others. Consider this when you’re angry or hurt: will this matter one, five, or ten years from now? If so, what can you do for damage control or to prevent a recurrence? Extract whatever insight and wisdom you can, and try again. Perhaps you can even discover something valuable, some kernel of truth, in the someone else’s perspective or criticism.

  • Stay out of it, Part II. Family loyalty is nice, but it must be demonstrated in the form of mutual respect and caring. Despite your best efforts, the behavior of a family member (or members) may become intolerable. Take an honest look at your situation. Can you accept the way things are or not? If the environment feels more toxic than tonic, then avoidance may be the best way to protect yourself from further damage.

  • When all else fails, laugh it off. Appreciate the absurdity, pathos, and humor in others’ dysfunctional behaviors. When you view things from a detached perspective, the bickering and drama become less hurtful and more amusing. But be sure to laugh with, not at. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

The Choice Is Yours

Family change can take time, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. The important thing is to find your comfort zone. On a personal level, counseling or a support group can help you heal the wounds of the past and define your expectations for the future. On a family level, if you do not enjoy and benefit from time together, consider declining their next invitation.

You can’t choose your family, but you do have choices. You have the power to transcend old patterns and influence your life in the present. Let “flexibility, flow, and letting go” be your mantra as you endeavor to find a peaceful place in (or out of) your family. Here’s wishing you and your family a healthy, balanced holiday season.

12.05.2009

More Peaceful Holidays, Family Style

My memories of holiday family gatherings resemble a montage of Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and A Charlie Brown Christmas: we never failed to concoct a sentimental mix of comedy and caring, drama and dissonance. Somehow togetherness magnified our differences and led to conflict. Over the years, though, I found that awareness of my own part in the mess enabled me to enjoy my relatives and the holiday season more fully. I’ve assembled a toolkit to help you handle the holidays, family style.

In this article, I explain why family problems are so hard to solve, how to gear up for family time, and how to stay cool when you’re together.

Family Systems: Stable, Not Sensible

Family patterns are difficult to change because families are systems. Systems vary in design, but they all share the quality of stability—not in the sense of health and strength but in the sense of mechanical predictability, like an assembly of parts that interact to function as a whole. And while its structure may appear complex or inscrutable to an outsider, everyone within the system knows his/her role and performs it to perfection.

The thing about families is that even when extreme dysfunction, pain, and abuse characterize their system’s “stability,” real change is unthinkable because it would force the family to disrupt their familiar, and thus comfortable, equilibrium. Individual change—positive or negative—is like having a screw loose. The system breaks down and everyone scrambles to “repair” the family to its former working order.

But change is possible and a single person can initiate systemic change. You can start by redefining your family role and “scripts,” or patterns of interaction.

Assembling Your Toolkit

  • Approach with an open mind. Try to view everything through fresh eyes, without the filter of past experience. Negative expectations are self-fulfilling prophecies so let go of past resentments—they keep you stuck in your predefined role. Visualize positive interactions and peaceful outcomes. Mentally walk yourself through each step: warm greetings, pleasure at seeing your relations, and affectionate laughter at mealtime. When you catch yourself in a negative thought or prediction, replace it with a positive thought or scenario.
  • Rehearse ways to defuse and redirect. If you expect to face pointed questions or criticism, prepare a neutralizing response and repeat it aloud during the weeks leading up to your family visit. For example: “I’m content with my life as it is. I don’t feel the need to date/get married/have kids.” Or “Yes, I have gained weight. I appreciate your concern for my health.” Rehearse your firm but compassionate delivery. Then be ready to change the subject to reinforce that the topic is off-limits.
  • Stay out of it. No, this doesn't mean to lose yourself in a drunken fog. It means to stay a safe distance from family fires. You will not—ever—change the values or temperament of your parent, in-laws, or your cousin Willie. So sometimes it’s prudent to withhold your opinion or to agree to disagree, especially when the conflict doesn't concern you directly. You can choose (1) to fight (and feel distress) or (2) to surrender (and feel serenity). I know which one I prefer. Focus on what you can control: your thoughts, your judgments, and your attitude.

Your Peaceful Plan in Action: While You're Together

  • Radiate peace. Smile. You will feel happier and more likely to interpret neutral situations as positive. Plus, happiness is contagious. Imagine that your presence will infuse the atmosphere with a refreshing, open-hearted kindness and optimism. Enact the positive outcomes and non-reactive statements you prepared beforehand.
  • Practice mindful self-awareness. Monitor your mood. Be aware when your anxiety level begins to rise and intervene right away to soothe yourself. Notice and intercept any angry, avoidant, or passive-aggressive impulses. Just be aware of what pushes your buttons and make a targeted effort to pause, breathe, and figure out what you need to relax.
  • Expect some resistance. At first, your composure might confuse and even inflame others because you are stepping outside of your traditional role. Stand your ground with an empathic response such as: “I see that you are upset, but let’s relax and enjoy being together. Let’s talk about this some other time.” Then follow through on that promise when everyone is calm.

I hope this helps you prepare for your next family get-together. Bear in mind that while you can enhance your sense of peace and enjoyment, old family patterns are unlikely to change overnight. That's why my next post will tackle how to handle family conflicts when they arise.