The Well-Shaped Heart

Children are born without psychological boundaries. And if they don’t learn some in their developmental years, they grow into adults with large bodies and still, no boundaries. Ugh … not so pretty.

There are two types of boundaries: Protective and Containing.

A protective boundary is like an outer shell of insulation that protects me from the outside world. Without a solid protective boundary, I am vulnerable to every stimuli penetrating my heart and knocking me off my center. In other words, I am doomed to take everything personally as if it were true and about me. A protective boundary serves as a wall with a gate. When information gets sent my way, it gets stopped at the gate, and the question asked: “is it true or not true?” If it is true or partially true, the information comes into my heart and head for reflection and possible ownership. If it is not true, it is deflected as if a stone is hitting the armor of a knight.   Information that is not true “pings” right off and does not make it to the soft spot in my heart.  

A containing boundary is the inner filter that protects the world from me. I have no right to open my mouth and say what I want to say, when I want to say it, how I want to say it. I am no longer two years old.   Like the tight-squeezed girdle that your grandmother wore, a containing boundary holds me in till I can rationally decide if I need to talk and then how to talk so that what I am saying comes out respectful and relational. In other words, verbal vomit, TMI and oral abuse are not acceptable adult behavior if personal integrity and healthy relationships are goals one aspires to.

So, go get some boundaries and solidify them with practice, practice and more practice. Having some will improve your emotional resiliency and your relationships.


Step by Step

It is hard to believe that 30 years have passed.  I was a spry young thing.  The mysterious underdog.  Everyone worried if I ate enough.  And why on earth would I be up at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, dressed and out the door regardless of the weather? 

Sometimes, I look back on those days and question my own sanity.  What was I running from?  Was I that intolerant of my own feelings?  Was I masochistic to my own burgeoning body as a young woman?  Was I trying to prove something to someone?  Reflecting on those days, I often feel sadness and regret for all that I missed out on.  The normalcy of adolescence. The girly-girl stuff.  The endless giggling about sissy stuff that I passed up as superficial or uninteresting.  And yet, there are the moments when I look back on that time with gratitude. I appreciate the life lessons that those experiences have embedded in me.  And after all these years later, I often find myself tapping into whatever it was that kept me going mile after mile.

As a nationally-ranked, award-winning long-distance runner, I was a force to be reckoned with.  When I started out, I just ran as long and as fast as my legs would carry me.  It wasn’t until later that I learned that even the boys had a hard time keeping up with me.  I moved through the system – elementary school track team, summer Junior Olympics, middle school cross-country team.  I was voted most valuable runner as a freshman on the varsity high school cross-country team.  I was ranked nationally  as a top miler, hitting sub-five minutes time and time again.  I was awarded trips to national meets in California.  The mailbox was filled with college scholarship interest.  I won enough medals, trophies and ribbons to wallpaper a good-sized room.

But then, I grew up and in running years, I grew old.  My knees creaked and cracked and could no longer bear the weight of the repetitive pounding.  There were no more trophies to earn or newspaper reporters interested in talking to me.  It was just me … facing life, without the constant pressure to perform and the corresponding glory of another race won.  I had to find normalcy in the everyday that was not timed, recorded, applauded and rewarded.

The trophies are now packed away, gathering dust in a box in the basement.  And I certainly have good stories to tell my children.  However, the best showing I have for all that hard work are the internalized experiences that provide a constant supply of resources and reflections as my mid-life has taken on a different race – one that needs just as much stamina and strength. My life these days is like strapping on a backpack loaded with bricks, day in and dayout.  Some of those bricks are long-term challenges that need daily tending and care, with no immediate outcome or relief in sight.  Others are shameful mistakes I have made and represent one step, one day at a time, climbing out of a hole I dug myself.  Yet, just like that ten-mile training run, I start.  One foot in front of the other.  And then another.  And then the next one.  There is no end in sight.  You just do what you know to be right, mile after mile, day after day.

I recall one November when our team traveled to Idaho to compete. Cold and snowy was the forecast.  What was supposed to be a national cross-country meet for high schoolers felt more like climbing Mt. Everest in a 30 mph wind while being timed.  Being aware of the  less than ideal race conditions, we joked amongst ourselves that there was to be no walking.  (We were all such good runners that walking was out the question.)   After we slogged through the horrendous race, we were doing our ritualistic post-race wrap-up when one team member admitted in humorous shame, that yes, indeed at one point, she had to stop and walk.  The laughter, grief and shame we poured upon her were endless!  But as I think back on that now, I so much appreciate her humility and her humanity.

I too find moments, even days, when all I can do is walk.  Forget about trophies, medals and breaking records – I just want to get to the end of the day.  The elements are so powerful and my backpack so full, that doing more than putting one foot in front of the other – whether it is run, walk or crawl – is all I can muster.  On the most grueling of days, when I know that I have shown up with grit and integrity and stayed the course of my commitments, I long for that trophy, for that external hardware that says that I have won or at least been recognized for good effort.  But I am an adult now- and we don’t have such things waiting for us at the finish line.  The only response we receive for completing the task is the internal satisfaction of a job well done, which can be especially important in the face of other people’s criticism and disappointment.

I am a long way from being 92 pounds thin and having the reputation for being the little girl with fast legs.  But whatever was inside me then is still inside me now.  My steps are bigger now and dare I say, more important.  However, all I have to do now is exactly what I did then … keep taking the next right step, again and again and again.

Seven Ways to Improve Your Relationships

Consider the “We.”  Every relationship has three parties involved – the you, the me and the shared space of the “WE.”  However, we are not inclined to think this way.  In a winner take all philosophy, the relationship becomes about the “me” whereby our partner submits to our needs and wants or the relationship becomes about the “you” whereby we submit our needs and wants to our partner.  It becomes a quid pro quo, us vs. them, win vs. lose.   A zero sum game.  I either give or get, receive or be taken from.  Comparatively, in a relational framework, the WE becomes supreme.  In other words, help me help you.  If I give to my partner, that helps the WE which helps me.  Everyone wins.  Redraw your relational map and see it make a ton of difference in your interactions. 

Learn to WAIT.   The only place you have the right to say what you want to say how you want to say it is either as a two-year old with very skilled parents or in the office of your therapist.  Other than that, you just ain’t allowed to be so uncontained and have it not hurt your relationships, personally and professionally.  Develop some filters, a containing boundary.  WAIT stands for “Why Am I Talking?”  Before you open your mouth and have demons pour forth, ask yourself that question. Is what I am about to say relational?  Is it helpful to me and to the person I am speaking with?  If not, keep the trap closed.  If that is not possible, buy some duc tape.  It works wonders. 

Don’t Take it Personally.   It just ain’t about you.  Before we let other people’s comments and looks penetrate us to the point that we melt into a pile of shame and despair, ask yourself the question:  is it true or not true?  Is there something here that I need to take in and understand about myself or is this so totally not about me and therefor, it needs to stay outside the gates of my protected boundary?  Learning to filter incoming data this way can save many a heartache. Other people would love to give you their stuff to carry around.  Don’t be so quick to volunteer to take it in when it shows up at the doorstep of your heart.  And as an additional benefit, if I don’t make it about me, I then don’t have to waste energy protecting and defending my esteem.   Rather, I can focus on you and what you need from me.  In other words, I am more available for intimacy by being less self-involved.  Now that will help your relationships!

Stay on Your Side of the Net.   Learning to be relational is like playing a good game of tennis.  I am only responsible for the returns I hit on my side of the net.  I am not responsible for how you play or for running around the net and hitting the ball for you.  I can only do what is within the realm of reality for me.  At the end of the day, I get to look at myself in the mirror.  I get an “A” if the choices and actions I made in the relationship were ones of conscious and intentional integrity for the “WE.”  That is all I can do.  I have to let go of the rest.   
Eat Humble Pie by Owning Your *@!&.   There are no innocent parties here.  When a relationship moves from harmony to disharmony, we each contributed a piece. Own it.  It is just pride. And if pride is your be all and end all, then go ahead and commit to being alone.  Swallow the pie and lead with your contribution.  Such an act will surprise you in how quickly it turns the energy around in a relationship.
Learn to Repair.  The survival and growth of any relationship depends on one’s ability to repair.  And because disharmony is inevitable, repair is essential.   Admit what you contributed.  Say what you will do differently in the future.  Make a request of your partner as opposed to speaking endless nagging complaints. Move to a place of warmth as opposed to contempt and retaliation.  
Grieve What You Will Never Get.     Relationships are the best opportunity we have to nurture and feed the human soul.  But even at their best, they lack perfection.  No one will ever meet your needs 100% of the time, 100% the way you want them to.  So, we lower our standard to the “good enough.” We do this by grieving what we cannot get so that in turn, we are then able to fully embrace what we can.

Surprised on a Sunday

It was a typical summer Sunday at church. Vacant.  Everyone was either sunbathing, sweating or sleeping somewhere, anywhere but in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Church. I was glad to be sitting for a moment, reprieved from the interruptive calls of “Mommmm!”  Just to sit and hear the glory of the solo cello while pondering my own thoughts and feelings in a casual, meditative state.  I was satisfied.  It was all I needed in that moment.

But, as if often the case, life wanted to give me more.  In came the visiting preacher.  The what?  Everyone knows that pulpits are filled with rookie substitutes during the hot and sticky months, with whatever available preacher that has a pulse and no better place to be.  But this one – what was his name? – was good.  Damn good.  He summed up the purpose of liberal religion in three jam-packed phrases –

To free the mind;
To grow the soul;
To change the world.

He went on to explain that once we free our mind and clear the channels, we stop fearing the depth and variety of our inner worlds.  This freedom then grows the soul.  We expand.  We blossom into our best self, the self we were put here to be.  Henceforth, we cannot help but change the world – whether it be our little corner or maybe something bigger, more global.

I could not resist the clear crossover to my chosen profession.  Is this not what I do in my office … sitting there hour after hour, day after day?  Back aching, backside expanding, wrinkles deepening.  I create space to free the mind.  A place where all thoughts and feelings are not only allowed, but strongly encouraged.  In this process, which is almost always resisted, the window to our mostly unconscious psyche enlargens.   Openness replaces restriction.  Enthusiasm towards more ignites and often, cannot be contained.  Curiosity arises, creativity emerges and health begets health.

I wish I had gotten the name of that preacher.  The substitute want-to-be who gave me more than I expected.  Mr. Hit-and-Run.  The enthusiastic nameless preacher who stated it so much better than I could have myself.

Wherever you are, I thank you.

A Day in Redskin Park

My son and I made our annual trek this Fall, all the way around the Beltway to FedEx Field – home of the Washington Redskins.
We do it once a year, every season.  We find all our burgundy and gold gear,  pull out hundreds of dollars from the ATM for the over-priced, heart-clogging hot dogs and nachos, and of course, every year, we forget the binoculars so we can maybe see from the nosebleed seats, the only ones I can afford.  We then hit the traffic just about Exit 18, with each car more prominently showing their die hard Redskin pride.  We overpay to park and still have to walk seemingly forever to get to the stadium.  After the game, we have to walk back with now tired feet, an empty wallet, stomach pains from too many stadium calories and aching throats from all the screaming.  We crawl to the Beltway with traffic now backed up all the way home.
Sounds awful, the entire experience feels dreadfully miserable … but all we can talk about is how excited we are to do it again next year.

What exactly is the appeal?  Why tolerate this inconvenient mayhem just to be there – especially when the view is so much better and more comfortable from the living room?  I finally found a name for it – it is the immersion in the spirit of the community.  Where else can you yell and scream as loud as you want without embarrassment?  Where else can you bond with complete strangers, slapping high-fives, as if you are best buddies?  Where else can you communally feel and share the excitement in the air the second you walk into the stadium? Where else is hope alive – that your team can be down by two-possessions at half-time, only to intercept the ball for the winning field goal in overtime?  It is an experience of permission – to let go and be our most basic human self – to be hopeful, to feel passion, to express our raw primitiveness.  For just a few hours, we let loose together – no holds barred – in support of the ‘Skins.  Anything goes – we dance, we sing, we talk to each other, we eat bad food and drink cheap beer – all before returning to our separateness – in our cars, our homes, our lives.  Being there is an experience of group cohesion that you just rarely find elsewhere.

As I write this, I am aware of feeling shame.  What?!  I go to a football game to experience a few moments of aliveness?  My intelligent, politically-correct side knows that football is a violent game where we pay men large sums of money to entertain us at a high cost to their young bodies.  And yet, my human side says, yes … until we can come up with something else that stirs such feeling and community, something that equalizes all racial and class divisions, count me in as a wearer of the burgundy and gold.  My son and I can’t wait till next year.

Finding Love Anyways

I have one of those persons in my life. You know the type. Controlling, dominant, critical, condescending, dismissive and disrespectful. Out-and-out emotionally abusive. It would be one thing if I could just say “good riddens” and give them my backside. But last I checked, they aren’t going away anytime soon. Kinda like dog poop on my shoe … this person lives in the cracks of my sneakers and no matter how much I clean them or how long I hold my nose, the shit just stinks. There just ain’t a work around.

And the worst part is my own powerlessness. I have consciously and intentionally worked hard to insulate myself from their toxic kool-aid. I have a support team, I have solidified my boundaries, I minimize contact as much as possible. Admittedly, these tactics help. But every now and again, when I let my guard down and I think it is safe to get back into the water, the shark rears its ugly head. And once again, I am thrown off my center, drowning in toxic shame, losing sleep and questioning my very being.

Before you go telling me… yes … I have read all the hokey-pokey hoopla. In fact, I even subscribe to it and “like” much of it on Facebook. It all tells me that I am supposed to be grateful. That the good Universe is seeing to it that I have a spiritual experience. That I am being given an opportunity to grow, expand and eat my dose of necessary humble pie. And of course, that there is some greater, higher reason for all this madness – a reason that I don’t understand today but will bear its light someday. Blah, blah, blah. I just want the jerk to die. I am more invested in hiring a hit man at the moment than I am in my own spiritual growth.

And yet, despite my dripping cynicism, life pulled a surprise on me this morning. As I was driving into the parking lot at work, there was my friend, Wayne. I am not sure we are really friends. He is the security guard for some Washington VIP that lives behind my office. For some time now, we have greeted each other every morning and every afternoon. But this morning, he was especially exuberant to see me. It touched me in a way I did not expect. Before he could notice, I pulled into my parking spot and tears flooded my cheeks. The thought that followed my feelings was so simple yet profound — Wayne sees me. He’s not out to destroy me. He’s not trying to one-up me. He wants very little from me other than a gentle smile and a warm hello. I am enough for him and he appreciates that.

Now that is some blah, blah, blah that I can hold onto. No, I can’t stop the turkeys from being turkeys. I can’t keep them from their need to make me the object of their negative and delusional projections.  And I fail every time at controlling my feelings when I am being attacked by one of them. And I am not even “above” my pain enough to find the silver lining – even though I am sure there probably is one somewhere.  

But, I can be open and available when love shows up, when love’s mighty force knocks on my door and avails itself upon me. And it does come. It always comes. It can come in the form of a full moon out my window. Or a phone call from a dear friend. Or eavesdropping on my daughter and her friends as they discuss their future fantasies and plans. Or the warm sun that baked my legs. Or an unexpected laugh with my teenage son. Or a warm chocolate chip cookie from Jenny’s Bakery. Or even the daily welcome from my friend, Wayne.  

Love does come. I just have to have my eyes wide open enough to see it and my heart available enough to receive it.

I admit that at this moment, I am not mature enough to wish well that thorn-in-my-side.  I am not evolved enough to not want life to level the playing field. Maybe someday I will get there but I am certainly not there today. Meanwhile, I am going to stay interested in my own intergrity. I will keep rowing my boat and hitting a good ball on my side of the net.  And I will continue to look for life’s love every place I can find it.  ‘Cause I know it is there.  And sure as hell, I don’t want to miss one drop.