The other day I talked to Harriet Brown, author of Brave Girl Eating and Body of Truth. She’s working on another book project about estrangement and reconciliation. Here was her call for participation on Facebook:
For my next book, I’m looking to talk with people who have been estranged from family members or are currently estranged. The book is about family estrangements and reconciliations. Please pass the word! Message me for more info.
(If you would like to be interviewed by her, you can contact her via her website.) It was timely for me because I’d been thinking about my last blog post in the context of support clients in setting compassionate boundaries with family, which is oh so much harder than setting them with friends.
We tend to give our family a lot more leeway because, well, because they’re family and we privilege those ties above all others. We have a lot of cultural stories about the importance of family: Family is where you’re supposed to find unconditional love and acceptance. Family is where you’re supposed to find people who know you best and love you anyway. Family is meant to be the people who are always rooting for you.
That’s the ideal but most of us have to make compromises in our expectations.
All of us need to grow up and step away from our families in practical ways (by moving out) and in emotional ways (by choosing our own values and goals). In healthy families this may be painful but it’s supported. Healthy families want you to be your best self — even when it doesn’t jive with their own idea of best self-ness. Healthy families may grumble about the things you do differently (“But we always have turkey on Thanksgiving!”) but will accept your choice anyway (“Oh well, pass the tofurkey. I’m game to try it!”).
In unhealthy families the adult child’s growth and move away from their family of origin is seen as threatening. If the adult child is serving toforkey, the threatened parent might project a whole lot of critical meaning on it. “Are you saying I’m an unhealthy cook?” “Are you saying you’re too good for your grandmother’s roast turkey recipe?” And because it’s family, it’s somehow OK to say that out loud. A parent who would never complain at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner table might think nothing of criticizing their adult child.
The adult child, who might have few issues with setting boundaries with such a rude friend, is stuck wondering what to do. They might start an argument. They might internalize the criticism and feel bad about themselves (“Maybe I am a big snob, maybe I am unreasonable, maybe my values are dumb”). They might avoid the discussion and be resigned to having a lousy Thanksgiving every year.
Many adult children twist themselves into knots to try to accommodate the dysfunctional parents’ demands and struggle with anxiety and depression as a result. It’s hard to love yourself when the person who’s supposed to love you best is so critical (or cruel).
When clients come to my office with dilemmas like this and ask me what to do, I say, “What do you want to do?” Because we can’t control how our family reacts to our decisions but we can control our decisions. The long hard work of healing from harsh parents starts with figuring out what we want separate from our unrealistic expectations. We can bring our best selves to our decision-making and then we can let go of the outcome.
Letting go of the outcome starts with confronting and grieving the ideal we’ve been hoping for. In the video below (go ahead and scroll down to watch if you have 15ish minutes), brother Phil has a wonderful, full and accomplished life away from his family. He’s an award-winning journalist with best-selling books and big deal magazine covers but his family has nothing but criticism because his accomplishments separate him from them. Instead of celebrating with him they ignore him, tell him he doesn’t look good, and advise him to consider a career change. If Phil has been holding on to hope that winning the Nobel prize is finally going to get him the love and acceptance he craves, he’s going to leave the house feeling pretty low. But if he’s worked to recognize family patterns and realized that his family’s reaction is theirs, he may still grieve that his family is not supportive but he won’t internalize their negativity towards his accomplishments.
Instead of thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with me that my mom doesn’t love me like I want her to?” He can think, “My mom is incapable of loving me the way I want her to, this is not my fault and I get to choose how much time I spend with her.”
Sometimes in our work together, when we start talking about families of origin like this, clients will feel like they’re betraying their parents or siblings by being critical so please understand that this is not about bad mouthing our relatives. I believe both that most of us are doing the absolutely best we can (compassion) and that good intentions don’t negate toxicity.
Our families may love us the only way they know how, but that doesn’t mean that we are required to ignore the hurt they cause us.
For some people setting boundaries means estrangement. It means visiting less or not visiting at all. It means Thanksgiving at the vegetarian co-op instead of with our family. It means making decisions designed to support your own needs instead of trying to do things to make other people happy.
Today I drove my daughter to one of her summer camps and we were talking about friendships both general and specific and it got me thinking about having the same conversation with other middle school aged kids, which got me thinking about remarkably similar conversations I’m having with adults, too.
We encourage children to have boundless compassion for other people and in theory that’s a wonderful thing but in real life we’d be better served if we were raised to have bounded compassion, which is compassion with clear boundaries.
In our efforts to build empathy and understanding we may unintentionally teach kids to put aside their own needs even though empathy and understanding grow best when we are able to protect ourselves. After all, what’s compassion for others if we can’t hold it for ourselves?
My daughter had a picture book that she loved when she was little. (She took the dust cover off and taped it to her door when she was five.) It’s called Best Best Friends. It’s about two little girls at daycare who are (you guessed it) best best friends. Then one day Mary is having a birthday and she gets a crown and she gets some preschool privileges and Claire is jealous. In her jealousy, Claire snaps at Mary and insults her (she tells her she doesn’t like pink, which is Mary’s favorite color). The two girls decide they are NOT friends and go play with other people.
Then after a restorative nap, Claire comes and apologizes and Mary shares her birthday spoils.
Mary appears to be a compassionate person but she’s no door mat. Claire crosses a line but when she’s able to make amends Mary is able to welcome her back. (If you scroll down, I’m including a video of someone reading the book.)
Mary doesn’t go away from Claire to teach her a lesson. She doesn’t put aside her own birthday happiness to attend to her friend’s jealousy. She moves on, she plays. She has a happy birthday anyway. She didn’t share before she was ready because she wasn’t ready. She’s a little kid, and already she’s mastered the ability to say, “I like you but I don’t like this so I’m setting my boundary.”
If we don’t get it in preschool (and let’s face it, even if we do get it in the rarefied protective air of an excellent early childhood environment, it takes repeated practice) we will need to learn that understanding someone doesn’t mean we have to excuse them. Because boundaries are not about the other person; they’re about the person setting them. In other words, boundaries are not about teaching someone a lesson or a passive aggressive way to communicate. Boundaries are about having compassion for our selves and tending to our own needs.
It’s understandable that a friend might act poorly because she’s jealous (or tired or having a hard time) and we can look at that friend with compassion and understanding but it doesn’t mean we have to share our birthday crown before we’re ready.
“But wait,” you say. “What if I’m just being a jerk? I mean, it’s a crown. What’s the big deal?”
That’s where it gets tricky, right? Because sometimes we are being jerks. Sometimes we aren’t sharing when we probably should. And that’s where we have to accept that the dance of friendship is a step forward and a step back, it’s a relationship we create with that other person.
And this is something else about this book. The girls go and play with other kids. Mary plays with Caitlin and Claire plays with Ben. Let’s say that the next day Caitlin wants to play with Mary again and Mary shuts her down because she’s got her best best friend back and she doesn’t need Caitlin anymore. Mary gets to do that and Caitlin gets to decide whether or not this is OK with her. She can condemn this behavior (fair weather friendships) and decide whether or not she wants to say yes the next time Mary and Claire have a fight and Mary wants to play again. Caitlin gets to decide how she feels about that behavior and how she wants to engage (or not) with it. Caitlin can understand why Mary only wants to play with her sometimes but she’s still the one who can choose whether or not that’s the kind of friendship she wants to have.
This is where we need help processing, trying to figure out in the murky friendships where we find ourselves having to stretch or contort to maintain the relationship. Is this really what we want? Is the trade-off worth it? It’s one thing to stretch a bit but it’s another thing to twist ourselves into knots of compassion.
We don’t really get to decide how other people behave or even how they treat us. We do get to decide how we feel about it and whether or not we’ll participate. We can absolutely hold someone in empathy and understanding and still maintain our boundaries. That’s bounded compassion — loving but firm, limitless in theory but limited in practice.
I’ve been asked about my thoughts on Lena Dunham and the passages in her book that detail her sexual behavior with her sister. At first I declined to post them here because I felt like there have already been so many people talking about it that I really had nothing to add to the discussion. But then I realized that as a therapist and with the understanding that you might be wondering if I’m the right therapist for you or your child, I ought to weigh in for no other reason that my clients — current or potential — have the right to know where I stand on such a contentious and difficult issue. So here are my thoughts.
First, I haven’t read the book and I have no plans to; I’ve only read the quotes and passages (that link will allow you to read them, too) that have appeared on other sites. Because of this, I can’t really discuss the context in which those quotes and passages appear, which is one reason I can only speak in generalities. Also I don’t know Lena Dunham or her sister, Grace (obviously) and I don’t know the family in which they grew up and I don’t know the way their relationship was or is now. I only have these passages, which are in Lena’s words and further words in a memoir, which means they have been shaped for a general thesis. This means that I can’t really trust their reliability. Therefore any commentary I am making about Lena Dunham and her sister aren’t really about them; my commentary is more about our general discussion of child bodily exploration, sexual play and the potential & possibility for sexual abuse between siblings.
Child sex play is a normal, developmentally appropriate part of growing up. Some children keep to a mild “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” and some may do more graphic sexual play. What makes it play and not abuse is the absence of a power differential and coercion and this can be very hard to ferret out. A six year age difference — Lena is six years older than her sister — is always concerning. Always. Whether or not it is sexual abuse or a serious boundary issue depends a whole lot on exactly what happened, how and when. Is it a one time thing? A pattern of enmeshment? Is it straight forward bodily exploration or is the more powerful sibling using the younger sibling for his or her sexual satisfaction or to act out an unhealthy power dynamic? What is certain is that a relationship that Lena describes (while acknowledging that the reality of that particular relationship may be much different) deserves more attention from parents.
This leads me to a discussion of culture. Family cultures differ and so family boundaries differ. There are families where privacy and general touching (hugs and cuddling) are more or less important, which is another thing that needs to be considered as we talk about boundaries and the violation of boundaries. While there are values that we as a broader community can agree on, there are others that are murky. When I read the quoted passages I feel I’m also missing this important context. I do not know what (if anything) her parents did about their relationship. I don’t know if Lena was reprimanded for the intensity of any of her actions towards her sister (the bribes with candy and quarters). I don’t know if Grace protested or if she was silent (not that her silence equals consent but I don’t know how much her parents were aware of their dynamic). In my office I sometimes see some parents describe a closeness that I, as a therapist, find concerning but I can’t know at first glance. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and misunderstand what’s actually happening. It takes continued discussion, questions, and observation to get a better sense of what’s going on. So when I feel my antennae go up I remind myself to go slowly and listen hard.
I also want to honor Grace’s right to label and define her own experience. Grace has said she does not see herself as a victim; I believe her and want to give space for her assertion. I also want to give her space to think differently at some point if she chooses to. Many of us think about our family of origin in one way and then we grow to think about it in another way later on. This is our right and important part of growth and empowerment. Whatever I may think of how I might feel if I were Grace, I am not her and in this important conversation about violation, I do not want to participate in a violation of her right to speak her truth.
In other words, this is a discussion that we need to be having but I think it’s extremely important that we do not expect her to uphold our own take or Lena’s take on their relationship or the scenes Lena describes.
These are things I do know.
Kids make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will certainly be violating the boundaries of siblings, cousins, friends and pets. In some cases those boundary violations may be bodily (kids who hit, hug too hard, hold down a cat who wants to get up) and sometimes those bodily boundary violations may be sexual. It is normal and developmentally expected that a child’s self-centeredness would lead to boundary violations. Remember that normal does not mean OK; I am not excusing or shrugging off the seriousness of boundary violations.
I am also not saying that normal means that no one gets hurt. One child’s normal behavior can harm another child. I mean, it’s normal for toddlers to bite but that does not mean it’s ok and it does not mean that the child doing the biting does not hurt the child who is bitten. Normal does not mean we ignore things.
If the type of activity Lena describes truly was typical of her behavior then her parents should have been intervening. (They may have been; we don’t know because we only have Lena’s side of the story.)
If one child is treating another child as a toy or as an object, that’s concerning and needs interrupting whether or not that treatment includes sex play. If a parent only jumps because the play turns sexual, that’s a problem because I would argue that there is likely a pattern of coercive play that needs parental attention and intervention. To a child, dressing up a reluctant pet and coercing a sibling into allowing genital exploration may come from the same misunderstanding of the division between self and others.
It’s our job as parents to protect our children from each other and also from themselves. Many of carry a great deal of guilt for the way we treated our siblings when we were kids but we needed adult help to figure things out. We can own our responsibility but also acknowledge that our childhood selves did the best they could with what they were taught; many of us were not taught how to treat each other.
Sometimes parents have trouble intervening because they don’t know what good boundaries between siblings looks like since we were not protected from ourselves or from a violating sibling. We see a certain amount of roughhousing and conflict as perfectly normal and it’s true — some of that is normal. But we should pay special attention when:
- One child is always the victim;
- One child is much older or stronger or otherwise more powerful;
- If we detect real hostility in the interactions;
- If the hostility is pervasive (if they never really get along).
In the case of sexual boundary play, I would also check in to ask where the children got the idea. Sex play is common in kids, absolutely, but a check in can help us know if something is happening to the child who is acting out (did they learn this from another child? from sexual abuse at the hands of an adult? unsupervised time watching HBO?). I would ask parents not to react as if sex play is always concerning but I would ask them to remember that sometimes it is.
Interventions do not have to be shaming. Parents can and should interrupt inappropriate behavior in a way that promotes empathy, compassion and an understanding of where a child leaves off and the other person begins. This starts when we protect that child’s boundaries. That means no forced hugs, no forced kisses, no forced sitting on Santa’s lap. There are lots of times where we have no choice (diapers changes of wriggly toddlers!) so when we can protect our child’s right to say no, we need to do that.
Finally parents need to be aware of their own understanding of boundaries and violation. Many parents who are struggling with their children’s sibling relationships are acting out their own experiences growing up. When I talk to parents in my office I’m always interested to know where they are in their own family configurations because this can illuminate my understanding of dynamics they are repeating (or trying not to repeat) in their own homes.
It also helps me understand why some parents are reluctant or afraid to make changes. To say, “This should not be happening to my youngest” may mean saying, “This should not have happened to me” or “This is not something I should have done to my sibling.” These are painful things to confront and I see some of that happening in the discussion around Lena and her sister.
We all come to our reading loaded down with our own baggage and it’s pretty hard not to bring that to a discussion about someone else’s very biased, perhaps somewhat fictional, and certainly manipulative (in the way that all writing — even this — is meant to sway the reader) story.
I don’t know what happened between Lena and Grace, not really. I cannot speak to it. I can only speak to the general things I know to be true and hope that I can help the individuals and families who come to me for care, informed by what I know about kids, about siblings, about families and about the truly hard work we all do growing up.
When I was in my late teens I began seeing a counselor because I was depressed. I was taking a full load of undergrad classes at OSU and working 40 hours a week and living by myself without roommates or family for the first time ever. My weekly visits to Barbara (my therapist) quickly became the center of my schedule. I’d drag myself to work and school, grind my way through my day, all the while focused on that bright spot, once a week, when I would sit in her office and feel safe.
I loved Barbara even when I didn’t love therapy, which was hard and often painful. I didn’t always leave her office feeling better. There were days I left feeling raw and fragile, my face swollen with tears. I started scheduling my work so I had the day off on therapy days so I could come home, curl up in bed and sleep away my emotional exhaustion. I could feel myself growing stronger and straighter but it was hard going.
I think I saw Barbara for about a year, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. I saw her weekly and then I saw her every other week and then we agreed I didn’t need to see her anymore at all. But for the time I was in her care, I felt very dependent on her and I wondered how it was for her because she may have been the person I centered my weeks around but I was just a client on her schedule.
I wanted her to call me up to have coffee. I wanted her to like me best of all of her clients. I wanted her to lean in one day and whisper, “My sessions with you are my favorite!” And I was free to want that as much as I liked because I knew it would never happen. It was a little like Lisa Simpson’s copies of Non-Threatening Boys Magazine; a celebrity crush, all safe and worry-free. I knew I could tell her anything and she’d have to like me — or at least pretend to like me — because it was her job.
But I always wondered if she cared about me for myself and not just as a name in her appointment book.
Now I know because I have my own appointment book (well, iCal calendar — same difference) and I can tell you that yes indeed, Barbara cared about me and your therapist cares about you. But we care within the boundaries our profession sets for us and those boundaries are what allow us to serve you. It’s not like caring for a friend or family member because it has specific limits and in other ways it is limitless. The space we hold together in the counseling relationship is full of unconditional positive regard (loving acceptance of all you are), which is harder to maintain in real life relationships. In that way the counseling relationship is boundless. On the other hand, I would never call a client up and say, “I’ve been thinking of you; let’s have coffee on Thursday.”
I remember when my son was very small and I heard about a preschool teacher who made space in her evenings to think about every single one of her students for a moment, hold the thought of each child close and then let it go. This is a little bit like how it is with clients. Before work, I review my schedule and mentally and emotionally prepare for the specific clients I will see that day. Each night, before I leave my office, I review them (usually as I write up case notes) and then on the way home, I give myself permission to stop thinking about them by the time I arrive home. This is because it’s easy to worry about a client going through a particularly tough time and worrying does neither of us any good. When I do catch myself feeling anxious about a specific client, I take a page from the preschool teacher and give myself permission to sit with my thoughts for a discrete time. This helps me come to my sessions fresh and focused instead of wrung out and worried.
So this love and caring I have for my clients — and that Barbara had for me — is not the love and caring I fantasized about when I was in therapy (there are no intimate coffees, there were no confessions of favoritism from Barbara) but it is good and solid and dependable.
W.I. Thomas: “If people believe something to be true, it is true in its consequences.”
In other words, we act on our beliefs as if they were facts, right?
All of us do this. We “know” that college is a necessity. We “know” that everyone should eat more broccoli. We “know” that standardized tests are bad (or good) and that co-sleeping is bad (or good) and that organized religion is bad (or good) and so on and so on and so on.
The problem is that some of these things are opinions and some are facts only in a certain context. I mean, broccoli is super good for you — unless you’re allergic.
But if you believe something is truly truly true, then of course you’re going to act as if it’s true with the same commitment and certainty that you will bring to the multiplication tables.
I talk about this with clients when we’re talking about relationships. Often our struggles with other people come from misunderstandings built on beliefs that are standing in for facts.
If your mother/best friend/brother thinks that your soul is in mortal danger or your health will be truly compromised or your children will grow up irreparably damaged if you eat green gelatin then they’re going to act accordingly. Likewise if you think an occasional bowl of gelatin harms no one, you’re going to act accordingly.
All is well and good until you serve gelatin when they come to dinner or they confront you the next time they see you or they post a passive-aggressive link on your Facebook wall to a HuffPo article condemning gelatin consumption. Then all hell breaks loose.
We aren’t responsible for other people’s beliefs or for changing them. We are only responsible for our own choices and behavior. It’s one thing to set boundaries about topics of conversation or dinner menus or Facebook shares. It’s another thing to expect other people to change their beliefs for us.
Once we understand that it’s easier to find common ground because we’re no longer arguing; we are explaining.
When we stop arguing we stop threatening the very foundation of someone’s existence (because that’s what beliefs are).
“Ok,” we can say. “I get it. Of course you would be offended by my Lime Jell-O Salad at the potluck. Me, I find a little gelatin really makes my day brighter and my teeth shinier and I can run further and faster. But it’s all right that you don’t like it and I respect your opinion. Let’s agree to disagree about it.”
If you don’t respect their opinion? You can leave that out. You can just leave it with the last line, “Let’s agree to disagree about it.”
At least you can quit banging your head against the wall wondering why in the heck they’re so delusional. And if their beliefs are totally incompatible with yours — if their beliefs really do threaten the foundation of your existence — you can move on. Once you know that opinions can operate in our lives like facts, you might find it easier to quit trying to illuminate them.