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.
We parent our kids to help them grow into the people we hope they can be. We parent them to be their best selves, to be the most resilient, to be successful (however we define it), to be loved and we make most of our decisions based on the future we want for them. That’s the point of parenting, right? To prepare our children for the future.
Well, kind of.
Even as we work to prepare our kids for their somedays, we also need to parent for today, right this very minute.
Many of the kids who come to see me have said things like, “In first grade they told me I needed this math for second grade and in second grade they told me I’d need this math for third grade and so on all the way up to high school, which they tell me is going to prepare me for college. But what about now? Can’t I just be in the now?”
In truth, now is all we have. We don’t know what will happen ten weeks, eight months or six years from now. We don’t know what the economy will look like or what the most in demand job skills will be or who our children will settle down with (if they settle down) or anything else. We are making our best guesses and we need to do that but we also need to remember that this moment is just as important. This moment, this interaction, it matters for its own sake and not for what it might owe to a future we can’t even see clearly.
Some of us are so future-focused that we start parenting from an urgency that makes our children’s simple mistakes or struggles seem overwhelmingly scary.
Sometimes when I’m working with a parent trying to help them understand why an issue feels so consuming — a child who sleeps through her alarm or who is struggling in his friendships — we follow the path all the way to a very specific fear. What if her inability to get up on her own will ruin her career because her boss won’t put up with her being late all of the time? What if his problems on the playground mean he’ll end up in an apartment with 43 stray cats and no one to call when he’s lonely?
Those often unspoken outsized fears can make it hard for us to allow room for developmentally appropriate bumps and bruises. If everything — future partners, future careers, future success and happiness — seems to depend on the SAT scores we may forget that there are other things to learn here, too. Things like preparing for big tests, dealing with pressure, confronting uncertainty, etc.
When parents allow their imaginations to run away with them — when they let themselves do it out loud instead of ignoring the fear so it sets up camp in their deep dark worries — then we can talk about it more realistically. Sometimes a slept-through alarm is just a slept-through alarm. Sometimes it is its own problem to be solved instead of a symptom of a greater issue.
And if there are greater issues at play, it makes more sense to focus on the moment as we contemplate our options than to let our fears take us down the road to hopelessness. Because this child, sleeping through her alarm, is just as important as the adult she will someday be.
There is not one way to be happy or successful. There isn’t one path to a really good life. We may get only one shot at a specific opportunity (winning the 5th grade spelling team or qualifying for the Olympics) but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities waiting for us.
It can be a tricky balance to both grow kids for the future and be here with the present child in front of us at the exact same time. But the dual perspective is necessary both for our child and for ourselves, so we don’t miss what’s happening right in front of us while we are looking out so far ahead.
There’s a common theme for lots of people who come to counseling and that theme is one I like to call The Groucho Marx Syndrome. This is named after Marx’s (perhaps apocryphal) response to a club that invited him to join their ranks:
I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.
Many of my clients do not want the kinds of partners who would have them as partners or the type of friends who would have them as friends.
They think like this:
- If people like this sweater, they must have bad taste because I do not have good taste in clothes.
- If people hire me for a job, they must not be thinking because people who are thinking would not hire me for a job.
- If people invite me for tea, I must have them fooled because they seem like nice people and nice people would not have someone like me over for tea.
And so on and so on.
It feels scary to think, “I do have good taste and this is a great looking sweater. I do deserve this job because I’m good at what I do. Nice people invite me for tea because I am lovely.” What will happen when they find out the truth? What if we’re imposters? What if we’re just fooling or our sweater-picking skills are a one-time fluke?
But what if it’s not? What if you really are a lovely person with good taste and talent?
I mean, stranger things have happened.
The first step in overcoming Groucho Marx Syndrome is admitting that you’ve got it. The next step is recognizing when you’re succumbing to Groucho Marx Syndrome and confronting it. An invitation to the club doesn’t mean that you are lousy or that the club is lousy; try believing you’re getting invited because you deserve the invitation. Just try it for ten minutes and see if you can stand it and then try it for an hour and then try it for a whole day. See if you can make it a habit.
But if you can’t, if it’s too scary, really sit with that scariness and figure out where it’s coming from. Where did you get the message that you’re not good enough? Couldn’t it be that the long ago person who told you that particular story had the story wrong? Because now, right now, you can rewrite it. You get to tell a new story and this time, you get to tell one that’s really really good to you.
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In the spring of 2002, after three years of concentrated effort and several early miscarriages, my husband I decided that we were at the end of our fertility quest. That’s it, we told each other, let our son be an only child or maybe we’ll adopt but this is the end of the charting, the tests and the medical appointments. Our decision was precipitated by a number of different factors – my mental and physical exhaustion; the end of our insurance coverage for infertility treatment; and the toll my emotional roller coaster was having on my then 5-year old son.
I felt empowered but terrified, calm but bereft. It wasn’t an easy decision but I knew it was the right one. For the first time since we started trying for that second baby I felt in control. Even on my bad days – which still arrived with depressing regularity fueled by baby announcements, baby shower invitations or even seeing two closely-spaced siblings at the grocery store – I could finally see a time when this wouldn’t hurt so much.
I went to my secondary infertility support group with my news. A small close-knit email list made up of women who found each other on another parenting board, the women there bubbled with encouraging posts (“Your baby is just waiting for you to bring her down from heaven!”), treatment advice (“Have you talked to your doctor about the benefits of a 3-day versus 5-day transfer?”), and sympathy (“Don’t let your sister-in-law get to you; one day you’ll be nursing your own little one!”). In this cheer-leading atmosphere, my decision to stop wasn’t popular. The de facto leader of our group had herself gone to great lengths both medical and economic to give birth to her daughter. Second mortgages, intense treatment and loss had only fueled her determination. She argued with me about my decision but I remained firm. That was it. I was done.
“I guess,” she finally said. “That I wanted another baby more than you did.”
Infertility support groups work because for the most part everyone is on the same page (or at least a similar one). But when one member decides to call it quits it can threaten the cohesion of the group.
Looking back now, I can see why my announcement landed with a thud in the center of our virtual coffee klatch. These were women who had been told over and over again (by friends, by family and sometimes by partners) that they were being unreasonable. They needed a group that would cheer them on when other people rolled their eyes and told them to quit trying so hard. You know, “Just relax!” and all that. Now I can see how my saying “enough already”, however personal that decision was, sounded like I was just a step away from joining the critical chorus.
Still, it hurt. These were my friends and suddenly I was on the outside as they closed ranks.
My decision to quit treatment was not any better or worse than another woman’s decision to stay the course. However in the context of the list, my choice was seen in some ways as a betrayal of our group’s “baby or bust” values. It was time for me to go.
If you find that your support community is holding you back but you’re not quite ready to leave, take some time to build up a new support system that reflects the values you are trying to embrace. When I have a client who is looking to make changes in her support system, we go slow as we consider how she will find those people who will help her in her new endeavors. We also talk about how it’s hard to leave people who have been important in our lives even when their presence has clearly become more of a hindrance than a help.
Having the unbiased support of a therapist can help you make decisions that best reflect your particular situation, experience and values. If you’re local and find yourself struggling to figure out what to do next, please feel free to contact me. Maybe I can help.