Mental Health Matters: How to Establish 4 Types of Boundaries

A couple weeks ago, I shared how developing self-worth has helped me be less codependent. This week, I’ll discuss how maintaining four types of boundaries has been useful:

Relationship: Relationship boundaries seem to be the most common. This kind of boundary is mostly discussed within romantic relationships, but over the past five years or so, I’ve developed relationship boundaries with existing friendships. The BFF breakup I recently re-blogged, where I realized I didn’t like to be my friend’s therapist, is a great example. To avoid slipping into a psychologist’s role, I rarely give others advice when asked. Instead, my go-to answer is you know what you should do. Not only does this answer embody my firmly held belief that most of us do have the internal guidance required to live, it also keeps me from establishing relationships where folks constantly lean on me to help them solve their problems.

Time: The next type of boundary isn’t discussed as frequently, and I suspect it’s because people in relationship feel entitled to copious amounts of one another’s time. Take phone conversations, for example. They aren’t really my thing, but I recognize them as something many people enjoy as a way to preserve relationships. However, seldom do I want to talk on the phone, and even when I want to, most days, my lifestyle doesn’t allow for lengthy dialogue. So, friends get a time boundary. Sometimes this looks telling the person ahead of the call that I will only have X number of minutes to speak. Other days, it’s someone asking me if I have ten minutes to answer a question or hear a story. Either way, time boundaries are set, and friendships are intact.

Personal: Personal boundaries are my favorite because they’re unique to each of us. An example of this occurred three years ago. My grandmother wanted visit. My answer was no. I didn’t offer her a reason, but for blogging purposes, here’s why: It was August. My semester begins in August. My oldest daughter was moving to another city. My youngest daughter was beginning her second year of high school. Dwight and I were looking for a house every Saturday and Sunday. There was too much going on and I’d just begun understanding that when life is too much, anxiety kicks in. The last thing I needed was my then 90-year-old Grannie wanting to be involved in all of the things and asking 1,999 questions while doing so. Nope. That’s what a personal boundary is: personal based on your needs.

Conversational: Finally, it is important to set boundaries around what you will and will not discuss. Though it may seem as if there is no topic I won’t share via blog, believe it or not, conversational boundaries exist in this space. Ya’ll can’t know everything. Similarly, I have conversational boundaries with my in-real-life friends, depending on the person. I’ve learned not to talk about anything too serious with a friend I’ve known since senior year, because when I do, he jokes about the subject and never follows-up to see if or how it was resolved. We’re friends, but he’s demonstrated he doesn’t want to hear all that. I only have one or two people with whom I’ll talk about my marriage. Everyone else has proven they can’t handle anything perceived as negativity about Dwight, whom they believe to be an unflawed human being. Conversational boundaries ensure I avoid what feels like toxicity and instead include love and support from the appropriate person. This is not to say I avoid hard conversations, but rather, all topics are not for all relationships.

Relationship, time, personal, and conversational boundaries have supported healthier ways for me to be in relationship with others. Relationship boundaries help me to define how I want to be someone’s friend of family member. Time boundaries ensure I’m not giving too much of myself or asking others to unfairly give of themselves. Personal boundaries allow me to know when to prioritize my needs, and conversational ones help me to not share topics with those who do not have the capacity to deal, while also allowing me to know with whom I can engage.

I hope exemplifying these boundaries helps. Let me know if anything resonates with you.

3 Ways to Develop Self-Worth

No More People Pleasing!

Monday Notes: 3 Lessons from a BFF Breakup

We were friends for a decade and a half. Fifteen years is a long time. We’d friended our way through childbirth, divorce and international relocations. If you’ve been friends with someone for this long, then you know the laughs, tears, secrets, and experiences that can accumulate. There are too many to count.

That’s why breaking up was difficult. I felt its dissipation at least three years ago, but I thought it would pass. I figured if I gently expressed my new journey to her then, she would understand and join me. That’s not reality. Everyone cannot walk beside you on your path. Everyone is not supposed to.

And you know what? I’ve learned that it’s okay if they don’t. Equally important, I’ve become a little more conscious about who I am in friendships and what I want in those relationships:

I want to be the person’s friend, not her therapist. Friends listen to one another during their times of need. I get it. However, if all our phone calls include me listening to you and your problems, then that’s not a friendship. That’s a therapy session. Asking me to be your part-time counselor is not fair to me or you. Also, I’ve discovered that my tolerance level is low when it comes to this. Some people find this cold and unfeeling, but it’s quite the opposite. I empathize deeply. I take whatever you’ve revealed to me and literally feel your emotion. When it’s traumatic, it weighs heavy. Until I learn to let go of others’ issues, I need my friends to seek therapy, instead.

I want my friends to grow. Is this fair to say? You all know I’m always seeking growth, physically, spiritually, academically, whatever. If you’ve known me for any length of time, then I’m probably not the same person you first met. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m saying I want a friend who is a mirror image of me. I don’t. But if we’re friends, then I want to know that you care about your own well-being and that maybe, you and I will help one another get there. Here’s the tricky part. Growth begins with self-reflection. And self-reflection requires looking in the mirror and being honest with oneself. I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t make someone self-reflect.

I want my friends to be non-judgmental. For real. I’ve been singing the non-judgment song for about four years. Now, I’m not perfect. Sometimes I still screenshot the occasional text to a mutual friend and wonder “what in the world is wrong with her?” But not always good people. Other people’s business is not often the topic of my own conversations. That’s because I’m too busy doing #2 ^^^ self-reflecting and growing. If the purpose of you reaching out to me is to discuss when someone else is going to get her life together, then you and I probably don’t need to connect that often.

Over the years, I’ve gained and lost quite a few girlfriends. The main reason is because I’d never thought twice about who the person was when we met. It was more like, you like eating out and partying? Me too. Let’s get together and do that, and then we became friends. The end of those friendships forced me to process how or why we became close. I’ve determined the answer is usually rooted in the energy surrounding me at the time. But I’ll save that discussion for another day.

For now, I’m wondering, have you ever broken up with a friend? Did it bother you? Have you thought about what you want in a friendship? Do you have long-lasting friendships? If so, how’d that happen?

 

 

Monday Notes: Putting People In Boxes 📦

274c37f1-2160-49fd-830b-7fbc98aa85e0Last weekend, my family and I celebrated my goddaughter’s birthday. Our hotel had board games and a pool table in the lobby. Thanks to Dwight, we had an impromptu game night that lasted to midnight.

As is common for the 21st century, I took some photos and posted them to social media. A few people were surprised that I posed with a cue. And I was surprised they were surprised. Sometimes I’m able to let comments like these roll off my back; but this time, I was bothered, not only by their surprised reactions, but also by their accusations that I couldn’t possibly know how to shoot pool.

***

My great uncle, Uncle Webber taught me how to play when I was around 12 or 13 years old. He and Aunty Belle had just bought a home in Maywood, a Chicago west suburb. They had one of those garages that dips under the house. When you exited the car, you opened the door into the basement.

In their basement was a pool table, and that’s where I learned to play. Uncle Webber taught me. He taught me how to hold the cue. He showed me how to chalk the cue, and he helped me understand the rules of the game. Because I visited Aunty Belle and Uncle Webber often, I frequently practiced basic rules, like hitting the ball on a specific side to execute a shot.

I’m not saying I walked around the west side with a cue in my back pocket, hustling people, but I learned enough to know how to play. Just like riding a bike, those lessons stayed with me. When Dwight suggested we play the other day, I reviewed them and proceeded as I remembered.

But you can’t say all this on social media. There isn’t enough room, and it’s social media inappropriate, I suppose. Instead, I posted a few one-liners and lol’d my way through.

This has happened before. People are shocked that I do something other than teach or write. Playing pool is just one example. People are amazed that I cook food, which seems absurd, considering how much I like to eat and that I have a family, who throughout the years, has required meals.

I get that we can’t know every single facet of everyone’s identity or life. But that’s exactly why I think we shouldn’t assume that the 2-3 parts people show us is all they have to offer. Most people are multidimensional. While I teach for a living and write to promote thought, I also cook, play Spades, volunteer, read tarot cards, workout regularly, dance, and practice yoga.

Let’s stop putting friends and family in boxes and actually try to get to know one another. It could be as easy as starting a conversation that begins with, “I didn’t know you did blah blah blah,” which could lead to a cool story and a deeper understanding of an individual.

***

A few hours after I wrote this, I saw this video on FB that shows exactly what I’m saying:

Monday Notes: Friends

December 7th, 2018, I took a girls trip with five women. I’ve known one of these women since first grade and the others since seventh. While many of us have gotten together separately over the years for high school reunions or visits back home, the six of us hadn’t been together as a group since high school.

I admit I didn’t know what to expect. But I’m happy to report that it was one of the best trips I’ve taken with a group of women. We all got along just as we had over two and a half decades ago. It’s as if we were the same people, just 45 years old, with more life experiences to share.

Afterwards, I found myself reflecting on what made our time together so special.

img_8603-1We’re similar. All six of us attended an academically talented and gifted school called, Whitney M. Young for both the Academic Center (7th-8th grade) and high school. At the time we attended, it was the best high school in the nation. Meaning, we’re all not only intelligent, but we’ve also faced some of the same challenges throughout life when it comes to education and career choices. I mention this not to brag, but to highlight that when friends are similar at a core level, then deeper conversations ensue. Most of the time, we didn’t have to provide background information prior to talking about a shared issue.

We respected our differences. Prior to this trip, I believed that friends are such because they have similar interests; therefore, there is little need for compromise. You know what I mean? But that weekend revealed that while we are similar in some ways, we’ve grown to be different in others. That Friday, one of us wanted to sing karaoke, so we made our way to City Walk’s Rising Star. Another friend exercises daily, so she awoke each morning before everyone and walked on the beach. To our surprise, one woman enjoys watching NASCAR; so, we all paid our $20 and toured Daytona International Speedway. These are just three examples. While we weren’t necessarily fully invested in each other’s events, we each partook. I can only speak for myself in saying the reason I participated in everything is because we were there to visit with one another. Whether that be at a fancy dinner, on a jet ski, or at the pool, I was happy to compromise to hang out with women I considered to be friends.

We listened. On this trip we had constant, intimate conversations. We not only revealed events that had happened over the years, but also how we felt about these experiences. Not once did I feel negatively judged for sharing myself or my shortcomings. At no point did I think, “I shouldn’t have said that” for fear of the side-eyes or subsequent comments that accompany saying something not aligned with society’s values. Once again, I attribute the warmth of this inviting and supporting environment to the quality of women I’d unconsciously chosen to befriend years ago.

I’ve spoken a lot about relationships on this blog. But this trip solidified my overall feelings about them. Whether friend, familial, or romantic, good relationships feel warm and loving. They are non-judgmental and, in some ways, symbiotic. They are as natural as the ocean’s waves and as long lasting or fleeting as the sand that surrounds it.

As of today, that’s my answer on this topic. Let me know what you think.

Monday Notes: Do We Change?

About three months ago, a high school friend sent me a picture I had given her during our junior year. On the back, I’d done as many high school students used to. I’d written her a personal message. In case you can’t read my writing, it says:

059110f2-5e67-415b-bf66-2696217ab88eTo –:

Even though you never call anyone, and never tell anyone anything, and never go anywhere with anyone: u still the homie!

Love, Kathy

c/o ‘91

Okay. Let’s take a pause to commemorate 20th century rituals, such as signing pictures!

Now, back to my point. When I read what I’d written over two decades ago, I laughed. How much had I changed from 1990? I considered this person a friend, and I still do, yet for some reason, I had to call her out on her non-friend like behavior. Sound familiar? It does to me. I’ve written countless blogs that focus on relationships and understanding how we treat one another within those relationships.

Based on what I wrote, it seems to have been my lifelong quest.

Reading what I’d written reminded me of a quote. Loosely paraphrased it says, it’s not so much that we need to find ourselves, as we need to remember who we were, or something like that.

I agree. Much of our childhood and adolescent years are spent becoming acculturated and acclimated to our surroundings. We learn what we can, cannot, should, or should not say, and in some cases, do. Initially, our parents take on the role of ensuring we’re properly socialized. Once we begin school and other activities, society takes over. Some of these lessons are explicit, like don’t swear in public. Others are implicit, like girls should be quiet and demure.

One lesson that stands out for me is from my mother. She would always tell me, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” She tried to instill some sense of etiquette to my tone. By my mid-30s, and after watching others’ reactions in conversations, I began to self-censor not only my tone, but also my speech, because try as I may, I can’t seem to say things with sugar or honey. And if someone was going to worry about how I said something, it was best not to say it at all. This lasted two years. For me, self-censorship causes a buildup of unused words, and that’s not good for my health.

I’m believing more and more that we are born knowing who we are and what we need to do. Like the paraphrased quote above, we just need to remember who, what and why?

Eventually, I found my way back to who I am. Blogging has helped. While I do edit words for grammar and usage, I don’t suppress my tone or what I want to say. Likewise, I never intend to hurt someone’s feelings, so in person, sometimes I pause or exhale before speaking. But I make sure not to mince words. Finally, I’ve accepted the idea that if you’re focused on how I say something, instead of what I’ve said, then maybe we don’t need to communicate. And that’s okay. Maybe you’ll find someone who says things in a manner in which you can receive the message.

So, what do you think? Do we change over time? Are we taught to fit in, which causes us to change? Have you had to re-learn who you once were?

Monday Notes: Talking About Women Behind Their Backs and Women’s Empowerment

Where does talking about women behind their backs fit into women’s empowerment? I was faced with answering this question for myself after three different circumstances occurred over the course of two months.

talking_people2Situation #1 is a combination of many experiences. It usually starts in a group DM. One person may say, “Hey, did you know that Sally did blah, blah, blah?” And because we all know Sally, but Sally’s not in the group, a conversation and judgments about her may ensue. I have been known to either start this type of dialogue, participate in the conversation, or throw in an lol or appropriate gif.

Situation #2 is also a common one I’ve found myself in. Two women don’t know each other, but for some reason have crossed one another’s paths. I associate with both women. Sally does something Sue doesn’t like and because I know both, I’m listening to each share their dislikes. I may also interfere by throwing in a, “Hey why don’t you think about it this way” because I feel a sense of loyalty to both and I’m equally associated.

teaSituation #3 surfaces every now and then. Again, it begins with my knowing two women, who also may know one another, but aren’t necessarily friends. Sue asks me a question about Sally. Just for the sake of example, it could be something like, “Why does she always wear her pants backwards?” Because I know Sally and I have insight into why her pants are always backwards, I answer. I never tell Sally; however, I do secretly continue this defense of her and her backwards-pants wearing.

I’ve decided participating in any future, similar conversations is wrong. Here’s why.

Many of you know my overall goal is to raise women’s consciousness; however, how can I be raising women’s consciousness in one breath, while talking about women behind their backs in another?

I can’t. It’s out of alignment. And I won’t be doing it anymore.

From here on out, I will not be discussing other women in the confines of text messages, DMs, or lunch dates. I also won’t be listening to other women discuss and judge women I know (or don’t know). My new direct phrase will be: Let’s talk about all the amazing things going on in your life and what you’re doing (or something similar). And finally, if someone wants to know why Sally always wears her pants backwards, I’m going to suggest that they pick up the phone and ask Sally.

Women’s empowerment is about more than writing, blogging, or speaking engagements, where women share their wounds and heal. It’s about not creating more cuts for someone we each refer to as “sis.” It’s about the way we carry ourselves when no one’s looking. This includes private conversations.

Let me know what you think, if you can relate to either of these situations, or if you have another one to share.

Friendship and the Expectation of Support (Part II)

Yesterday, I shared how disappointed I was when close friends didn’t ask me how an important event went.* As I mentioned, I processed my feelings for several days. Meaning, I talked to Dwight about it, until every angle was exhausted; I removed myself from speaking words to anyone outside of my husband and daughters so that others’ thoughts didn’t influence my intuition; I lit some sage incense and meditated for fifteen consecutive days; and I journaled about the answers that came to me.

During meditation, I heard a very distinct message: Do not be concerned with affairs of the ego.

My understanding of “ego” comes from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth (2005). Loosely summarized, he says that it’s the I, which we all develop, but which none of us really is. Tolle calls it “a misperception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity” (p. 27).

Our egos are stories that we’ve told ourselves about ourselves. This can range from the type of mother you think you are to the type of co-worker you appear to be, good, bad, or otherwise.

I was steeped in my identities.

I am an author.

I am a writer.

I am friend.

I was swimming in my stories.

I am an indie author, who doesn’t have major names behind me offering marketing, etc. I need a different type of support. I’m a writer, whose main purpose is to raise consciousness by sharing my authentic self. Is this noticed? I’m a good friend, and if I’m a good friend to others, well then, they will be an equally good friend to me.

I’d gotten lost in my ego.

moon

Yesterday, I also said that my close friends were in their ‘life’s bubble’, but quite honestly, so was I. I was in my oh my god, I can’t believe we’re having another reading in a different city, like a book tour bubble. My look at me being a different type of indie author bubble. I was also in my people cried and began to think about their circumstances in a different way bubble. Is this what raising consciousness looks like? And in my good friends ask each other about important events bubble of judgment.

You might be wondering what I’ve done as a result of these revelations. I’ve returned to two things I’ve been working on the past five years: having no expectations and not judging others. Neither is an easy task, but I do want to clarify.

Having no expectations doesn’t mean not having standards for people. In this scenario, it simply means I shouldn’t have expected my friends to call or not call. Subsequently, if someone did ask me how everything went, then that’s fine; if not, then that’s okay too. Also, for me, not judging means not passing judgment on my friends’ actions. If a person doesn’t reach out and show interest, it doesn’t mean that they’re a “bad” friend; likewise, if a person does ask for an update, it doesn’t mean they’re a “good” friend.

So, this is my second conclusion: Identity + Story = Ego. Don’t be concerned with affairs of the ego. And stop making up stories about yourself and others.

Tomorrow, I’ll share my third conclusion.

*Since writing this but before publishing it, someone I consider a friend did text me and ask about the reading 🙂

PART I

Friendship and the Expectation of Support (Part I)

tarra_kgOn June 13th, I hung out with my friend, Tarra. We ate fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, and lobster brie omelets. We discussed our deceased mothers and newly found biological families.

Tarra is a singer and actress. She’d just finished a show and needed rest. I was preparing for the Atlanta reading and needed to calm myself prior to attending. So, we also spent time at the beach, running through opened doors and moving with the ocean’s waves.

Somewhere during the day, she confided that she was thinking about who wasn’t at her shows, who didn’t support, who didn’t reach out. She knew she should focus on who was there, who did support, and who made time for her. She admitted this was something she should work on.

I agreed. But I also added, “It’s hard.”

Two days later, we had the Atlanta book reading. Even though it was an awesome event, not one close friend reached out to ask how it was, not even Tarra. Please do not misunderstand what I’m saying. Friends did contact me. They texted to tell me about the terrible and wonderful happenings in their life’s bubble. They just didn’t ask about this very important gathering I’d been talking about for months.

Like Tarra, I began to think about all the close friends I have and why they wouldn’t simply text and say, how was the reading?* I started to text each one and ask him or her personally, but quickly tossed that idea. I really don’t like to ask people to be who I want them to be. I’d much rather simply be aligned in thought, action, and behavior. Plus, I knew it was something I needed to work on, not them.

After processing my emotions for several days, I came to a few conclusions. The first is, like my friend, I needed to focus on who was supportive and who showed care that day.

The first is my husband, Dwight. He is always there in some way. Even when he can’t physically be present, he calls, jokes with me to lighten my mood, and wishes me well. He texts or calls after every event and asks me how it went and how I felt about the outcome. I appreciate that.

img_0801The second is the group of women who made the event possible. Bree spent her time, money, and energy planning a successful reading. The other three women traveled from other cities and states to share themselves with strangers. In my point of view, this is miraculous, and it’s definitely not something they had to do.

The third are people who attended. I didn’t do a head count, but at least 40 people came. Included in the audience was my stepmother, stepsister, a former Georgia College student and her mother, and a blogger I’d met for the first time (shout out to Yecheilyah).

Though my feelings were initially hurt, reminding myself that I did have support that day has shifted my energy about the situation.

That’s my first conclusion: focus on who shows up in ways you value.

I’ll share my second conclusion tomorrow.

*Since writing this but before publishing it, someone I consider a friend did text me and ask about the reading 🙂

Monday Notes: Bobby

letterFor my birthday this year, Grannie sent me one of those white, over-sized UPS envelopes. It was filled with memorabilia from 1990-1991, the year I stayed with her. Among my ACT scores and college acceptance letters was also a handmade card from a woman who was my best friend in undergrad. Her name was Bobby.

As soon as I read it, I began to cry…real tears.

The card, a piece of 8 ½ x 11-inch paper folded horizontally, included heartfelt words about me that she’d written for my 20th birthday. She’d expressed how she couldn’t afford to buy a card but how she’d hoped this gift would suffice. Bobby ended the sentiment by saying that I was what she considered a good “friend.”

That’s what made me cry. Bobby and I were friends for a maximum of two years.

During that time, people mistook us for cousins or sisters. We had the same skin tone and haircut and we were always together, no matter what. When she found out I was from Chicago, she nicknamed me Brini, after the infamous housing projects, Cabrini Green. I dismissed the offensive association because that was all she knew about the city. Because she’d deemed me ghetto, she would sing the Sanford and Son theme song when I entered the room. And because I didn’t have a lot of friends in undergrad, least of all a best friend, I let her.

handwritten_noteBobby was there when I first met Dwight. We double dated one night, and she cooed as he pushed me on a swing, “Brini’s in love!”

She and I flew to Charlotte, NC to attend my cousin’s graduation. She, Dwight, and I visited my family in Chicago. I was welcomed in her Detroit home, where her mother would make gumbo from scratch and send bowlfuls back so that we wouldn’t be hungry.

We were so close that we thought we’d join a sorority together. Unlike Bobby, I didn’t read the application thoroughly. I began to hand write my answers, instead of typing them. Upon realizing my error, I then used Wite Out and typed over the bumpy sludge. It was a mess. I submitted it anyway. Unlike Bobby, I was unable to attend an underground Christmas party in Detroit. And, unlike Bobby, I botched my interview.

Winter semester rolled around, and a mutual friend stopped us in our dorm’s hall, fishing for information. “Bobby, I heard you were on line.”

I responded for both of us. “We’re not on line,” I confirmed.

“I haven’t heard anything about you Kathy. Just Bobby,” she said.

The decline of our relationship hit me in that moment. Bobby was on line; she was initiated into the sorority that semester, leaving our “friendship” in the past. I’d see her at parties or on campus donning her shiny paraphernalia with her new circle of sisters. We didn’t speak the remainder of my time in college.

***

notebookAbout five years later, after Dwight and I had married and had our first child, somehow Bobby and I found one another through email.

“I’m sorry,” she wrote, “I know Dwight must think I’m horrible.”

I don’t remember my exact response, but I know it wasn’t nice. 1999 was the last time we communicated. I thought I’d unleashed the hurt of the situation in that last email. I thought I was over it. But it turns out, I wasn’t.

I’m sharing this because I was shocked that over twenty years later, her handwritten card would trigger such emotions. Clearly, I hadn’t released the sadness of the relationship. I’d just buried it. And so it is for many of us. Sometimes we think we’ve dealt with something when really we’ve just repressed it and replaced it with a coping mechanism.

But this time, in May 2019, I figured out why I was so hurt by the loss of our bond. Four years before our meeting, my mother had died. Three years prior to our friendship my father had sent me to live with Grannie. I’d already decided that I wasn’t good enough to be loved and her additional abandonment solidified it.

Like previous narratives, I had to also let this one go. Bobby was the type of “friend” she was because of herself; it had nothing to do with me.

Today, I’m clear about that. Should I come across another memento representing our friendship, I’ll send out new energy by thanking her for her companionship and wishing her well.

***

If you’re wondering, I’ve also since realized that real friends don’t offer up nicknames associated with infamous housing projects and television shows centered in a junkyard. But I’ll save those lessons for another blog.

Monday Notes: “Mr. F*ckin’ Rogers”

About fifteen years ago, two women had befriended me. One of them had a child the same age as my oldest daughter. At the time, she’d given birth to another, by a man, whom she was no longer with. During our friendship, she’d started dating and married another person altogether. The other had five children by one man, to whom she was divorced. Having remarried, she and the last one of her children lived with her new husband, who she’d eventually divorce.

We would usually convene over one of their houses, sip alcoholic drinks, and discuss women things: sex, periods, men.

On one occasion, we sat around a dining room table, red cups in hand. They both complained about their relationships. I don’t recall the details, but I do remember chiming in with whatever was bothering me about my husband.

“You don’t get to say nothing,” friend two interjected, “not when you’re married to Mr. f*ckin’ Rogers.”

They both howled with laughter. I gulped what was left of my drink and sat speechless for the remainder of the night.

Long before I’d met these women, my grandmother had taught me to sit in silence, to ignore how I felt about my experiences. Nothing I said was important enough to add to any grown-folks’ conversation. And because I was always surrounded by adults, I’d discovered that nothing I had to say about living life was ever of value, even if it was my own.

That one moment exemplified why I was rarely vulnerable with specific people. When I was twelve, there was one best friend with whom I stifled feelings about my parents. Her mother had moved thousands of miles away from her ghetto Chicago neighborhood to be a hairstylist for celebrities in California. My friend was left to be raised by her grandmother. To her, the image of my life was perfect. What could I have to complain about with two loving parents, adopted or not?

Years later, after we’d both had children of our own, that same friend confessed, “We’ve known each other for a long time, but I don’t feel like I really know you at all.”

mask2It’s no wonder. I’d become a master at masking my true emotions about a thing, while hurt festered in the fiber of my being and manifested as inappropriate adult behavior.

This is what can happen when we devalue the voices of those around us. This is what can occur when we lack the ability to empathize. Those we claim to care about and to love may learn to either shrink their existence to make way for the largest voice in the room, or they may seek to be seen and heard in unhealthy ways.

I’d learned to do both, depending on the situation.

Today, however, I function in healthier ways with people whom I choose to interact.

With my children, I give them the space to give words to their emotions. If you talk to either one of them, you’ll notice they begin with the phrase “I feel like…” quite a bit. I believe it’s because I’ve always encouraged them to reflect and feel, whether I want to hear it or not.

With my friends and family, I listen to what people have to say. I never compare pain. If you’re upset by something I don’t understand or that isn’t of value to me, then okay. I’m not the emotion police. All feelings are important and have the right to be heard, no matter their size or subject.

With myself, I refuse to be silenced simply because my life is different than those around me. I know that different doesn’t mean less important. I don’t allow friends or family to guilt me for having things they do not. For example, just because you cannot find a happy healthy relationship, doesn’t mean I cannot discuss how being married has affected me.

Finally, I’m more discerning about the people with whom I’m aligned. This act alone has helped to create relationships that are more satisfying and symbiotic. In this way, I know that I’m participating in partnerships that are both valuable and valued, and by extension, so am I and what I have to say.