Over the past year my relationships have shifted and changed–sometimes precipitously like unexpected sneaker waves sweeping me off my feet. I’ve done a lot of seeking in that time. Since the little kids make it hard for me to read I’ve looked to new forms of guidance. Even as old relationships have shifted new mentors have come into my life via new communities, especially communities of parents. Podcasts, art, and activism teach me.
I’ve learned so much, and to keep it present I’m making this list of reminders. These are for everyday, for continuing on a path of self-respect and joy and peace, and particularly for those times where I feel swept up in the waves of criticism and emotional manipulation that too often seem unavoidable. These are for everyone, particularly in the terrifying times we live in when hate seems to be so acceptable and empowered.
I have the right to feel safe. If something doesn’t feel safe I don’t need to prove it. I can set boundaries that work to make me feel safe.
I have the right to set boundaries. There is a difference between being open to debate and disagreement, and being personally criticized and attacked or having my children disrespected. See above. If I’ve made it clear in some way that I’m not comfortable with someone’s behavior and they do not change, I have the right to limit contact to whatever makes me comfortable.
Boundaries are not axes. I can send a boundary by choosing not to see a certain person at a certain time. That doesn’t necessarily mean I will never see them. It does not mean I wish them ill. It simply means I do not feel comfortable, and the relationship at this moment is negative. I try to set boundaries only as needed. Some people I can simply reduce contact with and successfully maintain a positive relationship. Some people I cannot contact.
I cannot change people. A lot of current self-help discussion is about giving up control. My problem is related, but not the same. I find over and over that I’ve set up too many relationship patterns based on me taking in advice and criticism, while I simultaneously accept everything about the other person without judgment. Setting a boundary and asking people to stop giving unasked for criticism is not the same as controlling them. But I have for far too long avoided setting boundaries because I believe that if I can just explain enough, if I can just express myself clearly and in the right context, people will change and stop hurting me. I need to let go of control in the sense of letting go of trying to “fix” people, even if that just means fixing their relationship to me or my kids.
I can put energy into helping people who are asking for help. If someone asks how they can be a better friend to myself or my kids, what a positive opportunity for my energy. When people ask to learn more about unschooling, autism, and social justice, this is a moment to invest my energy and care and knowledge into helping them learn. It’s so easy to let the negative overwhelm the positive. I’ve realized I must focus on the people who are asking, because they are there, they are everywhere. After the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, I felt furious at the people in my life who were not asking and speaking and trying to make change in the world. See above–I cannot change people. What I can do in the face of this violence–and the violence of deportations and immigration bans and the violence against women–is help organizations already doing positive work and put my energy into relationships with people who are trying to make a difference.
I can put energy into people who see me and appreciate me. And who see my kids and enjoy us for who we truly are. This one sounds so simple but has been hard. Some people simply don’t like me since I started homeschooling, since I started talking about autism and neurodiversity. Since I became more and more vocal about politics. The problem is, they keep trying to drag me back to being they way they wanted me to be. My family and I don’t need to change though, we are happy the way we are. And there are many people who enjoy being with us just the way we are right now.
I can put more energy into creativity than into criticism. This is so hard for me. It’s not at all what I learned growing up. But I can see all around me that creativity inspires, creativity opens minds, creativity supports and helps people feel seen and feel safe. This is the way toward joy and toward changing the world. Unschooled kids are excellent role models for putting creativity before criticism.
I have a right to feel happy. My little family has so much fun together. Moments at home, traveling, exploring our neighborhood, playing games–our lives are full. Yet I have too often felt obligated to continue to include people who destroy those moments, who ruin an afternoon or a weekend or a week or a year with pressures, worries, criticism, and violations of my children’s and my boundaries. Like Naomi expresses so clearly at Respectfully Connected, I build walls. I sometimes feel panicked about refusing to fulfill my obligations and protecting the cocoon of joy that we have built together. But there are too many people who expand that joy, who help us learn, who bring peace and magic into our lives rather than cruelty. There is not enough time in a weekend or an hour or a lifetime to waste on allowing myself or my children to be attacked.
I can forgive. This post by Laina at The Silent Wave beautifully illustrates this. People are doing their best. Generational traumas, poverty, authoritarianism: there are so many reasons for cruelty. But I’ve found I cannot forgive without setting boundaries because I’m too certain and too afraid that I will be hurt again.
I cannot forgive when I’m trying to change people because I’m expecting more and constantly disappointed.
I cannot forgive when I don’t put energy into people who ask for help, because I feel alone.
I cannot forgive when I don’t allow myself to be creative and happy, because I have no energy source to pull from in order to offer this gift of forgiveness.
I cannot forgive when I am not safe, when I am not happy, when I am not at peace. And safety, joy, and peace are worth fighting for, maybe not with axes but with our choices and our creativity and our love.