Getting Unstuck: Downgrading Expectations and Setting Boundaries

Hazel at 9 weeks old This little lady has taken up more of my time these days, which is the main reason I have not been writing as much or as often. I thought I'd share the cuteness because hey, who doesn't like a puppy? I also wanted to introduce Hazel because the goal is for her to become part of my therapy practice when she's a little older. In the meantime, I have been thinking about the following:

I recently felt surprised at the intensity of my anger. I've spent several years practicing mindfulness and self-compassion and thought my capacity for rage had largely subsided. But a relational issue sprung up to remind me how the interaction between expectations and boundaries (or, rather, a lack thereof) can spur intense anger. Happily, Pavel Somov's book Present Perfect came into my life just in time to help me attend to the burning embers rather than react from them. This quote in particular initiated a very helpful pause:

By insisting on reality being a certain way, we get stuck. To get unstuck, downgrade your expectations to preferences. Whereas an expectation is an unwarranted entitlement, a demand that reality comply with your vision of how it should be, a preference is just a wish...Practice expecting nothing and flowing with what is.

This simple act of shifting an expectation to a preference significantly calmed my desire to lash out at the person whose behavior triggered so much angst. I could still wish for them to be more respectful and considerate of my time and efforts but not view this desire as a just desert. As I changed my stance, the self-righteous anger dissolved. What came in its stead was some very useful information.

For one thing, I realized I had not been attending to my boundaries. I took a historical look at this relationship and acknowledged to myself--really acknowledged--how frequently I did not say anything to this person about the behavior that was bothering me so as to avoid conflict. I feared that conflict would result in this person cutting me off, and the relationship mattered enough to me that I did not want to risk its loss. But as Donna Hicks asserts, when we avoid conflict we oftentimes violate our own dignity. As she says, "Stand up for yourself...A violation is a signal that something in a relationship needs to change."

Upon recognizing how many times I tried to overlook the parts of our relationship that needed to change for me to feel okay about it, the strength of my anger was no mystery. The metaphor of the pot boiling over rings true: we can only ignore our experience of indignity for so long before we explode or experience other symptoms of de-selfing such as depression and anxiety. Setting boundaries really amounts to saying yes to ourselves.

Somov's book has helped me to engage in a cooling off period so that when the opportunity arises to set boundaries, I can do so calmly and with kindness. I particularly liked his exercise "Open the First of the Past":

When wanting to let go of painful thoughts of the past, try this. Think of the worst part of what happened in the incident that's bothering you. As you do, clench your first as tightly as you can. Notice the tension. Think of this as the tension of holding on to the past. Recognize that you have a choice right now: you can stay tense or you can let go. Decide if you want to hold on to the thought or if you're ready to let go of it. When you decide to let go, gradually open your fist to drop the issue. Notice the release of the tension. If it still has a hold on you, repeat this process until it doesn't. If what happened bothers you in more than one way, think of the next worst part. Repeat the sequence.

So downgrading our expectations to preferences is not the end of the story. We still get to respect ourselves, which is precisely what boundaries allow us to do. With courage, practice, and support, we can set boundaries with lovingkindness, recognizing that difficult truths can be expressed without thorns. In Hidayat Inayat-Khan's lovely words, "What use is there in a blunt truth thrown like a stone, which breaks the heart? There is no virtue in truth which has no beauty."

An Exercise for Growing Empathy

I try to practice what I preach; I’m not always that good at it but I really do try. The other night, I was getting hard-hearted, closed-minded, and fundamentalist about somebody else, and I remembered this expression that you can never hate somebody if you stand in their shoes. I was angry at him because he was holding such a rigid view. In that instant I was able to put myself in his shoes and I realized, “I’m just as riled up, and self-righteous and closed-minded about this as he is. We’re in exactly the same place!” And I saw that the more I held on to my view, the more polarized we would become, and the more we’d be just mirror images of one another—two people with closed minds and hard hearts who both think they’re right, screaming at each other. It changed for me when I saw it from his side, and I was able to see my own aggression and ridiculousness.

--Pema Chodron, Practicing Peace in Times of War

I find Chodron's words compelling and also somewhat daunting. After all, the path from recognizing hard-heartedness and closed-mindedness to practicing perspective-taking is often messy and challenging. Additionally, members of marginalized social groups and others in one-down positions often perceive that those who dominate preach about stepping in another's shoes but, when it comes time to do so, project their own experience onto that "other," thereby engaging in a kind of false empathy that maintains repressive power.* What, then, does "standing in someone else's shoes" in ways that contribute to peace and equity look, sound, and feel like? What does authentic perspective-taking mean in concrete terms?

One way to begin cultivating such empathy is to consider the extent to which our perceived reality actually represents a projection of our internal world. Cheri Huber offers a helpful definition of projection:

"Projection" is the notion that everything mirrors who we are. We always see ourselves when we look out at the world and other people. It is not possible to see something that is not a part of ourselves.

Her last statement serves as a radical truth if we take it to heart, as perceptions of an us versus them world quickly fall apart when we accept that we can only recognize in others what also resides within. It is not possible to see something that is not part of ourselves.

Even if we do recognize the extent to which our perceptions are projections, we still are left to transform them into a greater understanding of others, the world, and ourselves. Enter the clearing exercise, which is particularly useful for resolving conflict.** When we are at odds with someone, we can "clear the mirror" by following these instructions:

  1. 1. Name what bothers you.***
  2. 2. Identify how you engage in the behavior that bothers you, too.
  3. 3. Brainstorm how that behavior works for you.
  4. 4. Brainstorm how it doesn't work for you.
  5. 5. Ask the other person what you need around this thing that bothers you.

What I love most about this exercise is how it asks us to remain in an "I" position until the very end, when we have become clearer about what is actually going on and have acknowledged that we are intimately familiar with what "you" do. Also useful is the exercise's attention to the workability of behaviors and habits. In other words, the clearing exercise requires us to depart from a rigid, dichotomous right/wrong framework and engage in more flexible ways of thinking. The actions that harm others and ourselves are often misguided attempts at protection, and this exercise helps us to uncover that truth. For example, if what bothers us is our counterpart's insistence on being right, steps two through four help us to see that "being right" often amounts to grasping for stability and security when we feel afraid of uncertainty or overwhelmed by the changing nature of this living and dying world. Thus by the time we arrive at step five, we are more apt to ask the other person for increased openness and vulnerability rather than demand that they stop being self-righteous. We also are more likely to make our request in a soft manner that is easier to hear than an accusatory, blaming demand. Step five thus presents an opportunity to model the openness and vulnerability we desire from the other person.

Practices like the clearing exercise foster our evolutionary potential for connection, understanding and love. But don't just take my word for it. Try it with your loved ones and, eventually, your "enemies."

There is nothing like a haiku to get to the heart of the matter, so I'll close with Eric Micha'el Leventhal's:

Each person you meet is an aspect of yourself, clamoring for love.

* I am borrowing this idea of "false empathy" from Garrett Albert Duncan who eloquently described how false empathy plays out in his article on critical race theory and qualitative research.

** Myron Eshowsky taught me this exercise.

*** This step may require a little digging. For example, upset about a roommate/partner repeatedly leaving their dirty dishes in the sink may actually emerge from any number of unmet needs, including but not limited to notions of fairness, respect, parity, mutuality, or accountability.