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boundaries, near and far

December 18, 2012

Several days ago, Spouse and I had a conversation that veered into dangerous territory. His work schedule has been so ridiculously busy that we had to postpone celebrating his birthday. I’ve been working on an idea for a gift, and one night that we took a walk together, I asked him if he would actually be interested in this gift, or just be ‘meh’ about it. Spouse is apparently incapable of giving ‘Yes or No’ answers to any question, no matter how simple, but still, I was expecting his possible answers to more or less range between “Yes, that would be lovely, thank you” and “No, don’t bother; I don’t really appreciate stuff like that”. Instead, I got a long involved answer. The upshot was, No, I shouldn’t bother with my idea. But before we got there, I felt breathless with dismay.

Uncharacteristically, I walked him through what I was feeling right then. “Oh look another (unexpected and especially unwelcome) learning opportunity—how marvelous! (not!) Well, even after 20 years, Spouse is still kind of a ‘black box’, so it’s good I’m getting this insight. But oof, I wish insight into Spouse’s worldview wasn’t (almost invariably) upsetting.”

This occasion was different than all the others though, because I didn’t take any of it personally. I recognized—in that very moment—that this was ‘his stuff’, and it didn’t really have anything to do with me, or my gift idea.

If we had had this conversation a month or two ago, I recognized that I would’ve felt poleaxed, or like I’d been stabbed in the stomach. I would’ve moped around disconsolate for three days. I would have hesitated to warm up to him again. And I would’ve doubted myself and the strength of our relationship.

So recognizing ‘his stuff’ as ‘his stuff’ saved me a lot of emotional anguish.

What changed in a month? On December 1, I began a 13 month project: actively seeking out my own boundaries; exploring their edges; and, when necessary, defending what is me from what is not-me.

It turns out that when I’m with human beings, my boundaries aren’t nearly as fuzzy as I had always supposed. My differences from other people are often pretty definite—I just have to be looking in the right places to notice that.

Spouse and I share the NF temperament, and we’re both introverts. So in the Myers-Briggs system, we share 3 letters out of 4. You’d think we’d be pretty similar. But in a lot of ways, we’re not. When I mentioned that to Spouse, on that walk, he laughed, and said, “we’re not really different in important ways! It’s not like you’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat!” He had a second example, but it didn’t register in my brain, which was too busy processing my feelings about all of this. I steered the conversation into channels that didn’t require my main brainpower because I could see we weren’t going to agree anyway.

If we have to address politics, he is a centrist Democrat, and I’m a far-left Green. That’s actually a pretty big divide. Both sets of our parents are conservative Republicans, so we’ve both diverged from where we started, but I’ve traveled a lot farther.

There’s religion. His parents are conservative Southern Baptists. First Spouse was a liberal Southern Baptist with a lot of questions that were never answered. He spent about 20 years as a generic Christian. And I think he now calls himself an agnostic. I started out as a devout but henotheistic Roman Catholic, fascinated by mythology and world religions. I went through a New Age phase as a teenager, partly because my mother was. Together we talked about and read books about reincarnation, ESP, clairvoyance, stuff like that. I felt drawn to Catholic saints who were mystics, especially those with ecstatic experiences. I wanted my religion to reflect what mattered to me, and early on I could see that Roman Catholicism did not value what I valued. In a lot of cases, Roman Catholicism (and Christianity generally) seemed completely unaware of what mattered most to me. So I became a Pagan at age 20. But I never stopped seeking the ineffable. I thought about becoming a Jainist. I came very close to converting to Islam, held back only by (1) monotheism, (2) the misogyny enshrined in its culture, and (3) the same utter indifference to the nonhuman world (that caused me to leave Christianity). I’m sure there are Pagans that have similar concerns to mine—I’ve read some of their blogs—but I’ve never met them in person. It took me 25 years to realize that I can’t actually follow anyone else’s religious tradition. That I’ve always been finding my own. And therefore, religion, to me, is not social.

I’m trying to think of any religious experience I had with other human beings involved where the human beings improved my experience. Mostly, they’ve been a distraction at best. And they’ve often completely disrupted what I hoped for. For me, religion is profoundly solitary.

Beyond that, though, I’m not sure ‘religion’ is an optimal container for my spiritual yearnings. These days I’m calling myself an agnostic, simply to have a label at all, but I still feel drawn to the same sorts of things that I had previously believed belonged to religion. I’m still living my life according to ethical and moral principles that I’m devising, as I go. Calling myself an atheist drags gods into places I don’t find them—which is perhaps the point of the label ‘atheist’—and yet it doesn’t feel like it fits either. Maybe I need my own word.

In any case, Spouse and I are both seekers, but I’ve searched a lot longer and a lot harder and in a great many stranger places than he has. I’ve not been afraid to explore anything that caught my interest, no matter how far out of the mainstream it was.

Let’s talk about art. Spouse and I both call ourselves artists; we both make art regularly. Oddly enough, we’re both drawn to avant-garde art. I know why I like it: other people struggle with expressing ideas no one else recognizes or values; their art makes such concerns tangible. I’m trying to do that myself, so we are kindred spirits, even if our art does not seem at all similar. But I haven’t been able to figure out why Spouse is drawn to it. He wants all of his art to be beautiful. He does have an affinity for clicking the shutter just as something ineffable occurs, even though he often didn’t realize it until he sees the photographs later, on the computer. Unlike at least some of my art forms, photographs are not functional, so his art is not tangibly helping people live differently. He himself does not seem to hold avant-garde ideas about anything, although perhaps he just doesn’t share such things with me.


A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got a holiday card from someone I’d lost touch with. The return address was 1200 miles away from where I expected it to be. So I went looking for this person online. Eventually I tracked them down to their new job situation. And I sent them an e-mail, with a bunch of questions. If they followed their previous methods, it might be six months before they responded. But this time, it was only a week.

I’m not sure how I want to respond to this person. We haven’t been friends in years, and arguably, we were never actually friends, the way I use the term now. Thinking about their e-mail yesterday, I realized for the first time that my relationship with this person actually fits a profile. Before now, I saw each instance of this type of my/our behavior as singular, and therefore did not compare any of them to each other. So I didn’t realize I kept repeating myself, creating a pattern.

I have a woman boss (or a woman coworker who outranks me, while not being my direct supervisor). Something about her manner taps into something primal within me. (At the time it’s happening) I don’t know what it is, but what I do know is, I need her to like me and want to spend time with me. So I will do anything that she wants me to do, even when I shouldn’t. Sometimes my subconscious or unconscious mind is screaming at my conscious mind, saying something in particular is a bad situation; we have to defend ourselves, rather than worry about what this woman wants. But because this is something primal, I don’t experience this dissonance as screaming; instead I’m aware I’m strangely resentful, or even more disconcerting, fearful of . . . something. I dismiss those feelings as long as I can—obviously they don’t fit this situation! I need to Make This Work, At All Costs. For reasons I can’t explain, and have no interest in exploring.

As I’m writing this, it’s clear that this dynamic is my mother and me. That’s why it’s primal; that’s why I can’t explain anything. That’s why I feel like I have no choice.

It hasn’t been every single woman boss or outranking woman coworker I’ve ever had. Only certain ones [JD, AH, QV, LM], who, on the face of things, do not seem similar to each other. Although now that I think about it, they are definitely similar to my mother. The first instance of the pattern, I long recognized that that person and my mother were very similar. But I didn’t connect how I related to that person at our job as having anything to do with my relationship with my mother.

Oh my god.

I’ve also had women bosses that were almost cartoonishly evil/abusive [ML, DD]. Those women I had no trouble whatsoever seeing their resemblances to my mother. I did not want to please those women; I desperately wanted them to just leave me alone. Of course they wouldn’t. They sought me out, and we had fearsome clashes, that I mostly lost. When I eventually left those jobs? Those women bosses acted really surprised!

My mother was really surprised when I stopped talking to her 7 years ago. She hounded me directly for at least 2 years. When that didn’t work, for another 3–4 years, she dragooned other people into acting as intermediaries, so that I was ambushed by hearing her wishes forcefully expressed when I wasn’t expecting to. (That didn’t work either.)

Throughout 6 years of bombardment of unwanted attention, I was always very clear on one thing: I do not want my mother back in my life. It’s possible that she actually does mean well, even though she’s horrendously inept at showing that in a healthy way (that is Spouse’s opinion). But that doesn’t mean I owe her more years of my life feeling like I’m a military target under siege.


I took a break to run some errands, and go to the library. I often have amazing insights while driving, and today was no exception.

I’ve spent my whole life searching, ever more desperately, for what I have in common with other people. When I can’t find enough commonality for us to deal easily with each other, I feel like I’ve failed at something that everyone else is born knowing how to do.

Many social animals, including human beings, spend a lot of their time with other social animals, yes, but at least some of that time is spent policing each other’s behavior. Determining who fits with us well enough to be considered Us, and who doesn’t, and thus will be considered Them.

I’ve been thinking that I fail those tests as often as I do because my boundaries are somehow ‘too fluid’. And that’s probably part of it. I don’t consider anyone Them, exactly, because for a Them, you first need an Us, and I rarely feel part of a social whole. Since I don’t have a strongly distinct affinity for group identity, by default I become Them anyway.

But I think there’s more to it. When I visit places or situations while traveling, I deftly figure out how to do what I want to do, more or less, while not transgressing any non-negotiable local protocols. The same thing happens when I’m with nonhumans. It’s only when I’m with humans I should feel some affinity for, that I run into problems. Conflicts where I feel alienated. I think this is Uncanny Valley territory somehow.

The problem isn’t how similar or different I am from others. It’s how my perception of our similarities pressures me into acting against my own best interests because I’m trying to get them to like me. And it doesn’t work. But I don’t even notice, because I’m all caught up in trying to manage their expectations of me. The more I feel something I thought I wanted slipping away . . . the more frantically I chew off my own arm, or otherwise make myself smaller, less objectionable. That’s what I’ve done historically.

Feeling cognizant of my own boundaries, however, I bypass that death spiral. I recognized precisely where I’m singular, and I revel in that uniqueness. There’s no way to mistake it for how anybody else is.

Instead of looking for ways to be ‘a fish in water’, maybe I need to embrace the complexity and flavors of being ‘a fish out of water’. Except I think I’m more like a salamander than a fish. If salamanders could fly, even better (for my metaphor).

I don’t feel ‘at home’ with ‘my people’ anywhere really. But I don’t think that’s what I’m seeking after all. What I really love is going to places where there are others who aren’t very similar to me, and finding out what we can enjoyably do together. As you might imagine, things that can be done on enjoyably together differ wildly by context. And perhaps because I never feel ‘at home’ in any context, I don’t feel unbearably uncomfortable when I don’t know what’s expected. For me, not being certain what’s expected, that sense of awkwardness, is how I feel all the time. So it’s not unpleasant due to its oddity and infrequency. Most times, it’s not even unpleasant. It’s more, I don’t know, unsettling maybe, until I figure out how to get my own needs met. Then I can relax, and revel in the improvising, always my favorite part.

For instance, that professional conference I went to two weeks ago. I talked to 4 people. The conversation that was most intense for me and I continue to remember the details best is the one I had over lunch. (With the guy who seemed to think I was flirting with him.) Our conversation strayed into places that I would rarely go with a stranger. I’ve spent two weeks trying to figure out how that happened. To no avail. However, hands down, that’s the most interesting and engaging conversation I’ve had with a stranger in years.

Agreement just isn’t that interesting to me. So why have I been looking so hard for it? Why have I traditionally felt dismissed or belittled by disagreement? I don’t know.

Perhaps I need to re-think my entire life. But definitely, exploring and defending my own boundaries is critical, and long overdue.

I also think I need to work through complicated feelings raised by hearing from this person again, before responding to their e-mail.

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