A calmer mind: healing and boundaries

This post is Part 2 in a 3-part series on my quest for a calmer mind. Part 1 on social media is here, and part 3 on meditation and mindfulness is here.

Before I get to the topic of today, I'm happy to report the first half of my Facebook and Twitter fast has gone well! I've certainly had a few little pangs of withdrawal, but overall, it's been having the desired effect: fewer racing thoughts, less compulsive social media checking, less time lost to the scrolly-scroll.

bee in purple flowers

What have I been doing with my extra time? I've been spending it on writing, reading, catching up on backing up photos from the summer, drawing, mending clothes and sewing, and of course, there may have been some Netflix watching too. (I broke down and started watching Gilmore Girls last week - uh oh!) And of course, hanging out with my sweetie!

I've also been feeling generally awful since mid-summer, and have been having a very hard time healthwise lately, so all that stuff that sounds like "doing" is really very much in the slow lane and making up a small part of my days. I've been mostly resting and trying to listen to what my body needs right now, as well as continuing to work through medical appointments and research, and following up on referrals and tests I need to schedule, etc. Life in the sick lane.

Today I'm 34

That's right, it's my birthday, and today I am 34 years old. It's a big birthday for me, and not just for the usual reason that 34 firmly entrenches a person in their "mid-thirties". I lived the first 17 years of my life in Saskatchewan, where I grew up. At 17, I moved to Vancouver, and save for my first two summers in university where I took the summers off from school, I've lived the past 17 years in Vancouver. By days, I still have a ways to go before it's equal, but by age, I've now lived as many years here as I did there.

Late bloomer that I am, it's only recently that I feel like I am finally starting to heal emotionally, and move on from the untruths and conditioning I learned in those earlier years. It has been an integral piece of my quest for a calmer mind, this emotional healing, and it's very much attributable to learning how to set strong boundaries and put my wellbeing ahead of most other things. It was very hard to even recognize that I wasn't doing this before, and then even harder to start doing it, but once I did my life changed in a significant way: the chatter started to dissipate. 

You know the chatter, right? If you don't, you were probably brought up in a very supportive environment where you were taught that you were a good and competent person, and the world was your playground. Consider yourself lucky and tell the people who raised you how amazingly wise they are! The chatter is something I believed was normal for a long time, part of me and my brokenness - it didn't occur to me that it was possible to be without it. I didn't know that it wasn't normal to have a constant buzz of second guessing, criticism, and negative self talk that's playing on a loop in the back of your mind 24-7. It's like a radio that's left on during every waking minute - sometimes a bit fuzzy, sometimes coming through clear as day, sometimes you can kind of ignore it, sometimes you absolutely can't. 

anemone flower buds

That radio station plays a constant drone of distracting and spirit-crushing thoughts:

Why didn't you already finish that?
You should have done it better.

You're going to be late again.
Everyone is going to think you're lazy.

Nobody cares what you're going through, it's your problem don't make it theirs.

You're spoiled, you're a spoiled princess.
You never work hard enough, you haven't earned anything.

Suck it up. Suck it up. Suck it up.
You're such a whiner, no wonder nobody stays in your life.
If you don't behave as I demand, I will not stay in your life either.

You're not kind enough, smart enough, talented enough, pretty enough, hip enough. 
You will never amount to anything, no matter how hard you try.

You had better do something prestigious, make it look good, make us proud.
Oh wait, nothing you could do will make us proud.

The things you want are wrong.
The things you do are wrong.
You are wrong.

Don't feel good? Doesn't matter.
Keep pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing. 

You'd better not stop, you'd better not fail.
You'd better be doing everything perfectly.

You're so ungrateful, you're so selfish.
You're a bad friend, a bad daughter, a bad person.

Don't you dare come back until you've learned exactly how bad you are.
Repent, repent, repent. 

It never stops, and a lot of the time it's louder than anything else. The rest was a facade, and I was functioning on autopilot while trying to block out the hum of abuse turned self-abuse.

This chatter makes people sick, and it certainly makes sick people sicker - this is something that I have learned more about recently and hope to learn about well enough to write about in the future. There are very real, concrete, and scientifically traceable physical changes that happen in the body when when this is the backdrop to day-to-day life. It drowns out everything else - good things, love, the beauty in life. We can't hear any of the good, and we sure as hell can't hear what our body is trying to tell us when we are flooded with all that negative noise.

Blocking out the chatter

For me, there have been two main steps to start quieting the chatter, and then a handful of tools to help keep it quiet (limiting social media was one tool, and I'll be discussing some more in future posts). The first of those steps was simple and yet so difficult to internalize:

I had to realize that those negative messages were not coming from within me.

They were thoughts I'd been conditioned into thinking, thoughts that had come from other people, with their own conditioning and problems and histories. At this point, I can recognize that for the most part, the people who gave me these messages did not actually have the intention to break me down emotionally, or ruin my health. They were just other broken people, spraying their brokenness all over anyone who was nearby. I can forgive them for that, though that doesn't mean that I will let them get near me again.

I know now that those thoughts that were playing in my head constantly were not coming from inside me. Deep down, I knew I was a good person, I knew that what I wanted and what I did was not wrong. I knew that I had good work ethic, and was not lazy. That I was worth loving. That I was okay. I just couldn't hear my own knowlege through the din of those powerful voices. And I was trying so hard to prove those voices wrong that I was running myself into the ground without even realizing it.

Our bodies talk to us all the time, but it can be hard to listen to them, hard to hear what they're trying to tell us, and what we're trying to tell ourselves. A huge part of healing is just that, learning how to listen to ourselves more, and learning how to turn off all of the unnecessary voices, pressures, and supposed obligations that take us away from our needs and the core of who we are.

The second step was less simple:

I had to learn to protect myself, even from those who were supposed to be protecting me.

This was very confusing even as an adult, and it wasn't exactly smooth to implement.

Taking back control

I wish I could say I was just so smart and figured it all out on my own one day... But that's not the way it went. The negative chatter, in combination with a lifetime of pushing myself to keep up with being "normal" while I was chroncially ill took a heavy toll on me physically and emotionally. It led to me "burning out" in early 2012, and then to my massive health crash after leaving my job in the spring of that year.

Looking back, I can see how chronic stress started manifesting as anxiety as far back as my mid-teens (I'd been chronically ill since I was in early elementary school, but it was compartmentalized as "tummy troubles" until highschool). I'd start feeling trapped or agitated sitting with friends during lunch break, and go eat my lunch in the lighting technician booth in the highschool theater. I developed a couple different groups of friends so when I started feeling too stressed with my main group, I could go take a break by hanging out with other people. I coped by getting off and on these various merry-go-rounds until I graduated, and then I left, hoping distance would cure me.


In university, I'd sit in the back of classes, so if I got bored and the negative chatter started turning up its volume, or I started getting stomach cramps, I could just leave and go for a walk. It's a miracle I didn't really have my first panic attack until towards the end of my undergrad degree. It's a miracle I even got through my undergrad degree, never mind a Masters. I was in a constant state of fear and the only way I kept going forward was to let those voices propel me. I couldn't let them be right, so I kept pushing and working and doing what I was "supposed" to do. My body kept turning up the volume, saying things are not okay, but I stuck my fingers in my ears and went "Lalalalalala I can't hear you!"

I carried on like this until I was 32, still not "getting it" after a summer and fall too sick to work, and unable to pull myself together. On Decmber 28th, 2012, I hit my own personal rock bottom. (There is so much of my story that I haven't talked about publicly yet, but I'm figuring out how to, because it's so central to the positive changes that have happened since then. Please bear with me if parts are necessarily vague or details are patchy.) After a particularly bad holiday visit with family, where as an adult, I got to re-live what I dealt with as a child, I found myself curled up in a ball, terrified and pretty much catatonic. I was already extremely sick, having a particularly bad flareup going into the holidays, and the additional stress and fear around what was going on led me to shut down. I don't know what I would have done if my loving partner hadn't been there to say, "Now I get it, this is bad", and pluck me out of the situation. 

It was one of the absolute worst times in my life, but in hindsight, I am so glad that it happened because it was the last straw. Something in me that needed to break finally broke.

The counsellor I started seeing back when I first moved downtown in 2007 spent a long time trying to help me understand that most of the time when I felt anxious, it was a sign that someone was overstepping boundaries with me. That it was that crossing of boundaries that made me feel so out of control and fearful, and when that happened it would only be helped by me standing up for myself. I worked for years on learning the basic process that when I felt anxiety physically, I needed to stop and think about what might be causing it. It's a difficult step to take, but it's critical. It's only once I could identify the cause of the anxiety that I could actually do something about it, whether that be changing what I'm doing, or communicating a boundary to someone else. 

I practiced this over and over, and it continues to be a clumsy process for me. But I've at least become fairly adept at recognizing the feeling and taking the step of thinking through what is making me feel out of control. On my rock bottom day, I had no doubt what had pushed me over the edge, and once extracted from the situation, I felt something new: seething anger.

I could not believe I was going through this again. As an adult. As a very sick adult, who had done absolutely nothing to precipitate being treated the way I was. It hit me like a lightning strike: the realization that it had always been that way - this was no different, I didn't deserve it now, and I had never deserved it. 

Learning to set strong boundaries

From this moment on, I understood what my counsellor had been trying to teach me. I felt out of control, but in reality, I was the only one who could take control of the situation. If I wanted things to change, it had to be me who made the changes. It had to be me who protected myself. 

I started learning how to say no and mean it. How to speak up for myself, and put my wellbeing in front of my desire to avoid disappointing others. It didn't happen overnight, and took me about eight months of clumsy negotiation before my resolve completely solidified. Sure enough, I became less and less willing to expose myself to hurt and negativity. I'm very glad I have some friends who also very much understand all of this, and who have been able to gently nudge me to stay on track when I start slipping. (You know who you are, and thank you.)

Of course, my optimism about myself and others often steers me astray, and I've continued to give people too many chances, and open myself back up too easily. But, I think that's part of what makes me who I am, and I don't want to completely erradicate it. I just needed to learn more about when it's appropriate, and when it's foolish.

Over the last year and bit, I've been improving at all of this, and especially recognizing that right now I need to take care of myself as my number one priority. I've gotten better at letting go of the guilt I feel when I do that. I've gotten better at moderating my instinctual need to try to save, and help, and coddle everyone at my own expense. But it's not easy. It feels selfish.

I specifically remember my counsellor telling me in one session that I need to look at the impact that my efforts have in my relationships. If I try and try and nothing improves in a relationship, maybe it's better not to focus my energy on that one. I'm a grown up now, so most of all I need to take care of myself - and I need to take care of my primary relationship, which is a healthy relationship. It actually improves when I put my effort and energy into it. And my most important friendships too, they work the same way. It's one of the ways I know a relationship is healthy - when I nurture it, it becomes and stays good. If I have given my all nurturing a relationship, and it still hurts me, it's probably a sign that it's not healthy and needs to be let go of, at least for now.

Setting boundaries has not only helped to keep unhealthy relationships in a place where they no longer hurt me as much, but it has also helped to keep my own tendencies and reactions in a healthier place. It's pushed me to focus my efforts on the relationships that are positive, mutually beneficial, interdependent, and healthy, rather than keep banging my head against something that just isn't working.

hiding snail in flowers

I'm sure I have a lot more to learn in this department, but these few basic lessons:

  1. The negative chatter is not coming from inside me.
  2. I am okay and a good person.
  3. It's healthy for me to set boundaries.
  4. When I feel anxious, it's a sign that boundaries are being crossed.
  5. With strong boundaries, I can focus on nurturing myself and my positive relationships
  6. When I do all these things, I feel calmer and happier.

These lessons make an enormous difference in how I feel about myself and the people in my life.

As a consequence of this shift, I've been able to start feeling and acting a bit less defensively, less angrily, less under attack. This may surprise some of you, but others who were around during the descent into burnout might not be so shocked: I was really angry. I was angry, and resentful, and negative, and was really losing a grip on who I was. But with this shift, my mind has been able to come to rest in a knowing that most days are going to be safe, calm, and positive. Even when I'm not feeling well, or things don't go as I planned or hoped. The repetition of days like this has allowed my body to start to get out of fear mode, and learn how not to be in a constant state of fight or flight.

Sure, there is a lot more damage to work on undoing, and sure, not all stress can be avoided. But the more that this new way of being becomes my "normal", the easier it is to return to it when those bumps in the road do show up. Hopefully, given enough time, I will be able to lower the walls a little bit and be a little less protective of myself and more willing to confront those things that upset the balance. But for as long as my body desperately needs this calm, safe place to heal, I'm going to continue to give myself this gift as much as I can, for as long as I can.