When I was younger and would occasionally try to picture what it’d be like to get older (cause that’s one thing all aspiring artists and professing empathists do), the obvious “things” that came to mind were: progressively diminished physical and/or mental capacity, the ever-present financial worries related to maintaining personal independence during retirement years, and the growing, gnawing realization of mortality. But the one thing I never imagined would be a part of getting older would be “The Wall”.
When you care about people, you must also accept a level of vulnerability. People who you accept inside your personal bubble can – and often will – hurt you; often not intentionally, but that’s simply what humans do. They need a release valve; they need a sounding board; they need a punching bag. Life is increasingly difficult, and when the stresses of their lives reach a boiling point, they need an outlet, and all too often, that release is unchecked and unfiltered and indiscriminate. When I was younger, I fully accepted this as a mandatory part of caring for someone, and I am fully aware that those who cared about me were also subject to my personal tea kettle moments.
Quick regression here: I was raised by a very explosive father. He wanted quiet. He didn’t have time to listen to his children; it was simply more noise to him. This environment was ripe for the development of two types of people: those who were perhaps over-sensitive — always on the lookout for dad to explode, and the rebellious child — always looking to be out of the house so they wouldn’t have to censor themselves. I started as the first, and ended as the second, leaving home as soon as I possibly could via the military. I know from personal experience that over-sensitive types have two main qualities: they find alternate ways of expelling frustration (these are the people who usually become musicians, painters, actors, and other types of artists), and they automatically (and often unknowingly) offer themselves up as sounding boards and punching bags for others.
And – for decades – that has been my life.
But 6 years ago, I finally decided that my personal and emotional health was important. I decided that I mattered. I have tried many other ways to keep my arms open and my chin up to whomever needed a sounding board or a punching bag cause I felt that I was tough enough to handle it. I finally realized that I’m not. That’s not an easy admission, but it IS a necessary one.
So, 6 years ago, the answer became obvious.
I needed to stop making myself available to everyone as a sounding board and punching bag, and restrict that part of me to: those who deserve it (my immediate family and closest of friends) and to those who don’t abuse it. That second point was the toughest because it brought me to my second realization.
Sometimes – to maintain your personal health – you have to let go of people that you thought were your friends.
When you come to that very hard but very necessary realization, and when you’ve finally hit a place in your life where you have the fortitude to actually begin cutting ties in order to protect your personal health, the next step becomes obvious — and increasingly easier.
So, for the last 6 years, I’ve changed the nature of my relationship with a great many people. For some, I’ve had to cut ties completely because they were unable to change how they perceived my role in our relationship. They couldn’t understand that certain things were simply no longer acceptable. For others, it’s required a long period (in some cases, years) of No Contact for them to realize I’m serious. Then, if the core of our relationship was healthy and they felt it was worth saving, we reconnected with a different but much more healthy relationship. For others, that disconnection became permanent. I had to be okay with some “Not understanding” the difference. I had to be okay with putting “Me” higher on the priority scale.
There will always be a very small list of people I will put first in most situations, my kids topping that list, but the list of people whose needs and wants and feelings matter more than mine has definitely shortened in the last 6 years. And the result?
I’m happier – I’m healthier – I sleep better – and the relationships I currently have are valuable and sustainable.
So, what’s The Wall? It’s that barrier that kept me from seeing and knowing the cost of my over-empathy for so many years. It’s the “thing” that kept me in an unhealthy cycle for decades. And, it’s the “thing” that is currently and ever-fading in my rear-view mirror.