Several years ago my former clinical supervisor recommended Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements. “It changed my life,” she proclaimed. These were some strong words coming from a highly intelligent and well-read woman. In essence, the author suggests if you make an agreement with yourself to apply the four principles, you will eliminate all unnecessary drama and pain from your life. This book certainly has the power to change life, if one is bold enough to actually apply the principles. I try and use them as guidelines from which to live:
At this moment, I happen to have a lot of middle school girls in my practice. In my community, middle school is grade 6-8, so I’m referring to those tween years, not a girl anymore, not yet a woman. I also have a middle school-aged daughter, so the strife of these years is fresh on my radar. As I listen to these young women process their fears, struggles and conflicts, I am struck by how much smoother the ride would be if they were able to apply the principles of The Four Agreements to their interactions at school, home, extra-curricular activities, and with their peers. For the sake of keeping your attention (i.e. not posting the longest blog post ever), I’ll be posting one translated agreement a week over the coming month. This will give you a chance to share this stuff with the young ladies in your life, and support them in applying these principals.
So here it is: my interpretation of the (first of the) Four Agreements, written for middle-school girls.
Agreement 1: Be impeccable with your word
Translation: Don’t talk about people behind their backs.
Why this is hard: Let’s face it, when someone hurts us, rejects us, annoys us etc., it feels good to find others to vent to who agree with us. Validation of these gross feelings is… well… validating. Often, you’re not the one leading the show either. Another girl is speaking poorly of others. In these moments you might find yourself joining in on the gossip because talking about others can make you feel more connected to your fellow crew.
Why this gets you into trouble: Girls are not good at keeping secrets. I’m sure this is fact. Inevitably one girl will tell the other girl what’s been said, and then the drama is on! Or, in an even worse case scenario, someone overhears you talking about them and you risk really hurting someone’s feelings. But even more, perhaps no one finds out. You have to live with that yucky feeling of knowing you might not have been kind to someone, and that never feels very good either.
What to do instead: We all need to work through our hurts, fears and rejection in some way. I usually encourage people to do that by finding someone they trust to talk to. This might be a parent, teacher, dance instructor, coach, school counsellor, aunt, or one single best friend you can tell your story to. Hopefully this person encourages you to reflect on any part you may have played, as well as actually DO something about the situation. For example to tell the person you are upset that they hurt your feelings. Although this can be very scary, most girls I work with are surprised to find when they talk openly and honestly with others, situations get resolved and friendships get stronger. And if the friend doesn’t respond well or is mean about it, she might not be the kind of friend you really want in your life.
For some tips on effective communication, I am a big believer in owning your own feelings and trying to be as non-blaming as possible. General guidelines say something like: State your feeling, state the behaviour, and ask for what you would like differently. This might sound like: “I felt hurt when you did not invite me to the party. Next time I would really like to come.”
I also think approaching with curiosity helps reduce conflict. “I was surprised and hurt when I wasn’t invited to the party. Is something going on? Are you angry with me?”
At the end of the day, you have to decide what kind of person you want to be. And these are the years when you’re figuring all that out. This is no easy task (grown-ups, we need to remember this)! Personally, wouldn’t you like to be known as the girl who never speaks badly of others, and who always has nice things to say about people? It’s probably the best kind of reputation to have, and one that will make you feel really good about yourself.
Communicating our struggles takes practice and courage. So does staying out of the gossip. I applaud you on giving this your best shot.
Stay tuned for the second Agreement: Don’t take anything personally.
Until next time,
“Judge less. Love more.”
A sentiment a friend posted recently that perfectly captured a theme so frequent in the therapeutic conversations had with clients. While her post was originally in context of how we treat others, the notion of “judging less, loving more” is also relevant to how we experience ourselves.
The critical voice that haunts our thoughts, taints our belief in self and doubts our worth is the epitome of judgment; self-judgment that is. And it’s a struggle woven into many of our stories.
“I’m not good enough.” “Everyone else has it all together, what’s wrong with ME?” “There are so many people who have it worse, I need to just suck this up.” “I’m an awful parent.” “I’m too this… I’m too that…”
This critical voice is harsh and slanderous, ripping ourselves away from the truth of who we are. Just as another’s judgmental words can hurt, so too can the judgments we direct inward. They cut. They sting. They trap us in a quiet yet powerful belief that we are somehow less than and that we are perhaps inherently defected.
I’d dare to put money on it that we don’t like it when others judge us. We might even react. We might get upset. We form widespread social movements in response to the judgments and oppressive actions from others. So why is it then that we endure our own judgment of self? How is it that we stand up for others while simultaneously attacking ourselves with scrutiny and criticism?
“Judge less. Love more.” A simple sounding response to the intricate battle described here. And yet it holds so much truth. So much opportunity. It’s a call to step off the battlefield with ourselves and tend to the hurt; to put down the weapons of comparison, perfectionism, name-calling, and “I should” and consider what it might mean to be our own ally. This isn’t about the overused notion of self-esteem or blindly focusing on our strengths. Choosing love is about acceptance. It’s about recognizing ourselves as someone worthy of care and kindness, and having compassion for the flaws and hurts we inevitably carry. This is the position of love. And we can take it up with ourselves.
Journeying with you,Laurie
Shhhhhh! Something I trust we’ve all been told at some point in our lives. Be quiet. Fall into line. Be good. Don’t say that . Consider those childhood times we’ve been told to sit still and be quiet and those adolescent days of being hushed in class. Sure, these may be normal life moments in which we are taught the importance of respect and safety. But when our personal experiences and our innermost being are, “shushed”… well, that’s a different story.
What do I mean be Shhhhh? It is that experience of being silenced, shut down in often devastating ways. Silencing occurs when others diminish, ignore, ridicule or powerfully override who we are and the voices, ideas and experiences we carry. The effect? We feel invisible and often less than. Anxieties and doubt get stirred up in big ways when we cannot be heard or seen for who we are. We may question anything we feel and experience, not believing it is in fact valid because others' responses tell us in some way they’re not. We may eventually silence ourselves… standing in the shadows of others or keeping our words within. When we are silenced, we are unable to live life as our best self. Let me be bold and say that living from this place is no fun at all. In fact, it's pretty awful.
History and world events reveal many populations being silenced through harsh oppression and violence. Silencing may not always be this explicit but it can nonetheless be toxic, within our relationships and to ourselves. What I highlight here are common tactics and relationship dynamics that can have a silencing effect:
· Being told your ideas and opinions are not important
· Pressure to stay quiet so not to rock the boat ie: “ yes, yes, I’m fine.”
· Eye rolls and the dismissive head shake
· Criticism and judgment
· Bullying and intimidation
· Offensive jokes and slurs
· Being directly told that things must not be spoken of
· Being indirectly shown that life experiences are to brushed under the rug and not to be acknowledged
· Having someone share an experience that one-ups whatever we have just shared (Not everything is a competition!)
· Negative reactions or the quick change in topic when discussing things that make others feel uncomfortable
· Having those feelings you just expressed being dismissed, ie: “Don’t be so sensitive” or "Get over it already."
· Being gaslighted: when someone twists information to make you question your understanding of reality, working to discredit and doubt your experience.
The tricky thing is that silencing can be very insidious, at times strategic and at other times, unintentional. The numerous stories I've heard (and experienced myself) that demonstrate this experience make me pause. Recognizing this list is not at all comprehensive, I write this in hopes of calling out those situations that trap us into crazy-making doubt.
If you are/have been silenced, identify this experience for what it is… and not a reflection of who you are. When you’re told in some way to “Shhhhh. Don’t speak that. Don’t show that. Don’t be that,” step back and create space to find your truth. Then Stand up. Speak out. And be you. Let your story be told. Let your truth be shared. Let yourself be heard. You’re undoubtedly worth this.Journeying with you,
Some time ago I had a personal epiphany I’d like to share
with you in the hopes my growth and learning could be of use, or that you might
find some of your truth in my own.
I have always really sucked at setting boundaries and not been entirely clear why that is. In most instances, boundary violations were small, like paper cuts, and never seemed worth the potential conflict to address them. So I would sit in my discomfort and resentment until those paper cuts grew to gaping wounds. From there I tended to respond in one of two ways: cut and run far far away from the relationship, or flip-out and come across as an irrational, crazy person. As you can imagine, neither of these responses have been particularly helpful for my personal growth or the development of healthy relationships.
Before I disclose much more, it might be helpful to share my definition of boundaries with you. It is:
The ability to set limits with people about what is and is not acceptable to protect the various dimensions of our lives including (but not limited to): our bodies, relationships, time, emotions, life stories, money, roles, physical space, and belongings. (I’m going to break this down those dimensions in more depth at the end of this post; you can read more about it if you’re interested.)
If you apply this definition to your own life, you might realize that in some of these dimensions, setting boundaries comes quite easily. You can say “no” at work to protect your home life, if someone borrows something of yours and wrecks it, you can ask them to replace it, no problem. However, you might also find that in particular dimensions of your life, or with particular people, setting boundaries invokes a whole lot of fear and discomfort. In my case, when people overstep my “role” boundary of being a mother, or in close personal relationships where I fear losing that connection, setting boundaries has been near impossible.
Reflecting on this dilemma brought forth a light bulb, life-changing epiphany.
For those of you who took Psych 101, you might recall learning about Cooley’s “looking glass self.” The general idea of this theory is that the way we perceive ourselves is based on the way others see us. Our perception of self is reflected back to us in the thoughts and feelings of others. Our brains are also wired to remember the bad and disregard the good, so typically those negative reflections stand out much more profoundly than the positive.
In my life, not only did those negative reflections stand out, but I believed them to be TRUTH . Not in every area of my life, but certainly in judgments about my motherhood, and certainly in close relationships with people who know me very well (notice these are the areas where I struggled the most with boundaries). Thus to maintain my sense of self, and sense of self-worth in these very vulnerable areas required ensuring the looking glass always reflected positive things about me. Otherwise I was flooded with shame, an emotion one typically tries to avoid at all costs. And that is a tiring dance, my friends, a dance that also gives away a lot of personal power. Plus, sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. I had to learn to stop giving these people the power to define who I was. I had to fix the broken looking glass so that at the end of the day, only my perception of self mattered.
This is how my story connects to boundaries: setting boundaries is nearly impossible if you lack a sense of self and self-worth. This is the foundation of boundaries, the first and most important step. If you have not developed a strong connection with self, the skills to self-validate, and the confidence to keep you rooted in who you are, you will struggle in this area.
My process of connection with self has been a slow one. It grew when I became a mom. It thrived when I found passion in education. It blossomed through meditation and connection to spirituality. It continues to flourish through passions and interests, and grows deeper and more rooted surrounded by a few good people who know and love all of me.
And I’m happy to report, boundaries aren’t so hard these days.
I hope some of my journey might illuminate some of your path as well.
Until next time,
* Read on below if you are interested in more information about boundaries