While my partner and I go through our separate separation processes, we're both travelling parallel paths to self-knowledge a little. We're both learning about re-establishing our boundaries; we've both recognised some of our recurring relationship patterns that don't work in our favour; we've both tried to come to terms with our baggage. Simply put, we're following the classic long-term relationship breakup process:
The heartbreaking thing about all self-improvement is that it couldn't have happened earlier. A few weeks ago, she asked me if there was some moment in the past that I would go back to, some singular, particular moment where I could have made a different choice and had everything go differently, something that could have saved us from our current mutual heartbreaks.
But I couldn't think of one. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I can think of some ways that I could have set up better boundaries, but I can't think of anything I'd change. Life doesn't give us the option to just go back and fix the past, so I do my best not to dwell on those types of hypotheticals. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've avoided science fiction over the years; I'd rather deal with those sorts of hypotheticals outside of narrative.
As I've said before, I'm doing my best to avoid the act of blame in my life. Right now, blame is growth's nemesis. I have no interest in blaming my partner, my upbringing, or myself for the way my marriage and relationship have gone. I will take responsibility for the careless words I've said and the ways I've given in to self-created pressures, but I need to keep blame out of it. It's been a difficult tension to maintain, but a good one to practice. I find it much easier to sympathize with people and see their hearts clearly when I try to frame their behaviour without blaming them for my own pain.
Over the last few weeks, I've tried to think about how I would go back and change things, to make it all better, to fix things, but there's no way to go back, no matter what Jay Gatsby (embedded above) thinks. I tried to contort my brain to imagine such a moment, but my efforts fell short. Instead, I have to admit to myself that our personalities smashed up against one another and over the years we grew apart, little choice by little choice. It's heartbreaking, of course, to lose a friend this way, but that's just how it's gone. And I can't blame anybody for it.
Because that's the nature of personal growth, of the experiences that make us who we are. We learn where our boundaries are and move them around over time; we discover needs we never knew; we learn that our upbringings can only take us so far.
And there's no one to blame for that.
For years, I've tried to see opinions from the opinionator's perspective. When I was religious, for example, I felt it important to understand how non-religious people saw the world and deliberately sought to understand my faith from "their" perspective; now, as a secularist/humanist/whatever, I think it's important to understand and remember how religious thinking frames one's overall mindset and do my best not to dismiss religious ideas. I think I'm fairly good at maintaining two separate truths in situations like this; empathy is something I'm generally at peace with, and it tends to work for me.
However, the social media echo chamber is a legitimate concern. On Twitter, etc., it takes effort and dedication to "follow" people who piss you off. I recently came face to face with this when I unfollowed a Twitter user whose raison d'etre had morphed into an anti-feminist MRA mouthpiece. I followed them for a long time despite my differing perspectives on things, but I could no longer handle (what I saw as) their closed-minded vitriol. It's perfectly OK to close out toxic people and perspectives; it's my right to do that. Right?
However, when I unfollowed them I simultaneously closed one more door to an alternate opinion and way-of-seeing-the-world, and I'm not fully at peace with that. I hate vitriol, but I want to understand the different ways our society disenfranchises different people. As much as I tend to see Men's Rights Activists as inconceivable, misguided, entitled whiners, I still want to keep myself open to perceived injustices. That's part of their angle on the world and the more clarity I have about their perspective, the more I'd hope that I won't fall into similar entitlement traps.
I think of this a bit when I see those articles about "Who are these Trump supporters," where writers try to make sense of Donald Trump's popularity in a population of people with whom they themselves likely have very little crossover. On reflection, I realized that I do not "follow" any Trump supporters that I know of in any of my social media feeds. I have "othered" that portion of the population and chosen to view them through my chosen people. In the case of Trump, just like with MRAs, I've justified closing my feed to their perspectives because I perceive them as misguided and intellectually and empathetically shortsighted. But I don't know if that's really the right thing to do.
As somebody who values empathy, I'm also aware of its weaknesses. Empathy doesn't help in every situation, and sometimes we can mis-aim it in careless directions, or people might aim it at us when we don't need or deserve it. Empathy is important in all relationships, but it's a skill we need to hone and practice every single day.
The following quotation, embedded below, describes a situation when empathy might be a little misplaced, since people might use your empathy as a tool for injustice.
In this case, it's important to remember that even if we can see something from somebody else's perspective, it doesn't mean they can see it from your perspective. The ability to empathize could be a rather narcissistic, assumptive skill; we assume we can do it and that our perception is accurate, and this very much might not be the case. Just because we feel that we're empathizing doesn't mean we are. Empathy is a sort of essential relational delusion that brings us together under seemingly common feelings and perceptions. We need it, but it's not necessarily accurate.
I guess what I'm struggling with right now is the fact that I feel as if I empathize with numerous different people and peoples, but I could very well just be narcissistically assuming something completely off-base.
I may empathize, but there's no way to prove that I can do it.
That means I have to trust myself. If I feel like I'm working hard at it, and if I'm trying to learn and practice empathy more, I also need to develop the self-confidence to trust my perception. And trusting myself has always been a very hard thing for me.
My empathy depends on my own self-trust.
I've been working through The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome over the last couple days. It's had quite a few passages that have really stood out to me, but this one really takes the cake:
This passage stands out to me because I've heard some of these accusations before — "passive-aggressive," "manipulative," "coercive," "controlling" — and I've always felt that those labels have been obscenely out of place. I felt entirely misunderstood, that the labels were unfair and misguided.
But this. To be honest, I knew this stuff was happening, but I couldn't put words to it and I didn't want to admit it. But to see it laid out so clearly on the page is rather humbling.
Part of this whole process is about learning how to take responsibility for my own behaviour, my own convictions, for the times when I've ignored my own boundaries and needs, when I've said "yes" in order to placate a situation where I most certainly should have said "no."
The other part of this is learning to not take responsibility for other people's emotions, for other people's feelings. I can affect other people's feelings, but they need to take responsibility for themselves as well.
I don't know how to do that yet.
But that's coming up in the next few chapters, and here.
NOTE: I STARTED WRITING THIS POST ON THURSDAY, JUNE 9. I WILL NOTE WHEN I START WRITING ON JUNE 10.
JUNE 9, 2016:
[UPDATED JUNE 5, 2016]
I believe enabling is a real phenomena. People "enable" behaviour in an attempt to mitigate various types of violence in the world. This, in my opinion, is common knowledge; most people can point to somebody who has enabled somebody else's behaviour.
However, over the last year I've seen the term appear more and more often in ways that make me uncomfortable with using it; I've seen it as a means to blame people and bypass empathy.
I'm still unable to fully articulate this, but I'll try.
Our well-being is a function of the quality of our relationships. If one person enables another's negative behaviour, this is a relational act. An admission of enabling, saying "I enabled your bad behaviour," only goes one way. If used as an act of blame, it is misplaced because it doesn't take the whole relationship into account.
My concern is when somebody admits to enabling as an underhanded attack. When a person admits that they enabled something, that's fine. But it can also be read as "You were the problem. I just enabled that problem. But you, in the end, were the problem. I only enabled because...." In this sort of dynamic, the admission of "I enabled you" is an underhanded "You are the problem." It's a bit of violent communication in disguise.
I think this is faulty because enabling, like codependency, is entirely relationship-based. I don't think blame should come into play when empathy is the goal. What matters is a rebalancing of the relationship so that both people can experience their own agency within the bounds of that relationship. Any semi-psychological conclusion in a relationship should lead to empathy; admitting to enabling behaviour, if it does not lead to empathy, is problematic.
Enabling happens. We all do it. But empathy in relationships always, always needs to trump any sort of underhanded blame.
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