19 July 2013

Finding Growth Opportunities When People Move Out of Your Spaces (Chapter 3)

Here's chapter 3 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

"There are no goodbyes for us.  Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart."
- Mahatma Gandhi -
Throughout your life, people will move into and out of all your spaces—physical, mental, and emotional. It’s up to you to find the life lessons within your current and past relationships with others, and use them as opportunities to learn and to grow.

Random (or Regularly Scheduled) Comings and Goings

In my 20s, I was in love with a man named Evan. When I first met him he had recently been diagnosed with cancer, but had no intentions fighting the disease because he was not getting very far with a different battle: one he was waging to divorce his abusive wife.  Sadly, he didn’t see any point in living. Evan and I became friends, and then more than that, so he eventually had the tumor removed and received a sequence of radiation treatments. At the same time, he also took more aggressive actions to get his divorce finalized.
During the five years I was involved with Evan, he often moved into my apartment—and then back out. This happened about twenty times (and I’m not exaggerating)! The most memorable time he moved out, I was starting a new job in Boston. My company had flown me to their San Jose headquarters for a week to meet people and get the training I would need, and Evan was tending to my apartment. While we were on the phone one night, he told me he regretted pulling me into his whole mess, and how he should just leave because it was causing me all sorts of emotional trouble and stress. I told him I knew full well what I was getting into and that if we just talked openly about what was going on, we would be all right. From the left coast, I tried to reassure him and asked him not to go.
When I returned a week later, no one was at my apartment. Evan had gone mostly quiet since that phone call—but since he did that from time to time and I was busy with the new job, I assumed we’d made an agreement and everything was fine. I remember opening a closet door where his jackets and shirts had been, only to find empty hangers looking like they’d just stopped swinging from his pull. I can still feel that sinking feeling in my stomach—the one of total shock, emptiness, and loneliness. We re-lived this dramatic scene about twenty times (no joke).
When Evan was living with me, I felt loved and my apartment felt alive, although both these (emotional and physical) spaces were filled with fear and threats. Fear that he would die, fear that he would leave again…fear that his crazy wife would be outside stalking us, trying to gather some incriminating evidence. Looking back, our relationship was a perfectly orchestrated recreation of what I grew up with: his wife embodied all the unpredictable, violent behavior of my father, while Evan enabled the situation, but offered me some hope that things could be different and that he was protecting me, like my mother. And like my mother, he was inconsistent and never offered me anything remotely stable. Whether he was coming or going, Evan’s movement through both my physical and my emotional spaces left me reeling, and I had to keep adjusting.
When Evan was gone, much of my free time was spent on the sofa in my living room, the slats of the vertical blinds on the slider window drawn closed, the room almost totally dark. I was depressed, and looking back, I realize that I unconsciously changed my physical spaces (for example, my apartment and my body) to match my mood. In addition to removing light, I became uncharacteristically sloppy. If I changed my clothes (I worked from home during this time), the old ones remained wherever I had taken them off. Any discarded options were crumpled or left draped over open dresser drawers. I stopped exercising. If they were lucky, empty TV dinner containers made it onto a kitchen counter or to the stove top. Otherwise, the food-encrusted trays sat wherever I had eaten my last bite.
In June of 2000, when I moved to be closer to graduate school and Evan didn’t show up with his things as he promised (to come with me), I decided that was the last straw. I was a strong, independent woman with a lot to offer someone who was emotionally (and legally) available to me. Neither my physical, emotional, nor mental spaces could deal with his presence any longer. And once I made this decision, things really changed for me. I remember being in my psychiatrists’ office several months later, talking about how well I was doing getting off the anti-depressants I had been taking—when he flipped through his chart and mentioned things had started looking up for me in June, I smiled knowingly at the connection.
My life has changed a lot since then, but I did form some “spacial habits” from this experience that remain with me. For example, every morning I religiously walk around the house and pull up all the shades I let down the night before. The natural light fills me with hope about the day ahead, while closing them at night makes me feel safe and more secure. I experience anxiety when my husband sometimes leaves dresser drawers ajar or his jeans on the floor instead of on a hook or in the closet. Why? Probably because it represents my old “I don’t care” kind of attitude—one I easily associate with being unhappy.

Fortunately, there are some people who frequently come and go, but still positively impact one’s physical and emotional spaces. I have a colleague named Amanda, whose husband works in technical sales. He’s gone during the week, and home for the weekends. At the time we had this conversation, Amanda said something about “John coming home”, and mentioned being puzzled about what she was going to make for dinner. During the week, she only had herself (and the dog) to take care of, so dinner was usually something quick—whatever is around. But when John came home, she felt like she should cook, because by the nature of his needing to travel he eats out a lot. Having a home-cooked meal feels special to them both, and characterizes some of their limited, quality time together. Amanda didn’t sound at all resentful about this “should”, but clearly John’s regularly scheduled comings and goings influence how she behaves in her living spaces.

Thought Experiments
  • How do the people who move through your physical spaces affect it? What changes with their presence or absence, and how do they impact you physically, mentally, and emotionally? Look for both positives and negatives. Is there anything (within your control) that you would change?
  • Are there ways your current physical spaces follow the patterns of your past? If you want to break out of these patterns, what things can you change in these spaces to help you?
  • How do changes to your physical spaces (i.e. the rooms in your house, your office, your body) affect your internal spaces (i.e. your mind, your heart), and vice versa? Experiment with changing your outward spaces to encourage changes in the inner ones, helping to re-balance the negative and positive aspects of your life. For example, if you’re feeling down, adjust your physical spaces to reflect an opposite state of mind.

Coping with Losses through Spatial Control

I met Jane in an interior design class I took at a continuing education facility. Although on many levels we seemed to be from different worlds, our interest (and dare I say, similar good taste) bonded us during the three week course. After the class ended, we continued to trade emails about various design projects and links to interesting articles or web sites. One evening we went to dinner, and where I learned that Jane had been looking for a job for quite a while, after having been laid off. On top of that, she was still dealing with the loss of her mother, after what I imagine must have been a long, painful ordeal. Yet on the surface, Jane seemed to be handling the wrenches that were thrown into her life pretty well. Like me, Jane is super organized, and we talked excitedly about arranging the contents of closets, pantries and garages. Although she has to conserve money, she inherits various home-related items from her friends, and continues doing small projects whenever she can.
But then Jane said something that made me think that the projects she undertook in her physical spaces were serving another, larger purpose. Whenever she completed a project, she revisited it, and did it again. One example that stood out for me was when she mentioned picking up the maple keys that littered her yard as they fell from the trees. The construction guys who worked on the street outside her home even commented about her always being out there, picking them up. She thought they might even think she was a bit crazy. As she was telling me this story, I could see Jane also thinking more critically about her behaviors, and what they might mean. As we chatted, it seemed like we uncovered a familiar theme: control. Between how she watched her mother become sick and pass away and with her job (and interactions with colleagues) now gone, Jane had lost a lot of control over her life. By doing repetitive house projects and endlessly organizing her belongings in her physical spaces, she is coping with her emotions, comforting herself by attempting to control things in her life wherever and whenever she can.
Jane has lived in that same house, with her family, her whole life. With her slate now wiped clean, she can choose to remain alone and attempt to control that familiar environment (effectively ending her life as well), or she can use the strength and courage she’s acquired by enduring these difficult situations to finally take a risk, and step out into the world as a truly independent, alive person.

My friend Jason’s experience of losing a parent also affected his physical spaces in a dramatic way. I met him in my late 20s, when he was being forced to deal with a lot of change in his life. He had to move into a new apartment (for reasons not under his control), and around the same time, he watched his father pass away. In contrast to Jane, who kept a meticulous home to deal with the death of her mother, Jason’s physical spaces were in complete and utter disarray. This wasn’t just your typical bachelor-like sloppiness either—this was hardcore pig sty. Since I have a reputation for being organized, Jason would ask me questions about how to change his space, often citing he was overwhelmed with the mess but just didn’t know where to start. He wanted to put his living spaces in better order, but something equally (if not more) seemed to be holding him back.
As we talked, Jason shared that his parents had always been extremely neglectful of both their children and their home. Everyone in his family of eight had to fend for themselves, no matter what their age or ability. When Jason was five years old, he found a can of chicken soup and made it for himself while standing on a stool because he was so hungry. Bugs frequently plagued his home, stray cats entered and exited it at will, and food (or other treasures) was hoarded amongst him and his siblings. He wore the same tattered clothes to school for years, feeling guilty when his parents were occasionally forced to purchase new socks when the holes became irreparable. Essentially, he grew up in squalor. 
With this physical space was in his past, his father’s death encouraged him to come to terms with the fact that the mess in his house today wasn’t serving him. It’s partially true that did Jason didn’t know where to start, but what was really holding him back was that living this way was familiar, comfortable, and most importantly, loyal to his parents ways. Even taking small steps in a cleaner, more organized direction could mean the way his parents did things was wrong. And going against one’s parents (living or dead) means that as their child, one is taking a risk of being unaccepted and unloved. When a person has had a bad childhood, it’s almost incomprehensible think about taking such a risk!
Jason worked hard over the course of several years to process his father’s death, revisit the pain previously brought up by his mother’s death, and appropriately grieve his childhood. He read countless books, tried several holistic practices (like body- and breath work), and struggled through a lot of the sadness and shame he previously avoided. He’s accepted that with both parents gone, he will never have the possibility of a relationship with them that is anything different from what it actually was. Over time, all this work in Jason’s internal, emotional and mental spaces started to reflect outward into his physical ones. Although there are set backs and daily challenges, Jason now has an apartment that is relatively clean and organized, where he can work, live, and continue to grow.

Thought Experiments
  • The next time you’re working on a project, pause and think about how your physical space is influencing you internally. What will completing the project make you feel inside? Or, are you using the project to avoid feeling something in your internal spaces, such as inadequacy or grief?
  • Consider whether you might be working with your physical spaces in a way that’s too extreme, and whether you might regain some balance by being more mindful about the ways of living that have become automatic for you. Can you make more conscious decisions about how to handle difficult situations?
  • If you have trouble organizing or completing projects in your physical spaces, try to identify any inner resistance. For example, are you avoiding some undesirable feeling that would come up if you made changes? If you changed how you live, would you feel like you’re acting out against someone in your family?

Dealing with Difficult Friendship Transitions

In my late twenties I started doing a partner dance called West Coast Swing. Within a few years, I had a pretty tight knit circle of friends—including women—probably for the first time in my life. When I first met Vianne, for example, we became really close, affectionately referring to each other as “twin” because we were alike in many ways, such as being hypoglycemic and having difficult mothers. Soon after we started chatting, Vianne decided she needed a break from our sometimes dramatic little community, and stopped dancing. Over the next four years we did other things together, like having lunch, shopping, or going to local plays.
While our friendship deepened in these other physical spaces, I learned that early on in her dance “career”, there was a group of three women that Vianne accidentally incited. She had done this by talking (and possibly flirting a little) with a man who was paying her a lot of attention. Since she was new to the dance scene, she didn’t realize this man was supposed to be with one of the three women. Of course, being females with territory issues, the trio began to do little things to make Vianne’s life miserable. They would stare, talk about her, tell others all about her awful behavior, and so on. I think she left quite a few dances in tears.
A few years later, our friend Craig got involved with one of the other girls from the trio. (Actually, he followed Jani around like a puppy dog for years, until she caved and decided to finally move from being “just friends” to a real relationship.) I wasn’t wild about Jani for several reasons—not only was it painful for me to watch Craig beg her for attention over so much time, but this also impacted our friendship—for example, he would lie to me about being too sick to get together, only to do something (else) for Jani. I tried to be friendly, but Jani was cold toward me too, and after several tries I decided I was correct to dislike her. Vianne and I would chat about how rude Jani was, and how we wished Craig would find someone who truly wanted to be with him. After they officially started dating, however, I mentioned to Vianne that I’d made peace with his decision, and that as his friend I’d be civil to Jani. Vianne seemed intrigued by what she perceived was a change in heart for me—but while I agreed to be civil, I never trusted Jani.
In time, Vianne considered coming back to our dance scene. I had been trying to convince her things were not as she remembered; I had a good group of friends who weren’t cliquey, and we were planning on doing a routine for an upcoming event she would have fun being a part of. Vianne agreed, and came back in full force. I was thrilled to be able to see my friend more often and share one of our common interests again. But after a few months had gone by, Vianne mentioned she’d had a conversation with Jani, and that I was right—she wasn’t so bad after all. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jani broke up with Craig and to this day, he’s not recovered. What’s worse is that I hardly ever see Vianne anymore—except when I see Jani. It’s like they’ve become twins. Where one is, the other is never far behind. And I struggle to find one day a month to have dinner with Vianne. My theory about this is that now that I’m married, Vianne feels she has more in common with Jani (since they are both single). This is often difficult for me, for two reasons: first, I still do not like (or trust) Jani. Second, and probably more importantly, I never wanted to be the type of person who disappeared off the face of the earth when I got married. In fact, I tried everything I knew before my wedding to reassure my single friends that I wanted to still be there for them. This can be frustrating because despite my best efforts, this doesn’t seem to have worked.
Vianne isn’t the only friend who feels “lost” to me. Around this same time, my closest friend Paige moved to the left coast to start a new life with a new man, the only dance instructor I ever related to preceded her by a year and a half, and a couple my husband and I used to travel with to dance events never dance anymore. All these people whose friendship I valued so much in my early to mid-thirties, who changed and challenged me in all sorts of ways, have moved out of my physical spaces, and are really not in my life anymore. Naturally when I saw this starting to unfold, my initial reaction was to fight it: I had conversations with Vianne about things I hoped we’d do even after I was married; I tried to get Paige to agree to some regular schedule for chatting to maintain our a long-distance friendship; I tried to make sure my husband and I got together with the other couple at least once a month. These changes also brought up many questions for me—did I do something wrong? Did I somehow drive these people out of my life by being a terrible friend? Does the bickering my husband and I do too much? Though I didn’t want to be, I was often sad or angry, because the movement of these people out of my life brought up feelings of abandonment from my childhood.
Driving home from a dance one night after seeing the (new) twins, it occurred to me that being bitter is not hurting anyone but me. Since then, I’ve been discovering there are other ways to look at these situations—rather than feeling like these people have left holes in my emotional spaces, I can look back and consider what each of these relationships taught me, and how they were exactly the right people to have in my life during the times they were more a part of it. I can appreciate their contributions to my development and growth as a person, rather than resent them for moving on. I can try on feelings of acceptance, and trust that the Universe brought these people into my life for a reason. If this is true, I can also have faith that I will soon find new friends who are ready to help me fill up the newly created emotional space in my heart, and reach a new level of insight and understanding. By letting go of the friendships that have run their course, I may be better able to see the potential opportunities for new relationships that are all around me. And when I think of it this way, I can understand that Vianne and Jani might have been brought together for a specific purpose in their journeys that I can’t pretend to understand, and find some joy in having helped Vianne finally feel accepted into a circle she’d always wanted to be inside.

Thought Experiments
  • If you feel resentful or angry about a friendship that’s ended, ask yourself what your friend taught you, or what you needed at the time in your life when you were close. What gift might you have given to them by the act of your friendship? Are there ways you can see have outgrown each other?
  • Are you are clinging to a friendship that’s run its course, or contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy by acting out in ways that are contributing to its demise? Try practicing more acceptance toward your friend and his/her behaviors, and see how that impacts the relationship. At best, your adaptability might open up another chapter; at minimum, you’ll feel better about the act of letting go.
  • When friends move on, it’s easy to remember (and mourn) all the positive aspects of the friendship. Consider whether there also things about your friendship that drove you crazy, or where you found yourself needing some distance. Having a more realistic, balanced picture of the friendship might help you see more opportunities in the distancing, even if it wasn’t originally your choice.

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