On boundaries and friendship

Dear Susannah

I’m writing with a question about friendship. Last year, a new family moved into our neighborhood, and the woman — who’s a friendly person — joined our book club and biweekly dinner group. (Yes, we’ve got a very social neighborhood and it’s lovely.) My new neighbor is very social and has started organizing many other activities with our neighbor group — going to films, out for lunch, shopping trips, etc — and we’re all pleased about that too. My problem? This woman wants to talk on the phone almost daily or she wants to get together several times a week — and I just don’t have time for that. I’ve told her repeatedly that I still have part-time assignments and other family or friend commitments, but she either gets hurt or pressures me later. She has asked me if I am “avoiding” her when I decline her invitations. There are plenty of others in our neighborhood who will socialize with her, but she takes it personally when I am busy. This woman doesn’t work, has no children, and her husband works 12 hours every day, at least. For me, friendship is a slow developing process. I have a few besties who’ve been in my life for decades, and while I love meeting new friends, I am not able to socialize all day. I feel this new neighbor expects more time from me that I even have for my best friends of two and three decades. I am not sure how to explain that without hurting her feelings. She is a sweet person but very persistent. Any ideas?

Overwhelmed

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Dear Overwhelmed

You need to be prepared to hurt her feelings and you need to set some boundaries. Let’s start with the first bit…

Unless you’re a sociopath, nobody likes hurting someone else’s feelings. In fact, I’d wager most of us go out of our way to avoid doing that. None of us want to feel like the bad guy, because truthfully, when our actions make the other person feel bad, we also feel bad. We’d like to avoid that too, right?

Saying yes feels easier than saying no but the problem with saying yes when we’d rather say no is we end up hurting ourselves. There’s no good feeling being generated when we’re doing something we don’t want to do. We end up resenting the other person and they’ll feel that, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Saying no can be really hard, I get it! I’ve become quite adept at declining invitations to work-related things — do I want to be interviewed for an online summit? No thank you. Do I want to take part in this free list building thing? No thank you. Do I want to do a TEDx talk in London? No thank you (that really happened and I really did say no). Saying no to strangers in my inbox is relatively easy but saying no to a member of my family? Hoo boy, that’s something else.

If we consider that inbox strangers and family members are the two ends of the spectrum, your persistent needy neighbour is somewhere in the middle. You’re a bit more than acquaintances but have yet to become close friends. She’s taking everything a bit too personally — more than is appropriate — so it’s time to start saying no to her. Kindly and firmly.

They say “no” is a complete sentence and it’s true. NO doesn’t have to be unkind or mean or rude. NO can be said with love and grace. It can said with a smile. It can come from the heart. A NO said with certainty and a peaceful heart is POWERFUL.

How other people choose to respond to a NO is completely on them. The important thing to remember here is you’re not responsible for her well-being, she is. You’re not responsible for keeping her entertained each day or helping her find purpose in her life, she is. It’s also not your place to try to communicate any of that to her so what you need to do is make this about you — because that’s the part of this equation you can control — and say no when you want to say no.

Boundary setting seems hard because it makes us feel like we’re being unkind or selfish or worst of all, unfriendly. We’re taught to be good girls and play nice with everyone. If you have any history of people-pleasing in your family dynamic you’ll be familiar with the guilt that saying no triggers. But setting a boundary, communicating it and upholding it is not only protecting your energy and time it’s also the antidote to misunderstandings.

How do you set a boundary? You start by clearly communicating your position. When she asks you to do something, say: “That sounds great but unfortunately I’m not free that day.” Or “Thanks for the invitation. Unfortunately I don’t have time to do that this week.” Full stop.

You uphold a boundary by reinforcing it when challenged. In this case when your neighbour asks again if you’re free you repeat: “Sorry, I don’t have time this week.”

The fact that she gets hurt, pressures you later and has directly asked if you are avoiding her shows quite a staggering lack of social awareness on her part. Most of us manage to pick up on cues from other people about whether or not they want to interact with us — your neighbour is lacking in this skill. At some point you may need to be more direct than I’m guessing you’re comfortable with. “Please stop asking me” feels harsh and I imagine will make neighbourhood get-togethers awkward, so I hope that by consistently refusing her requests she will eventually get the message. It might take a while.

When she asks if you’re avoiding her when you decline her invitations I’m wondering if perhaps you’re giving her too many reasons why you can’t do stuff together. Remember, you don’t need to give her any more information. You don’t need to justify how you spend your time to an acquaintance. If you genuinely enjoy her company and would like to build a friendship — at a pace that suits you — you can communicate when you ARE free and what you’re available to do together. If this week is hectic but you could spare the time next Wednesday for lunch, tell her that.

On the other hand, if you don’t want your relationship to go beyond an acquaintanceship, you’re going to have to get comfortable with the initial awkwardness of saying no kindly and firmly. Value your own time. Put yourself, your family and your inner circle first. You say your new neighbour is friendly, sweet and very social — I promise you, she’ll be fine!

Love, Susannah xo

Ask me anything here

On loneliness & filling the void

 

Dear Susannah

I turned 30 this year. I welcomed it, I embraced it so much. I’m excited with this new decade. I have accomplished so much within my career but sometimes I feel like I am convincing myself that with all this goodness I should be the happiest person alive. I am most days. But then there’s days where I feel absolutely empty. Lately it’s been feeling more frequent.

I ended a 14 year relationship a year and a half ago. We were high school sweethearts. We went through ups and downs and I ended it because we both were on different paths in life. He was very much go with the flow, and I am very much driven and ambitious. Finances and moving forward in our relationship were the end of it. It didn’t seem like we were moving towards marriage and I didn’t want to become the bread winner of a “future” family at that point. He was very stagnant, no motivation for anything. I was open about what I wanted but not sure why he just wouldn’t try to move out together, take the next step.

I don’t know if I have accepted that decision. Sometimes I feel like I have accepted it and other times I feel like maybe this fear of loneliness makes me miss him. I have chosen to step out of comfort and have dated. Two bad experiences with the first two dates set me back. It really created an insecurity in me.

I travel to fill the void and it does make me happy. I moved to another state. After a year of living in a new place, I learned to love it. But again, it’s lonely. I can get go back home and live with the parents but that is not want I want in my heart. I can try to make a life here but I guess I don’t know how to do that.

I have joined a rock climbing gym and know a few people. Being 30 and living in a new place, being single, a bit insecure, and realizing that I have no friends here scares the shit out of me. I have made friends through a local church but again it doesn’t seem like it’s filling this void. I sought out a therapist and she made it seem like I was perfectly fine. I honestly feel like I was her therapist for a second.

I don’t even freaking know what this void is. Is it a void within myself? I journal almost daily and lately the word lonely has been in almost every entry. So I ask myself how I can fill it and I try my best to be out and social.

It’s so fucking conflicting.

At one point in my life I knew what I wanted and here I am at 30 and have no fucking clue what that is anymore. I question if I even want to have kids and get married. I question if my career is even important anymore. I’ve found a love in writing and have loved it since I was younger but I don’t think I could ever write a book as I didn’t even go to school for that. My grammar is awful, but if I could write stories all day, I would.

Anyways I thought to reach out because I took your journaling class back in 2011 or maybe 2012. I have stayed connected to you, not actively, but have always read your emails and they are uplifting. I can keep blabbing but any tips you have are greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

Lonely Soul

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Dear Lonely Soul

There is a loneliness that surfaces when we are disconnected from other humans — we’re social creatures and we need to feel connected to others — but I believe there is an even greater loneliness that makes itself known when we are disconnected from ourselves.

It sounds like you’re quite accomplished at the outward search — joining clubs and church, seeking out new people, succeeding at work, being driven and ambitious outwardly. That’s all really good stuff and I can see why your therapist thought you’re doing “fine” (though real talk? Your therapist didn’t go deeper than the surface so might be worth finding a different one) but while all of this outreach will help you fill time, the truth is you could be in a room full of friends and still feel lonely because as you correctly intuited, the “void” is inside you. You’re not long out of a 14-year relationship, one that I imagine has been at the centre of your life since you were in your teens. This is the first time you’ve been truly independent as an adult and I know that probably makes you feel unanchored because I was in the same place at your age.

I ended a ten-year relationship the year I turned 30 but unlike you I fell straight into another relationship. If I had my time over again I would not have done this but I was scared and didn’t want to be on my own and he was there with such loving arms, it seemed the easier choice to make. Two years later he died and as I worked with a therapist to unravel my pain it became clear there was much deeper stuff to excavate. Alongside that I had no idea who I was and no idea how to be in the world as an independent human being. I only knew who I was in relation to someone else.

You miss your ex because you miss what feels familiar and safe — that’s understandable. You know how to be someone’s girlfriend, someone’s daughter and someone’s friend. You know how to be a colleague and employee. But do you know how to be YOU without any other accompanying label?

This is your invitation to explore that.

It’s time to go inwards and (re)connect to yourself. It’s time to befriend yourself. Imagine what it would be like to spend the day with your bestest friend on earth, the one person who really knows you, likes exactly the same things as you, loves doing the stuff you love to do and never gets bored of listening to your random thoughts. This is the energy you’re aiming for in your relationship with yourself. It doesn’t mean it has to be perfect, it just has to be as loving and accepting as you can possibly muster. And it will take time and forever be a work-in-progress — any relationship takes time to evolve and deepen, but it also starts with the dating stage, so start dating yourself.

 

 

The clues of where to start are at the end of your letter. I suspect you will reconnect deeply to yourself through your creativity. You don’t have to write a book to be a writer and you certainly don’t have to have perfect grammar to write. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. That’s it! So maybe it’s time to date your creative muse and create for the the hell of it. Do things that you can write about. Sit in the park and people watch. Write down snippets of conversations in a coffee shop. Turn your home into a creative cave. Spend the entire weekend following your intuition – where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Go on photo walks and visit museums. Fill up your inspiration bank.

If the prospect of a day intentionally alone scares you, start by questioning why that is. What scares you about alone time? What do you think is in the void (or not?) What do you hope to get from others and how can you start to give that to yourself? Don’t be afraid to feel some of that loneliness – see if you can get curious about it. How does it feel to be lonely? Is there a smaller version of you inside that needs looking after, perhaps? You mentioned you’re a journaler and this is all so deliciously ripe for journaling. Start with one page penned with your morning coffee, every day, answering the following: how do I feel in my head? How do I feel in my heart? What do I need today?

Some people fear that Being Alone and Getting To Know Themselves requires them to sit in a silent room far away from other humans but that’s not the case. Being alone isn’t about enduring solitary confinement, it’s simply spending quality time with yourself. Where would you like to spend time with yourself? Where could you take yourself out on a daytime date? Heck, what about an evening date?

And while you’re intentionally dating yourself you can still reach out to others to find some balance. Church, book groups, local meet-ups, volunteering, workshops, evening classes, whatever floats your boat. You don’t have to become a hermit, but equally don’t only focus on outward connection. And if you want my honest opinion I wouldn’t even bother dating right now. Find your SELF. Find your friends and community in your new town. Create the life you want. Enjoy the freedom you have right now to do whatever the hell you want! And then, in due course, romantic connections will find their way to you.

When I was in my 20s I thought I knew how my life should unfold so I set my internal GPS in that direction. Then I hit my 30s and everything changed so I reset how I thought my life should unfold. And then more shit happened. And, surprise surprise, it continues to change. Now I’m in my 40s I no longer hold onto ideas about how my life “should” look and just let it evolve one day, one month, one year at a time. Obviously I make sure I can pay my rent and bills. I know that I will be there for my nephews’ birthday parties. I know I will feed my cat twice a day (the cat that randomly climbed through my bathroom window and decided to stay — that wasn’t on my life plan!). But beyond that I have no idea what the future holds. And that’s really exciting and kind of a relief. If I don’t know what’s coming I can’t be disappointed — it’s all a surprise.

When we’re younger we come out the gates so eager to begin LIVING LIFE but it’s like eating all the popcorn before the film starts — there’s still so much more to go! You try to check all the boxes of how you’ve been told life should look, then get thrown a curveball and lose your job or get divorced or can’t have kids or move country or someone dies. But this isn’t how life’s supposed to be! we want to shout but the shit keeps on happening, because this is EXACTLY how life’s supposed to be.

Life is constant change. It’s cycles of ups and downs, quiet periods and stormy times. They don’t tell us this as kids because they don’t want to scare us — and honestly, we’re all in denial really. No one wants to dwell on how things can change in an instant. We want to believe if we brush our teeth every night and recycle our plastics everything will be okay. And there can and will be long boring stretches of okayness — life isn’t a rollercoaster until it is. Sometimes we choose to take the ride and other times it’s forced upon us. C’est la vie.

You don’t have to get married and have kids if you don’t want to. You can also change your mind on that in five years if you want to. You can change careers if you want to. Or not. You can write words and call yourself a writer. Or not. It’s perfectly okay to not know what you want at 30 just as it’s okay to not know what you want at 40 or 50 or 60, too. Take it one day at a time. Build a really beautiful relationship with yourself.

And start writing your stories.

Love, Susannah xo

On being single and a catch

 

Dear Susannah

How can I be totally okay and happy with being single while also staying open to the possibility that I will meet my person eventually?

Sarah

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Dear Susannah

As a single woman who we know (because you’ve shared some of your thoughts and insights) has struggled with dating in her 40s, how do you maintain your conviction that you’re a badass amazing catch in the face of lots of rejection and being ignored and just clumsy, ill-fitting match-attempts?

Kelley 

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Dear Sarah and Kelley

The simple answer is I like myself and I know that other people’s perception of me has nothing to do with who I really am. But of course, it took me a minute to get here :-)

I believe I’m a badass amazing catch for the right person. This means I’m not a good fit for everyone else and so when I get rejected — or do the rejecting — I do my best to take it on the chin and remember this. I don’t believe there is just one person out there for me — I believe there are tens if not hundreds of people on planet Earth that would make great partners for me, and I them. I still have faith that I will draw the right people to me, but I stopped “waiting” for that quite a while ago. I believe it’s the waiting that makes us feel nuts. It makes it almost impossible to be content with our lives as they are right now because we believe something is missing. We live in a society that favours relationships and views marriage as the ultimate prize so to be single is to be viewed as a loser. Even the word implies something is missing. How can we be present in our fabulous lives if we believe something is missing? Even worse — it’s something we can’t control.

I believe you can absolutely be happy and okay with being single AND stay open to the possibility of meeting your person. I don’t believe one precludes the other. In fact, being okay and happy with being single makes you more attractive which in turn makes it EASIER to attract your person. There’s a different energy around people who are happy being single compared to those who are not. When you’re happy being single you’re much more present to your own life and people notice that. When you’re unhappily single your time between relationships feels like an arduous slog to be endured until someone comes along and saves you. You emanate a needy vibe — people notice that too.

Being content with being single — even better, let’s just call it independent — means you’re not trying to escape from something which in turns helps you to make better choices. Dates are so much easier when you’re not pinning all your hopes on a stranger who comes with their own set of wants, needs and dealbreakers. When I was in my early 20s and desperately wanting a boyfriend I would have been happy with anyone who gave me a second look. I didn’t know myself well enough to know what would have been a good fit for me, so I did the thing that many young women do and became what I thought they wanted me to be, going as far as changing how I dressed to fit in with my college boyfriend.

 

Now I’m here in my 40s I know who I am and how I like to live. I know what matters to me and I try to paint an accurate picture of myself in my dating profiles so that the people who’d be a good fit for me recognise me. Some say online dating is a numbers game — meet enough people and eventually one of them will stick — and in some ways that’s true, but you need to filter people before you even meet them to increase your odds of clicking in person. One hundred first dates with just anyone won’t serve you — you gotta find your kind of people by being so thoroughly unapologetically yourself you repel anyone who isn’t aligned with you.

“Ill-fitting” is a really good description of many of the guys I thought were the right ones for me. There was the photographer who was still hung up on his ex. The app developer who was married to his job and emotionally avoidant. The corporate guy I had good chemistry with but so very little to talk about. At the time I thought each of these men had potential and when it didn’t work out I was disappointed and wondered if there was something wrong with me. But there wasn’t at all — they just were just ill-fitting matches.

Finding the right match is all about chemistry, alignment and timing. It’s possible to have chemistry with people and yet have nothing to talk about. You can share the same world views and best first kiss only to be told discover they’re leaving the country. You can both be ready for marriage and kids but while you look good on paper you just don’t fancy them.

Chemistry + alignment + timing. It’s that magically elusive combination that’s rare enough to be worth pursuing when you find it. But because it’s rare you’re going to encounter plenty of false starts and red herrings along the way. That’s why we have to cherish our independent selves. To look after our own hearts and fill up own own cups. To nurture our friendships and community. And to recognise that it’s okay to occasionally feel the pang of missing a partner — and to act accordingly. Phone a friend, cuddle your pet, cook your favourite dinner, wrap yourself in a blanket and then get an early night. Public holidays, birthdays and particular times of the year can bring a sadness with them so know how to look after yourself. Be prepared and tend to your relationship with yourself like you would a love relationship — because it IS a love relationship!

We learn so much about ourselves in relationship with another but I wholeheartedly believe (and know) it starts with the relationship we have with ourselves, so being thoroughly delightfully bravely single gives you a head start on that. Having spent 14 years in back-to-back relationships and now 14 years as a single person, I can report that my single years have far and away been the easier, calmer and most fulfilling years. Being single is a bloody gift and living your life as you wish to live it is the real prize. And here’s some truth: being single is so much better than being with the wrong person. It’s so much better than trying to make it work with someone who doesn’t want that too. So much better than putting up with abusive behaviour. So much better than living someone’s else dream while you sit on the sidelines.

Your life is happening right now so continue building a life you’d be proud to share with another human. BE the person you’d want to date. And when the right person comes along it’ll be the cherry on top of an already fabulous cake. If we approach dating knowing we’re already a whole cake we’ll navigate the ill-fitting matches and disappointments much more gracefully. Align yourself with people who appreciate the whole cake, who don’t want to change the frosting or wish you were a carrot cake rather than a Victoria sponge. And likewise, hold out for exactly the right flavour for you.

And if it doesn’t work out? You still have a whole cake.

Love, Susannah xo

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Resources: The Sacred Alone

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