2018 was a hell of a year for me…a year of change on a scale unlike any I’ve experienced before and one that forced me to do a lot of personal assessment, exploration, and growth.
That’s the new-age version of “it mostly sucked”.
I don’t want to get into the entire story, suffice it to say I feel like I’ve emerged from my 2018 chrysalis in far better shape than when I entered it.
What I do want to get into are some of my thoughts about a piece of common advice I’ve read or heard repeatedly over the past year:
“Don’t lose yourself.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is generally good advice. The people who offered it didn’t want me to get hurt as I navigated this cycle of change. Taken in the spirit of their intention I understand their concern that I be cautious, practice self-care, and manage my boundaries along the way.
The thing is, it’s precisely in the area of “boundary management” that I came to feel “Don’t lose yourself” might become an excuse for avoiding the real work involved in making meaningful change…and change was my goal.
With respect to change I believe it’s easy to lose something vital, to even sabotage the entire process, if you don’t remain open to the idea of being and/or getting lost…in fact, I think you need to fully embrace it.
Let’s Talk Boundaries…
You can’t read about or discuss personal growth or relationships without running into the word “boundaries” fairly quickly. For a long time I frankly had no idea what people were really trying to say.
“You need to manage your boundaries.”
“You need good boundaries.”
“Good relationships need good boundaries.”
Sure, sure, but what the hell is a “boundary”?
When it comes to relationships between yourself and others I’ve come to define boundary fairly simply…albeit a bit rudely:
There’s “your shit” and there’s “their shit”. Good boundaries mean you own and manage yours and they own and manage theirs. It’s that simple. Basically just own your shit and require that all the people in your life own theirs.
People in your life who refuse to do their own work aren’t respecting your relationship or you. Conversely if you’re not owning your shit you have work to do. Good relationships require personal responsibility from everyone.
Of course, maintaining good boundaries is a study in “simple, not easy”.
The unspoken trick of good boundaries is you have to be self-aware enough to know where “you” start and end and what boundaries that ends up defining.
The thing is, most of us aren’t particularly self-aware.
When it comes to where we draw the line between what we’re willing to accept and what we’re not when it comes to sharing our time, resources, etc. most of us tend to make it up as we go along.
Sure, after we feel our boundaries have been violated we might push back but all too often we allow our sense of having blurred our lines to transform into anger. We lash out after the fact rather than having held our line in the first place. Then again, how you can you hold a line you aren’t clear about?
In the moment we’re being asked for something, be it time, money, emotional support, unless we’re clear about where our internal limits are it’s no wonder our boundaries seem easy to trespass. They’re not real, they’re mirages.
Avoiding constant boundary issues means becoming proactive about figuring out who we really are, where our real limits lie, what we’re both willing to accept and what we will require from ourselves and the others in our life.
Self-Care vs. Compassion
When it comes to losing yourself failing to balance self-care and compassion is one way it happens. If you consistently err on the side of compassion at the price of self-care you can wake up one day realizing you gave more of yourself than you could afford. You keep giving, they keep taking, everybody “feels good” at first but it’s a slippery slope into co-dependency or pure vampirism.
That’s not a recommendation to always choose self-care. I’m just saying check in regularly to see if you are being compassionate to yourself as well as to the people who are relying on, or worse yet, perhaps feeding off your compassion.
One of my personal definitions of staying “centered” is making sure when you think of compassion or anything else you want to offer to others in your life you first make certain to offer it to yourself. You are central to your life and your happiness, so make sure your needs are met first, then your partner’s, your family’s, your friends, your community’s, etc. You stay at the center.
Like all areas of boundary management, self-care vs. compassion is a constant balancing act. If you extend compassion to yourself and others in equal measure I believe you can offer strong support to people who need it without losing yourself or having your boundaries violated in the process.
Outcomes vs. Experiences
Another way to lose yourself is to focus too much on outcomes instead of experiences. This seems particularly common in romantic relationships.
Instead of luxuriating in the present moment with someone you love you get hung up on trying to control how the future will unfold. I’ve victimized myself this way in the past and I put a lot of effort into avoiding it these days. I don’t always succeed but I know moments matter far more than make-believe.
As a programmer and self-described “idea rat” I make my living with my imagination, conjuring up possibilities, weighing different alternatives, analyzing decision trees, trying to predict the future and then designing solutions that encourage it and adapt to it when it arrives. I’m good at it.
It should come as no surprise that approach does not work for relationships. As much as I love to play chess, playing chess with the Universe to see whose version of the future unfolds is a losing proposition. Every. Single. Time.
I’ve learned a better approach is to focus on creating, sharing, and savoring great experiences and letting the future take care of itself.
Focusing on experiences rather than outcomes makes it far easier to avoid over-attachment to a particular outcome and helps avoid the inevitable sense of loss we experience when our fantasy outcomes don’t materialize.
Don’t Lose Yourself…
When we hear advice like “Don’t lose yourself.” I believe it’s scenarios like the ones just mentioned that our friends and loved ones are trying to protect us from. Don’t blur your lines. Don’t take ownership of other people’s problems. Don’t get too attached to specific outcomes. Don’t get hurt.
There’s just one problem…
There’s are other boundaries at play…ones that define “you”…and for you to effect meaningful change in your life you have to manage them first.
Losing Your “Self”…
In “Being Of Power” author and yoga visionary Baron Baptiste points out that a lot of what we think of as our identity are really just masks, layers of identity we’ve adopted in an attempt to fit in, to “fix” ourselves, to make others happy.
To get to a deep level of self-awareness we have to peel that onion, stripping away those layers, to get to the values that define who we really are when nobody is watching and nobody is judging. That includes ourselves. No judgement, just observance of what makes you tick. What’s your essence?
Discovering our true values and hence our true boundaries in an authentic way requires that we leave behind the comfort zone of who we believe we are and explore outside of that zone. We have to actively embrace feeling lost at times while we examine what’s real and what’s a mirage, a mask, a facade.
If you’ve told yourself you’re not X (disciplined) or that you are Y (honest), can you explore the idea you might be wrong? That you might be X after all? That you might not be Y when it counts? That maybe your view of yourself is based on expired or outright bad information and in need of an update?
These aren’t easy questions to explore but asking and answering them over time is essential “work” in becoming more self-aware and authentic.
Doing The “Work”
“”Do the work.” is something you read or hear about as often as you hear “Don’t lose yourself.” and for a while it was just about as fuzzy to me. I honestly had no idea what “work” people were referring to. But that has changed this year as I’ve worked to peel the layers of my personal onion.
It’s hard work to sit with yourself and find answers to deeper questions like “What values do you honor?”, “What or who do you sacrifice for?”, “What or who are you willing to fight for?”, “What will you regret most not doing?”.
Likewise, it’s hard work determining where your soft lines in the sand lie vs. where your hard limits reside. What actions on the part of others toward you are truly unforgivable and where are your mirages…lines you like to think of as hard that you ultimately let others trespass without consequence?
It’s particularly hard confronting whether your actions are truly consistent with your beliefs or are things you give lip service to but fail to back up with action when it would mean making a sacrifice or experiencing pain or loss.
Quite simply, it’s hard and often painful work to look at each area of your life and come clean about who you really are, who you are as defined by your actions, who you are when it really matters. But that’s “the work” of change.
Tools For Explorers
A part of what makes this “hard work” is that we often go into it without the right tools and end up beating ourselves up instead of building ourselves up.
In any exploration of your past, your reality, your essence, I think it’s critical to work from a place of compassion and forgiveness.
We’re all human and that means there’s going to be a lot of imperfection in that closet. You shouldn’t open it if you’re not willing to be compassionate and forgiving with yourself, actually with all of your former selves since you, the you that exists in this moment, didn’t exist when those past events occurred.
You have to be willing to say “I did the best I could at the time.” and let go of any judgement. You’re doing the work now so you can do better in the future, not so you can beat yourself up about a past you can’t change.
Accept that you’re a work in progress, grant yourself forgiveness as you dig into the deeper parts of your past and your Self, and be willing to accept, even embrace, that sometimes you will feel lost.
Just because you feel lost it doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path.