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What’s that now?

BIG SUBJECT, not just for me. I had never even heard of them until about three years ago, maybe it is four now, I lose count, but still, I remember the day they were new to me as if it were yesterday. It started the ball rolling towards many “Aha!” moments.

I was at the doctor’s office, having been very upset by my manager, yet again. I had been suffering at work, as I so often did, and when I was finally forced to speak up about it as the situation was making me cry and cry and cry, all I really got from my manager was more criticism and accusatory tones. So that meeting didn’t help. It just made me cry and cry more, hence the doctor’s office. I needed some sick leave and I needed some counselling.

Distance yourself

After explaining the whole situation, the doctor said to me on my way out of the door: “Da hilft nur abgrenzen,” which kind of means “the only real solution is distancing yourself.” Huh. I had NO IDEA what that meant. How was I supposed to distance myself from something I had to deal with every day? Impossible!

Highly Sensitive

So what did I do? I googled her words and came across some interesting material on highly sensitive people which immediately resonated with me. I have been called sensitive all my life, I notice things a lot of other people don’t notice, sometimes lights and noises bother me to my core in ways that other people don’t understand. Some touches feel painful to me (the amount of times I heard the protest “I barely touched you!” after me screaming in pain, I cannot tell you). I feel very deeply and have a very colourful (or complex) internal (emotional) life.

This was quite a revelation. I realised I was different to a lot of people and the same as some. Being highly sensitive wasn’t something to try and not be. In fact, I cannot actually change being highly sensitive as it is innate. There is nothing wrong with me. It is just who I am. A lot of my life started to make a lot of sense!

The connection between being highly sensitive and needing more distance became clear. I needed much more down-time, alone-time or quiet-time, more than most, and much more than I was giving myself. I take in a lot of sensory information at any given time without realising it, especially when I am around other people, and I need to take a lot of quiet time to process that information.

Magic of boundaries

There was another notion which was suddenly very interesting to me: so-called boundaries. Something I could use to protect myself from receiving too much sensory information and feeling overwhelmed. What a mystery! What new magic is this?!

This lead to me reading more and more about boundaries. Do I have them? (No I did not have them.) Can I have them? (Yes, I can have them). How do I get some? Ah. That is the difficult bit. Step in “Boundary Boss” Terri Cole to teach me all about them and how to get some. (Boundary Boss is Terri Cole’s excellent book, she also has many videos on YouTube and a podcast, full of informative insights and tips on how to “…talk true, be seen, and (finally) live free.”)

Self-abandoning people pleaser

She introduced me to the phrase “Self-abandoning people pleaser” which I immediately identified with. I automatically give up my own needs, wants and desires, tune into those of other peoples’ and do what I perceive as what is expected of me. Setting a boundary by saying no, for example, was not just completely foreign to me, I was so far down the (self-abandoning) line that I didn’t even realise that I had that choice. This is, by the way, a HORRIBLE situation to be in!

Once I realised I had a right to negotiate for my needs, desires and preferences I was faced with the next challenge….what ARE my needs, desires and preferences? After decades of ignoring, neglecting and repressing them it was very hard to listen inside and find them.

The energy drain

It made me aware of why so much of my energy was being drained. I hadn’t realised (I am only JUST starting to understand) that I can actually chose what I put my energy into. If I choose to put my energy into helping others (in my pre-burnout way), then I am sacrificing energy that I could have used for myself.

This “help” could be as little as listening to someone talk about their problems, which would typically lead to me automatically offering sympathy and advice, unwittingly taking on their feelings and feeling a responsibility to help relieve them.

Put on your own mask first

I started to think of what the flight attendants tell us during the safety instructions: “Put on your OWN oxygen mask first before helping others.” I was giving my oxygen mask away willy-nilly.

I noticed this first was at work. People like to talk to me, a lot. It was draining me. I was letting them fill me up with their problems. I started slowly discouraging this behaviour by not being available, by walking away, by closing up my open and kind heart. It felt weird, unnerving, wrong, and I felt so guilty, but it was necessary, to protect my energy, to protect myself. It was a good start and at the same time not enough to stop me bounding towards burnout.

Thou shalt not try and fix!

I discovered another VERY important point brought to me by Terri Cole: it is NOT my job to fix other people, their problems or manage their feelings. WHAT? Mind. Blown. This was how I had been living my life for years now, it goes so far back that I cannot even really remember when it started. What a pickle! Unravelling that continues to be one my greatest challenges. The possibilities of boundaries are so complex.

I made myself a Post-it. Something I refer to all the time. It says “Thou shalt not try and fix!” My training at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine reinforced my new commandment (see blog: Finding my authenticity). We were there to work on ourselves and to witness others working on themselves, to hold space for each other and NOT to try and help or fix each other.

I noticed recently that I have spent a lot of time pouring my heart and soul into my husband’s mental health. I felt an automatic responsibility to do so, it didn’t feel like a choice at the time. Moving away from that habit was and continues to be a very difficult thing for me to do. When I do manage to consciously chose not to pour my energy into it though, it benefits us both! I get to keep my good mood and jovial disposition and he may even get a little infected by my joy.

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