Boundaries #4 – Thoughts and Feelings, Part 2: A Scenario

Amy and Zoe have been friends since their first year of university. They met in their orientation group and kept running into each other here and there in the first term. Finally, they decided to meet up on purpose and their friendship has continued to develop over the last three years. Amy would say that Zoe is probably the person she connects with most on a personal level at school. Amy hangs out with other people more than she hangs out with Zoe, but Amy feels most comfortable to be herself with Zoe. While Zoe chats with a lot of different people when she’s on campus, she is not around much outside of class times and study groups, so she doesn’t know too many people very well, and doesn’t have one particularly good friend more than another. Zoe is comfortable sharing time with whomever is near by.

While Amy’s family lives in another province, Zoe’s family lives about an hour away from campus by bus. Amy lives on campus, and Zoe uses transit to get to school each day, and to her part time job. Amy is amazed that Zoe is able to keep a job and study full time, on top of helping her parents out with her younger siblings sometimes. The only thing Amy has to worry about is school and the clubs she is interested in.

Amy had never been to Zoe’s family’s house until last week. In the days after she visited Zoe’s house, Amy was having some troubling feelings. She wasn’t quite sure what was wrong, but something felt “off”. She noticed it when she was thinking about Zoe, or was with her in the days after the visit to Zoe’s home. Amy was irritated with Zoe, and she couldn’t figure out why. Nothing had changed, except that Amy had visited Zoe’s home. Why would that bother her? And why would she be annoyed with Zoe? Yesterday, Amy snapped at Zoe and had to apologize. It was a rude thing to say; something about Zoe’s clothes, and that Amy could probably help her find something that was more flattering. Zoe was surprised, hurt, and offended, and Amy was horrified. Where had this come from? Amy is a nice person!

Amy tried to push the uncomfortable feelings down where she always keeps her uncomfortable feelings. Surely she was just stressed out from all of her homework and mid terms coming up. Maybe she was hungry, or her hormones were out of whack. Maybe she needed some exercise, or some sleep. Everyone she knew needed more sleep. That must be it.

As time went on, there were other problems that cropped up for Amy, and almost always with Zoe. Their relationship was becoming strained, and Zoe was finding reasons to limit her contact with Amy so that she wouldn’t get hurt. Amy was not happy. Rationalizing to herself that there was something wrong with Zoe wasn’t working anymore. She missed Zoe, and she couldn’t totally ignore the fact that she was needing to apologize to Zoe for doing things that she was not proud of. Amy needed some help. Something was wrong, something was definitely not working, and she wanted to find out what was going on.

Some insights…

Up until now, Amy has not been aware of her more uncomfortable feelings. For years, as long as she can remember, troublesome feelings have not been part of Amy’s life. She’s had a really good life, a great life, and the only feelings she can remember feeling throughout her childhood are good ones. Sure, sometimes things went sideways, but she doesn’t remember any bad feelings from those times. Bad feelings just didn’t exist for her, at least not ones she can remember. You could say that Amy has been raised in an environment with an unspoken boundary around negative feelings; they are not allowed. No “bad” feelings allowed.

Amy has also had strong boundaries around what she thinks. When she came to university, she knew her family’s conservative worldview would be very different from others’ at the liberal arts school. She knew, partly, because her family warned her about it. Her family has very solid conservative values politically, socially and financially. They work hard, and reap great benefits of their hard work. They help each other out when the burden is too much for any one person to reasonably handle, but for the most part they all pull their own weight. Amy grew up knowing this to be a true path to a prosperous life, and knew she would be different than the others at school with a more communal, social-support worldview. She was prepared to be kind, and to protect her views. She had strong boundaries around what she believed.

When Amy went to Zoe’s house, she was shocked by what she saw. Admittedly, she had always noticed that Zoe didn’t have nice clothes and that she always brought simple food to school for her lunch and breaks instead of buying something, but Amy assumed that was just a hippie lifestyle choice of minimalism or something. Amy had no idea that Zoe’s family was poor, actually poor, like in poverty poor. Amy felt uncomfortable in Zoe’s parent’s apartment, and she felt uncomfortable that she felt uncomfortable. She was actually repulsed, but she didn’t know it yet. That is one of those “bad” feelings that get pushed away behind the strong boundary against any unpleasant feelings.

After Amy’s visit to Zoe’s home, she started noticing Zoe’s clothes in a different light. Zoe was no longer a hipster minimalist, she was poor. Amy started having feelings of revulsion and anger towards Zoe for being poor, but Amy didn’t know that yet. She knew she was increasingly irritated with Zoe, and that she had said some nasty things to her. Amy tried to blame other circumstances for her behaviour, because her true feelings were not available to her. The boundaries around her thoughts and worldview were about to be challenged, and her feelings were making themselves known. Something is not okay for Amy, and she has an opportunity to pay attention to it and see what is going on.

Back to the story…

Amy has always had a good relationship with her parents. She decided to talk to them and see if they could help. They could always help before, and she was very hopeful that she’d feel better after she talked with them. She told them what had happened, and that she was “off kilter” and needed help to get herself under control again. Amy’s parents listened with compassion, and a lot of concern for their daughter. They had a lot of confidence in her, and wanted to help in whatever way they could so she could feel successful and confident in herself. They reminded her of her amazing qualities and her kind character, the ways she has always been recognized as a lovely and supportive friend to all she knew, and how capable and talented she is. They assuaged any feelings of conscience that Amy had, brushed aside the idea that she had a real problem, and told her that sometimes friendships change over time. That’s how life is.

Amy felt much better after the phone call to her parents was finished. She was lighter than air, back to feeling normal, and went out to join her rowing club for the practice that evening. Life was good. This was just a bump in the road. These things happen, and it’s not anyone’s fault. Live and let live, forgive and accept forgiveness. Let go.

It didn’t last. Amy’s feelings wouldn’t leave her alone. Whenever she saw Zoe and smiled at her, and then saw Zoe’s cautious wave while keeping her distance, Amy’s conscience flared up. What is going on? Amy finally decided to see a campus counsellor.

More insights…

Amy’s strong boundaries around her beliefs and feelings are being challenged. She is uncomfortable with how things are now; things are not working anymore. Those boundaries worked very well for her when she first arrived at university. She was a “fish out of water”, and relied on the security of her family’s culture, values, and what they knew to be true and good. She needed that to feel secure in herself in this strange new place, all alone, trying to navigate making a life for herself here. Now, she is more secure in her environment, she has had experiences that have broadened her original understanding, and has met people who don’t quite fit into her worldview. She cares about someone who definitely doesn’t fit into her worldview.

In therapy, Amy was helped to listen to the feelings she was trying to keep away from her conscious mind. She was allowed to acknowledge them openly in a safe space, and articulate the thoughts that go with those feelings. The boundaries against uncomfortable feelings were taken down for the sake of exploration in a safe, controlled environment with her therapist, and then put back up as needed to keep Amy balanced in her day to day life.

In therapy, Amy realized that the assumptions she had made about “poor people” were not accurate. Amy grew up believing things about people experiencing poverty that included character judgements. Those beliefs did not line up with Amy’s experience and knowledge of her friend, Zoe, over three years. Instead of consciously challenging her worldview in the face of this new information which conflicted with her beliefs, Amy unconsciously wanted Zoe to change to align with Amy’s worldview. If Zoe would have better clothes, Amy would not be triggered to wrestle with her ideas about “poor people” and could go back to accepting Zoe on Amy’s terms. Amy was irritated at Zoe for being different than what Amy’s beliefs taught her about the world and about people.

Amy realized, after talking with her parents another couple of times, that she needed a boundary around her communication with her parents. They had not taken to her new thoughts well. They were very concerned about their precious and talented daughter being distracted by other people’s problems, and being taken off the well laid course to her bright, shiny future. They didn’t get angry when Amy tried to talk about the deeper issues she’d been discovering for herself. Instead, they expertly and kindly avoided engaging with those topics. There was no tension, per se, but there was an empty, shallow feeling for Amy after those conversations. This left Amy feeling sad and confused. She was grateful that she could process those feelings with her therapist.

Amy also decided that she needed some time to herself built into her schedule to reflect on her thoughts and feelings. She had kept herself fairly busy with school and clubs and her social life, and she wanted to have more time to think about what she thinks, and to allow those unfamiliar, scary, and sometimes overwhelming feelings to surface so she could feel them and look at them. That meant that she needed to limit her social engagements and spend time on her own. Amy is not used to being on her own, and she gets fidgety when she thinks about it and when there is no one around. But her therapist gave her some exercises that she can focus on that are helping.

Zoe has very good boundaries around her time. She is friendly with the people she interacts with on campus, and she manages her schedule in such a way that she can do the things she needs to do. Zoe also knows who she is, and when Amy continued to behave in a way that was not safe for Zoe, Zoe was able to instinctively create some distance to protect herself. Zoe has a very high value of family, and is committed to supporting her parents and siblings with her time, and sometimes her money. She has begun to feel restless, though. She’s not sure what is wrong with her. She’s starting to feel a bit snippy with her youngest brother, and finds herself having angry thoughts about her Mother.

Back to the story…

A few months after starting therapy, Amy ended up sitting close to Zoe on the bus. Yes, Amy was on the bus. One of the things that got unleashed in Amy during therapy was a sense of feeling trapped by what she was supposed to look like. She realized that she spent too much emotional energy worrying about whether she looked similar enough, but not exactly the same, as the other girls whom she unconsciously deemed to be acceptable. One of the exercises her therapist gave her was to sit somewhere on campus and people-watch. She was to look at people and notice which people she found herself drawn to, which people she wished she could get to know better, people who seemed interesting. After she had done this several times, the next assignment was to notice what different people were wearing, and notice when she was having those feelings of judgement and criticism about how they should look, and when she was finding herself attracted to a certain look or style.

Amy found out that there were definitely some things she liked about the looks that she felt she had to copy, and there were definitely different looks that she liked as well. It was scary to even acknowledge this to herself, because it invited a decision about whether she was willing to express herself on the outside in a way that made her different from her normal group of people. If Amy is anything, she is courageous. She decided to take the challenge. She went shopping and tried to find that feeling again, the one she had when she saw a look that was different and striking. When she failed to succeed at the usual clothing stores, she decided to talk to the next person she saw who was wearing something she wanted to try. They told her they’d found it at a thrift store. Fast forward a few weeks: Amy had discovered that she liked thrifting. She was on her way to a store she had never shopped in before when she sat near Zoe on the bus.

Final Insights…

It took a while for Amy and Zoe to feel comfortable with each other again. Amy was aware of her hurtful attitudes and felt cautious lest they spill out again. Zoe was cautious about getting hurt again, and she was also aware that she was feeling jealous of Amy’s freedom to make her own decisions. Being with Amy was challenging Zoe’s strongly held values around loyalty to family, and it felt uncomfortable to have that inner conflict inside of her. Eventually, they were able to talk about what had happened in their relationship. It was not easy, but it paved the way for Zoe to look into what her changing needs were in relationship to her family, as well.

A crystal ball will show us that Amy and Zoe’s friendship continued to develop over the years such that twenty years later it has thrived in spite of various distances: geographical, economical and political. The glue that holds their relationship together is each of their emotional honesty and integrity, and a deep respect for the other person upheld through good personal boundaries, care for themselves, and care for each other.