I did a favor for a friend without them asking because they have been overwhelmed lately and I thought it would be nice. They thanked me and asked me not to help them in that particular way in the future. I was a little bit crushed because that act was an expression of my love for them and they did not want it. It doesn't feel good for an offering of love to be unwanted. But what I didn't do in response was make it their problem. I did not insist they hear or process my feelings of disappointment in their disinterest in my act of service. I respected their boundary and talked through my feelings with somebody else.
Later in the week, I was on the other side of a similar interaction where someone offered me an expression of their love that I did not want in that moment. They did not handle it quite as gracefully and needed to tell me all about how it made them feel to have been refused. It's a brave thing to advocate for oneself and assert a boundary, especially to a person who we love and care about. Made even more difficult if the emotional consequences of asserting that boundary are that I must then also do emotional labor for the boundary-crosser.
Those back to back experiences got me thinking about access and entitlement. Many years ago when I decided to divorce my first spouse, my parents were not the first people I called. I called my best friend and I called my sibling. I needed a particular kind of support I could not have received (and didn't want) from my parents. Unfortunately, this was a challenge for my mother to understand at the time. She called me thrice upset. Firstly because I had not called her to tell her right away. Secondly because I had not confided in her all my many reasons for leaving my spouse beforehand. Thirdly that I was abandoning my relationship instead of trying to make it work.
A few years, many conversations, and a lot of processing later, I understood that my mother saw herself in my first spouse. Their similar stories of childhood trauma manifested in similar expressions of that trauma as adults. Most specifically, they both struggled to believe they were worthy of love and sought to prove to anyone who claimed to love them just how much they didn't deserve it. It is a strange and human thing to resist so completely the thing which we most desperately want in our wounded heart of hearts.
For my mother at the time, me leaving my spouse because he had finally succeeded in pushing me all the way away was alarming proof that she too could be cast aside at any moment. Confirmation that someday someone she loved might tire of being tested and leave her to suffer alone and uncomforted. And none of my mother's feelings were any of my responsibility. I am not required to reveal my inner self to anyone, even if doing so would assuage their discomfort.
No one is entitled to access my internal world. No one is entitled to see any part of my Self I do not want to show in any given moment. Any time I reveal a part of me to another person, it is a gift I offer. And that gift that can be accepted or refused because that's how consent works. Just as I am not obligated to share, no one is obligated to see or hold or appreciate any part of me or any particular vulnerability I express.
This is true for everyone. We each get to decide what we share of ourselves and with whom. And we can each change our mind any time we want for any reason, or for no reason at all. I want to share myself for my own reasons; so I may be seen in the fullness of my humanity. I don't want to share my internal world for the sole purpose of accommodating someone else's insecurity. And I especially don't want to share my authentic self to alleviate someone's discomfort when that discomfort is rooted in their own unchecked assumptions about my thoughts and feelings.
Of course as humans we relate to each other through our shared vulnerability, so it is difficult to have a close connection with someone without sharing any part of ourselves with each other. But the point is: no one else can tell you what you must share, when, or with whom. That decision is up to you. And one person sharing of themselves does not obligate another person to reciprocate. If you want to give the gift of a certain expression of your love, it has to be okay for the other person to not want that at any time for any reason.
This is a challenging concept for many folks in modern American society. Even people who agree intellectually that everyone should have individual autonomy still find it challenging to live-out that value in their lives and relationships. Probably because there's a great deal of messaging to the contrary. Just look at basically all messaging intended for or broadcast about fem-bodied and fem-presenting humans.
Just as we are not entitled to know what anyone else is thinking or feeling in any given moment, we are also not entitled to know what kind of body parts someone else was born with or currently has. We are also not entitled to understand why a person expresses their gender in any particular way. And we're not entitled to feel comfortable with someone else's gender identity or gender expression. Yet a whole lot of people think they deserve to know at a glance whether someone has indoor or outdoor plumbing and get upset when they can't tell using long-established gender norm markers.
None of those feelings are the responsibility of anyone except the person who is feeling them. People with gender expressions outside the boy-girl binary are not obligated to explain themselves. No one is required to receive your thoughts, feelings, or opinions about their clothing, hair, makeup, or any other aspect of their self-expression. It's okay to feel however you are feeling about whatever you're having feelings about. Put on your big kid pants and bring those feelings to a friend or counselor or your journal to process through them.
Media does not show us many good examples for how to hold our own feelings and avoid burdening others with them. Wednesday, the TV show, is just such an example that misses the mark. Wednesday goes to boarding school, where she meets two boys who both take a fancy to her (and dislike each other - very original). Maybe she also fancies one or both of these boys. They each make invitations, which Wednesday refuses. Then they each get mad at being refused. The boys don't get access to Wednesday's time and affections just because they want it and asked nicely, but this is a TV series so other characters intervene and cajole her into dating one or the other. It's so close to being a fem-liberationist show in a lot of ways, but doesn't quite get there.
We even have bad examples of well-meaning folks slathering their own emotional experience all over everybody else in a professional setting. Take an article I read this week about relabeling what is often referred to in the accounting industry as a "clean-up job." The author begins by explaining their personal aversion to the phrase and their regret to have created so many messes as a child which their parent cleaned-up and which they were not aware enough to be appreciative at the time.
They ask fellow accountants to choose another description for the correcting, re-ordering, and untangling work we do with a set of books in-need. They also explain at length how we are wreaking havoc by referring to that work as "clean-up." This author is bringing a lot of added emotional value to their discussion of this particular topic. It’s important to consider how our word-choice impacts others, and it’s also important to remember that not everyone experiences the world the same way we do. Be thoughtful with your language. And also, it's okay to call a spade a spade.
Feel your feelings. Express your feelings. Share your feelings. These are all parts of being human. Just please remember that your feelings are not the sacred truth of the universe. They are your experience of the world and the people in it, informed by all your past experiences and traumas and privileges and the narratives handed to us during our development and each and every day we continue to exist. Your emotions do not entitle you to access or time or resources.
I know our world does not show us how to handle our emotions with grace or understanding. We are not taught how to experience or express our feelings in a healthy and sustainable way, especially the most powerful and intense emotions. But it’s worth learning how to listen to yourself and how to explore underneath those feelings to identify what’s driving them. That exploration gets you closer to the truth of what you need and want. That clarity will allow you to honor your own autonomy and uphold your own boundaries in a way that respects the autonomy and boundaries of everyone around you. And if we all practice more of that, we all gain access to greater health, peace, and well-being.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.