I didn’t realize this until eight or nine years into therapy. I always thought I opened my arms for anyone and everyone who needed help because of my years training to be a nun, as my responsibility to “let peace begin with me,” the final refrain to “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” a favorite hymn we sang at St. Charles Borromeo Grade School.
Only in the safe place of therapy did I discover that much of my rescuing others had more to do with a fear of setting boundaries than with my generosity. Yes, I have a good heart and am extremely sensitive to the hurting people in this world. But I am also scared to death to say, “Stop. I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”Because every time I did that growing up, the emotional consequence was brutal. It hurt so much that it was much easier to give in to the needs to those demanding something than to try to fight back for my own needs.
The last four days have been full of the same type of nausea, adrenaline, confusion, and anger I felt in junior high and high school when I tried to assert my needs. I recently built an online community for depression in which I state as points one and two: this is not a suicidal hotline. We are not equipped with mental health professionals to help you. (Here are some numbers to call for help.)
Nonetheless, recently one woman tiptoed over the line and started writing suicidal posts. There were a few people in the group who alerted me to her posts, and I could tell the tone of them was starting to trigger issues for people in the group. After all, the majority of us in the group are not that far from suicidal thoughts ourselves.
To protect them, and to protect her, I reached out to her with a hotline number and asked her to call it, that we can’t handle the kind of intense posts she was writing. And then I deleted the darker ones.
It was truly one of the most difficult things I have done in my life because boundary-setting is so ominous for me.
Her response: “It is no wonder why my brother took his life, because when you reach out for help, there is none.”
I started to shake. My heart raced. I could feel poison running throughout my veins. I tried to catch my breath.
Then I sent a message to my other admin: “I can’t do this!!!!!!!!! Can you take over?”
That night I dreamed I killed the woman and her brother with a shotgun.
I have been on the verge of tears for four days, and I have been afraid to log on to the group. I tried to forget it during my daughter’s birthday party last night, but I couldn’t. That feeling I knew all too well as a young girl and a teenager — as if my actions had, indeed, killed someone — was there, breathing over me the entire night.
I shared all this with my very compassionate sister-in-law, who today texted me this passage from Sanaya Roman’s Living with Joy:
The path of compassion does not obligate you to love everyone regardless of how they act or who they are. It is a path of seeing the truth of who they are, acknowledging all their parts. It is the path of looking at people and asking is there anything you can do to heal, assist, or bring them in touch with their higher vision? If there is not, then you are pulling down your own energy by spending time with them.
A few hours later I heard from the suicidal woman again. Somewhere in the message of thanking me, she told me that my deleting her posts had caused her to self-harm. She asked if I would pray for her and if I would still send my book to her.
“Of course I will pray for you,” I responded. “I have been praying for you all weekend. And yes, I will send you a book.”
That’s all I can do, I thought, thinking of the Roman quote.
I was getting ready to absorb the guilt of making her self-harm, but I caught myself.
“You didn’t make her self-harm,” I told myself. “You are not responsible for the decision on whether she chooses to live. You are not responsible for her brother’s death. You provided some peer support, and to protect people in the group, you made rules. She broke the rules. What happened is a result of her choice to use the group in an inappropriate way.”
I would compose narratives like this over and over again in therapy. The voicemail bombs that have been dropped over the years … The silent treatments I’ve had to endure … All the very cunning and convincing efforts to hook me into a codependent role . I have worked so hard to identify the behavior and begin the path to self-compassion, even as it feels so foreign and wrong.
I am stronger now but I am still so very vulnerable to this kind of shame.
“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete,” said Jack Kornfield.
I suppose I’m realizing just how incomplete my gestures of compassion have been in years past. My health has certainly suffered for it. Here’s to rounding them out.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.