Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Open is Too Open?

Over the weekend I attended a conference for college counselors and academic advisors.  One of the recurring themes of the conference was intrusive advising.  Intrusive advising, as described by several academic advising sources, is proactive, caring contact with students with the goal of inspiring academic motivation and persistence in students, especially "at-risk" students.  For example, one technique of intrusive advising is to attend events where students are participants, even if those events occur "after-hours".  One of the questions that was discussed either in workshops or among counselors was the use of social networking as an intrusive advising technique.  Facebook is commonly used by colleges as a resource for connecting with students, because we all know that, if a student doesn't respond to emails, he or she will see your message on their Facebook page.

Personally, I created my Facebook profile because a student asked me to.  She was able to convince me, after several conversations, that Facebook would be a great way to connect with my students, so I gave in after many years of rejecting the notion of using social networking sites.  I started with one simple rule about Facebook that I still follow to this day:  I would not request any of my students as friends, but if they requested me, I would accept their request.  I even had the conversation with several students that they might not want to request me as a friend if they thought there was something on their Facebook page that they really didn't want me to see.  I frequently used Facebook posts to remind students of deadline dates, post events for my women's leadership group, and even encourage students to study and work hard.

Then something happened.  I had an active Facebook page for about a year when an old high school and college friend posted old pictures and tagged me in them.  She was connected to many of my old high school and college friends and acquaintances.  When we left college, there was no such thing as the internet, much less Facebook.  There was barely email.  I'd lost contact with many people who I'd connected with in high school and college, and Facebook became the easiest way to get back in contact without having to spend hours on the telephone, which was and still is pretty impractical.  Within the span of one month, the number of Facebook connections I'd made tripled.  There was lots of photo-tagging, so my students were privy to pictures of my old college days.  My family started to join Facebook too, so my students were seeing posts by my family members, as well as photos of family events, because photos are so easy to share and upload onto one place - and where better than Facebook, where you can comment on photos?  Soon, former students from my teaching days were requesting me.  Then, people from the church I attend began requesting me.  Of course, nothing I posted or was tagged in was inappropriate or offensive, but a line was crossed.  I was becoming more than just an advisor and counselor to my students.  I was becoming a whole person.  Gaps in their knowledge of who I am were slowly becoming filled. 

As I reconnected with more people on Facebook, it became easier to use it for personal purposes, and not so much for the purpose of providing information to my students.   There is a group page for my women's leadership group where I post events.  When the earthquake struck in Haiti this past January, I created a Facebook page for students on my college campus to discuss ideas on how to help.  My personal page became much more personal.  It was a place where I could share my spiritual beliefs, keep in contact with friends, and be my normally sarcastic self.  I also post some of my writing on Facebook for feedback from those who know me.  I have found that, through Facebook as well as this blog, I have been able to help people open up about some of the same issues I write or post updates about.  I've received private messages from many, many people who've said that even a simple status update has provided them with new perspectives and encouragement.

My last blog post was a laborious outpouring of some of the thoughts and feelings I'd been wrestling with.  When I'd finished the blog post, I felt as if I had given birth to new understanding of myself.  I felt more clarity.  I added the link to my Facebook page as usual.  I received feedback from others who said that they needed to read those words; they had also received clarity.  I felt great. The following morning, I received a private message from a person who considers herself my friend, saying that she felt my pain.  Then she asked, "Why do you feel you have to share this with the Facebook audience?"  Immediately, I felt judged.  I began to question if I had been too open, if I had shared too much.  I began to doubt the positive effect my words might have had on those who had read them.  In addition, I questioned my whole purpose for beginning this blog, which was to write more often with purpose so that I could fulfill my life-long dream of being a writer. What I found interesting in that message was that, under the guise of being concerned about me, the person really wanted to know how I could be so open with what was in my heart. 

Then, on the way home from the conference, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague.  Going back to one of the conference themes of intrusive advising, she discussed a situation where she also thought I had opened up, maybe a little too much, to some of my students.  From my point of view, my years of experience have provided me with the wisdom and good judgment to decide what is "too open".  I explained that I might approach things differently based on those experiences.  After a long discussion, she came to the conclusion that SHE might not be as comfortable sharing so much with her students as I seem to be, and connected that new awareness with feedback she'd received from some students.  It was a "light-bulb" moment for her.  She realized that, rather than be so concerned with my decisions regarding being open, she would benefit greatly from reflecting upon how open she would like to be with her students.  

To be clear, in my opinion, there's nothing inappropriate or vulgar about me or what I share, either on Facebook or this blog.  I never reveal names or specifics about people, and I keep others' confidences.  What students get when they see my Facebook page are glimpses of the real me.  When they become aware that I am a real person with real challenges and real victories, they let down their guards and become more real with themselves, and with me.  It leads to an open counseling relationship where I can be honest with them, and encourage them to be honest with themselves, about their challenges, which could possibly propel them forward into victory. 

I believe I'm able to discern what is ethical, right, and appropriate to share about who I am as a person. I am okay with being open with others, including my students.  Maybe those who aren't as open might need to examine themselves, or just leave me alone.  Am I right or what?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I Used to Love Him...But Now I Don't (Well, Maybe I Still Do, A Little Bit)

This afternoon on my way home from work, I was listening to a favorite song of mine by Lauryn Hill, called "I Used to Love Him".   It is a song that resonates with many a woman who has been the victim of a broken heart.  Although Lauryn Hill recorded this song in 1998, many of the young women I work with think the album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" is a classic that still speaks what's in their hearts.  I tend to agree.

"One situation involved a young man
He was the ocean and I was the sand
He stole my heart like a thief in the night
Dulled my senses and blurred my sight"

Who doesn't know the feeling of being swept away in a rush of emotion for another human being?  Many times, loving someone makes it difficult to think objectively and make rational decisions.  The phrase "love is blind" comes to mind.  How many times have your friends told you, "I don't know what you see in him/her?"  Yet, something about the person you love awakens a possible "sixth sense" within you - a more spiritual, supernatural sense that "sees" what others don't see about the loved one.

"I chose the road of passion and pain
Sacrificed too much and waited in vain
Gave up my power, ceased being queen
Addicted to love like the drug of, drug of a fiend"

A recurring issue in the Woman II Woman support sessions I facilitate is the guarded heart.  The pain of being heart-broken - many times precipitated by the absence of a father - causes so many women to shut down emotionally, not allowing others to truly experience their genuine inner beauty.  Sometimes, walls erected to protect the heart calcify to the point where we're no longer able to identify the emotions we begin to feel when we're asked to engage in relationships.  The decision to engage is a courageous one.  Love brings pain as well as passion.  The giddy happiness that first accompanies love can, sometimes very quickly, turn to fear and anxiety.  Expectations begin to weigh down the relationship to the point where you might think, "If I don't get what I expect, I won't have the upper hand."  It seems that relationships become power struggles rather than partnerships.  Yet, once the protective walls around our hearts come down, we struggle with setting boundaries, compromise more (which sometimes is a bad thing), and can't seem to give up the pain - because we're waiting for the passion to come back. 

"See, torn and confused, wasted and used
Reached the crossroad, which path would I choose?

Stuck and frustrated I waited, debated
For something to happen that just wasn't fated

Thought what I wanted was something I needed
When Momma said no, then I just should have heeded

After experiencing more pain in a relationship, we reach a point where we have to decide if this is the road we should be traveling.  Often, we spend more time debating the pros and cons of a relationship than we do actually experiencing and enjoying the relationship.  Our expectations, and others' expectations for us, can lead us to believe a relationship is supposed to go in a certain direction.  Many times we look at what we consider to be successful relationships and say, "I want what they have."  However, we don't see beyond the surface of others' relationships.  We don't know what they're struggling with, and take it from me: every successful relationship has  been through at least one major struggle.  As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."

Many times we engage in relationships without taking the time to reflect on the difference between our wants and needs.  I might want someone to call me everyday, but do I really need it?  Would three times a week of genuine conversation be more akin to what I need?  Is it more important to receive gifts, or to know that, in your greatest time of need, that person will be there for you?  Sometimes we're in the wrong relationship for us because we're so distracted by what we want that we never stop to think about what we really need.  Our own lack of self-reflection causes us to feel frustrated.  Only true awareness and introspection can move us out of the rut caused by the disappointment of unmet expectations. 

 "Misled, I bled till the poison was gone
And out of the darkness arrived the sweet dawn"

Bleeding is the emission of blood from the body, whether internally or externally.  No one can bleed for you; only you can emit blood from your own body.  Bleeding can also be considered draining, and in the case of love, time alone, in anguish and pain, can have a cleansing effect.  Once the bleeding caused by brokenness diminishes, the healing process can begin. 

"Father, you saved me and you showed me that life
Was much more than being some foolish man's wife
Showed me that love was respect and devotion
Greater than planets and deeper than any ocean
See, my soul was weary, but now it's replenished
Content because that part of my life is finished"

This particular lyric hits close to home for me.  For those who haven't followed my blog posts, I was previously married.  It wasn't a very long relationship, and truthfully, I was young and lacked the wisdom that comes with age and life experiences.  Not only was the man foolish, I was foolish as well.  I got married without really knowing and understanding what love is.  I thought I needed to be married in order to find those qualities that were missing in me.  So many times we're told that our companion in life should balance us; I wouldn't disagree with that, but we don't often understand that "balance" means steadiness or equilibrium.  It doesn't mean that whatever we're missing will be compensated for by another human being.  That's asking too much of someone.  There's always a risk that the scale is more weighted on one side than the other.  When my marriage ended, a chapter of my life was finished.  Losing that "love" gave me the desire, the hunger and need, to find true love.  I found that unconditional love in a relationship with God.  I realize, in every interaction with everyone in my life, there is a capacity for hurt and disappointment to occur.  With God, there's no abandonment.  There's no pain.  There's only the contentment of knowing that there's Someone who's always there for you.  As Hebrews 13:5 states, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."

"I see him sometimes and the look in his eye
Is one of a man who's lost treasures untold 

But my heart is gold, I took back my soul
And totally let my Creator control
The life which was His
The life which was His, to begin with"

Let me be transparent (can I be anything else?): I have been contacted by several men from my past, especially over the past three years or so.  Some of these men broke my heart.  Some of their hearts were broken by me.  Apparently, and of course I speak only from personal experience, as men reach their mid- to late 30's, they seem to take time to reflect on some of their more genuine relationships.  This is not to say that I was always as self-aware and introspective as I am now (a counseling degree doesn't hurt).  It is to say that I wasn't as calculated, or manipulative, or guarded, as a life of broken relationships can cause a woman to become.  I gave my heart irresponsibly, irreverently and with abandon, to some of these men.  Some of them were little boys, and I didn't know how to be anything but a little girl who liked, or was liked by, those boys.  Some of these men are unhappy in their marriages, and contact me to reminisce about the innocence of young love.  Some of these men have experienced so many broken relationships with women in general, that they think going back to the one who first made their heart beat quickly is a way to start fresh; the heart's "do-over".  Some of them, I think, might just have memories of me that make them smile.  I have to admit that it is flattering to be contacted by the men in my past.  However, I often wonder why there are so many from my past, but none (past or present) pursue a committed relationship with me (either because they're married or emotionally unavailable).  I might be reaching, but sometimes I think God allows these re-encounters so that I could look back at who I was when I was involved with these men and remember who I am at my core.  Before some of my heartbreaks, and the ultimate heartbreak of divorce, I was more willing and able to share my heart.  I have a heart of gold.  Everyone I know deserves the truest version of me.  And the best way for me to be the truest version of me is to allow my Creator control over my life and my heart.  

"I used to love him, but now I don't"

The difficulty in reuniting with past loves, for me, is having to reconcile who I was with who I am now.  I can't throw out all of my experiences and reject the wisdom that comes with a broken heart.  I need to let down my guard, but I need to protect myself as well.  I want to be that innocent, loving, caring young girl I once was, but I still encounter men who forgot what it was like to feel.  I'm dealing with men who have been so hurt and disappointed that they might even be looking to hurt that little girl in me who once broke their heart.  However, the need to protect myself, so strong and essential in the ten years since the breakdown of my marriage, is being overcome by a need that is much stronger: the need to love and to be loved.  I used to love him, and heartache, bitterness, and disappointment make me want to say "now I don't".  But I would be lying.  

Thank you, Lauryn Hill, for speaking what is in my heart, and the hearts of many women who have loved, and now don't, but still want to.