Saturday, March 31, 2012

Boundaries: Honoring Your Self

Whenever I write about a particular topic, I usually like to look up some information about it before starting to write.  I have a habit of wanting to intellectualize whatever it is I'm writing about, even if it's personal and from the heart.  I often share what I've looked up, and I'm famous for quoting the dictionary or Wikipedia.

I started to do that this time, but then I stopped.  What I'm writing about today is too personal and doesn't need to be validated by outside sources.  I reserve the right to create my own discourse about this particular topic.  I'm referring to the concept of boundaries.

Boundaries are personal limitations - the so-called "invisible line" that we draw - that we have decided others may not cross.  The interesting thing about boundaries is that others continually believe they can judge our personal boundaries even though they do not set them for us.  The other interesting thing about boundaries is that we usually don't set them until someone has crossed the "invisible line" within us.

I have worked with students in various capacities throughout my almost-twenty year career, and boundaries are an issue that continuously needs to be addressed.  For example, as a first-year teacher, I made the "mistake" of buying a student a sandwich (with his money) when I went out for lunch.  My assistant principal told me never to do that, because it was unfair to the other students who had to eat school lunch (which is still terrible), and because it was impossible for me to be able to keep up that behavior.  I learned quickly from this mistake, and never did it again.  However, my assistant principal also told me it wasn't a good idea to allow students to spend their lunch period in my classroom, and in that case, I didn't agree with that boundary.  I knew that my classroom was a safe place for some of those students, and it avoided conflicts that could arise in a crowded cafeteria.  Eventually, I had to decide what boundaries needed to be in place and which ones really weren't necessary.  Students were allowed to remain in my classroom during their lunch period, unless I had something else I wanted or needed to do.

After two years at that school, I worked at a small high school where boundaries were much more lax.  Students called us by our first names, and you would often see teachers (or "facilitators", as we were called) and students spending informal moments together during and after school.  My students kissed me on the cheek and hugged me, and I often spent time with them and their families.  It was a loving environment, but I had a difficult time with how flexible the boundaries were.  I didn't know when my work life ended and my personal life began, because it seemed a part of that school's culture to spend time with students outside of school.

I worked in a residence hall for three years.  Can you imagine the difficulty in maintaining boundaries there?  I would have to wake up in the middle of the night to discipline students and write full incident reports in my pajamas while half asleep.  It was truly a blend of my personal and professional lives.

Recently, I experienced a test of both my professional and personal boundaries.  Being a counselor is definitely not an easy vocation.  Counseling is a very personal relationship within the confines of a professional environment.  Over the past year, several students have made the comment that they love our counseling relationship because, and I quote, "It's so personal."  Some of my colleagues don't approach the counseling relationship in the same way.  Some frown upon the fact that some students have my cell phone number, which I only give out for specific work reasons.  If my women's group is holding an event on a Saturday, the students may need to reach me, so the easiest way to do so is to contact me via phone.  Some colleagues choose not to engage in that way, and I respect that.  I learned in my counseling program that I am a counselor; it's not just what I do but who I AM.  Therefore, my counseling style is person-centered, and with the particular population I serve, being intrusive is effective.  In addition, I connect with others on an emotional level, and my empathy for others creates a close, personal relationship.

While I recognize that being authentic and having unconditional positive regard are keys to a good counseling relationship (according to Carl Rogers' Person-Centered Theory), I learned that I can't expect every student to understand my boundaries if I don't make them abundantly clear.  I allow my students to disagree with me, and to challenge and question what I say, however, I experienced a moment when a student went too far.  Both my emotional and physical boundaries felt threatened.  While we had previously had discussions about how this student mistreats, and even abuses, people she cares about (including me), this time I realized that I could no longer engage with her personally or professionally, and suggested that she request a counselor change.  Although I want the student to work through the problem, I also refuse to be emotionally and verbally abused by her.  My hope is that the student learns, through the termination of our counseling relationship, to manage her emotions so as not to alienate others to the point of destroying her most valued relationships.  My lesson is a difficult one to learn.  Most people respond well to my counseling approach, but I will have to make sure that my boundaries are clear - that while I welcome students to question and challenge me, they must do so in a respectful manner, especially because I take great care to show my students respect first.

Personally, I realized that my emotional boundaries were being repeatedly crossed by the same person over the course of the past three years.  This was a pattern with most of my personal relationships with men; I was allowing them to expect more from me than they were willing to give.  This particular person is my "Mr. Biggs" (along the lines of the Ron Isley persona rather than the "Mr. Big" of Sex and the City fame; Mr. Biggs just sounds funnier).  It's obvious that we are strongly connected and that, in the smallest, most pure place in his heart, he loves me very much.  However, much like Mr. Big in Sex and the City, he has a habit of both pulling me into his world and forgetting me at his convenience.  I've spent most of the past three years trying to convince him (and myself) of how we want very different things in life and how love requires commitment, action and follow through.  Most recently, it finally occurred to me that it wasn't him I needed to cut off, despite the veritable choir of voices advising me to do so.  It was ME.  I had to set a boundary within myself that I would no longer allow myself to cross.  As much as my heart wanted to reach out to him to show him I cared, showing him love was an invitation for him to make empty promises and continue to disappoint me.  I had to realize that what I expected of myself - integrity, accountability and authenticity - were exactly what I expect from the person I choose to partner with in life.  Whenever he demonstrated the opposite of those traits, I was allowing him to cross the most valuable boundaries - those I had set up for myself.  Whenever I allowed him to cross those boundaries, I was violating my own boundaries.  Now, because he won't stop contacting me any time soon, and I don't need to be dramatic about it, I can respond to him from a place of empowerment.  The very boundaries I created for myself are those no one else will ever be able to cross.

People will want to see how far they can go, how much they can take you for granted, or how little effort they can put into getting what they want from you.  You can't control them.   It is up to YOU to make clear to yourself what you are willing to tolerate, and what is unacceptable.  Boundaries are very personal.  In the end, you have to live with yourself, and no one else.  I know that I want to live with my self-respect intact, and so I will honor my personal boundaries.  In doing so, I honor my deepest self.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who Is Trayvon?

Trayvon Martin, murdered on February 26, 2012
Everyone knows about the 17 year-old boy from Florida walking to his father's girlfriend's house from the store with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.  Trayvon Martin. Everyone with a conscience, a heart, and half a brain understands that Trayvon's death was a tragedy, that it was unnecessary, cruel, and inhumane.  Everyone knows that the killer has yet to be brought to justice, and like the coward he is, he is currently hiding because he is afraid for his own life.  (Funny how he's not even giving someone an opportunity to chase him down any streets, huh?)

Over the past week, many people have spoken out about the case, the motive, the murderer, and the investigation, but President Obama verbalized what many of us have thought, but maybe didn't articulate so eloquently: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."  President Obama reminded us that Trayvon Martin is a person, and he could have been someone we all know and care about.

I work with  students at a four-year public residential college.  The assumption some might make is that, if these students are making it to college, they are safe.  This assumption could not be further from the truth.

  • My students come to this rural, conservative, largely Caucasian community and feel out of place. 
  • They are noticed because they look different.
  • They are either greeted by phony friendliness or just completely ignored.
  • They are treated differently by some of their professors, as if they are not as intelligent as the other students.
  • Some of their peers assume they got into college because of affirmative action.
  • They are arrested and given excessive charges for making dumb decisions most teenagers make.
  • They are given the run-around by people who don't want to be bothered to help them navigate the system of undergraduate education.
  • Although they speak English, they come into an environment that speaks a language of privilege and cultural capital they have not learned.  
  • They might be the first in their family to go to college.  They might even be the first in their family to graduate high school.
  • They are scared that they will fail.  And they are scared that if they fail, they have not only failed themselves, but their families and friends.
  • Many of them chose this rural, small community hours from home because it is safer than the streets where they live; yet, this environment is almost as frightening if not more so.  

I didn't know Trayvon Martin, but I know countless teenagers and young adults who have lived a life running and hiding because they did not feel safe anywhere.  Those are the ones who ask me, "Why is my life so hard?"  They look at me and wonder, "Why do I continue to fail no matter how hard I try?"  "Why did I get picked out of the crowd and blamed for something I didn't do?"  And sometimes I tell them the truth: This system wasn't created for you to succeed, so you have to work harder; you have to study more; you have to watch every decision you make and never make a mistake that will get you noticed by the wrong people.  Sometimes I have to tell them: Your race is a factor whether you like it or not, or your gender is a factor no matter what anyone says about how far society has come.  Because the truth is what they need to hear so that they can empower themselves with the tools to cope, and to succeed.

Who is Trayvon?  All of our youth are Trayvon.  Our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our students, and yes, even the boy walking down the street with a hoodie that you might not know.  And we, as adults, need to care enough to tell them the truth, and to be there for them so that they have a place to feel safe.