People closest to you often don’t see you when you project strength. They acknowledge your humanity, because it’s the cool, woke thing to do. When the world gets too heavy and you express such, they use words like “protect your energy” and “self-care.” The people closest to you are willing to fortify and protect you against everyone and everything that threatens your well-being — unless you need protection from them and the things they do.
When my son was ill, I had a partner whom I cared for a lot; loved even. And one night in bed, after a particularly emotional evening, I just started crying. About everything and nothing. It is a fair assumption that few things are more confusing to men than the site of a woman’s tears. My partner’s reaction, however, was this heavy silence, while he sat like a stone. No reassurance. No hugs. Just a text later asking me, “Mind telling me what that was about?” I shut down, because if I can’t trust you to hold me when that’s so obviously what I need, I won’t trust you not to be a douche canoe via text. I can’t walk a person through every step of loving me. At some point, the shit becomes at least partially intuitive.
This moment was a catalyst for reevaluating my relationships overall. I took stock of friends who dumped complaints about jobs, boyfriends, girlfriends, their neighbors, that bitch on Twitter, that bitch on Facebook, and unrequested advice on how I was doing life wrong, but would clam up when I opened myself up. I noticed how I was expected to be a repository for what ailed them until they felt better. I was encouraged to engage in self-care — but on someone else’s time, because they had feelings to purge. I stopped being a never ending fountain of affirmation and strength and allowed myself humanity.
I set boundaries. “You won’t talk to me like this.” “This isn’t something I’m in a position to handle.” “This topic is off limits.” I use these phrases often, because I am not a plow mule. And sometimes, I just don’t respond. It works. And while people are sometimes taken aback when I let them know they’re being a source of pain, the decent ones recognize that they stepped on the soft and squishy territory. As for the ones who struggle with being decent? I let them figure themselves out. They’re soft and squishy too. They just haven’t learned how to navigate it yet.