When I first asserted my boundaries, I felt like an asshole. Even the meekest form of protest led to me feeling like the biggest bitch in the world. I would apologize for ridiculous things like asking someone on a crowded train to literally step off my foot. My jerk-o-meter had to be recalibrated. It was obviously off-center.
I’m going through that same process again, but instead of adjusting how I feel when defending myself, now I’m adjusting how I feel when I take initiative. Whether it’s writing a blog post, drawing art, talking to friends, or even just having feelings that aren’t a reactionary form of self-defense, I constantly hold back because I’m worried about being a jerk. I’m afraid to take up space. I’m afraid to speak my mind in any way except defensively. I’m afraid to have likes and dislikes. (I usually can’t even remember my favorite songs or movies unless I have a list in front of me.) I’m afraid to reach out to friends; I wait for them to contact me instead. I do all this under the guise of “protecting the people around me” because I was taught that who I am is inherently evil and damaging.
It’s pretty obvious I have a second jerk-o-meter that’s off-center, but this time the recalibration process has consequences that are potentially more severe. When I overreact in self-defense, it’s pretty easy for both sides to empathize and talk it through. It’s harder to blame myself. There’s an outside agent I can easily label as the instigator. But if I’m hurtful just by expressing what’s inside me? That is much more personal. It’s harder to tease apart the Self from malleable, redeemable learned behavior.
I try to remind myself that it’s normal for people to make mistakes. Nobody goes through life without hurting others. People make mistakes–sometimes horrific ones–learn from them, grow, and move on. There are countless people in my life who have hurt others, either accidentally or intentionally, who I would never describe as evil or as Bad People. For some reason I have a hard time applying the same nuance to my own capacity to hurt others. Despite all my years in recovery, when it comes to this aspect of my life I’m still stuck in black-and-white thinking.
The problem is, the real world isn’t composed of villains and saints. It only has people. Black-and-white thinking was the first thing I learned about in therapy twelve years ago. Now I find myself surrounded by it still, like a Buffy villain that refuses to die for good.
Hello old friend, we meet again.