Emotional Intimacy

July 27, 2021

I have trouble being direct sometimes- setting emotional boundaries, saying “no” when I mean no and “yes” when I mean yes. Whether this is due to years of my boundaries being disrespected, situations where to speak up would result in emotional or physical violence, or because being a women in this society means my words are still not universally respected (disagree? Perhaps you should join me at a used car dealership sometime), the fact of the matter is that when it comes time for me to express an emotional boundary, I sometimes shit the bed (so to speak).

This is most evident in my relationships with men, platonic or otherwise. Whether or not most men will agree, there is a physical power imbalance between men and women. It’s perhaps why it’s so much easier to be straightforward with man that is smaller than me than it is a tall, muscular man. To express boundaries with someone who has more power than me, physically or financially (e.g. a workplace supervisor or Executive), is not something I’ve evolved to do. And so, sometimes when I express an emotional boundary, I, as the smaller of the two beings in this relationship, might get loud. I am scared. I am scared the same way the small dog at the dog park is scared of the 100 pound German Shepard. I bark because I know that your bite could literally kill me. I advise you, sometimes gracefully and sometimes not-so-gracefully, to not come too close to the vulnerable parts of myself because I have not yet established trust with you.

How often, when you see a small Chihuahua barking at a German Shepherd, do you see the Shepherd react? Do you ever see it bark back, reprimand the little dog for daring to express itself? No, you don’t, because the German shepherd is aware of its size. It is aware of its physical power which it could, if it wanted, exert over the Chihuahua at any minute. And so, in dynamics where there is a larger, stronger party and a smaller, less physically capable party needs to set emotional boundaries, we can often see the same patterns we do with our physical boundaries. We are emotionally scared the same way we are physically scared, but we forget that we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Emotions are different. Emotional strength cannot be equated to physical strength. And yet, revealing our emotional vulnerabilities is often just as scary as revealing our physical vulnerabilities, especially when we haven’t been trained to expect a safe response from the person we deem more powerful than ourselves. Here’s how we make it easier for everybody.

  1. Acknowledge that you are the one that has the limitation/boundary.
    1. We tend to forget that what is true for us as individuals might not be true for everybody. For example, I love cilantro, but I can’t expect everybody to love cilantro. It would be naïve and ignorant for me to think that because I like cilantro, everybody in the world must like cilantro. The same is true for our emotional needs and communication styles. I am a sensitive person (more so than I’m proud of on most days), and I can’t expect everybody to treat me the way I treat myself. Most importantly, I can’t expect people who don’t know me that well to understand my sensitivities if they, themselves, have thicker skin. Can I work on not taking things personally? Absolutely! At the same time, can I acknowledge that when I have sensitivity around a certain tone of voice, behavior, or other environmental trigger? 100 percent. It would be unfair of me to expect that the people around me can read my mind or my heart, especially if I’ve evolved to have one hell of a poker face.
  2. Ask your partner/person in question why they do that thing they do from a place of genuine curiosity.
    1. If the person in your life keeps putting the toilet paper on the roll “the wrong way,” and you’d like it to be there “the right way,” before you get into a relationship-ending fight about toilet paper, ask them why they do that. “Hey babe, I’ve noticed you have a particular way of putting out the toilet paper. What do you like about having it that way?” Stay open to receiving the answer; it is most likely something you never would have predicted. They aren’t doing it to smite you or to challenge your unconditional love, but because they don’t even think about it and it’s the way it was always done in their household! From there, you can make your request for a change. Which brings us to step three:
  3. Share the impact this behavior is having on you and request a change.
    1. A lot of times, we don’t know when a certain behavior of ours is irking people around us. We are not as vocal or clear as animals when it comes to setting our boundaries. We’re wrapped up in “shoulds” and weird Freudian shit 99% of the time. We often don’t know how to ask for what we’d like/want, let alone feel empowered to do so. The bottom line is that we need to be completely okay with not getting what we want, and then compromise or walk away. For example, if having the toilet paper placed “the right way” is going to be a deal-breaker for you, it can be really scary to anticipate asking for it to be put out “the right way.” You may opt to avoid that conversation all together, suffering in silence but keeping your partner around because to change the status quo would mean risking the future of your relationship. And, you may be too insecure or anxious to face your fears, especially if your fears are emotional intimacy and emotional abandonment. So, it’s not as easy as simply saying “Having the toilet paper this way really reminds me of my childhood bathroom, which I’d rather not think about when I visit the Loo every day. Would you mind switching the way you put it out to support me in getting over this weird emotional trigger?” That could be one of the scariest things you ask this month! Someone who loves and respects you would be able to meet this request with compassion, and say “Gosh I had no idea! Thank you for being brave enough to share this with me. I will do my best to support you through this phase of your journey.” In order for them to respond this way, you must know yourself first. You must know what grinds your gears, triggers your tears, and flips on your fight-or-flight response. If, after all that, this person sees this as a reason to move on, you need to be strong enough to accept that.  In a worst-case scenario, they might respond with: “You know, having the toilet paper that way means more to me than our relationship. I’d like you to move out.” Yikes! While that may not be the answer you hoped to get, at least you’ve learned that you and your partner are NOT aligned and you can get on with finding someone who will show you compassion and respect. And, in all honesty, sometimes simply acknowledging how the toilet paper makes you feel is enough. You may not need it to be changed at all, you just needed your partner to know what you were feeling and communicate that to them.
  4. Move on with or without the changes made.
    1. If your partner is willing to work with you, to support you, to see your vulnerabilities and acknowledge they could lend a helping hand, you’ve got a great person by your side. If, however, your partner doesn’t think you are worth supporting/making those changes, they may not be the right person for you. At least, they are not going to be the supportive and compassionate person you may currently be seeking. And so, you have to be willing to move on, to find a person who will put the toilet paper on “the right way.”

Obviously this article isn’t about toilet paper. “Toilet paper” can be interchanged with so many of our emotional vulnerabilities. We may be uncomfortable when a partner takes a certain tone with us, when a partner touches us a certain way, or when a partner neglects to communicate when they are going to be coming home at a certain time. We are all little Chihuahuas in our own right, with limitations, histories, and sensitivities that need be communicated. As adults, we have a responsibility to know ourselves so that others may know us, too. We have our own voice boxes, vocal chords, and emotional intuition. These tools must be applied to skillfully craft a healthy relationship. When we fail to employ our tools, we are left with a messy, edgy, unfinished version of what our relationships could be. That’s what this whole toilet-paper analogy is all about: things can be different. We just have to actually, you know, do stuff to effect the changes we wish to see.  

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