Saturday, March 31, 2012

Forming Boundaries Late in Life

Do any of these sound like you?

I have to always say yes to others, or else I am selfish.
I have to always hide my hurt, or else I am unloving.
I have to treat other people as faultless, or else I am holding a grudge.
I have to keep my wants and needs to myself, or else I am a burden to others.

People who experienced authoritarian parents tend to turn into adults with poor boundaries.  They were trained for it their whole lives and can't imagine another way of doing things.  However, it's an extremely unsatisfying and unsustainable way to live, don't you think?  But most importantly, it's actually not what a loving person is like!  For me, when I was in that mindset, my "loving" actions were actually motivated by obligation or guilt because I thought I didn't really have a choice; I was just an actor.

Besides hindering me from showing real love based on real choice, this mindset also prevented me from ever feeling loved.  My buried wants and needs were still there; I just expected any true friend to be hyper-vigilant to my emotional state and correctly guess my unexpressed wants/needs.  I felt that anyone who didn't put in that monumental effort didn't really care about me.  And when people hurt me, I didn't give them a chance to repair the damage to the relationship; I either lied to myself and them by saying that I wasn't hurt, or I expected them to realize the problem and fix it without being told.  Obviously, it was really hard for anyone to break through those defenses to form a real and lasting connection with me, even if they wanted to.

When I was in my late teens/early twenties, equipped with my driver's license, I began to have more opportunities to interact with my peers.  However, with my poor boundaries and repressed emotions from authoritarian parenting, and with my severe social anxiety from isolated homeschooling, I wasn't exactly set up for success.  It's not surprising that I was able to form friendships with more dominant and outgoing people most easily at first.  They were the ones who were confident enough to break through my guardedness and befriend invisible me.  I had no identity and nothing to contribute, and they were the ones who could talk enough to cover for my silence. They were the ones with ideas that I could go along with. And, thankfully, they were the ones who could ask me the pushy and nosy questions on occasion that helped to break open my protective shell.

It's also not surprising, although really sad, that many of those first friendships didn't last through the turbulence of my mid- and late- twenties.  In a way, I was really experiencing my teens and twenties simultaneously.  Out on my own for college, I was trying to discover and establish my own identity for the first time in my life, and dealing with an incredible amount of childhood baggage at the same time.  And just when I felt I was making real progress in replacing social anxiety with relationships, my progress in forming boundaries set me back.

I asked my husband to provide a little outside perspective of what the process looked like, since most of it took place during our relationship.  He sees it this way:

1.  I realized that conflict had to be acknowledged and resolved rather than ignored in order to have a healthy relationship.  That meant that it was ok to admit when someone's behavior bothered me.  However, since I had no experience at conflict management, I didn't know when or how to go about it.  I was a mess of over-reactions and under-reactions, and the whole time I was incredibly stressed and afraid of rejection.

2.  Once I began to open up about my feelings, wants, and needs, a backlog of repressed emotions suddenly started to flow out.  In my mind, lists of ways I had been wronged started to appear, even from all those times that I thought I was being loving and not keeping a record.  So, whenever I needed to talk to someone about a conflict, they would be surprised and hurt by the size of my list of related issues.

3.  I wasn't secure enough in my boundaries, so I was hyper-sensitive to any attempts to control or manipulate me, whether it was a friend or a family member.  Even just their attempt to change my opinion by sharing a different perspective was threatening to me.  Figuratively speaking, if a person even dared to knock politely on my boundary wall, I would appear with a shotgun and tell them to get off my property.  I had very strong ideas about how I should be treated, and it was almost impossible for people to fit in my narrow tolerances.  Everything had to be on my terms; I expected anyone who cared about me to change immediately when I informed them of a problem.

4.  Now I'm finally feeling more secure in my boundaries, so I'm starting to become more balanced and pick my battles more carefully.  I'm getting better at differentiating between real offenses and simple mistakes, as well as determining what approach might be most effective way to manage the conflict.  I'm also trying to prevent emotional build-up by dealing with things right away.  And most importantly, I'm trying to take other people's differences and imperfections into account and realize that change usually comes slowly.  It's easier to accept that when I remember that others are also being patient with me in ways I can't fully see.

I deeply appreciate my husband's support during this process; without him, it would have been much more difficult to work through so many issues.  Even though this process has been extremely challenging and painful at times, and even though I still have a lot of progress left to make, I am so much happier than I was before.  Now when I choose to help people, I have the reward of feeling happy and satisfied because I did it willingly.  Now I take responsibility for my needs, wants, and feelings, so I don't feel so helpless and dependent.  Now when I choose to tolerate people's imperfections, I feel a sense of our shared humanity rather than feeling devalued.

However, it is unfortunate that I had to go through this process so late in life.  I feel like it was much more traumatic than it needed to be because it conflicted with the progress I was making in forging friendships with people for the first time in my life.  If you are dealing with similar issues as an adult, I'd like to recommend two things: read the book  "Boundaries" by Cloud and Townsend and find yourself a good therapist; hopefully you can find a way to establish and maintain good boundaries in a less destructive way than I did.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Authoritarian Parenting and Emotional Repression

I have a lot of respect for my dad. He's thoughtful and generous to all of us. His constant reading makes him an interesting and well-informed conversationalist.  He makes his life decisions very carefully, yet never looks down on me for making different decisions than him.  Instead, he tells me all the time that he loves and misses me, and that he's proud of who I've become. I feel so lucky to have him as my dad.

Unfortunately, we have not always gotten along so well.  Less than ten years ago, our relationship had been almost completely destroyed thanks to the authoritarian parenting techniques of the fundamentalist Christian homeschooling culture (in our case, it was Reb Bradley's Child Training Tips). Authoritarian parenting forced both of us into roles that we were not at all suited for, with tragic results.

For my dad, authoritarian parenting caused him to see our relationship as a power struggle; maintaining his authority was his biggest responsibility and highest priority.  After all, if we were calling the shots in our own lives, we would become self-indulgent and lack internal self-control.  That would lead us to more dangerous "worldly" teenage rebellion against our parents and God.  So in order not to fail at parenting, my dad had to be hyper-vigilant against giving up power to us kids.  What an insane amount of responsibility to put on one person!  And how difficult to create a positive relationship with that kind of dynamic: it's impossible to mandate real respect and love!  My dad began to crack under the pressure.

For me as a teen, authoritarian parenting very nearly reduced me to an empty shell of a person. I found that my opinions and emotions were sources of trouble and guilt.   Anger or frustration--even just on my face--were signs of disrespect and lack of self-control. Questioning my parents' decisions or expressing different opinions, even on trivial matters, were signs of rebellion.  Even the simple act of lifting my eyebrows could get me in trouble.  In order to survive, I had to bury my negative emotions and try to become more passive and less opinionated.

In addition to guarding my facial expressions and speech against "disrespect" and "rebellion", I also had to hide many positive feelings. My parents' preferred method of discipline when I was in my teens was to take away privileges. Anything that I had shown happiness or excitement about was a likely target. So, to protect things I cared about, I tried to stay detached. One technique that helped me care less about something was to focus on the negative about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to rekindle my excitement once my negativity had extinguished it, but at least it was easier to deal with the feelings of helplessness and disappointment.

At the worst point in my relationship with my dad, I went for several years without my dad smiling at me even one time.  He spent long hours at work or locked in his room and tried to avoid talking to me or looking at me when we passed. But still, every night, my mom made me find him to say, "Goodnight Dad, I love you," and stand there looking at the back of his head with no answer.  Any time I protested this nightly tradition and expressed my hurt to my mom, she simply cautioned me not to let the "root of bitterness" spring up in my heart. So I did my best to bury my negative emotions, just like I saw my mom doing.

I was supposedly in the prime of my life, but I started to feel very old. My body was full of aches and pains, and I was constantly tired or dealing with a headache. Finally, at my mom's urging, I went to see a doctor.  I was caught off guard when the doctor asked, "Do you think you're depressed?" "Oh my goodness, no!" I answered. When the doctor left the room, I burst into tears with no idea why. I finally decided that I must have been upset that my Christian witness was damaged since I wasn't showing Jesus' peace and joy on my face during my doctor's appointment.

Looking back, it's easy to identify that I was deeply depressed and incredibly emotionally repressed.  But I didn't interpret it that way at the time.  I saw my depression as "deep spiritual sensitivity" that came from my desire to be perfect.  And I saw my emotional repression as "true love": by pretending I was never bothered and that I had no preferences, I thought I was being unselfish and putting the needs of everyone else before my own.

As I entered college and started to work through many of my social anxiety issues, I continued using the relational techniques that had helped me survive at home.  I was passive; I went along with other people's ideas and goals; I had no strong opinions or desires of my own.  I was just there, a non-factor, grateful to be included.

The real change for me came through developing my relationship with my boyfriend/husband.  Our long conversations helped me work through my pent up emotions and discover my opinions.  On many occasions, he waited patiently even for 20 minutes, silently walking next to me with his arm around my shoulders, so I could finally express a basic opinion or feeling.  At some point, I came uncorked, and we now have an entirely different challenge as my opinions and feelings come flying from left and right!  In time, I'll find balance.

Sorry, but I don't agree with ___.
I felt really sad when you ____.
I'd really rather ____.
I don't really enjoy ___.
In my opinion, ___.

These phrases may seem mundane to you, but to me they are priceless.  Every time I use them, they remind me that I am a real and valuable person with my own identity, my own voice, my own choice.  They make me feel empowered because I remember what it was like to try to live without them.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sexuality: the Elephant in the Room

My mom walked into my bedroom and handed me a heavy biology textbook. "Read chapter 13," she told me, breathless and blushing. Then she rushed out. I opened to the appropriate chapter: "The Reproductive System". That was my entire sex education; I was 17 years old.

I think we can all agree: sex education should probably be done by people who have said the word "sex" out loud at least once in their lives.

My parents' denial of sexuality couldn't stop puberty, and couldn't stop our curiosity about sex. Instead, their attitude clearly showed us kids that we could never go to our parents with any questions or concerns that were related to our sexuality or genitals. For me, I found some answers around age 11 when I looked up "sex" and "puberty" in the encyclopedia. Later, a hidden copy of "What Solomon Says About Love, Sex, and Intimacy" in my parents' closet provided hours of heart-throbbing reading.

Not every homeschooling family is so repressed about sex, but at Reb Bradley's church, my family found a culture of people who were also trying to ignore the elephant in the room. A favorite theme of Reb Bradley was sexual purity and "Biblical courtship". He was fond of referring to 1 Timothy 5:2, which says, "Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity." According to his interpretation, all young men were to treat all young women as sisters, absent of sexuality.

Paradoxically, Reb Bradley also taught that these single "siblings in Christ" should not be allowed to mingle freely with each other because of temptation.....wait, what? How are you supposed to treat someone as a brother or sister if you're not allowed to spend time with them? I guess Reb really didn't believe that platonic friendships were possible between the genders after all.  I think even Jesus himself would have gotten disapproving looks like the mingling teens in the back row if he came to Hope Chapel.  After all, "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus" (John 11:5)--if Jesus was close friends with single women even in ancient Jewish culture, then why was it forbidden at Hope Chapel?

So how could an honorable young man find himself a wife in this gender-segregated culture? Ideally, he had to notice a girl from across the room--for her godliness, mind you, not her body--and approach her dad to ask permission to court her. Without knowing much about her, he would have to prove to the dad that he was serious about a relationship with the daughter.

If the dad thought the young man was suitable, he would inform the young man of the physical boundaries of the relationship, such as when/if they could start to hold hands. The dad could also control the frequency of contact, monitor emails and phone calls, and require all interaction happen in the presence of other family members. It was encouraged but not Biblically necessary for the father to ask his daughter for her opinion of the young man, regardless of the age of the daughter.

I saw this courtship process attempted once in Reb Bradley's own family. However, even with his courtship "expertise", Reb's involvement was not able to prevent a lot heartbreak, drama, and broken friendships when the courtship ended.  And even Reb's involvement and teaching couldn't prevent at least three of his six children from having premarital sex, including one unwed pregnancy.  I am not saying this because I think his kids are bad people--they certainly are not.  I'm only saying these things because Reb Bradley is still trying to sell himself as an expert on family relationships and courtship.  His materials give other parents false expectations of the outcome; people who take his advice should not expect better results than the man himself has been able to achieve.

When I started college at age 22, I determined to give male friendship and dating a try.  It was very difficult at first.  Because I was paranoid about flirting or being attractive, I had trouble relaxing and just being myself.  However, I was encouraged to persevere because I could see the benefits right away.  Long conversations with guys helped me see the world differently and let me experience a different style of communication.  Once I could interact freely with guys, I stopped developing crushes on every boy I saw.  I started to gain confidence about myself, and I started to see what type of guys I got along with the best.

Compatibility, not just character and beliefs, is important to consider when selecting a spouse. This is something that the couple can only determine for themselves by spending lots of time together, not only in groups but also alone.  No wonder Reb Bradley tries to downplay compatibility; he wants to keep the father in charge and he wants the father to control the sexual aspect of the relationship as well. That's why he teaches singles that they can make a marriage work with anyone, and it's better for their sanctification to marry someone really different from themselves.

In case anyone cares, even though I dated a few different people in college, I was still a virgin when I married.  However, I was surprised to learn that my virginity wasn't the "gift to my husband" that I was led to believe.  My amazing husband, himself a virgin at marriage, honestly didn't care about whether or not I'd had sex before.  Additionally, we both found that physical closeness helped us maintain emotional closeness and openness with each other throughout our dating relationship.  The process of getting to know each other mentally and emotionally is gradual, so why should getting to know each other physically be so abrupt?  We were both very happy that we allowed some sexual progress in our dating relationship, and we both feel it has helped us to have a healthier sex life in our marriage.

For me, what I've learned is that there is no use in denying that we are sexual beings, and no benefit to fearing it or trying to hide it.  Accept yourself, take responsibility for yourself, and make your own choices.  You'll find that sexuality is not such a scary and powerful monster when you stop treating it like one.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Homeschooled Girls and Trash Cans: The Social Isolation of Homeschooling

What do homeschooled girls and trash cans have in common?  
They both only leave the house once a week.

This joke was well-received among homeschooled youth because it rang true for so many of us.  For almost all of my teen years, church was the only social activity that I engaged in, the only time during the whole week that I might have a chance to interact with people who were not my immediate family.  Making friends in that context, especially as a shy teen girl, seems daunting.  However, I had an even greater obstacle to deal with: I was not allowed to participate in youth group.

My parents were absolutely terrified of teenage rebellion.  Thanks to various books and speakers popular in the homeschooling community, my parents believed teen rebellion to be a recent American trend due to indulgent parenting and peer pressure.  A rebellious teen was more than just an annoyance in the homeschooling community: that teen was turning his/her back not only on the parents, but also on God.  What a tragic waste of years of sacrifice and careful training by the parents!  This type of thinking motivated my parents to maintain careful discipline and to shelter us from almost all contact with our peers, even at church.

I distinctly remember the conversation between the youth pastor and my mom.  I was probably 14 or 15, and so shy that I would start shaking if anyone tried to talk to me at church.  Although social interaction was painful, I desperately needed it, and I think the youth pastor noticed that.  He approached my parents after church one day to invite us to Sunday school.  My mom asked for the materials that were being used in Sunday school, and took them home to peruse them with my dad.  I heard the decision the next week at the same time as the youth pastor: "Our kids will not be attending Sunday school."  The reason?  Apparently the material mentioned a teen who was frustrated with his parents, and it was dangerous for me to think that frustration was a valid or normal feeling for a teen to have toward parents.

The tough thing about social phobia is that it is often self-reinforcing.  In my case, my severe social anxiety displayed itself in uncontrollable muscle spasms, and anticipating the shaking made me even more anxious about interacting with people.  What if someone noticed me shaking?  I used to cry myself to sleep at night quite often, occasionally trying to get my mom to notice my tears by sniffing juuuust loud enough for her to hear as she walked by my door.  When she came in to ask why I was crying, I would say something like, "I don't have any friends" or "I don't know how to talk to people."  The answer to these was always the same: "You have us" or "You're talking to me right now."  In the morning, life would proceed as usual.

Unfortunately, the "usual" for my life at home was very empty and quiet.  My dad was working long hours and was permanently in a bad mood when at home, and my mom was always sapped of energy for various reasons.  She left us kids to do our schoolwork independently much of the time; we even corrected our own errors from the answer key.  Later, due to mysterious and debilitating health problems, her energy was so low that just going to the grocery store was often too much for her to handle.  It was simply understood in the family that we shouldn't harass her about wanting to leave the house.  Since I wasn't able to get my driver's license until I was 18, I was stuck for hours, days, weeks, months, years with little-to-no mental or social stimulation.

Little-to-no stimulation is not an exaggeration; obviously, a teen girl who can't even go to Sunday school due to "bad influences" is going to find many other things forbidden to her as well.  Our home did not have a TV; we watched few movies; we only read pre-approved Christian or classical books; we did not have internet access; and we certainly did not listen to most music.  My one musical joy was listening to Steve Green and going to his concert with another homeschooling mom.  When I tried to add Rebecca St. James to my CD collection, my mom almost had a meltdown because of the beat and the heavy breathing; it didn't matter that almost every song was a verbatim quote from the Bible.  I knew my role--honor your parents--so that CD went straight into the trash and I tried to feel happy that I was obeying God.

What did I do with my time at home?  I dragged my school work out to take up most of the day; I spent large amounts of time spaced out, lying on my bed; I wrote in my journals; and I made my own clothes.  My homemade clothes were the outward sign of my feelings of isolation.  Starting at about age 13, I was responsible for furnishing my own wardrobe (within the boundaries of modesty my parents provided, of course).  I had $25 a month to work with, and my mom could tolerate shopping at fabric stores much more than at clothing stores, where everything was "immodest."  (And that was in the women's clothing sections--I didn't even know that clothing came in junior sizes until after I had graduated from high school!)  Out on various errands or on family vacations, wearing my very odd, ill-fitting clothing, I felt the stares and desperately wished that human contact was unnecessary.  "I wish I could just be a hermit!" ....this sentence occurs a little too frequently in my teen journals.

My first friend of my teenage years came from Hope Chapel, when I was about 17.  Pastor Reb Bradley, with the support of the homeschooling families of HC, would not allow a youth group in the church.  Finally, I was not so odd!  It was easier to strike up a conversation with someone, knowing they might be just as desperate and nervous as me.  It was easier to not feel judged when the other person's clothes were just as odd as my own.  I could more easily feel successful at conversation because it was not full of cultural references that I had no idea about.  I became a little more confident socially, strengthened my atrophied conversational muscles, and got a little more hopeful about life.  I was even able to add a second friend by the time I was 19.

Now I'm 30 years old, with four years of college and eight years of work between me and my teen self, yet I still feel the effects of the isolation I experienced growing up.

First, I still feel significant social anxiety in even the most non-threatening situations.  I am particularly at a loss in group settings full of new people.  What do I say? When do I say it? Whom do I say it to?  How/when do I end a conversation?  Even in a circle setting, when it's my turn to say my name, my blood pressure skyrockets.

Second, in the whole world, there is no place and no group of people where I feel like I belong.  It's like I was raised in a different culture, with the distinct difference that I can never go "home" to it.  I'm permanently a foreigner; interacting in this foreign culture takes a lot of attention and effort.  I've tried to catch up on the culture I missed...to watch the movies, to listen to the music, to see pictures of the clothing styles.....but it will never mean to me what it means to you.  People always use cultural references and nostalgia as a way to build community and connections between people; for me, they create distance and remind me how different I am inside.

My profile photo is of the 80s star Molly Ringwald.  The first time I ever heard her name mentioned was at my first real job, when I was 22 years old.  God bless my dear gay boss, who saw through my awkwardness and gave me a chance at the job because I looked like his favorite childhood actress!  When he learned that I had no idea who she was, his jaw hit the floor.

These days, I manage to avoid shocking people too much, unless I decide to tell them about my past.  To me, the biggest compliment I can receive today is, "You were homeschooled? Wow, I can't even tell!"

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Good Intentions, Bad Fruit

I heard the stories so many times as I was growing up, the reasons for my parents' decision to pull me out of public school halfway through first grade and start to homeschool me.  I heard how I cried every day when my mom dropped me off at school.  I heard how I was bored in class because I had learned to read at age 3, long before going to kindergarten.  I heard how my teacher was wasting classroom time on political issues by having the class write a letter about saving some whales.  I heard how the teacher hurt my feelings badly by insulting my quiet speaking voice during a presentation.  I heard how I had the problem boy as my seatmate because I was the best behaved student.  I never thought to question my mom's narrative; school was certainly a terrible place for me, based on her stories.

As a former elementary school teacher, my mom knew that she could give me a more personalized education than I would get in a classroom of 30 other students.  While helping me get ahead academically, she would also be able to protect me from worldly and liberal influences.  The temporary sacrifice would certainly produce rich rewards for our family, she believed, so she steeled her will against criticism and dove in the the relatively new homeschooling movement in Northern California.

These days, I am often amazed at adults who remember what grade they were in for important world events, or who say things like "This was my favorite song in 6th grade!"  As a homeschooled student, I have almost no time markers on my memories.  Everything is a blur.  However, it seems like homeschooling went fairly well for my family throughout elementary school.  We were part of a homeschool group that had weekly park days and occasional field trips to factories, restaurants, and government offices.  My younger brother and I were very independent in our learning, with high reading comprehension, so we could complete our assignments each day with very little input from my mom.  Although there was almost no regulation of homeschooling in CA at the time, my mom still made sure that we covered the same general topics as our public school counterparts in each grade, except of course that our education was exclusively from a Christian perspective.

Years of countering criticism of homeschooling, years of being surrounded by other like-minded Christian homeschoolers....the effects on my family were detrimental.  We lost the ability to objectively evaluate whether homeschooling was still working for our family.  Things were obviously falling apart as my brother and I reached our teen years and as my younger sister reached school age, but no one could acknowledge it.  By then, our identity as homeschoolers was inseparable from our spiritual, political, and family identity.  Failure was not an option.

Desperate to achieve the Christian homeschooled family ideal, my family was drawn into the dangerous personality cult of Reb Bradley and began attending his homeschooling church, Hope Chapel.  Each member of our family has suffered as a result of the messages and culture of Hope Chapel.  Our weaknesses were exacerbated by the well-intentioned "support" we received there.

For me personally, the last 10 years have been an intense journey, a re-working of my entire worldview, in an attempt to become a healthier and happier person.  I've been working hard to weed out the deeply-rooted ideas that were planted by the homeschooling community and Hope Chapel, and I've seen the positive effects on my life as I have done so.

Upcoming posts will cover my personal growth in each of the areas where I was damaged:

Social isolation

Fear of sexuality

Emotional repression

Poor boundaries

Restrictive view of gender roles

Warped view of humanity