Guarding Your Own Life

If you saw a loved one in danger of drowning, your immediate reaction would probably be to jump in and pull them to safety. Unfortunately, it is actually the most dangerous action to take. A panicked person has unusual strength and will actually push the rescuer under the water in an instinctive attempt to reach the surface. It is better to keep a safe distance and extend something toward them to retain leverage.

I am certainly not a lifeguard. A friend shared this tidbit of safety knowledge with me today as a metaphor for being in a relationship with someone managing depression. The idea sparked a few insights that I wanted to explore:

The Water
Individuals with mental illness were born in deeper waters than most; the depths beneath them are always there. The danger of “drowning” (falling into a deep depression) is inherent within their make-up as a human being, particularly when life circumstances or chemical changes in the brain cause rough, choppy waters.

The Drowning Person
The instinctive self-preservation of the drowning person – pushing the rescuer down in an effort to reach air – made me think about how depression changes a person’s personality and motivations at times. Mental illness is real; there are chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions. Actions that appear selfish or illogical are often manifestations of this illness in the brain. That’s not to say that choice does not exist, but these physical components of the illness tangle together, making motivations unclear. Thinking of it like this softens the pain of misunderstanding and disappointment.

The Rescuer
The advice not to jump into the water feels counterintuitive. My tendency is to dive right into the dangerous waters, thinking I can solve any problem, fix any situation. In reality, I can’t even swim and I’m not particularly strong. The panicked strength of a drowning person could quickly overpower me. Despite my enthusiasm, all I would accomplish is my own drowning, in addition to the loved one I sought to rescue. At times, I am in the water already, struggling with my own depression. How can I save someone else, when I am barely treading water?

Distance
In my own situation, I realized that because we both suffer from depression of varying degrees, I need more distance to keep myself from falling deeper into the water. It gives me more leverage which enhances my overall strength. We can’t be together, but I can offer more loving support from a safe distance than I ever could from beside him in the water.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson

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Dancing Moon as Teacher

Circles are often used to depict relationships — between couples, amongst family members, within organizations, or in nature. They are an ideal visual for understanding connections and boundaries. This is certainly not a new concept, but a recent conversation with a friend triggered some fresh insights.

She described a healthy relationship as two circles, overlapping slightly like the picture below. One circle does not overtake the other. Unhealthy relationships, on the other hand, overlap so much that there is just a sliver of individuality left for each. This graphic made me think of the moon. Once the idea presented itself, some parallels began to emerge.

Perception and Wholeness. The moon doesn’t actually change shape or size; our vantage point on earth and the sun’s reflection determine its appearance. If I compare my “self” to the moon, it means that I am whole. This is an immutable fact of nature. Therefore, feeling less than whole is simply a matter of perception, not reality.

Dynamics. Rather than visualizing two static circles, like the picture above, I envisioned the moon dancing with its “shadow” following in concert, like a dark moon shifting back and forth beside it. The moon’s constant orbital tango with its shadow partner, seen by watching the waning and waxing quarters and half moons, could represent the importance of both awareness and flexibility.  In a healthy relationship, I would anticipate change and quickly adjust to the circumstances. I would naturally know when to allow my needs to take priority or a back seat, depending on my partner and the situation.

Movement and Balance. Of course, dance requires movement. Regardless of where the moon might “stop,” there would be dire consequences. Tides provide an interesting analogy. They are highest at the new and full moons. If the moon ceased to orbit at either of these times, there would be a perpetual high tide — pinned in place by the moon’s gravitational pull. From a relationship perspective, a full or new moon represent one person negating the other. Like the ocean being pulled toward the sky, the relationship would feel tense and exhausting. Extremes are never welcome in nature; retaining balance requires constant change.

Nature is always teaching me something. Full moon tonight — look up and be enlightened!

Metaphoric Sunscreen

My skin is very fair. I have suffered from enough sunburn to understand the importance of sunscreen and its meticulous application. I can recall a particularly painful incident at the beach where I dutifully covered myself in sunscreen, only to find later that I’d missed the tops of my feet. With my poor feet in a bucket of cold water, I pondered the power of that sunscreen. Most of my body would have been throbbing with the same painful redness, had it not been for a seemingly benign lotion. It’s like an invisible force field lying on the surface of  your skin. A sweet-smelling cosmetic is stronger than the sun’s powerful rays? It’s pretty unbelievable, but I’ve seen it work and I trust its effectiveness. Once I lather on the sunscreen, I feel comfortable and safe. I am protected from immediate and long-term harm.

What if I could have that intuitive sense of protection from an emotional perspective?

If physical skin represents emotional boundaries, I need a metaphoric sunscreen to prevent the absorption of other people’s feelings. Just as I have fair skin, I have weak emotional boundaries. It is very difficult for me discern my own emotions from others, especially when there are strong feelings involved. They seem to seep inside me, whether positive or negative. I then act on these emotions and thoughts, never quite sure if they are truly my own.

I did a bit of research on skin protection and gleaned some insights from each fact that can apply to the concept of emotional boundaries  —

1. How much exposure is too much? We’ve all heard that humans absorb Vitamin D from the sun. On the other hand, the sun’s radiation can ultimately have dire consequences like skin cancer. I learned that 10-15 minutes a day, twice a week, of direct sunlight is enough to obtain your Vitamin D requirement without risk. Otherwise, sunscreen should be applied.

My intention is not to shut off all empathic communication/connection with others. There is value and beauty in sharing others’ emotions — whether helping someone grieve or celebrating their triumphs. The key is limiting this openness so you do not lose yourself.

2. What Sun Protection Factor (SPF) sunscreen do you need? It depends on your own personal skin type – how fast you burn without any protection. If it takes you ten minutes to sunburn, then applying SPF 15 will allow you to prevent sunburn for 150 minutes.

Everyone is different. Some people naturally have stronger emotional boundaries and don’t need as much “sunscreen” as I do. I have to acknowledge this aspect of myself and use the “formula” to gauge what SPF I need based on how long I will be amongst people who may inadvertently push their emotions onto me.

3. What is the difference between UVA and UVB? UVA radiation causes premature aging. UVB radiation causes sunburn and skin cancer. Most sources advise using sunscreen with “broad spectrum” coverage to protect against both.

The immediate effects of absorbing other people’s emotions may manifest as depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability – much like sunburn. After many years of foreign emotions taking hold, they can grow on their own, branching new ideas and thoughts, like an unnatural cancer. Individual actions are taken based on emotions that are not my own – or have been skewed by others. These actions have long-term repercussions – greatly impacting the direction of my life, causing sadness and pain that could have been avoided.

4. Do you only need sunscreen on sunny days at the beach? Even on a cloudy day 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays pass through the clouds. The sun reflects 17 percent on sand and 80 percent on snow. Also, ultraviolet radiation increases 4 percent for every 1,000-foot increase in altitude.

I must consider not only who I’ll be with, but where I’ll be. Will my emotional boundaries be weakened by the number of people, the purpose of the gathering or my connection to the place? I must remain vigilant and aware – a baseline of protection is always needed.

I wish I could pop into the drug store and pick up a bottle of metaphoric sunscreen, but it’s not currently on the market. However, I’ve written down some of the ingredients…although I’m sure I’m missing some…

1. Awareness: I know that my boundaries are naturally very open and permeable and that certain people and situations exacerbate this tendency. I still want to remain compassionate and open to others, but I know that limited exposure is healthier. Knowing all of this, I can plan ahead. If the situation seems dangerous, I can avoid it altogether.

2.  Preparation: If I know that I will be in a susceptible position, I can:

  • Visualize applying my metaphoric sunscreen. I could use body lotion, charging it with the intention of protecting my psychic boundaries. I could imagine a white light surrounding my body.
  • Meditate or practice some simple breathing exercises to ensure that I am grounded and hyper-aware of my own emotions so I can recognize others’ intruding.

3. Practice: With the above two, my boundaries will strengthen, so my protection is enhanced. Sunscreen (the real thing) can actually repair damaged skin if used regularly.

I’m sure other parallels could be drawn, but these were the ones that occurred to me. Must be the sunny weather. I welcome ideas and thoughts to strengthen the concept and provide guidance to others who are “fair-skinned.”