Category Archives: normalizing what should be normal

The Art of Being Alone

One of the adjustments being widowed has required is getting used to doing things alone that I used to do with a partner. Traveling, attending events, and dining out are all activities that I was used to do doing with my late husband. Shortly after he died, I got a crash course in being alone at an event I would normally attend with him when a cousin got married. Luckily, I wasn’t alone at the wedding by a long stretch—my daughter, stepson, son-in-law, mother-in-law, and several other family members I’m close to were there. But it was the first big social event I went to sans date that I would normally have gone to with my husband. The irony of being unwillingly alone at an event celebrating partnership was tough to handle and I did excuse myself at one point to go cry in privacy.                    

Despite being very introverted and needing lots of alone time, there are many times when I don’t want to be alone. Going to social events and places where most people are with others makes me feel very conspicuous about being alone. There’s comfort in having a partner in crime with you, someone who can make you feel less awkward when you walk into a wall or can’t read a sign (as a vision impaired person, this happens to me all the time and having someone else with me makes it funny instead of embarrassing), who can make idle chit chat with you so you’re not left standing alone, or who can swoop in and relieve you of talking to the person everyone has warned you about.

Although I would prefer to have a partner with me at many events, I am not going to let being widowed keep me from enjoying things I want to do. A few months after my husband died, I went to a place I had gone to many times with him and never alone: some popular hot springs in Colorado. It was somewhat terrifying because my vision in hot springs is particularly bad—the steam makes it harder to see and fogs up my glasses, so when I used to go with my husband, we would hold hands and he would lead me around. On top of the vision challenges, pretty much everyone there is with a partner or their kids. Going there by myself felt scary, which is why I picked it for one of my first solo outings. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. As a bonus, the steam made me feel like the tears running down my face the whole time were less noticeable.

In reflecting on 2022, I noticed that one of my standout experiences was something I did alone: riding a horse in Iceland. I signed up for the ride not knowing how many other people were going, but I assumed everyone else would be part of a couple or group, and I was right. Of the ten riders in my group, I was the only person on my own. If I had gone with someone else, at least part of me would have been focused on that person, but because I was on my own, I focused more on my sweet horse, Pitla.  In fact, after our ride, everyone else went into the office for hot chocolate, while I stayed out in the paddock with Pitla, petting her, talking to her, and removing her saddle. I got so absorbed that one of the employees finally came out to tell me everyone else was in the minivan and ready to go back to Reykjavík—would I be ready soon?

In a year and a half of doing most everything alone, I’ve learned a few things:

  1. It’s quite unlikely that anyone else even notices you. You think everyone is noticing you because you’re the protagonist of your own story, but the flip side of that is that you’re not even a character in other people’s stories. Maybe they notice you do someone embarrassing, but it’s just a blip on their radar, and more likely, they don’t even notice it. In all the times I’ve cried at restaurants or events, no one has ever seemed to notice.
  2. If you look for other solo people, you’ll probably find them. You’re actually not the only person there alone. Case in point: last week I went to a concert by myself. As I was walking into the venue, a colleague of mine appeared. She was by herself, too. We ended up sitting together but the topic of us each being alone never came up. On my way out, I ran into someone else I knew who was there alone. These two run-ins happened without me actually looking for other folks on their own, so imagine how many folks I might have found had I been looking.
  3. I’ve seen in online forums travelers who are on their own called “solo travelers.” I like that so much better than “traveling alone.” I’m trying to reframe being alone as being solo. It sounds more powerful to me.                
  4. Before I go to an event on my own, I usually give myself permission to leave early if I want to and I review my options for doing so. Knowing I have a plan for leaving early makes me feel calmer. I usually don’t leave early, but I like knowing that if I want to, I can and it will be easy.

And there are actually some benefits to being at events alone. For example, you can leave when you want to without consulting anyone else. The most surprising advantage I’ve noticed is that I am often more present when I am alone because my attention isn’t split between the event and the person I am with.

Get Better at Allowing Others to Help You by Understanding What They Get Out of It

Last week, my daughter and I arrived home from an outing and as I got out of the car with two small bags, my daughter offered to take one. I let her.

That last sentence may not read like the seismic shift in my behavior that it represents, so let me give you some context. For much of my life, I have been someone who absolutely refused to accept help beyond a door being held open, and even that sometimes was too much for me.

In fact, it’s not allowing someone to open a door for me that precipitated my long journey to become a person who does accept help. About twenty years ago, I was getting ready to drive back to Denver after spending the summer out of state. As I was bringing bags and boxes out to my car, my sister-in-law offered to help. “No, I’m fine,” I said, balancing multiple bags over my shoulders and carrying a box in front of me. “At least let me get the door,” she said, moving toward the door, but I shook my head, limped to the door as quickly as I could to be sure I got there before she did, teetered dangerously as I tried to not drop anything while opening the door myself, then headed out to my car.

When I came back in, my sister-in-law said, “You just really pissed me off. There is no good reason for you to not let me help you.”

She was right. (She usually is.) There was no good reason for me to say no to her offer of help. That day was a turning point for me. Most of the time these days I say yes. But I admit, it’s been a long, slow learning curve. I cringe thinking about all the times I was scaling the shelves at a grocery store like a BASE jumper to get something from the top shelf and said no to the stranger who offered help.

When my late husband had his stroke, I became very good at saying yes to help because I desperately needed it. That was another turning point for me. While my sister-in-law got me started on this journey, I still often had to fight the urge to say no when people offered help. My husband’s stroke pushed me into the territory of defaulting to yes.

Here’s what I’ve learned about accepting help from others:

  1. Saying yes to help allows relationships to deepen. Saying no to help is a distancing technique. When I said no to help in the past, it was often a way to keep people at a distance. Sometimes I had good reasons—for example, allowing a toxic person to help can mean opening yourself up to complicated feelings of indebtedness or guilt. But often I said no simply because I had developed the habit of saying no to help under any circumstance.

I also failed to differentiate between asking for help and accepting help that is voluntarily offered. I thought accepting any kind of help would make me appear needy and people would judge me negatively for it. But accepting offered help is simply good manners and as my story above about staggering under a heavy load to beat my sister-in-law to the door shows, rejecting offered help can lead to hurt feelings.

Accepting help is an acknowledgment of vulnerability and interdependence. After my brain surgery, a neighbor offered to pick up groceries for me. Giving your grocery list to someone else can be surprisingly intimate. That person now knows what you eat and how picky you are about your dairy products (maybe that’s just me). Allowing someone to pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy lets them know what drugs you take. Letting someone walk your dog means they may find out that your dog has a really embarrassing habit of . . . well, never mind.

My point is, accepting help means letting someone else know about these little quirks—which is one of the reasons that people like to help. They like to learn these little quirks about us. They find them endearing. It makes them feel invited into our lives and special.

2. Saying yes to help gives others an opportunity to feel good about themselves. After my husband’s stroke, I could see how relieved people were when I let them help me. They felt helpless in the face of our situation and being allowed to help let them feel less helpless. Even more significantly, it allowed them to feel like they were making a positive difference in a crappy situation. They got to feel generous.

When I think of times others have let me help them, I always feel good. I remember helping someone write an obituary, providing food that I know was welcomed, and giving books that made someone feel less alone. Instead of I-wish-I-had-known-what-to-do anxiety, I have a feeling of gentle connectedness with these memories.

3. Saying yes to help often allows others to show off their skills and talents without bragging. When I was planning a quick trip to Iceland earlier this year, a friend who had been there before offered to write up a suggested 3-day itinerary—it turns out she’s a whiz at travel planning. A neighbor who maintained our front yard after my husband’s stroke is an incredible gardener. A friend who hung some shelves for me is a talented craftsperson.

Once I began understanding accepting help as something I can do for others, it became much easier for me.

How to Set + Communicate Boundaries

Last week I noted that one of the gifts of grief is that I find it much easier to set and defend boundaries. Since then, a couple people have told me that my ability to set and defend boundaries has inspired them, which I take to be quite a compliment. A colleague told me they no longer feel like they need to respond to emails immediately and a friend credited my modeling for helping them feel like they don’t need to say yes to every social invitation during the holidays.

I wrote shortly after my late husband died about setting boundaries, but since then, I’ve gotten much better at it. I wish younger me had understood boundaries better; I think I would have been a lot happier—and I think the people around me who bore the brunt of my regular resentment would have been a lot happier. Alas, I can’t go back and change the past, but I can help you feel better about having and defending boundaries.

The best boundaries focus on what you can do rather than on what you want others to do and are clearly communicated to others. Here are some of the boundaries I have set and defended, along with phrases I use to communicate them to others:

  • I leave a meeting when it is scheduled to end. I do not apologize, I do not make up excuses, I simply leave. I try to minimize any disruption.
    • How I communicate this boundary: Before the meeting, if I suspect the meeting will actually run over the scheduled time, I say, “I’ll need to leave at [the scheduled end time].” I don’t offer excuses.
  • I do not attend meetings that don’t have either an agenda or a clear purpose.
    • How I communicate this boundary: If no agenda has been provided two days before the meeting, I email the meeting facilitator, saying, “My practice is to only attend meetings with an agenda or a clear purpose. Can you please provide more details about the meeting?”
  • I do not respond to emails before or after my work hours.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I state it in my syllabi and tell my colleagues who email me frequently.
  • I do not apologize for not doing things I wasn’t responsible for doing. This seems like a simple one, but I see people apologize all the time for not bringing snacks that no one expected them to bring to a meeting, or not dressing up for an occasion that wasn’t clearly communicated as dressy. This one doesn’t really need communicating in advance.
  • I do not wait to start meetings or classes until everyone is there. I start meetings and classes at the scheduled start time. I don’t shame anyone who is late, trusting that they have good reasons that are none of my business.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell people I start on time.
  • I do not attend social functions I do not want to attend. I have learned that declining an invitation is actually quite simple—all you have to say is, “Oh, that sounds lovely! I won’t be able to attend, but I hope it’s wonderful!” No apologies necessary—just heartfelt wishes that those who do attend have a great time. Very, very occasionally, someone pushes me about why I can’t attend. If I simply don’t want to go, I may say, “I have a conflict” or “My social battery has been running pretty low lately.”
  • I do not answer 95% of the phone calls I get. I just let most calls go to voice mail and then I return the call when I want to.
    • How I communicate this boundary: When people say they’ll call me, I usually say, “I’m not a big phone person. Can we do this by email or over Zoom?”
  • I do not respond to emails that don’t make it clear what kind of response is needed. If the email is from a student or colleague, I may reply by saying “I’m not sure what you are asking of me.” I delete emails from people I don’t know that I can’t decipher the purpose of.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell my students and colleagues to make the ask in any email clear by putting it in its own paragraph or in bold.
  • I do not take other people’s boundaries personally. Someone doesn’t answer my email quickly? OK. Someone doesn’t answer when I call? OK. Someone declines my invitation? OK.

I am polite about these boundaries and do not apologize for having them. Having these boundaries means disappointing other people, but I am not responsible for their feelings. If people are disappointed that I didn’t attend their meeting or answer their email, that’s ok. I’m sure there are some people who think I am demanding or hard to work with because of my boundaries, and you know what? That’s ok. If having reasonable boundaries makes me demanding or hard to work with, then I am demanding and hard to work with. As a white cis-gendered woman with tenure, I can afford to be demanding and hard to work with. I recognize that not everyone has that privilege. Because I do have the privilege to be seen as demanding and hard to work with, I think it’s very important that I do set and hold these boundaries because I hope that will make it easier for others with less privilege to do so.

These boundaries are all focused on what I do. This makes sense since I can’t control the behavior of others. I can’t say others must have agendas for their meetings, but I can say I will not attend meetings that don’t have agendas.

Let’s normalize setting and defending boundaries!