A Dance of Boundaries and Compassion

I am navigating through a breakup.

We experienced another rupture. I believe this is the fourth one in five years.

A week ago, I spoke a gentle boundary. He got very angry, used a lot of sentences beginning with “You.” And spoke a version of ‘I’ll take my marbles and go home’ as though I had rejected him which I had not.  Days before I had explained I felt psychologically, emotionally safe enough, brave enough inside myself to do deeper work to heal the latest emerging pieces of my own past trauma.

I continue my work with a gifted somatic therapist. I knew I needed healthy boundaries with him and spaces to feel safe including my office. I had asked him to knock at the doorway and wait for my response before entering.

In the aftermath, some additional uncomfortable interactions happened, and I did my best to respond with kindness, clarity, and compassion. We are facing the fact that one of us must move out of the house. We both love the House of Joy here on Magical Mountain.

We managed to have a couple of calmer conversations. I remained clear about my truth. I need safe space. He asked for a resource for trauma work. He also cleaned and organized the garage and set free a dead mouse.

I have vacillated in a sea of feelings of safety, inspiration, fear, grief, and overwhelm.  He shared he’s having a similar, though more fearful, experience. And as he stated it, “My nightmare has happened.” I now understand he’s been scared for a long time that I would leave him. He vulnerably shared this with me.

He knows I love flowers. He brought flowers into the house yesterday. I said,

“I’m confused. Are these flowers for the house, for you, or for me? I thought we were shifting to a respectful friendship.”

And I thought, oh, my God, this is what abusers do after they’ve been cruel to you. They bring flowers and apologies and promises to never do their behaviors again. Is he being kind or trying to manipulate me back into the pattern? Oh, right. This is what he knows to do. He’s doing his best to navigate this new reality. Show compassion for yourself and him. Hold your clear boundaries. He said he wanted to stabilize things as we move into our separate lives.

After I asked about the flowers, he said, “I still feel the same way about you. Yet, you keep brushing back my acts of kindness with your volitional freedom-your agency- I don’t think I will do any more gestures of kindness.” The words come out wrapped in puffs of pain.

I know he is hurting. Our love relationship is no longer the context in which I can continue to flourish. I know now a traumatized person reacts to another person’s needs, wants, aka boundaries as a trauma trigger. I remembered many times I’ve reacted from fear. I also know he’s a good, kind, gentle, loving man. He is an exquisite mirror showing me where I get to grow. And his internal pain and love, words, behaviors are his. My internal thoughts, feelings, spoken words, and choices are mine to navigate. His trauma is his to heal or not.

I realize my thoughts look almost exactly like those I had in interactions with different people from my past when I said no, thank you, or felt confused by what didn’t feel like kindness.  

No longer a gum ball machine spilling out thoughts out loud, I simply noticed their colors, size, and thickness. I celebrate this. Not saying words out loud that I can never stuff back into my mouth feels like such a victory. I can see how far I’ve come.  I honor how far from his starting point with me he has come with the level of awareness he has shared.

I see these struggles all the way back to my childhood in its much more intense and crueler version, of what many experts describe as trauma bonding. Now, in present time it shows up as an insecure attachment masquerading as a healthy, intimate love relationship. I live grateful I have created a healthy love relationship with my Self.

I know I can anchor to safety with the many practices I do. I can celebrate that I now identify the pattern as it is happening and not hours or days later. I can witness it from my True Self. My experience of self-agency from years of practice fuels the next courageously loving action I take. I know I can swim in these waters and arrive safely on shore of a new place to live and be free.

I unwrapped the flowers, filled three vases with water. I wrote, “Thank you for the flowers.” On a piece of paper. I placed two roses symbolizing our friendship in a red vase on the mantel of the fireplace in the living room. The second smaller bouquet I placed on a side table in the living room. The third large bouquet graces the dining room table where we can choose to eat separately or together as we stabilize our interactions, take actions for our separate lives, and discover new spaces to live and flourish.  As best I can, I am being buoyed by the past long stretches of kindness, laughter, and loving experiences we shared and created together.

When is an act of kindness not really an act of kindness but a subtle way to shame or control you, or win you back? How can you respond with compassion for yourself and another?

When you say “No, thanks.” do people get angry, sarcastic, and shame you? Does their reaction throw you back into a people-pleasing pattern or become a rich opportunity to stand in your truth or a mixture of two steps back, one step forward? You might realize your nauseated stomach is your body speaking its wisdom. The body almost always cues you when you’ve reverted to fawning dance steps. If you hear yourself apologizing and changing your mind, you’ve reverted to people pleasing.

I know this because I’ve done it myself a gazillion times.

Becoming both familiar with trauma-triggers trance-like dance and cultivating your True Self from embodied confidence, you can begin to pay attention to your body, hear your thoughts, practice the pause, and speak your truth. A commitment to truth-telling remains a brave act, a way to live with integrity. The path of integrity, of no more lying-white, gray, or black- is not a comfy walk. You likely will be met with anger or some form of blowback from some people, often those closest to you.

When some version of an insecure attachment shows itself, then its rupture requires one person to break the pattern and sometimes walk off the dance floor with internal dignity. When you can demonstrate grace for yourself and your former dance partner, you are doing the work of being the compassion you want to experience in the world.

I wish you and I continued courage in being willing to disappoint others and live true to ourselves.

Healthy love is not twisted. Healthy love does not demand you be someone you are not, to do things that aren’t good for your body, mind, soul, being, heart. Healthy love frees you to live your truest life. Healthy love wants you to flourish, grow, evolve, and become all you can be with joy, compassion, grace, and acceptance. Healthy love includes boundaries which are the distance at which you can love you and another person. Self-love means holding your frame with your dance partner and knowing when to let go as an act of self-care and compassion.

May you keep loving yourself and others as so many of us are hurting, loving, healing, and transforming inside out and outside in.


Laura Staley
Laura Staley
The founder of Cherish Your World, Laura Staley passionately helps people thrive by guiding them to a holistic transformation of space, heart, mind, body, and soul. Laura knows that there’s a relationship between the conditions of our homes or workplaces and the quality of our lives. Trained and certified with the Western School of Feng Shui and seasoned by almost two decades of working with a variety of clients, Laura uses her intuition and expertise to empower her clients to produce remarkable results in their lives. Her trifecta of serving people includes speaking, writing, and compassionate listening. As a columnist, Laura writes personal essays focused on self-discovery, feng shui, emotional health, and transformations from the inside out. Laura is the published author of three books: Live Inspired, Let Go Courageously and Live with Love: Transform Your Life with Feng Shui, and the Cherish Your World Gift Book of 100 Tips to Enhance Your Home and Life. Prior to creating her company, Laura worked as a fulltime parent and an assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University. Her joys in life include laughing with loved ones, dancing, reading, meditating, running, being in nature, and listening to music she loves. She resides in Black Mountain, NC with lovable dog, Layla. Laura is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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  1. Dearest JoAnna, Thank you so much for all your heartfelt and insightful reflections, encouragement, love and support. As I continue to stay in the center of my body, in the heart and love of this transition, I find I am trusting myself (and my now friend) to be kind, compassionate, and generous with ourselves and each other. This is a very different kind of “break up” for me in that in many ways -as much as there could possibly be-there was/is a firm foundation of our love and deep respect/acceptance of each other-an ability to “hold space.” I’m clear in my truth from the inside out and without apologizing or feeling any shame continue to take actions to build my new life, to respect the physical space we now currently share as housemates-until one or the other finds another place to live. In many ways, we have had “dress rehearsals” for this new reality-this transformation. I’m happy he’s taking actions for the first time in his life for his mental/emotional well-being. I’m also staying very clear with my boundaries as we create new steps in a different dance of respectful friendship-no longer lovers or even people going on dates on a Friday night. That has ended. As much as we can, I’m grateful for the healthy friendship that seems to be emerging from the not quite exactly healthy intimate love relationship.

    Again, I so appreciate your sharing of your experiences for I know I am not alone-I feel seen, heard, valued, even cherished. This means so much through a time of transition, of change.

    With all my heart, thank you, for sharing your experiences and the inspiring (brought tears to my eyes) support. Much love and heartfelt gratitude, Laura

  2. Hi Laura, good piece and significant reminders to many who really struggle with True Love. In my walk with my faith I have also come to understand that genuine love is wanting the best for the other, even when its difficult. I grew up in a dysfunctional family as I see many of the writers have history there as well and learning to love starts very young. Great article. Blessings

    • Hi Lynn, Thank you for your kind thoughts and reflections on how many of us struggle in love relationships as the early learnings -especially in difficult family of origin dynamics create a “map” in our minds for what “love” is. So much unlearning! Yes. Your thoughts make me think of a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”

      ― Thich Nhat Hanh

      With heartfelt appreciation,

  3. My dearest Laura! I’m holding a very big space for you in my heart and my mind. This is no easy road to travel, life, vulnerability, relationships, and the like. Especially when you’ve learned a lifetime of coping mechanisms and keeping the peace.

    This is a transition in your life. One that you will look back on one day and likely be extremely proud of yourself. The compassion you hold for this man despite the trying times shows who you are as a person. It shows your character. It shows your integrity.

    You will get through this. There will be good days and bad. This is a form of grief, in every way. You’re grieving the future you’ve been creating. You’re grieving a life you didn’t get to live. You’ll be angry. You’ll be sad. You’ll be confused. You’ll be happy. And sometimes you’ll be wondering if you’re in the twilight zone. But years from now, you’ll see the transformation.

    This relationship was meant to happen. It brought you things, places, and people. It taught you lessons. And it gave you space to dream. I can’t wait to see what butterfly this cocoon will hatch. And I’m here for you whenever you need me.

    I recall after about two months of dating my first boyfriend after my marriage ended. After a blissful beginning, I recognized some red flags. I disliked how he cursed in front of his children – I did not want him using those words in front of my children. And then I disliked how he degraded one of his friend’s wives. So, I said no. I ignored him for a little while – not my proudest moment – but when I built up the courage to say I wasn’t interested in pursuing this further, I felt empowered. That was when I knew I was ready to date again. And when I knew I would find a good one.

    Fast forward dozens of conversations and a few duds later, I found Chris. Sometimes I feel like I manifested the man out of thin air, but then I swiftly remember he is a full person with his own lived experiences. I’m grateful each day for what he’s taught me about myself and about a healthy relationship. I’m worthy of a man like him. And now we see what life brings from here. <3