Love is: building a safe space

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For being a person who is pretty open about my opinions, I surprise myself by how private I am. When people ask me about Logan, I can feel all my muscles tighten. It’s like asking about intimate details of your friendship with your best friend—why is it “small talk” for so many people to ask about your significant other?—but I’m learning to roll with the punches.

There are plenty of things I will get on a soapbox for, but marriage relationships are not one of them. Maybe it’s because I’m so deeply skeptical that a one-size-fits-all exists? Maybe it’s because I don’t feel qualified because I’m not even 25 years old? But I’ve been asked by several people in the last few weeks to talk about relationships, particularly about Logan, so I’m going to do it the way I know best—a conversation. Consider this the first of many talks about love.

• • • • •

I tend to think of all relationships as a literal, physical space. From the moment you become friends, you lay the cornerstone, and from there you build. Some relationships are further along in the building than others, but they’re all spaces nevertheless.

Logan and I often say to each other, “this is a safe space.” We say it to remind the other person, and sometimes to remind ourselves of what our relationship is all about: creating a space to know and be known, a space that’s ultimately bound by knowing that the other person is invested and is gonna keep showing up. That kind of safety is built over time, as the walls become more secure and the ceiling holds itself up.

Sometimes those words are a reprimand. I will never forget when, almost a year ago, I confessed to Logan that I had lied about something totally irrelevant because I worried that it would jeopardize his self-confidence. The first thing he said to me was, “I thought this was a safe space.” Those words haunt me still.

Because safe space means that lying is not allowed. Passive-aggressive behavior is childish when you could just grow up and tell the truth about how you’re feeling. Safe space means the other person’s feelings have inherent value and worth, because that person has value and worth. Safe space means practicing a teachable spirit and showing up to do the work. Safe space means that you are ultimately for the other person, their #1 fan, their teammate and coach and best friend. And safe space means that when the other person fails you, you are there to remind them that if it only took one thing to kick them out then it wasn’t a safe space to begin with.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t fight. When you have two people together as stubborn as Logan and I, fighting is going to happen. But we know that at the end of the day, we are for each other and one little fight doesn’t jeopardize that. We built a strong foundation, and we intend for it to last.

Safe space is the other person respecting you enough to call you on your bull****. (The danger of being a writer is that I don’t get called on my B.S. enough—thankfully Logan does that for me.) Safe space is telling the other person if you were hurt, and safe space is choosing to respond with “tell me more” instead of becoming defensive.

The only way to establish this kind of safety is to be willing to walk the tightrope of risk. This is what Brené Brown calls “vulnerability”. Because what if he’s not safe? What if the other shoe drops? The key here—and the key to any healthy relationship—is to love and respect yourself first. Because if you do, and the other person doesn’t prove to be safe, you’ll know that you owe it to yourself to find someone who is. You’ll know that it’s not worth the temporary (and shallow) sense of security. When it’s that early and you haven’t laid a foundation, it is good to walk away. I repeat: it is good to walk away. But if the other person proves to be trustworthy, these little risks land like bricks, building your sanctuary.

If you want a safe space, you have to be willing to go first. Be willing to be the first one to say I love you; be willing to be the first one invested in commitment. (It’s really hard to build a safe space when each person is trying to appear less interested than the other.)
Be willing to give up the façade of “chill”. I have zero chill. It’s very freeing. Be the first one to admit you’re wrong, and that you’re sorry. Remove the stigma of admitting failure: when it’s not a battle to be won, there’s no satisfaction in having the last word.

Building a safe space is hard. work. But there’s a reason why I chose “sanctuary” as a synonym: these spaces are sacred. There is a holiness to all relationships, romantic or platonic, that reflects the Trinity. Relationship should be a verb, because it is an action, not a thing. It is a practice, it is a liturgy, and it is a discipline.

Logan and I are not perfect. At my best I am inquisitive and teachable, and at my worst I am stubborn, uncooperative, and argumentative. I react much more quickly than I wish I did, and I am much more fearful than I want to be. But being honest about my flaws makes space to learn and grow. And Logan and I will always be practicing this discipline—the art of building a safe space.

The power of words: compliments + criticisms + the vulnerability of it all

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I’m not an encourager.

I want to be, but it’s not naturally in my personality. If there’s no good in something, I’m not going to force it. If I’m not impressed I won’t blatantly say so, but I won’t lie either. (Sorry. I’m a tough crowd.) That, combined with the strong sense of self-sufficiency I learned from my mother (I love you Mom), and you have a very independent, perfectionist person.

Criticism is my home terrain. Self-improvement is my field of expertise. Honesty is my bread and a good work ethic is my butter.

Because of this, I never feel more vulnerable than when I am sincerely complimenting someone else.

A lot of us avoid compliments. And it took me a long time to figure out why, but I think I’ve found it – it’s one thing to send a Facebook message or leave a note, and it’s an entirely different thing to stare into someone’s baby blues and tell them how much their presence has changed you.

It’s scary. It’s vulnerable. Genuine compliments are hard. How do I look into someone’s eyes and tell them that they are irreplaceable in my life? How do I admit to someone how I have admired them from afar? How can I bare myself as the needy, confused, grateful person I am when all I want is to just be cool? JUST BE COOL.

Interesting how the more meaningful one is also the scarier one, isn’t it?

• • • • •

The people who know me will say I am hard on the people I love. This is because I want them to be the best versions of themselves, just like I want to be the best version of myself. Honestly, it’s a reflection of the way I treat myself. I am hard on other people because I am hard on me.

Criticism can be eye-opening, but when used without restraint it can cripple vulnerability. When your entire relationship is basically you pointing out the faults in another person, the relationship becomes really tiring and heavy and not a place where you feel safe to express yourself. In order to have a healthy relationship, you must be honest and also discerning.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the way I treat my boyfriend. I love him more than sleeping in, pie, and Netflix (3 of my favorite things), but I don’t let anything slide and he knows it. He’ll tell you he’s grateful because I’m pushing him to be a better person, but I know it doesn’t always feel that way. There are times when the compliments are scarce and the criticisms are many. I criticize because it’s safer for me to analyze him than to trust him. Sometimes my critique is more selfish than selfless.

• • • • •

He and I had a last-lunch-before-spring-break, the buzz of the dining commons around us as we talked about faith and God and identity and shame. And suddenly I found them – the words I had been searching for.

I looked him in the eyes, and I told him how he is living Jesus: in the way he works behind the scenes without recognition, how he makes time to help people he barely knows, how he is endlessly patient with me as I muddle my way through my huge, sometimes crippling fear. How those who humble themselves shall be exalted. How those who put themselves last shall go first. How the one who leads by example is the one who should be leading us from the podium. How he’s making me better, just by being himself.

His eyes filled with tears as I spoke and I knew, in that moment, that this is the most important work I do. Nothing is more important than this – extending tenderness to those I love most.

And we sat there, both blinking back tears and grinning and hearts as soft as butter, and there is no sweeter moment than one who is reminded of how much they are loved.

• • • • •

I know it’s scary. It’s tough as frick. But I hope you’ll tell someone how much they actually mean to you – how much you need them, and how they give you strength to go on. We forget how much power words have until we hear them, and once we hear the right words, we are never the same.

The one where I give away my self esteem

I found my person.

You know, the one who posts fabulous pictures on Facebook and Instagram of her fantastic life, effortlessly maintaining my dream job and doing epic things with her many stylish friends. Every day looks like a good hair day. I get bitter just thinking about it.

It took me 19.5 years, but I found her. Slim and trim, athletic, stylish, friendly. Higher up in the writing world. Thriving life on campus with a group of awesome friends, all of whom I adore. (The worst part is that she’s actually a great person with a tender heart and snappy sense of humor, so I can’t even hate her. How horrible am I that I wish I could hate her?) Basically, I measure myself and fall short in every area, and this is the first time I have ever felt so inadequate.

After all of the years of youth group talks I heard and articles I read about comparison and its deadliness, I never truly understood until I experienced the sinking feeling of Facebook stalking someone who is out. of. your. league. If I am a level 10, she is a level 25 – not so unreasonable that I can remind myself of how impossible her life is, but just impressive enough to make me wonder why doesn’t my life look like that? 

It sucked. Man, it really sucked. I have never felt so low.

Then I wondered, how can I battle this? No obvious solution remained in sight. Normally I might look for something I have that she doesn’t (there’s always something, right?), but there was nothing. Literally nothing.

Stripped to the bare bones of who I am, I realized: I just have to love me. Not for what I’m good at or what my GPA is or what extracurriculars I do or the fact that I am incredibly proud of my 80s rock playlist.

I have to love me because there is literally no one else on this planet like me. No one has been through the same crap, no one has hit rock bottom at the same angle. No one pulled themselves out with mint chip ice cream and The Hawk and the Doveand daily lives on a diet of slam poetry and 70s disco. No one smiles with their entire face like I do. Besides me.

And even if they did, they still wouldn’t be me. No one, and I mean absolutely no one shares the same unique life experiences and lessons that I have experienced. I am one of a kind. And I have to learn to love that, even if I wanted to be a different one in the million.

Here’s the truth, friend: comparison isn’t inherently bad. It’s our instinct to gauge where we should be headed based on the paths of others who are walking alongside us. Without any kind of comparisons, we couldn’t chart the average amount of kids that are illiterate or what should be considered minimum wage for a state or country. Some of the things that are used to help us require comparisons.

However, for all intents and purposes in this case, comparison is horrible. We take it to a whole new extreme when we compare pant sizes, talents, personalities, photogenics, children, and salary. We turn each other into our competition, instead of working alongside each other to bring quality and meaning into our lives.

There will be times when we’re the top dog, and those days are fabulous. But there will also be days when we don’t feel like we measure up. Someone is pursuing your dream job and winning at it, or is a part of the group of friends you wish you had. Maybe her baby weight came right off. Maybe she just seems so happy, and your life feels devoid of what hers is brimming with.

When I thought long and hard about why this girl was like a thorn in my side, I realized it was because she was excelling in all the areas I already felt like I was failing. Before I ever looked at her Facebook page, I felt like a failure. It really wasn’t because of her at all. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t more successful as a writer, I felt insecure socially (being introverted in college is tough), I felt uninvolved on campus, and I felt left out. By comparing myself to her, I was preying on all of my insecurities.

You can blame Facebook or social media or whatever you want, but the heart issue really lies with us. Before we can stop comparing ourselves, we have to accept who we really are – warts and all. I am not a princess in a castle or a face in a photo. I am a real, breathing, feeling, messy human being. And that is OKAY. You are acceptable. You are worth the effort.

You’re not doing yourself any favors by lying to yourself. You’re only putting off the inevitable crash that will ensue. Instead, ease yourself into the idea of loving you.

Start with forgiving yourself. Give yourself permission to exist as you are. And that will be the groundwork for what is to come.

I finally forgive myself for being loud

I woke up this morning to the sound of music blaring from Mom’s iPod stereo, the sound I usually hear when everyone in the house is awake except for me. I smiled, pulling the covers tighter to protect me from how frigid my bedroom is in the winter.

I’m one of the quieter people in our house, but to most people I am loud. I slam doors and cabinets, I drop things, I yell when it’s time for dinner. I like my laughter, music, and TV with the volume turned up. Heck, I even walk loudly. It’s not from a lack of sensitivity, respect, or consideration towards others – I am just a loud person. I am a noisemaker. I live loudly.

Because of my loudness, I have spent a lot of my life being shushed. Certainly, talking loudly backstage is inappropriate. Since I have never been good at whispering, I had to learn to simply not speak at all. (This became a terrific life skill when discerning when to speak up vs. remain silent.) However, I became embarrassed of my loudness as I got older. I was shushed, even at parties or sleepovers. Being loud was obnoxious. And I wasn’t only loud, I was a loud girl. There is a certain immaturity associated with loud women, women who don’t know how to be quiet. It appears rash and disrespectful.

I always think before I speak, and sometimes I don’t speak at all. The volume I speak at is not directly correlated to how much I speak. But when I do speak, I speak clearly. There is no hiding behind how loud I say my words. I say them for everyone to hear.

I am not timid.

I am not shy.

I am outspoken.

I am loud.

So, to all the loud girls in the world, the ones who laugh loud and yell when they’re excited and when they’re angry: I understand you. You are not immature because you cannot hide your enthusiasm for life. You are not obnoxious because you don’t know how to “play it cool”. Talking loudly has no correlation to whether or not you think before you speak. It is one thing to demand the center of attention by shouting over other people, and it is entirely another to be loud simply because it is who you are. You are not too loud – you have a voice that carries. Use that to your advantage.

And to myself, the girl who has been shushing herself for nineteen years: it is okay to make noise in this world. Make a space for you, simply as you are, and let yourself be heard.