Posts Tagged ‘being a writer’

Choosing Boundaries and Meaning Them.


Sailboat, watercolor, Jane kohut-bartels, 2006

Sailboat, watercolor, Jane kohut-bartels, 2006


This short essay is new. I wondered whether to post this now, but others are also struggling with this same theme in their lives.  I buck up my courage and post it with an eye toward revisions for the future.

Lady Nyo



This short essay is going to sound weird, strange or downright mean to some people. Frankly, it’s been a long time coming. I’m still learning here so this is certainly not a complete answer, far from it. It’s an issue like an onion, with many layers. It can be stinky, too. And, it can make us uncomfortable in the doing.

I grew up with a parent who was an extreme narcissist by any score. I never learned, or actually, I was never allowed to set boundaries as a child or teen. Since a narcissistic parent doesn’t see their child as anything except an extension of their own person, the offspring setting boundaries is something not tolerated. Hence, it was something I didn’t really know the value of until much later in adulthood and after quite a bit of therapy.

Boundaries mean choices for by a person and choices should reflect a healthy sense of oneself. In life we meet all sorts of people, appropriate to our existence and those inappropriate. When we haven’t an understanding of boundaries, (and this doesn’t just fall out of the sky, we have to learn this) when we are uncomfortable with the behavior of others towards us but don’t know why, we can dismiss these feelings and we can choose inappropriate or unhealthy relationships. Many times we are afraid of offending, so we open ourselves to what comes down as actual abuse. When we have serious deficiencies in self-worth and don’t value ourselves in healthy and positive ways, we fall to the relationships that are obstacles and become, ultimately, terrible and/or destructive burdens.

Recently, I have been taking stock of this issue. It has loomed large in my life over the past few years. Perhaps this is because I have become more conscious of this, and the ties to narcissistic behavior, but also because I began to develop a long needed and necessary sense of self-worth. And it isn’t something that is easy. Abuse, emotional and otherwise, comes from not valuing yourself and setting boundaries. There are many people in this world who look for what they perceive as vulnerable people and they latch on for their own benefit. We call them opportunists.

I remember working at a local university in the early 90’s. I grew to hate it. I had a female supervisor who demanded that I give her neck/back rubs. This was not in my job description, but she was a woman who had a lot of issues. She was just a low-class bully, with little to redeem her. I remember complaining to HR and then I realized clerical workers were just seen as shit, expendable.  I was told any employee who went up against a supervisor was sure to lose. The “University would win all the time.” That was the way it was then. I don’t know if things have changed at this university, but I had to realize boundaries weren’t encouraged to clerical workers, even though the HR rep knew well my complaint.   I was told “This University isn’t a place to work for everyone. If you can’t take it, quit.”   Amazingly arrogant, but a reflection of the reality of the situation.   I also remember having to cover (and in one case clean up) for the stupid and (at times) drunk designers in the department. These were two girls (they didn’t deserve the title ’women’) who had been there a long time, and they abused their jobs. On occasion I ended up doing their work in different departments of the University. Not that I had qualifications and I certainly did not receive any pay or credit for this. I also remember having to constantly apologize for their behavior and this became ridiculous. It was humiliating. I felt like I was in a crazed universe, not university. A ship of damn fools. I got an earful from different departments about these two girls. People were fed up with their behavior over the years and they made complaints to our department head who ducked the issues. Their behavior was known all over. There was no excuse. They were being protected by the head of the department. He wasn’t going to make any changes here, though his reputation suffered because of his ego. He was a huge narcissist and inappropriately, in front of employees berated the female supervisor. Most of us hated her, and I had particular reason to dislike this woman, but I remember feeling shocked at his behavior. I left after five years. I started to write a book, just a historic novel, but it gave me feet to get away from a situation that was debilitating. This situation was so bad I had nightmares. I was in despair. A few weeks away from this mess and those feelings passed. I didn’t set any boundaries and I was afraid IF I did, I would lose my job and probably in that highly dysfunctional department, would. We had just adopted our only child, and it would have been much better to leave. My priorities were very screwed. I was beyond ‘uncomfortable’ but didn’t understand what to do to end this situation. Quitting was a relief, but the basic problem (setting boundaries and meaning them) wasn’t addressed.

Again, no boundaries, no resolve. I didn’t honor or protect myself. I was too fearful about things that others who had better self-worth would have walked out of with little problem.

It’s been a long struggle to come to terms with this issue of boundaries. Many women just don’t see this as possible or important. It has everything to do with either the way we are raised, especially when there are psychological issues with parents and also within society’s concepts and expectations of women in general. Marriage can have a lot to do with this lag. I am very fortunate in my second marriage. My first was full of abuse, some physical but mostly emotional. I had left a narcissistic parent to marry a man who was my mother with a dick. I didn’t set boundaries, I didn’t know how. I prolonged my own misery.

Recently I was involved in an online squabble with a bunch of women here in Atlanta calling themselves “Smart Asses”. As a dear friend pointed out….”They were not so smart, but they definitely were asses.” I knew a few of them, and some I knew as probable sociopaths. Possibly more than a few. Why be involved with these kind of people? Stupidity on my part and thinking I could make a difference. One needs to realize that you can’t correct crazy. Again, I failed to set boundaries, this time internally. What in Hell was I trying to do with these people? I had nothing really in common with these women (and men) so what was I there for?

You can’t change the world; you can only attempt to change yourself.

Recently, a sister in law said (when I asked about her youngest (24 years old) son that “we will not have this conversation”. Sounds rude? Perhaps it is, but she was setting a boundary, and I think this healthy. Setting boundaries isn’t easy. It takes work, but more so, it takes perseverance. You have to mean them.

What I have learned about boundaries needs a lot more thought and practice. However, I have learned some things and these I hope are helpful.

First, know who you are. Know your limits. Don’t make excuses for them, look at them closely and consider if they are something you can defend.  If you feel uncomfortable with a person or a flock of people, you probably need a boundary of some sort. Maybe several. Go with your gut.

Center yourself in who you are and what you love. In those things you have accomplished. This takes time and a lot of energy and probably some therapy for many of us. Our wires get twisted in life, but down there, somewhere, if we are honest with ourselves….are the things that make us glow and blossom. Don’t get caught up in the energy sucking drama of other people. That’s just a waste of your precious life. They don’t want any advice, they just want an audience. (I’ve done this myself to some of my friends, and for some reason they are still my friends. My apologies all around…I’m learning.)

When our boundaries are weak, when we are not clear about our value and self-worth, or the value of actually having boundaries we will lean towards all sorts of chaos and drama that isn’t ours. When our boundaries are weak we are also uncomfortable. We self-doubt most of the time. Recently I wrote an article titled “Nihilism, Smart Asses, etc.” on the blog and this was because I was trying to ‘fit in’ with people I should have run from like the raging plague. These people had nothing going in their lives except creating negativity and bitchin’ to the Heavens, but I stepped into it with both feet. Again, you can’t fix crazy. If some people have given you the willies before by their past behavior, trust your gut. They probably haven’t changed much. Set boundaries and don’t try to climb over the retaining wall because you think you can change a situation. You probably can’t. See your boundaries as protection that accompanies you through life. Respect the need for them and you will begin to respect yourself.

Base yourself in something you love and in something you have pride in accomplishing. When I feel swayed by other people that I know mean me ‘no good’, are insulting or belittling, that I can see are violating my boundaries, I look at the bindings of my four books sitting in my library. I look at all these paintings on the walls. These are accomplishments I should honor. They meant I tore myself away long enough to do something positive. I set boundaries here where I used an enormous amount of energy to do these things. They were made ‘real’ because I set boundaries on my time and energy and what I would give to the rest of the world.  However, I also know I didn’t do these things all by myself. Bill Penrose formatted and ‘made real’ the first three books on, and Nick Nicholson did “Pitcher of Moon”. I’ve known both of these guys for eight years and they are great friends. They gave of their time and energies and experience, mostly their enormous hearts and friendship and I am still amazed by their generosity. The writing was the easy part for me. I couldn’t have done what they did. Of course, there are friends along the way, especially in the last five years, other writers, poets and some just wonderful women. Especially these women, on websites concerning the issues of narcissism, were beacons for me. They guided me through the maze of abuse and into the light of knowledge. First, they helped me understand boundaries and then they helped me put them in place. I owe so much to other people in my life. They saw someone floundering around in the water, and dragged me to shore.

And that’s the point of life. We can start deficient in these issues, like boundaries, but if we remain so, we impoverish ourselves. We impoverish our creativity. Learn from those who can help on these weighty issues, and avoid the negative folk.   Setting boundaries are possible, and also necessary in this fugue of life.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2014


The Tribe of Kohuts…..

September 27, 2012

Earlier this month, we traveled to central New Jersey for the 100th Birthday Celebration of my dear Aunt Jean. We drove because I insisted on taking one of our few French pumpkins from our garden, jams and jellies and eggs from our hens as gifts to my aunt. That was a long trip, but having a car made it possible to make day trips out into the countryside to see what changes 20 years of absence had made. The poem ” The Homecoming” tells of just a few of those changes we found.

Most importantly, there were 75 plus people attending, cousins, relatives in some way, but people I had not seen in 23 and 50 years. Of course, I had never met many of the grown children from my cousins, and there were plenty in attendance. So many people remembered my father and related stories to us about him. He was well loved in his lifetime and hearing people, I was once again struck how special he was. He’s been gone for 23 years this November, but his presence was in the room; he was that loved.

There were many long-gone relatives in that banquet room. Uncle John and Aunt Margaret, Sonny’s father and mother, an uncle who was the essence of kindness, his pockets filled with candies which he rustled and we children came running like kittens; Aunt Margaret who would take me on a train to NY for lunch, first washing my face to make me presentable; Uncle Zoltan and Aunt Pauline, who stepped in to parent me when my father died. They loomed large in my life when I felt lost. Uncle Louis, Aunt Jean’s dear husband, who was my father’s favorite brother; Aunt Bubbie, Uncle Mac, Aunt Irene and Uncle Lee…so many people gone, an entire generation, with only Aunt Nancy and Aunt Jean left to herd the rest of us through life.

My Aunt Jean, at 100, was glowing, strong and full of life: beautiful, witty, and one I wouldn’t get into any political argument. That was the general impression I got from other relatives. At 100, Aunt Jean can hold her own.

She uses a wheeled walker, but watching her, you can see she walks faster than that walker. I also saw her put aside the walker, and shove a heavy chair out of her way. There is strength and life in this 100 year young woman.

Over the years, because of distance (we are in Atlanta) and other things, I had missed the Xmas parties every year, had not extended myself to the various cousins, was sure that no one would remember me. I was very wrong. My oldest cousin, Sonny (John) Kohut, the son of my father’s oldest brother (dead) and his adorable wife, Marylou immediately embraced us. We didn’t have name tags on, but it didn’t seem to matter. I was Al Kohut’s only daughter and that was enough for this tribe.

Aunt Jean has been instrumental in my writing life: over the past 5 years she has read every poem I have sent her, and I thanked her in my last book, “White Cranes of Heaven”. She deserved thanking and more because I sent her just about everything I wrote. She complained every time my letters didn’t include some poetry. Apparently, she also passed some of these poems around the family, so I wasn’t such a stranger there.

Over the years, Aunt Jean has become “Mother Jean” and I her ‘daughter”. She also has her own daughter, Pam , and I gain a sister here. I was receiving two and sometimes three letters a week from her. Aunt Jean writes around 50 letters a month all over the world to relatives. The Kohuts are Hungarian,(Aunt Jean tells me ‘closer to the Czech side’) and most of them are bi-lingual. My Hungarian would have my tongue ripped out by wolves: it is that bad.

Mother Jean saw a daughter sorely in need of a functioning family. Her embrace of me has made all the difference in my life. She saw a woman desperately in need of the love of her tribe and made it possible in so many ways. A compassionate belief in the goodness of life and living, a fortitude against evil, and a remarkable ability to embrace the needs of others.

We came from this celebration deeply reconnected with a tribe of people who were loving and caring. The next book will be dedicated to this tribe and I will attempt to remember them for what they gave us that weekend.

It is good to belong somewhere after all these years of doubt. I am very proud of my Hungarian heritage, and my Aunt Jean has helped me feel the strength of it.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2012

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