Read My Mind

Guest Blog: Both “All The Way In” and “Able To Get Out”

by Ted Helm, NMMNG Certified Therapist on Aug 22nd, 2012.     2 comments

ted help 2 1 2Often, men will ask me about relationships: “How do I get all the way in and still be a good ender? Aren’t those contradictory?”

I see their point, but I think those slogans are really about knowledgable self-acceptance: knowing your boundaries, accepting your limits as OK, and being willing to hold them. Here’s a story about it:

Recently, a neighbor of mine invited me to rent an office in her new suite. It sounded great: the location was easy to find; it was on the local bike path; it was next door to a Dunkin’ Donuts, a large doctor’s office, and the best Chinese restaurant in Cambridge. Rent was much cheaper - enough that maybe I could avoid raising rates for a year or maybe two. And best of all, it was exclusively mine - no timesharing. I visited the office and signed an agreement within three days.

But problems soon appeared. I overheard people speaking in the office next door - not just the wah-wah of voices, but entire conversations. I opened the drop ceiling and discovered no drywall and no insulation above the drop ceiling. I lifted the tiles, and I could see into another office. Clearly, the space was totally un-soundproofed. You can understand that for a therapist’s office, this is a huge problem.

In my Nice Guy past, I would have been thinking: should I fix it myself at my own expense? Or ask the lease-holding officemate, who might be totally ineffective? Ask the building management and risk anger from my officemate for going over his head? How can I find out if anyone will be angry at me without tipping my hand? And how do I figure this out quickly, before rent is due? All of this is an invitation to a paralytic panic: any action might be disastrous, but there’s pressure to act quickly.

You can see: trying to offend no one and risk nothing is ineffective and a setup for misery. So instead, I put all my cards on the table: I spoke to my officemate and told him this could be a dealbreaker, but I wasn’t sure yet. He offered to call the building company. I agreed, but told him I would also talk to them myself. And I looked into solving the problem myself. You can see that while I did not set out to “test” anyone, these problems also gave me a chance to observe how they respond to problems.

So who did what?

I brought an engineer friend to the office. Together, we made a list of soundproofing ideas ranked from cheap/easy (white noise machine) to expensive/tedious (replace the doors; line the ceiling with batting insulation). I learned a ton about soundproofing and headed to Home Depot to price materials.

My officemate spoke to the management company and started a work order. He said they promised to do the work “early next week” but he was doubtful it would happen on time (rightly).

The building company accepted the work order. When I dropped by, they said “oh, that’s for you? All we knew is, it’s for a subletter. We figured it was just a person who liked to complain and put it on the ‘low priority’ list, and those never get done. But we like you, so we’ll do it for you.”

What did I observe?

In myself, I observed that I still felt excited to share an office with my neighbor, but also that I felt pretty annoyed that I might have spend a lot of money to raise the office to my minimum standard.

In my officemate, I observed that he responded quickly, advocated some but not too much, and was willing to tell me he wasn’t hopeful.

In the building company, I observed that culturally, they seem to be “favor traders” - doing business the old Boston way of “one hand washes the other.” They’d do a lot more for a guy they knew and liked. (I know a lot of great people who grew up with these values, but I didn’t, so I’ve had to learn the hard way that this isn’t necessarily simple cronyism.)

All these observations were useful data. Everyone’s positions and actions were understandable. Nobody acted with evil intent. But I thought my chances of getting what I wanted were pretty low, and I hadn’t even moved in yet.

So I ended it. I remembered that for me, honest deal-breaking makes better relationships than “loyal” resentment.

Most importantly, I tracked feelings and reactions to find my own limits. I’m not a fan of setting limits by particular behavior, i.e. “if it’s not fixed in four days, I’m done.” It makes me legalistic. Instead, I observed my limits by using both rational thought and emotional feeling. Looking back, I realized I used DBT “wise mind.”

There was a time in my life when all of this would have been incredibly difficult and scary. In my Nicest days, I probably wouldn’t have even considered a new office for fear of disappointing my current landlord. And if I had gotten a new office, I probably would have just soundproofed the room myself, resented it, and unconsciously acted out my anger on others. But fortunately, recovery gets easier over time. I know myself better, I’m more able to risk and tolerate others’ anger, and I have a lot more practice at acting effectively. I’m grateful.

Three weeks later, I was offered a full time office in my current building with more space, better soundproofing, and a great landlord who I already knew.

Topics like this often get worked through in my weekly therapy group, From Nice Guys To Good Men, Tuesday nights in Cambridge, MA. I’m now interviewing interested men for upcoming open slots in the group. For more information, visit:    -Ted

Topics: Consciousness Facing Fear Personal Integration


Jay says ...
I'm having trouble understanding why you left the space. Did you still have some doubt that they were going to follow through on the improvements?

All the rest I understand, especially the part about trying to find out peoples reactions to __X__ without tipping my hand. Ugh, that is definitely me a lot of the time. But, with some awareness, I've been able to act and let the chips fall where they may. Thanks for the article!
Ted says ...
Thanks for the question. The answer is that I took a calculated risk. I didn't know if it was the right call or not. But I decided to leave because I wasn't satisfied.

To borrow Robert's language, I did observe that the management company seemed incongruent. They'd already said they hoped to finish the job early in the week, but they hadn't. Then, they told me they'd put my request at the bottom of the stack because they didn't know it came from me.

Here's a metaphor about making decisions with incomplete data: I'm the quarterback in American football. It's first down, I just got hiked the ball, and it's time to pass. But to whom do I pass? It's too early to tell - nobody's in position yet.

A Nice Guy might wait for more data. How are the receivers looking? How's the wind? What's coach yelling? Oh, the Nice Guy got sacked. Now his indecision has cost him five yards.

This was also a Super Bowl sized issue because of the ethics involved. If I wanted them to remove an ugly rug and they're slow about it, maybe I can live with it for a few weeks without feeling too resentful. But this is about my clients being overheard as they share the most sensitive, intimate, painful parts of their lives. So until the problem was completely, totally fixed, I wouldn't meet even one client there.

In this case, I threw the ball for an incomplete pass. I lost my first down (time), but I didn't lose yardage. Taking action, even with incomplete data, was more effective than not. (Truthfully, in relationships there's no such thing as complete data. But "gathering more data" was one of my favorite Nice Guy ways to avoid ending unhappy relationships.) If I'd waited, I'd have had to pay more money to reserve an office that still didn't meet my minimum standard.

And great job taking action and letting the chips fall where they may. Sometimes you'll win and sometimes you'll lose. But for me, when I take action, I win a lot more than I used to, because I'm actually in the game.


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