Don’t throw the ball back (on setting healthy boundaries and getting free)
“Don’t throw the ball back.”
Those were the words that released me. Those were the words I will never forget because they gave me something I could grasp and use to get away from verbal abuse and manipulation.
It was my junior year of college and we had a guest lecturer for the day. The speaker was a bald man with a black mustache and a black leather jacket, and he was there because he was some kind of alcohol counselor. I sat up a little straighter in my chair that day, wanting to hear anything and everything he had to say because my mom was an alcoholic and I wanted to know how to deal with it. I don’t remember what he talked about during the class, but I do remember going up to him after and asking him if I could talk with him. We stood in the hallway and I told him my story.
I told him about the fact that I had a mom who was an alcoholic and who knew she was an alcoholic and had no interest in changing. I told him how it drove me crazy, how being around her or talking with her made me feel like I was crazy. We were so tangled up with each other. I told him how I always felt guilty around my mom, like somehow I always did everything wrong; I could never do things right or please her. I told him how she would call me names how she would always make me feel like I wasn’t doing enough; I felt like a total screw up. I asked him for advice. That’s when he said, “Don’t throw the ball back.”
“If I have a ball in my hand and I throw it to you, are you going to catch it?”
He said, “Okay, well, you made that choice; you caught the ball. Now you have another choice to make: you can hold the ball, drop the ball, or throw the ball back.” He told me this ball throwing situation is what was going on with my mom. He said we were engaged in a game of toss. She would throw out a ball of verbal abuse or begin to manipulate me, and I always responded by throwing the ball back; I engaged with her. “Mom, I tried, I really did. I don’t know what you want me to do!” Ball toss. “Sarah, if you would have just…” Ball toss. “Mom, you’re really hurting my feelings…why do you have to be like this?” Ball toss. “Get a grip Sarah, you are way too sensitive.” Ball toss. On and on, back and forth, a seemingly never-ending game.
“If you don’t want to play the game anymore, stop throwing the ball back.”
I could choose to “stop throwing the ball” in different ways. If she called and started being verbally abusive to me or manipulating me I could hang up the phone. I didn’t have to go see her if it wasn’t going to be a healthy situation. I could walk away. It was okay to get away in order to get healthy and clear my mind and figure out what was true and what wasn’t. I had always felt like I had this responsibility to make things right, but I was completely ineffective because I was still trapped in unhealthy behaviors and tangled thinking.
I was an emotionally unhealthy person trying help an emotionally unhealthy person.
And it wasn’t working. Of course.
That today I decided to stop throwing the ball.
My eyes were opened to the fact that I wasn’t crazy, that manipulation was a real thing happening, and that I needed to get healthy before I could love her well.
So I walked away for a time. I stopped playing the game. If she started in on me over the phone, I would just say, “If you keep talking to me like this, I’m going to hang up.” If she continued, “Sorry mom, I have to go.” And hang up. No goodbye. Just, ended it. This really ticked off my mom. And of course I felt guilty about it, but eventually, I didn’t feel guilty anymore.
Because I started to see things more clearly. I was beginning to understand what manipulation was and how it was affecting how I viewed myself. I saw how our tangled mess of manipulation was destroying us. It was destroying me.
I took about six months away from her, no phone calls, no visiting, just space to think and pray and seek counsel and begin the path of unwinding all the years of manipulation.
First the revealing, then the healing.
I had to see what was going on in me, just under the surface of things, in order to get free.
Here’s what happened when I stopped throwing the ball back:
I was able to get untangled, which helped me to get on a path to clarity and emotional health. I learned more about manipulation and how to spot it and not feed it.
I learned about the lies I was believing about myself (“I’m stupid, I’m ugly, “I’m not good enough”), and how in my own efforts to protect and comfort my tender heart, I acted in sinful ways.
God uncovered deeply wounded places in my heart, and He invited me to let Him care for those places and gently bind them up. And in the wounds there was loss, and I had to mourn and lament. But I learned this throughout all of it: If you want the healing to start, you have to face the deepest wounds of your heart. And so I did, but I didn’t have to face them alone.
After the facing and the pain and the revealing and the healing my heart began to get whole.
At first, as I went through this process of healing, things got worse with my mom, but then, they got better.
They got better because I learned how to set boundaries and love her without being entangled with her.
I was able to forgive her.
I was able to really love her.
And I learned how to love myself, even when it hurt. Even when the lies popped up. Even when her words stung.
I loved her. I loved myself (in a healthy way). And God worked miracles.
I’m working on my next book, The Complicated Heart, and it’s on unhealed wounds and painful relationships and dealing with the junk that is blinding us to emotional and spiritual health. Would you share with me in the comments what you would like to see addressed in the book? I so value your thoughts and stories and hold them all so tenderly. Thank you.
Also, if you’d like to follow along with the process of this book and the unfolding and untangling of it all, follow @TheComplicatedHeart on Instagram. I’d love to see you there.