I have been reflecting about setting good boundaries in relationships lately, spurred in part by a wonderful Norwegian friend who has a lot of experience being in relationship with the people here in Puerto Cabezas. This is an attempt to start to articulate all that I have learned in the past two years about being in relationship with people in poverty. I write this as a person who is caring, compassionate, loving, and eager to know other people and be there for them. This is the kind of person an organization like Cap Corps attracts, and it stands that such people must be ready to set firm boundaries in their relationships. It amazes me that I felt I was strong and assertive and had good boundaries last year working at a homeless shelter, that this year I would feel like I lost all of that training in maintaining an emotional distance from people who have a great deal of need in their lives. The reason is that at Hope House, I was only in contact with such people in a professional setting, and the additional boundaries I needed for the clientele built off of normal employee-client relationships. Here in Bilwi, the people on the street and the friends that surround me are the ones in need. The same people I draw on for emotional support are the ones who have incredible need both emotionally and financially. When I say Nicaraguans/People with a lot of need, I mean it's impossible to separate the social culture of Nicaragua from a culture of poverty, because the poverty is so widespread. People in poverty in Nicaragua may have different ways of acting than someone in poverty in the US, but I believe there are still fundamental similarities that anyone who is disposed to enter into relationship with someone facing great economic and emotional need ought to know. I'm sure that people who don't live in poverty also adhere to these characteristics, but they express themselves in different ways.
1) Love. Poverty is really stressful. It causes mistrust and anger between spouses who can't provide for themselves or their family, between children who don't get enough, and between parents and young adults who have difficulty becoming independent for economic reasons (see my blog entry In-dependent). This leads to high rates of anger, abuse, and general discontent among families living in poverty. This is a bit different in the US, where I felt like a lot of the people who came to Hope House were estranged from their families and felt alone. Although I have noticed that many young people here feel alone despite being surrounded by their family.
All this is to say that among people who live under the stress of poverty, it is very common (though far from universal) that people will desperately crave love and attention. If you present yourself as friendly and sympathetic, you will attract these people to you. They can take up lots of your time, preoccupation, and emotional energy. First of all, it's good just to listen. People generally just want someone to listen to them. You don't have to understand or offer advice. Secondly, you have to be very self-aware and notice when energy is starting to drain from you because of a relationship. When you are aware, anchor yourself emotionally. Don't get carried away in the emotions of the other person. It doesn't help them and destroys you. I find it's good to set a time limit. How long can I listen to this person before I must go on to something else. You don't have to explicitly say "I'm going to listen to you for 15 minutes," but recognize when that limit is reached, what your "out" is going to be (I have to go to bed now), and enforce it tactfully but forcefully. Then go do something that gives you energy, like listen to music or read a book or talk to someone else. I felt like I had become good at this, but in the ambiguous give-take friendship that gradually become more and more take and less and less give for you, it can become hard to notice when a tipping point has been reached and boundaries must be readjusted. Don't be afraid to readjust boundaries.
2) Lying. Lying is a fundamental part of the culture here. People tend to say whatever they feel they need to say to get what they want, and it's not all that shameful to be caught in a lie. To some extent, the same is true of stealing. Despite how much you love someone, you always have to be skeptical about what they say, especially if they're looking for something, be it your time, your money, your sympathy, whatever.
3) Lending money. There is practically no lending of money here. There is only giving. If you lend someone something, especially money, don't expect it back. Material items can be returned with some agressive pursuit, but money is almost always a loss. I recommend you start by not lending any money at all. Then if you feel comfortable, you can give as you feel led. Generosity is smiled upon here, but it's also exploited like crazy. So know when to say no, and say it a lot.
It's good to not take lying, thieiving, attempts at exploitation too personally. As Michael Crosby says, it's just the hunt. Everyone has need, and they're just trying to get what they can where they see opportunity. People can attempt to be emotionally manipulative if you say no. Stand your ground, and then let it roll off you. Remember that it's just the hunt. If you get too bitter or reserved, you will never have good relationships with anyone.
4) Theft. Anything can be stolen, even if it doesn't seem like it's worth anything to you. And anything unsecured is good as gone within a short period of time. On the bright side, the good people like to keep an eye out for you, so if you forget something often a good person will grab it and hold onto it until you come back.
5) Experiences of suffering bring great wisdom. If I shut down too much emotionally, I might miss the wisdom they have to offer. Also people are in general a lot more comfortable with pain and grieving here, so it's okay to be vulnerable about your feelings. Sharing your thoughts and feelings openly is one of the best ways to endear yourself to the people here, and they are, I find, much more effusive and supportive than Americans. The US has a "polite but aloof" atmosphere that encourages things like suffering to be done in private. In Nicaragua, your pain and joy, just like possessions, are expected to be shared with everyone. If you start to cry, you will immediately have people flock to support you. In the US, they tend to just stand there uncomfortably or retreat to a safe distance.
Setting boundaries is the first lesson, and the last. It's always about boundaries.