This is where personal walls come in handy.
We think of walls as being bad things -- shutting people out. And sometimes, walls can be bad; we all need a bit of human interaction. On the other hand, walls can also be protective -- keeping people out. There's a subtle, but important, distinction in there.
It is okay, I have recently learned, to be self-protective on occasion. (It took me ever so long to learn this lesson.) We cannot change other people: we cannot cajole or scold or just plain talk them into being the way we would like them to be. The self-centered will always be self-centered; the angry will be angry, the annoying will be annoying. People are imperfect. Such it is.
What we can do, is to give ourselves permission not to engage with these people. (And not to feel guilty about not engaging.) We can try to let the things people say go in one ear and out of the other. We can attend gatherings for the minimum amount of polite time and then excuse ourselves. We can shop online instead of in stores. We can allow others to tackle difficult conversations in person, and can take advantage of the comfortable medium of e-mail instead.
Self-preservation. We think of it as being a primitive trait -- the "fight or flight" of small mammals. Yet, in truth, it is a trait that extends well into even the most evolved of creatures. Sometimes, self-preservation means putting up little (or not-so-little) mental walls, even against familiars. It seems callous -- yet isn't that, after all, what a "callus" literally is? A hardened point, a protective growth of skin or of bone or of tissue at a place where friction or injury has happened previously? It is necessary. Protective.
"I do not want to be hardened," I think. Yet I do not want to be damaged, either -- and the risks of hurt and of exhaustion and of giving away too many pieces of self are very concrete risks. Like a moulting crustacean, I risk tremendous vulnerability without an intact shell. Thus, the walls.
In the overarching scheme of things, it will be necessary to take care of myself on occasion. No one else will do so. And only by protecting myself, will I have the strength I need to do what I enjoy most -- tending to others.
As the flight attendants say: put the oxygen mask on yourself first, before assisting others.
Behold, the walls I am building. They are good walls. I will build them, and repair them, and keep them in good order. And perhaps, in due course, I can give myself a bit of protection.