The very first time I realised I had an issue with setting boundaries was when I realised just how bad my inability to say no was. It had caused all the classic signs of emotional fatigue and unhealthy relationships many, many times over. I’ve gone through most of my life trying to be “good” — which is to say do what makes sense, what’s safe, try and disappoint nobody. Add to it the do-it-all disease most women are ingrained with. It’s all the things we’re taught. So when the new-fangled adulthood wisdom dawned, and I realised self-love, self-care and self-esteem had everything to do with healthy boundaries and saying no, I was all torn up.
It’s not easy to unlearn that compulsive need to always do the best you can for people you love. But it’s not hard to notice that there eventually comes a point when that leaves you exhausted and depleted. A boundaryless existence is not only unhealthy, it’s unsustainable. What’s worse, it erodes the good effects of all the love, care, generosity and authenticity you might actually be attempting to bring into your life.
I’ve come a long way from where I used to be. Small steps, big developments, and there’s still so much more to work through in this respect. One of the biggest breakthroughs for me was acknowledging that if I find myself at the receiving end of behaviour that I classify as overstepping, encroaching in my space, asking for too much of me, exhausting expectations to meet up to, it is most likely because I have not set my own boundaries right.
I have not been clear about what is okay, and what is not okay.
I have been making steady progress in this area of my life, and I know the ways in which it impacts me. But recently, an event made me sit up and realise there is still some more work to be done. So back to the drawing board, I have been very seriously reflecting upon boundaries, getting a deeper understanding by reading related writing, and generally thinking about the signs and what I might have missed reading this time around.
The other thing that keeps coming back to me, again and again is seeking connection, and how being steadfastly committed to what it is I want most from relationships actually brings more of it to me. One thing is for certain, I am far more at eace with having a few good friends, than being surrounded by a brood of people that exhaust me. With that context, here’s a few new things that I’ve realised about how crucial boundaries order to have meaningful, authentic relationships:
- True authenticity in relationships requires honesty and vulnerability. Sometimes it means choosing honesty even in the face of potential loss — ie: the risk of losing someone I love, being rejected by someone I value, potentially disappointing those same people I care about, losing comfort and familiarity and once again braving the unknown.I know this because the relationships that allow me the space to step into that twilight zone of uncertainty, with little fear of rejection or loss are the ones I turn to time and time again.
- Drawing boundaries is a crucial act of self-respect. I’ve got to fully reject the idea that respecting myself and valuing myself enough to want to move away from a person or situation that is exhausting me, or demanding too much for me, is somehow selfish or conceited.I have this ease with literally two people in my life right now. And I noticed it exists because they too have a healthy amount of self-respect, which means that when I retreat, draw a line, express what is okay and what is not okay by me, it is respected and accepted with an ease missing in every other relationship.
- At the core of every act of drawing a boundary, is a value. The act of drawing a boundary, reinforces that value. Whether it’s protecting a feeling or emotion, my energy, or a part of my body even. Different people have different values towards each of these things, and therefore different boundaries too.This learning was reaffirmed when I read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck. Increasingly I find I have the highest sense of kinship with the people who value the same things as I do.
- The way somebody is with drawing boundaries for themselves, usually says a lot about the way they are with respecting others boundaries.This has been the big one to learn this time around, given the recent event I mentioned up top. I missed or ignored all the signs that I got along the way.
But this is not to berate myself, rather to acknowledge and understand what I missed, so I can pick up on it going forward. On the other hand, the same event made me realise what I have actually gotten better at. I saw that in my ability to separate what I am responsible for, with what I am absolutely not responsible for. I can only control what I bring to the table — which in this case was honesty, even with the risk of rejection. I cannot control how the other side takes it, what they make of it and what they choose to do about it. Similarly, it is not my job to save or fix the issue at hand.
Getting into a friendship with the hope that the other party will change, and make making that change happen my mission, is a grave mistake I’ve made, failed at and learned from very early in life. I see now that it is a heavy lack of self-respect and gross muddling of boundaries that made me venture in that direction. I try and not go there again, if I can help it.
It was liberating to realise the ease and complete lack of angst in walking away from a fatiguing argument, where I’d otherwise have fallen straight into the trap of a futile cycle of reasoning, trying to have the last word (which is another classic trait of boundarylessness, which I very much had).
The downside, and I use the word very loosely here, of being brutally honest, presenting an authentic kind of vulnerability, drawing strong boundaries often means that they will inevitably be tested again and again. And naturally, not every situation or person will pass the test.
It is a fine-tuned sense of self awareness that helps cut through the fat and get to the heart of things. Even the bits that are otherwise difficult to digest, or make me uncomfortable — like the fact that maybe someone is trampling over my boundaries because I haven’t set them clear enough to begin with.
Coming to that place of clarity is simultaneously empowering, and lonely. Because not all the people you’re dealing with are going to get everything I do, understand it in the same way and certainly not at the same pace or time. Dissonance and a clash of wavelengths get exacerbated all the time.
For me, this meant facing my other demon — the angst about how often people leave, or I have to walk away from people. I’m still making my peace with this. I see now that this is another price to pay, for being self aware. For being a HSP. For constantly elevating my own standards. This coming and going of people has become so normal, I now no longer fall apart every time it does, because I realise the increased frequency is a direct result of how quickly things become clear. Situations where values clash, boundaries are crossed, and emotions come to the surface no longer drag out like they used to. Things are very clear, very quickly, and the ability to decide if I must stay or walk away has become rather free of hassles.
When I think about it this way, I know I’m actually better for it. I’m moving ahead. I’m tuning into my values. I’m strengthening my boundaries. I’m working on my self-esteem.
But, this whole moving on and leaving people behind theme of my life, that I often feel sad and confused about, beat myself up about, or take to be some kind of problem or lack on my part, I now realise is just the way it is. It’s a natural outcome of this evolution and growth. It is going to happen again and again, sometimes more often than other times.
The good news, and I know this to be true from recent experience, is opening myself up to growth invariably brings new interactions, new people, new avenues for bonding.
So I fear the loss of losing people less. Because I know others will come along, and they have come along. Some have surprised me by how long they have stayed. Others who I know will stick around, do. Sometimes it’s brought folks from my past back into my life, even if for a short period. Sometimes the same people you walked away from/who walked away from you will come back. But I’ve only seen all of this once I opened myself up to that possibility. By being selfishly committed to this learning. Of boundaries, of values, of growth.
It has meant letting go of the rails a little, and wholeheartedly refusing to shrink my capacity to grow, in favour of politeness, or in staying in the safety of familiar friends, or the security of a number of friends.
In my reading, I chanced upon this really amazing video where Brene Brown pretty much sums up everything that I was mulling over and trying to make sense of.
This really hit the nail on the head for me:
- The most compassionate people, are absolutely the most boundaried.
- I’d rather be loving and generous, and very straightforward with what’s okay and what’s not okay.
- I am not as sweet as I used to be, but I am far more loving.
- Generosity can’t exist without boundaries.
- Boundaries are not easy because we care more about what people will think, we don’t want to disappoint anyone and we want everyone to like us.
- Nothing is sustainable without boundaries.
- Boundaries are not fake walls, they’re not separation or division. They’re respect, with here’s what’s okay for me, and here’s not.