Should we talk about boundaries? It feels like we should talk about boundaries this week. I think so many people misunderstand what healthy boundaries look like and have an overwhelming amount of guilt trying to enforce them. It’s very awkward learning how to stand with your boundaries at first, and can be a huge challenge in gracefulness when you decide to finally try, but it gets easier and more natural with time. For whatever reasons each of us has to offer, someplace in life we ran into this inability to separate obligations from responsibilities. Somewhere along the line we lose our ability to say “no” without guilt.
What is it that makes us feel guilty saying “no” to things that we just don’t have time or energy for? Why do we answer that phone when we really just need to remain focused on the project at hand? Boundaries are something that I have struggled with in the past, and I suppose, even in the present from time to time. It is so easy to slip into that guilty habit of saying yes when we really need to say no.
I think it starts with expectation. When people, including ourselves, have expectations of us, we don’t want to disappoint, even if it means pushing ourselves so far that we can’t bring our best selves to the table. When people start down a healing path, facing the traumas and injuries that left them with gaping wounds and unhealthy habits, boundaries are often one of the very first obstacles to tackle. I think to tackle boundaries, we have to tackle expectation. I know. I know. I talk about expectation a LOT. That is because it is a very bad habit that the vast majority of us get sucked into, even if only occasionally. We have expectations of ourselves and expectations of others. Most of us subconsciously believe that others “should” act the same ways we do, and we often think that our own perceptions are the same as the next persons. Expectation leads to disappointment. People aren’t you. They are not designed like you, and the are not intended to travel the same path as you. They likely have a different personality type than you, a wealth of experiences that you will never have, and vice versa. Having expectations that they would behave the way you think they should is just really unhealthy. You can’t find happiness by expecting others to do what is right for you, rather than what is right for them. That being said, our expectations lead to us taking things personally that aren’t personal at all. We need to remember that peoples actions are a reflection of who they are, and not a judgement of us.
So many people in my life are currently struggling through the boundary battle. Learning to say no. Learning where you draw a line and refuse to tolerate anything crossing that line. And learning that when others use their healthy boundaries, it is not a personal attack. This is a hard subject to tackle. I am willing to talk about boundaries that I have struggled with, in both healthy, and much moreso, unhealthy periods of my life, if it will help someone else understand that it is ok to have healthy boundaries.
The unhealthy time is easy. I had all kinds of ideas of how people “should” treat me. I had expectations that continually led me down a road of disappointment and frustration. There has probably been no single skill in my life that has been as helpful as learning about expectation and how damaging it can be. There were things I thought that my parents “should” have done differently. There were things that I thought my friends “should” have done differently. There were things that I actually expected strangers to do the way that I thought they “should” be done. Sigh. How is that for some ego? Once I learned how to let people be themselves without any kind of judgement or expectation, its pretty amazing how I was able to take responsibility for my own growth and healing. Expecting others to behave differently holds you back and keeps you down. It leaves you with a victim mentality. Embracing that only you can be responsible for your future, happiness, and stability, is where the healing really starts.
So, when we get rid of expectation, what are we left with? Acceptance. Acceptance of people for their individuality and unique to themselves perspective. Once we can see people as true individuals, with their own personality and perspectives, very different from our own, boundaries aren’t such a hard tool to tackle any more.
The other big obstacle in boundaries seems to be guilt. Or maybe we can call it “people pleasing”. Why do we tend to feel so guilty meeting our needs, but so obligated to meet others needs? Somewhere along the line, we learned that we are expected to give so much of ourselves, that there is nothing left over for ourselves. We push, and push, and push, trying to meet others expectations of us, until we crash and burn. Why? Why do we do that? We do we feel bad meeting our own needs? I get it. I was there too, and occasionally still fight it from time to time. I work from home. People think that means I am available any time. It seems that no matter how often I say ” I can’t talk, I have to work”, the message goes unheard. I finally realized that in order to help people understand that I am working, I have to put my phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’. I set it so that my husband and child can call through, and anyone else has to just accept that I am working. It solves my frustration of expectation that others “should’ understand that I am working, and treat me how they would anyone else who is at their job. It is not a personal attack on anyone else. It is not because I don’t want to talk to anyone. It is not because I am upset with anyone. It is not a reflection of them. It is because I need to take responsibility for getting my work done. When someone asks me if I want to go to lunch on Wednesday and I say “no, I am sorry, I am busy that day”, It is not a personal attack on them. It is just me being accountable to my own responsibilities. I don’t think anyone is actually offended when we say no, so why does it bring up so much guilt in us? Why do I feel guilty not answering the phone if it rings? I am not at the worlds beck and call, and neither are you.
If my schedule is full and I have to say “I am sorry, I can’t take another client right now”, that is not something to feel guilty about. It’s just being honest about how much I can realistically do. If I commit to too many sewing projects at once, I get overwhelmed and none of them get done well. I don’t enjoy the process of creating them, and no one is better off. Its better for me to recognize my limits and just simply state them.
If someone calls me that wants to go on and on and on about what “so and so” said or did, I have the right to say, “you know, I am sorry that hurt you. I don’t think I really have much more to add to the conversation though. I would rather focus on something that I can affect”. I don’t have an obligation to listen to a broken person go on about what is making them miserable. I can say “I am sorry but I can’t do this right now, can we talk about something that isn’t gossip?’
It is hard. It is so incredibly hard to learn how to say “no thank you” with grace. When you first start defining your boundaries, and trying to enforce them, it is hard for multiple reasons. People aren’t used to you having boundaries and it will come as a shock to them. They won’t love it, but they will love the healthier you more than ever. You aren’t used to you having boundaries, and it feels strange and awkward to override your programming and say “No. That doesn’t work for me”. The first few times it may come out harsh and maybe a little more exaggerated than it needs to be. That is pretty normal, but it gets more graceful as you get more practice with it. As for the guilt, that gets better, as you see how much better you are with healthy boundaries. How much more good you can do, how much more productive you can be, how much better your relationships get, and how much more you have left over to put out there for others. It is amazing what we can accomplish for others, when we take time to get our own needs met. The guilt resolves itself because we can see that we are so much better for everyone than we were when we let guilt or a desire to please control us.
If boundaries are something that you struggle with, I highly recommend learning about yourself, where your lines fall, and practicing staying within those boundaries. Practice saying no. Practice saying “That sounds lovely. I am really busy this week, but I would love to do it next week”. No one is going to take it personally, and if they do, then that is something that they need to seek help with, or choose to live with their disappointment. It is not on you how people perceive your need to care for yourself. It is not your responsibility to hold on to unhealthy habits to keep other unhealthy people around you “comfortable”. If someone is offended by your boundaries, that is their problem. Not yours. It is not your responsibility to run yourself into the ground for someone else’s expectations of you (real or perceived). Overcoming the awkward stages of standing by your boundaries may possibly be one of the most uncomfortable and cumbersome stages of healing, but it is a leap of growth that will offer you the freedom to continue to become the best version of yourself that you can.