The ouch in boundaries: How respecting myself can put others off.

line in sandI’m an avid supporter of boundaries. Without them, one runs into all kinds of problems. One problem is the resentful feeling that your life is being steered by others – which it probably is! Another is that you become totally un-profound: no opinion, no fire, no impact. Without boundaries, one blames others for your inauthentic life. 

People without boundaries make lousy partners.  

They dump their problems and emotions onto their partners, not understanding that most of those are for their own account. 

lousy partnersOf course, they don’t respect the other’s boundaries either. Their partners are expected to feel like they do and do like they do. People with strong boundaries”, writes Mark Manson, “understand that it's unreasonable to expect two people to accommodate each other 100 percent and fulfill every need the other has. People with strong boundaries understand that they may hurt someone's feelings sometimes, but ultimately they can't determine how other people feel. People with strong boundaries understand that a healthy relationship is not about controlling one another's emotions, but rather about each partner supporting the other in their individual growth and in solving their own problems.”

This morning, my online pilates instructor said: “Tighten up, so that you can move freely.” That’s the exact paradox for boundaries: You draw lines in the sand around you, which sets you free. You are free to act according to your own beliefs. You are free to love and protect yourself as you would others. You are free to engage with others from the bottom of your heart, and not because you’re driven by should’s. But there is a snag in obtaining freedom, and it’s this:  

The moment you free yourself from something, you also lose something.

The thing you free yourself from, has been part of your life for a reason, and it has supported you in some way or another. It’s like breaking free from a cage: yes, you can fly, but it might be windy and cold and alone, and you might be leaving behind a comforting saucer with seeds. winnipeg budgie rescuedThat is why people who free themselves from an abusive relationship don’t feel elated, but sad. Adult children who choose against a toxic relationship with a narcissistic parent, don’t enjoy the distance they enforce – it makes them sad.

I often feel really satisfied in the moment of drawing a boundary. I pride myself on being able to say no. For me, it feels like an achievement to sidestep manipulation, abuse, or just a simple task that I don’t have time or capacity for. It is progress, in my life, to stake a claim for myself. But that moment of satisfaction lasts only minutes….then doubt creeps in. Was I rude? Should I have given in this once? Did I hurt the other person? Which of course all boils down to: Am I still loved? Can this person continue to love me if I don’t subscribe to their expectations?

When you set boundaries for yourself and take care of your own happiness, you choose self-direction, spiritual growth, a deep sense of peace, choice in relationships, a value-driven life, sincerity, honesty, meaningful relationships. But we need to face the loss it brings. Setting boundaries often bring about a loss of tradition, habits, comfort, appreciation, approval, belonging, reciprocity. Sometimes, it even costs us relationships. Some parents, children or friends are inflexible about what they expect from you. If they’re unwilling or unable to adjust when you draw boundaries, you might lose them. That is a scary thought, and a hurtful reality. Even when one can justify the loss (“she’s just using me for her own benefit; she doesn’t care about me”) we’ll do much to avoid it. We’re wired for relationships and belonging, and it’s only natural that we want to protect that. 

What a conundrum: If you don’t take responsibility for your own life, and you don’t honour your soul, there are negative consequences. If you do take responsibility for your own life and happiness, there are negative consequences. The only question is, which set of negative consequences do you choose to live with?

I have a dear friend who mostly chooses to give people what they want, to keep the peace. She won’t stake her claim if she senses that it will upset the applecart. She doesn’t do this in an unaware manner, either; she knows that she gives: she chooses it deliberately. The set of consequence she chooses to live with include some pain at being overlooked or abused, but a happy environment. For her, it’s not something that leads to lasting resentment and bitterness. She knows that she can choose differently, and sometimes she does. But she also knows herself well enough to realise that the warm feeling of belonging is more important to her in any given moment than most other things. It makes her happier to keep the peace than to stake her claim. 

I, on the other hand, feel like I regress to childhood when people use me. I find it impossible to roll over when I sense that someone threatens my boundaries. My choices are different from hers, and so I live with different consequences. The set of consequences I choose, include others’ disappointment in me, lack of belonging, or being seen as cold-hearted. I can choose differently - to make others happy – and sometimes I do, but I know that ultimately, I’m happier drawing boundaries than pleasing others. 

lonelyMy well-oiled boundary-setting machine gets stuck, though, as soon as the boundary has been drawn. Saying no is the easy part; going full circle by dealing with others’ response is excruciating for me. It’s being at peace with my decisions that really challenge me. After years of practice it comes very naturally for me to say no to situations that I know will bring out the worst in me or in my relationships, yet I seem to crumble afterwards, wanting to go back, to apologise for saying no, wanting to please again, wanting to ensure that I’m loved and that I still belong. It’s as if one part of me bought into the boundary-thing, while another isn’t strong enough yet to handle it. 

I used to judge people for not setting boundaries. There’s a couple in our family at whom I’d rolled my eyes for years, because of what I regarded as sharp inequalities in their marriage. She cooks, cleans, dishes up for him, clears his plate and does just about everything in the house. She never requests help or complains. I assumed she was unhappy and resentful – but hiding it. I kept waiting for the inevitable bickering and ultimate misery that one often sees in unequally yoked relationships. Yet, over the years, their connection deepened, as it so often does in couples who respect each other. They remained gentle and kind, despite the patterns that I judged as undermining. What did I know about others and their need to assert themselves? Clearly, nothing! Sometimes, it seems, waiting before drawing boundaries can bring a different kind of maturity.

What I do know, is that drawing boundaries don’t feel good to those on the outside of your lines. They have to be emotionally mature to deal with it, and often they’re not.  There are only a few people in my life who don't take it personally when I draw boundaries. I still find it amazing when people simply accept my 'no', without feeling hurt or angry. It is unusual. My own work is to make sure that I can accept others' boundaries without taking it personally. 

I’ve been wanting it all. I want to say no, but I also want everyone around me to be happy and to love me. It doesn’t work that way. I have to put in more work to be at peace within myself. I have to really consider the ouch before I act, so that I’m not surprised when my boundaries take effect. And just sometimes, I can roll over and let it be, for the sake of a belonging. Only human, after all.

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