Setting boundaries

I suck at many aspects of setting boundaries. Typically, if someone’s behavior bothers me, I’m more likely to just distance myself from them than to establish that imaginary fence of boundaries.

Setting boundaries requires effort because they will inevitably be challenged and you have to deal with the fallout if people don’t react well to them. When you grow up in an environment where you don’t see people having appropriate boundaries, it’s scary to think of standing up for yourself because you think you’ll lose people.

My failure to set boundaries hurt a lot of my relationships. I saw it most in a couple of friendships and in my relationship with my mom. I had a couple friends over the years who wanted me to be available to them 24/7. I know it’s very reasonable to set limits on your time and not respond to every issue. But I couldn’t stick up for myself and say that.

With my mom, it was really bad early in my marriage. She would often try to guilt-trip me into doing things I didn’t want to do. Or she’d call me, wanting to fight, saying that the whole family agreed with her that I was an ungrateful brat.

I felt like I couldn’t win with my parents because it was never clear what was expected of me, they just told me what I was doing wrong. That’s an area where we all would have benefited from some healthy and appropriate boundaries and some open communication.

I’d sometimes try to set some boundaries–like when my best friend at the time was calling me 5 or 6 times a day while I was working in an office on the Dow breast implant lawsuits. That was not an environment where personal calls were really permitted unless it was an emergency. I tried to tell her the calls were too much. But when I got some pushback, I dropped it–and eventually her, too.

From a string of bad dating experiences in high school where I let myself get pressured into sexual things I didn’t want to do, to not standing up for myself when my oldest child was very hurtful to me, it’s clear all over the place that I needed to set and enforce boundaries. Boundaries can solve a lot of problems. The absence of them creates problems.

Yet setting boundaries often doesn’t feel good. The people you need to establish boundaries with are often the very same people who react badly to them. That’s usually because your relationship has a dynamic where one person behaves badly and the other one just takes it. When you flip the script, it often goes poorly.

But this goes both ways. Being a person with poor boundaries doesn’t just mean I let people push me around; it also means that I’ve been prone to pushing others around at times in the past. When that’s the only model you’ve ever really seen for wielding power, your views get kinda skewed.

I realize that people have set boundaries with me as well when I was being too needy or annoying. They were much needed boundaries, even if I didn’t like them.

The harder part is realizing that I had a big part in the ending of many friendships because of my lack of boundaries. Just as I found it easier to walk away from people than set boundaries with them, I can guess that people likely did the same with me.

Nobody wants to be that obnoxious person who’s hard to be friends with. But sometimes we are that obnoxious person, especially if we haven’t even acknowledged our problems (let alone tried to heal from them.)

So I’m working on getting better. In recent years, when I’ve had things that felt like crises, I’ve worked on dealing with more of them on my own. When I do reach out to someone, I keep my complaints more limited in intensity and duration than I used to.

I’ve figured out that just because something feels like an emergency to me, it doesn’t mean others will see it the same way. The fact that they don’t see my emergency as their emergency to deal with doesn’t mean they’re not my friend. It means they have healthy boundaries.

Even people who deeply care about you can get burned out of supporting you through constant crises. Eventually you either need to stop having so many crises or to realize that other people can’t solve them for you.

I’m learning to keep my emotions calmer than they used to be. That’s been a process I’ve worked on for at least a couple years and is still ongoing. I can tell I’m getting better, but I can also tell I’ll still be working on it for a long time.

I used to think these things were like an on/off switch: that as soon as you decided to change, everything was instantly all good, forever. The people you pissed off before would come running back. The people in your life who needed boundaries would automatically respect them.

But the truth is that it’s more of a gradual unfolding. Setting boundaries requires first believing that you have the right to have them. Tolerating behaviors that you said you wouldn’t usually means you don’t feel you have the right to enforce them.

Or you think that people will leave you if you set boundaries with them. And for sure, some people will leave rather than change their behavior. But the ones who don’t leave are the ones who truly respect you or are willing to work on it with you.

You can’t undo the past. You can’t fix all relationships that were damaged by a lack of boundaries, yours or theirs. If you were the one who didn’t respect boundaries (as I have been at times in the past), you don’t necessarily get to have a relationship with them again.

The challenge is to learn from that so it doesn’t happen again in all your relationships. To get over your defensiveness and moderate your reactions to distress. To realize that if you set boundaries with someone or they set them with you, it doesn’t mean they dislike you or vice-versa.

But some of us weren’t brought up knowing how to do this. Many of us weren’t raised with any kind of emotional intelligence and are trying to figure it out now. We don’t want to be toxic people even if we acknowledge having some toxic traits. It’s really the commitment to keep getting better that counts; not just saying words but doing the work to respond well to boundaries and having the self-respect to set them.

Even if what you learned was screwed up, the only true failure is refusal to change.