Every living creature, human and otherwise, has a survival strategy.
The Texas Horned Lizard shoots blood out of its eyeballs. The Komodo bites its prey and then follows them around waiting for them to die from the resulting infection. The gazelle runs fast.
Humans have slightly different, less exhilarating, survival strategies. Our strategies are not innate, but developed in the early years of life based on childhood experiences that now reside in our unconscious.
In some cases, us humans conclude that it is smarter to be accommodating than boundaried. We conclude, in other words, that we have a better chance at survival if we avoid conflict. A person who reaches this unconscious conclusion will be great at getting along with others. They will be agreeable, approachable and relatable. They won’t, however, feel comfortable asserting themselves. As a result, they will oftentimes compromise themselves in order to please others.
Is This a Problem?
Maybe not. This person has a difficult time with boundaries. But so what? They don’t need to change that. But they might find that it would improve the quality of their life if they did.
Right now, they are limited to responding to the world in one specific way; namely, by giving themselves away and compromising their integrity in order to ensure relationship. Overtime, they risk losing sight of who they are as they continually conform to the expectations of others.
Boundaries, however, are not always better than not-boundaries. The point is to have choice. And in order to have choice we have to be equally comfortable with setting a boundary and with not setting a boundary.
The rest of this post will be a primer on how to recover the ability to set boundaries so as to have more choice in life. Choice is a sign of health, compulsion is a sign of neurosis. For a person who is unable to set boundaries, the path towards health is through self-assertion.
When you first start setting boundaries, it is going to feel unnatural. This might be your first time doing this. Why would you expect to be a master your first time around?
Expect to feel shaky. Maybe you’ll turn red in the face. Maybe you’ll stumble over your words. Maybe your voice will crack.
My suggestion is that you start small. When a homeless person asks you for money, tell them “not today” and wish them well. If your food is a bit cold at a restaurant, ask them to send it back. (A boundary isn’t necessarily a “no”, but it is anytime that you consciously put yourself first.) These are relatively insignificant areas. They won’t change the course of your life. What they will do is give you increasing confidence that you can set a boundary and still be ok.
The growing pains are unavoidable. It is like going through puberty all over again. Very few of us would willingly choose to undergo such a dreadful experience for a second time, unless we saw the value in it.
So, let me remind you:
The value in learning to set boundaries is that you will no longer compulsively give yourself away, compromise your integrity and put your well-being in the hands of other people.
That seems worth it to me. Maybe it seems worth it to you, too. If so, get ready to feel awkward.
Be Ready to Feel Like a “Bad” Person…
You tell the homeless man “no”. You send your food back. You don’t go to the birthday party you previously committed to. In each case, you may feel like you are a “bad person”. Or like you have done something horrid and wrong.
BUT, in none of the above scenarios are you an actual terrible person. You just feel like a terrible person.
If you set a boundary/assert yourself and find yourself claiming that you are a terrible, awful, no-good, selfish, horrible person, know that that isn’t the case. You just feel as though you are. And so what? Just because you feel something doesn’t make it true.
The claim that you are an asshole is an unconscious strategy that works to protect you from the chore of learning to set boundaries. The unconscious rationale is this: “It’s important to set boundaries. But it’s also important to not be a bad person. In fact, the second thing is even more important than the first. So I’ll stop with the boundaries.” It is a way to get out through the backdoor. You save yourself the discomfort of learning something new.
You have spent so long being so nice and so agreeable and so willing to give people what they want no matter the cost to yourself that any deviation outside of that framework makes you feel like a terrible person. Expect to feel this way, and know that it is not an accurate view of reality. It is merely meant to save you from this practice.
… And to Feel Afraid
Fear makes all the sense in the world.
You were raised in such a manner that you adopted the survival strategy of giving yourself away. THAT WAS HOW YOU SURVIVED. To do the opposite is to risk your very survival. To do the opposite feels like self-annihilation. To set a boundary and to assert yourself feels like you are choosing your own demise.
You renege on the birthday invite you previously accepted. First you feel awkward (how do I say this), then you feel like a bad person (I am simply terrible for not being there for my friend on this important day for them), and then you get terrified (they, nor anybody else for that matter, will ever want to be my friend again.)
The challenge, then, is to sit in this terror. Perhaps you stayed home from the birthday to a have a nice, relaxing night with yourself. And instead you feel deep panic that nothing will ever be ok again and relaxation is as distant a fantasy as that of your friends ever liking you again.
Well, who ever said that this would be easy? So, you sit in your panic. Feel your terror. Feel your chest pounding and your stomach tightening and your throat clenching. Is there any evidence, in sensation alone, that you are a terrible person or that you are not going to survive? If you don’t go into interpretation (and any story at all is interpretation) then you likely won’t find evidence of your impending doom. You will just find profound disturbance and discomfort.
This is what showing up for yourself is all about. Choosing yourself and then showing up for yourself fully – in this case by feeling the terror without trying to get out of it.
Again and Again and Again…
You survived. Of course you did. But this is precisely the lived experience that you need to have if you are to cultivate the confidence that you are allowed to have your boundary.
Setting a boundary as a child may have been an ineffective strategy with regards to your survival and well-being. Now it is the key to your well-being. Doing it and noticing how it improves your current state (in spite of the initial panic) is necessary if you are to replace the old operating system. We are updating something that is at the core of who you are, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
For some people, boundaries are as natural as waking up in the morning and putting their socks on. Obviously, this post is not for them. (They need a different post.)
For others, setting boundaries is as foreign as giving a talk on the state of the blubber fish economy in Chinese. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean that it is insurmountable/impossible. It is just new and difficult.
Employing boundaries in your daily life is a practice. It is not something that seamlessly happens overnight. It requires discipline and practice. There is no magic wand here. But there is a path forward.
It is easier to not walk down the path.
It is easier to give yourself away, to compromise your integrity and to live to please others for the rest of your life.
If you want the easy way, choose it.
If you want to have a wider range of options in dealing with the world – options that include putting others first some of the time and putting yourself first some of the time – make the journey.
It doesn’t need to happen overnight and it won’t. Treat yourself kindly if you turn back and remain in the comfort of your people-pleasing home from time to time. There is nothing wrong with that. When you’re ready, recommit to the path of boundaries.