Having Healthy Boundaries

I used to have really poor boundaries; I believed your happiness was more important than my happiness and that often meant going places I didn’t want to go, doing work I didn’t want to do or spending my time in ways I’d rather not.  

I was afraid if I said ‘no’, I wouldn’t be liked, I’d lose my job, or worse, it would validate those ugly thoughts I used to have about myself:

You’re lucky to even have this job.”

“You’re the irrational one, you’re the only one who is bothered by this.”

“If you say no, they’re not going to like you.”

“You’re rude to men.”

“If you don’t do this, he’s not going to like you.”

It sounds a lot like the adult version of peer pressure and until the last few years I would fold to these fears, both founded and unfounded.  I knew about “healthy boundaries” but I didn’t know how to have them or use them, so I found myself working more instead of eating, waking up at 2 a.m. because my roommate wanted to bring 20 friends home for the afterparty, pretending to be someone I’m not, or being followed at the grocery store because I was trying to “be nice” rather than rude. 

Boundaries exist for a good reason.  They are present when I have a healthy self-esteem; basically when I don’t give a f!*& what the other person thinks; I’m not going to suffer just to make someone else happy.  But even as my self-esteem grows, I still find it hard to disappoint someone, to tell them no, to make myself a priority, and to help others understand that I value my time.  A part of me is still afraid that I will lose my job, lose a friend or lose a relationship.  I still feel guilty about turning down a client so I can keep my plans.  When I say no to work I feel lazy, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  I wake up an hour early every morning to work before I go to work.  And then I go to work.  And then after I go to the gym, I usually go home and work some more.  (It’s like that Drake song.  Love you Drake.)

I’m not sure where these poor boundaries came from.  Well, yes I am.  It is a learned behavior.  When you grow up watching a certain behavior, it becomes a “truth” in your mind.  A mindset.  So with my father for example, I grew up not being heard.  Everything was BECAUSE HE SAID SO, therefore how I felt or what I thought didn’t matter because he was bigger, louder, and angrier than me.  I grew up watching other family members wrestle with doing things they didn’t want to do, just to please others, and so I carried on that behavior.  Either doing that something and feeling resentful toward someone, or becoming angry and defensive because I didn’t think my needs were important.  I learned that I either had to shut up and do it, or be louder and angrier than the other person.

Until now.  And let me tell you, when you stop pleasing people, people stop being pleased.  I’ve lost some friendships, I’ve not dated some guys, and I’ve spent some holidays alone, but I care less about that than I did four years ago.  I’ve learned to say ‘no’ as a complete sentence.  I apologize a lot less.  I’m not sorry that I didn’t take that client, I’m not sorry that I don’t want to talk to a creepy guy at the grocery store and I’m not sorry that I’m no longer interested in a guy who treated me like crap.  I am politely, but firmly, not sorry. 

In case you’re wondering, some healthy examples of having boundaries sounds like…

“No thank you.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I’m not able to.”

“I’m not comfortable with that”

“How about you take your gross drugs and your friends and get the hell out of my house.”

 

Oh, and get this, those foul, slovenly, druggie roommates of mine?  I could not care less what they think about me.  It is not possible for me to care about what that girl’s opinion of me is.  In fact, if I could go back in time, I would have kicked her out a lot sooner.  Everyone was always telling me I was difficult and that I should live alone.  But all I wanted was to have my coffee in the kitchen without looking at a guy who just passed out on my couch at 7:30a.m., or a bathroom sink that wasn’t full of vomit, or a kitchen that wasn’t covered in bottles and cups and old food. 

That job I thought I might lose?  I didn’t.  I don’t even remember it.  And the job doesn’t remember me.  That’s the thing – you go to extremes to work harder, be cooler, be easier to get along with, or be nicer, when NO ONE even thinks about you when you’re gone!

Those girls I was afraid wouldn’t like me?  They’ve already decided whether they like me or not, and my bending over backward for them is not going to change anything.  Every week Emily asks me to watch The Bachelor with her.  Every week I say no.  And then we make other plans, say I love you, and hang up the phone.  That’s friends, y’all.

Oh and that guy?  He was never worth it.  A few months ago I had this interesting conversation with my pal Mark Harmon around the time he started dating his girlfriend.  He didn’t want to be intimate with her right away because he wanted to get to know her as a person and deeply connect (true intimacy).  So he told her right there, he wasn’t doing that.  With anyone.  And then they got to know each other over several months and fell in love.  Boom.  When I heard this story I sucked air through my teeth and thought about some of the men I’ve come across in Los Angeles.

“Mark, I don’t know if I can do that here.  How am I going to say that?  What does that sound like?”

You guys, can you believe I still consider putting someone else’s needs and wants before my own body?  Unlearning learned behavior takes a long time and a lot of hard work.  If you don’t know where to begin, I’ll give you a hint: it starts with safe conversation, with safe people.  Don’t try this with the girlfriend who has disappointed you or left you feeling used.  Don’t try this with the guy who’d rather watch the game than talk to you – they’re not worth your vulnerability.  Find a whole ‘nother safe group of people.  Trust me, they exist.  This kind of work takes time, it’s difficult and it is worth it.  It’s like a snail moving a mountain, one grain of sand at a time.  Ahead of me I see a really nice hill, behind me I see a much smaller mountain.