Every living creature, human and otherwise, has a survival strategy.
The Texas Horned Lizard shoots blood out of its eyeballs. The Komodo Dragon bites prey with its dirty mouth and then follows the prey around waiting for it to die from the resulting infection. (Toothpaste would be its nemesis.) The gazelle runs fast.
As for humans, well, we have slightly different strategies. (We don’t do so well when we forego brushing our teeth, for example.) Our strategies are not innate, but developed in the early years of childhood based on experiences that now reside in our unconscious. Furthermore, our strategies are as varied and numerous as Lady Gaga’s shoe closet.
To oversimplify this deeply complex phenomenon, most humans emerge from the first few years of childhood with the primary strategy of either:
a) acting as though they are fundamentally distinct and separate from the rest of the world (the strategy of separateness)
b) acting as though they are fundamentally connected with the rest of the world (the strategy of connectedness)
In the case of ‘a’, such a child will have had experiences that led to the conclusion that to survive is to rely on the self. “If I am going to make it in this world, I have to be sure to meet my own needs.” The implication here is that sometimes those needs of the self might come at the expense of the needs of others, and that is perfectly ok.
In the case of ‘b’, such a child will have had experiences that led to the conclusion that to survive is to rely on others. “If I am going to make it in this world, I have to be sure that other people continue to show up for me and support me.” The implication here is that, on the surface, others are more important than self precisely because others determine the ultimate survival of the self. This type of individual will constantly be compromising themselves in order to please others.
We come into adulthood with our childhood survival strategy very much intact and running the show. Put another way, we become adults while we are still children.
The adult who adopted survival strategy ‘a’ as a child will be very willing and able to set boundaries. This type of person will have had years of experience doing exactly this. The story goes: my survival depends on myself; other people are a threat to myself; I will willingly compromise my others in order to stand up for myself. That last part, choosing self over others, is the basis of boundaries. (This type of person oftentimes lacks the capacity for empathy and treating others kindly, but that is a post for another day.)
The adult who adopted survival strategy ‘b’ as a child will be great at getting along with others, being agreeable/approachable/relatable/etc, but will be terrible at setting boundaries. The story goes: my survival depends on others; if I choose myself over others I am risking my very survival; therefore, I will always choose others over myself.
This post is for person ‘b’. The individual for who boundary setting is a foreign and terrifying practice.
Great question. If you are like person ‘b’, why might it be in your best interest to be more like person ‘a’?
First, I would like to offer a clarification. There is nothing wrong with person ‘b’. You have a difficult time with boundaries. So what? You don’t need to change that. But it might improve the quality of your life if you do.
Right now, you are limited to responding to the world in one specific way; namely, by giving yourself away and compromising your integrity in order to ensure relationship. Overtime, you might risk losing sight of who you are as you continually conform to the expectations of others and resentment towards others is likely to build as a result.
Boundaries, however, are not always better than not-boundaries. Sometimes it is better to lead with self (boundary) and at other times it is better to lead with relationship (not-boundary). The point is to have a choice. And in order to have a choice we have to be equally comfortable with setting a boundary and 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 unable to set boundaries, the path towards health is through self-assertion.
No amount of reading about boundary-setting or hypothesizing as to why boundaries are difficult for you to set will prepare you to go into the world and effectively and comfortable set a boundary. The path requires practice. Practice takes something theoretical and heady and makes it embodied. If you want to be successful, you must embody the practice, otherwise it will continue to exist as a pleasant fantasy in your head for the rest of your life.
I recommend practicing boundary setting and self-assertion in relatively insignificant areas of your life as you begin to hone this untrained muscle. For example, walk by a homeless man asking for change and, when he asks you, look at him and say, “no”. Or, go out to eat and, if your food is too cold, send it back.
(Boundaries don’t always take the form of ’no’ – they are simply any place where you put yourself and your own well-being first.)
I challenge you to intentionally commit to this practice. If you do, expect to experience some intense discomfort. The path to becoming effective at setting boundaries goes through various way-points before arriving at “I’m comfortable with boundaries city”.
“I feel awkward as fuck”
True. You do. This is your first time doing this. Why would you expect to be a master your first time around? Some people have a lifetime of experience setting boundaries. It is second-nature to them. They would feel awkward as fuck if they were challenged to display care, empathy and forgiveness to another person. That is your zone of expertise. But, boundaries are not.
Expect to feel shaky. Maybe you’ll turn red in the face. Maybe you’ll stumble over your words. Maybe your voice will crack.
These are unavoidable growing pains. 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 it is, get ready to feel awkward as fuck.
“I feel like a dick”
When you tell the homeless man ‘no’, when you send your food back, when you don’t go to the birthday party you previously committed to, when you confront the person at the gym who is blasting awful music instead of using the fucking headphones dangling from their ears, when you request that your mom stop berating you with questions about why you don’t have a girlfriend…
In none of the above scenarios are you an actual dick. (If you are being a dick somewhere in your life, then stop being one.) You just feel like a dick.
I will repeat this, because it is essential that this distinction is clear: you are not being a dick, you are merely feeling like a dick.
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.
Your 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 and you resign yourself to your previous life of misery.
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 an terrible person. Expect to feel this way, and know that it is not an accurate interpretation of reality. It is merely meant to save you from the discomfort this practice entails.
“I’m scared shitless”
Yep. I’m glad you can admit it to yourself.
This 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, especially as a helpless child, was to risk your very survival. You could not, as it were, tell your parents that you didn’t like how they were raising you and would they please work on their own issues instead of making you the location of their projections? No, you were left with one option: respond to them in whatever way was most likely to get you the care that you needed to survive. If that meant hiding your true thoughts and feelings so as to make them happy, so be it.
And now, you are trying something different. Instead of hiding your true thoughts and feelings, you are committing to the practice of sharing them with the world.
The same fear from childhood is still in your body. And so when you do set the boundary and assert yourself, it feels like self-annihilation. It feels as though you are willingly 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 dick (I’m such a bad person 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. Look for evidence that your stories are true.
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? I certainly did not. So, you sit in your panic. You 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 going to die or that nobody will ever like you again? 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 by accepting and feeling into the terror without trying to get out of it.
“Wow. I did all that and I survived. And so did the other person.”
Of course you did. And of course they did. But this is precisely the lived, embodied experience that you need to have. Again and again and again.
You have a deep conviction that neither yourself nor the people around you will be ok if you don’t constantly go out of your way to give them exactly what they want precisely when they want it.
The truth is that they will be ok. As will you. But no amount of logical reasoning will convince you of that. You need to feel it on a cellular level. And the only way to feel it at that level is to do it. And then do it again.
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 again and again is necessary 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.
Welcome to the Emerald City
“I’m comfortable with boundaries”
Isn’t it nice to be here?
Don’t get too used to it.
Of course, residing here comfortably and at your choosing is the ultimate goal. But it is going to take repeated practice in many contexts for quite a while before you earn your rightful residency.
The path to the city is full of needles and thorns and swamps and quick sand and pit holes and hungry snakes and blood shooting Texas Horned Lizards. You are forging your way through it. And you are going to need to make the journey quite a few times before the path opens up to you.
Eventually, the path will be cleared and the walk will be rather pleasant. Do it again and again and the trip to the city will become shorter, less hazardous and, overtime, an enjoyable journey. It will become a vacation. People who don’t set boundaries don’t take vacations. Your boundary is your vacation and your vacation is your boundary. Soon, you will be able to complete it with your eyes closed.
But not yet.
For now, get ready to go back to the first town.
For some people, boundaries are as natural as waking up in the morning and taking a shit. Obviously, this post is not for them. (They need a different post, which is on its way.)
For others, setting boundaries is as foreign as giving a talk on the state of the blubber fish economy in Chinese at a press conference attended by all the world’s leaders. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean that it is insurmountable and impossible. It is just new and difficult.
Employing boundaries into your daily life is a practice. It is not something that seamlessly happens overnight. It requires feeling and tolerating a lot of crud and a lot disturbance. And feeling it repeatedly. There is no magic wand here. But there is a path to improvement.
Walking down the path takes discipline and persistence.
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 and/or putting yourself first – make the journey.
It doesn’t need to happen overnight and it won’t. Treat yourself kindly. If you turn back and choose the comfort of your people-pleasing home from time to time, that is not a problem. There is nothing wrong with that. When you’re ready, recommit to the path of boundaries.
And one final point.
At their core, boundaries are about keeping your heart open to the other person. When you don’t set the boundary, resentment builds. When you do set the boundary, you are taking responsibility for you well-being into your own hands and not subtly blaming the other person for holding you back from the life you want.
Furthermore, the boundary is a declaration that you respect the other person enough to let them deal with their own disturbance. Sure, they may not like it, but they will make it. They will be ok. You setting a boundary with them may cause temporary hurt, but not lasting damage. You are not that powerful. The boundary is a sign that you are treating them like the capable adult they are, not the needy, worthless child you were pretending they were.
In this sense, boundaries serve as the basis of healthy, mutual, loving relationship between two capable, caring adults.