But that's only half the work. The other half is learning how to consistently respect them, and make them be respected by the outside world. Let's arm ourselves with a lot of compassion for ourselves here, because here comes the tough part:
- On one hand, you find yourself in a situation that triggers you, or isn't okay with you, or isn't in your best interest. You've noticed it, put words on it - great. You've identified a line in the sand for yourself.
- On the other hand, you probably have another human in front of you that you don't want to offend, that you fear will judge you, or stop loving you if you express your discomfort.
The first times I pointed out my lines in the sand to another human, it took an excruciating amount of effort to get past these fears. I'd rehearse in my head what I would say, probably let the offense slide a couple of times, before I could gather up the courage to say something.
For example, there was this security clerk at my local supermarket looking me up and down in the sleaziest way. It made me feel objectified, it was gross, and I would boil inside that this would be how I felt every time I'd go grocery shopping.
I absorbed each of those events like a punch in the gut. But my insides were screaming - Hey, it's not fair that he's making you feel this way. What are you going to do, change supermarkets? That's nonsense. (I did consider it.)
I decided to say something. I had to assess whether it was safe - as a woman, I was taught from a young age to not respond to catcalling for fear of being attacked.* Beware that a lack of privilege can come in the way of asserting our boundaries.
But the supermarket context felt fine. I promised myself that I would speak up for myself the next time I'd go grocery shopping. I rehearsed in my head. I looked at him in the eye, and said:
Hi! Look, every time I come in, you look at me up and down and it's making me feel very uncomfortable. Could you please stop doing that? Thanks.
And I stepped into the store. My stomach was upside down, even if I didn't know him or cared about him.
But I had my back, I owned my emotions and did something about it, rather than rotting inside with my disgust of his behavior. A little voice inside me was trying to push me to avoid that supermarket moving forward so that I wouldn't see him, but another one screamed No way as again, it wouldn't have been fair to me to escape while he was the one behaving poorly.
It gets easier and more natural. I became less and less afraid of asserting my boundaries, because it felt so damn right.
Instead, I became more wary of betraying myself. And Glennon Doyle puts it so beautifully in her latest book, Untamed.
“Self-love means I have a relationship with myself built on trust and loyalty. I trust myself to have my own back so my allegiance is to the voice within. I’ll abandon everyone else’s expectations before I’ll abandon myself. I’ll disappoint everyone else before I disappoint myself.”
Since then, I've gotten used to asserting a lot of my boundaries - at least the ones that are challenged on a regular basis.
It was nonetheless quite the journey to get here. I strive to be kind, open and helpful, so it initially felt at odds with saying no. But I realized that (1) one can assert boundaries with kindness and (2) my relationships only got better from it, since it would either lead to a deeper trust in the relationship, or weed out people who weren't good for me.
Here are a few examples I've learned to master.
Need for alone time
Without boundaries: Yes let's definitely catch up. But... invent another conflict, or cancel last minute.
With boundaries: I'd love to see you, but I currently need to take some time for myself, so let's plan for next week. No excuses needed. No further explanation needed.
Random tasks coming my way
Without boundaries: Yes this sounds like a very important project, I can do it. Too much on my plate, I don't even care about this but I'll drag my feet to do it, and not to great work as a result.
With boundaries: I agree this project is important, but my cup is currently full. I'm happy to connect you with this other awesome person to see if they can help. Clear about my priorities, set myself up for success, offer a hand without taking on more than I can handle, and actually not let people down with overpromising and underdelivering.
Someone joining a plan I organize, and seeing them feel meh
Without boundaries: Are you good? Are you bored? Ugh I'm SO sorry, I had no idea it would be this way.
With boundaries: [open to listening but silence]. I will not feel responsible for your emotions but if I have the emotional capacity to do so, and if you decide to share, I can provide some support. If I don't, I'll be sure to support myself first.
Someone says something disrespectful to me
Without boundaries: [silence]. Accumulate frustration inside. Then bring it up without concrete examples a year later and blame the other person for never realizing they hurt me.
With boundaries: When you said that, it really annoyed me and it was disrespectful in my opinion. If you offend me in this way again, I'm going to stop engaging with you.
As a bonus, a virtuous loop was born between:
- asserting my boundaries, and
- communicating better
I took a feedback workshop a while back that helped me in doing so. I learned to:
- always give specific examples (I thought that was vindictive but it's not)
- stating clearly how it made me feel without assigning an etiquette to the other person,
- and state what I needed from them moving forward.
But isn't all of this selfish?
Says a little voice in my head on a regular basis. Isn't this selfish? Isn't this mean?
Well, mean and selfish are't the same.
It is selfish. Self-ish. Somewhat focused on the self.
But the word gets a terrible rep nowadays. Our common understanding is that being selfish is bad. That it means to be only focused on oneself at the detriment of others. That it's the opposite of being philanthropic, altruistic, selfless which is judged as being good.
I used to agree, but now I don't. I think being selfless, i.e. "without self" is dangerous and unfair. Why would I want to be without self?
We would gain a lot from remembering that we're a whole person too, and being self-ish helps us behave in an authentic way, put our oxygen mask on first, and then be a radiant-altruistic-generous sunshine for others if that's what we want to be.
selfish: devote to or caring
Caring for oneself first, to be in the position to care for others.
And I must say, when I have been on the receiving end of someone upholding their boundaries, I've never confused that with being mean. I have felt:
- shitty when it was implicit, not said, not honest, e.g. someone doesn't want to be friends with me but keeps on saying "Let's catch up... oh no, I can't, try again in 4 weeks... oh, I have to cancel, let's do this soon."
- hurt in my ego, but understanding and respected as a person when it was explicit, well communicated, truthful, e.g. "Hey love, I'm going to have my birthday party soon and only invite my other group of friends. I just wanted to let you know.
In the latter case, my hurt was mine to heal, because that person had done nothing wrong - she had just drawn her own line in the sand, and told me about it in a kind yet firm way.
Now, this does not absolve me from making sure I'm not just considering everything I do is okay. I do hurt people sometimes, and I'm doing my best to not conflict asserting my boundaries and violating someone else's, or being mean.
And if I am in the wrong, well, I apologize.
Does the work ever end?
While I presented this line of thought in two separate posts - define, then uphold - learning how to live with boundaries isn't a linear process. It's a constant loop of noticing something's off, and deciding what to do about it.
And then finding the courage to do just that.
Not beating myself up if I try, and then fail to assert a boundary.
Some boundaries appear, some go away.
And they're not the same for every relationship I have.
So it's never over, it just became a part of how I navigate the world. Being clear about my boundaries helps me live in alignment with myself and my needs. It pushes my relationships with others to a whole other level of authenticity and depth.
We often seek to create trust with others, and assume we don't need to do so with ourselves to live at ease. But that's not true. We are a full person, and it's time we treated ourselves like such.
So the more I grow into upholding boundaries, the freer and more powerful I feel, because it has created a strong-rooted belief I know who I am and I'm here to advocate for me. Trust is built in micro-moments, even with ourselves, and every time I assert my boundaries, I am telling my self: I've got your back. I'm prioritize you. I won't disappoint you.