How living without boundaries got me in trouble

Ideas Nov 11, 2020

I grew up in the most loving household. My parents always empowered me and instilled in me the belief I could do anything.

But obviously, there were some missing pieces I had to acquire along the way. I realize that through my upbringing, and the constant media brainwashing about gender roles, I had unconsciously picked up that I needed to be:

  • A "good girl", which manifested for me as being polite, doing things for others, not offending,
  • And a "strong girl", i.e. not crying, not feeling sad, keeping control and staying positive

As a consequence, I would feel responsible for other people's emotions and prioritize them over mine, without even realizing I was doing so.

  1. I would shut down my 'negative' emotions like anger, grief, sadness: after being at the heart of the attack in Nice in 2016, I immediately put up a "I-AM-FINE" wall, refused to talk to the psychologists our program had brought to support us, and buried the trauma deep deep inside where I thought I could just dump it. Spoiler alert: that did not go so well for me. It came back haunting me until I addressed and processed it.
  2. I unwillingly engaged in weird relationship dynamics where I would behave with an odd maternal instinct with ex-boyfriends. I ended up wanting to take care of them even if that was so far removed from who I believe to be.
  3. I would never express when I felt hurt, which created huge communication issues with my closest friends and pushed us on the brink of permanently damaging our relationship.
  4. I would say Yes when my heart was screaming No, from little things like going out to bigger things like projects with people I didn't enjoy working with.
  5. I would share more personal things than I wanted when prompted to telling a personal story, without knowing how to hold back. I thought sharing was an all-or-nothing act.
  6. I had a hard time breaking out of relationships that were draining me, even when I knew they were dragging me down and depleting my energy.
  7. I didn't know how to react to other people's comments about me that I thought were out of place, especially when those people were relatives.

In recent times, even covid-19 has created whole new challenges in the domain of boundaries. Everyone has their own definition of what it means to be careful, creating odd social interactions like:

  • Oh, you can remove your mask now. Shit, I removed my mask but I didn't want to, and now if I put it back they might feel offended.
  • Whatever love, just hug me, I'm fine. No grandma, I'm not going to hug you, I want to protect you even if everyone is currently pushing me to let you give me a kiss.

From the most innocuous to the biggest, not having boundaries had a massive negative impact on my life. It clearly created a lack of control and a hurtful porosity between my inner and outer world.

In psychology, personal boundaries can be defined as follows:

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.
Photo by Raphael Mittendorfer on Unsplash

Learning how to set and uphold my boundaries as an adult has been the revelation of the past two years.

They have helped me navigate the outside world with a better understanding of my own needs, and how to respect them, hence feeling aligned with my own self.

How to define boundaries?

Now that I've shared the impact of a lack of boundaries on my own life, let me tell you how I went about setting them. There have been a few key questions that have helped me in doing so.

1. What am I okay with?

A simple yet powerful question for me. It has helped me vocalize what I am and am not okay with, and create inner space to let internal resistance emerge, give it a voice and understand what is triggering me.

For example, I formulated how not okay I was with relatives commenting on my body. I decided I was okay with talking about certain trauma but not others.

2. What is in my best interest?

I'm a giver. I feel people's emotions deeply. I get passionate about other people's visions. I always want to help others - a little too much. And the acquired "I don't want to offend" trait pushed me more than once into people-pleasing mode.

"What is in my best interest?" grounds me and puts the focus back on me. What is it that I need? What will be good for me?

To quote one of my choir girlfriends, it also pushed me drop the S word: drop the should. Instead of wondering whether I should do this or that, I tuned into what I wanted.

3. Do I owe them my truth?

Leading question if there ever was one - the answer is usually No.

Given how much I write and share, I used to feel like once I was engaged in telling a story, I had to tell everything, as though not doing so would mean I was lying. That would actually hurt me, since I could tell my inner me was asking to keep some things private.

I now understand I don't owe my truth to anyone, not even to the people I love the most. I have full agency in what I decide to share and withhold.

Recognizing so has made a world of a difference in feeling like I could trust myself to be intentional with how much I reveal and how much I keep to myself.

4. What am I responsible for?

And by contrast, what am I not responsible for.

  • I'm responsible for my emotions

I can't blame others for everything bad I feel. When I'm feeling frustrated, but didn't communicate why with the other person, how are they supposed to know? Did they actually do something hurtful, or am I projecting and interpreting?

When someone does hurt me, it's also my responsibility to recognize they have, not negate my own feelings and choose how to process that, depending on the outcome I want. What's in my best interest here? Do I want to resolve the issue, and thus need to confront them? Do I decide to let it go? If so, what do I need so that I don't let it consume me?

Conversely, I am NOT responsible for other people's emotions. If I invite a friend to do something, and they accept even if they weren't interested, managing their boredom or frustration isn't on me, and I can't let that ruin my own experience.

  • I'm responsible for my actions and reactions:

Not being responsible for other people's emotions doesn't mean I'm stepping all over people without consideration. If I hurt someone, and they share it with me, I need to hold myself accountable, hear them out, acknowledge my mistakes and apologize.

It's also up to me to live in alignment with what I care about. If I want to have a creative life, I can't blame the outside world for not making that happen within the bounds of my privilege.

And while I can't control other people's actions, reacting in an authentic way is up to me, e.g. not gossiping even if others do, wearing my mask even if others don't.

  • I'm responsible for where I decide to spend my time and energy.

For me, that means learning to say No to outings when I feel like I need alone time, even if that may disappoint, which I don't apologize for because that would be saying I'm sorry about respecting my own needs.  

  • I'm responsible for who I decide to spend my time and energy with.

The beauty of adult life is that no one can force you to spend time with anyone. So, when I hangout with people, I pay attention to how I feel afterwards. If I'm not feeling energized, or if I end up with a low and negative mood, I start questioning whether the relationship is good for me.

I learned to intentionally invest less in those relationships where the answer is no.

I've only shared half of the story. Once I've learned to identify my boundaries, I've had to learn how to:

  • uphold them
  • update them, because things change

Here's how I've learned to do both in a way that feels authentic to my character, leading me to feel more powerful and free than ever.

What about you? Do you have clear boundaries?

How has the definition, or lack-of boundaries impacted your own life and relationships?

Cover photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash.


Laila Zouaki

Adopted by New York, I made a few life stops in California, Australia, France and Morocco. I'm curious about product, scuba diving, yoga, psychology, art, writing, and food.