5 Lessons I’ve Learned About Identifying & Asserting Boundaries

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A lesson in turning my back on what's not meant for (or no longer serving) me…

I’ve shared that therapy is a crucial tool in my healing journey, but I admittedly struggled early on to apply the methods and lessons learned while sitting on that cozy couch with a cup of organic green tea. Did I mention the tea was in a beautiful glass mug that I have since hunted for on Amazon? Clearly I was paying complete attention to what mattered in those early days of vaguely participatory avoidance. I nodded and smiled, latching on to what resonated with my Type A defensive perspective and letting the words that held me accountable for my own situation slip in one ear and out the other. Identifying and asserting personal boundaries fell into the latter category for quite some time.

I’ve become a more engaged patient over the past couple of years, but I still have moments when I wish I had a secret service mic in my ear that allowed my therapist to talk me through moments of self-doubt when my people pleasing tendencies rear their ugly heads. I am being this open because I don’t ever want someone reading this to think I’ve reached a mental, emotional, and spiritual promised land. I’m like Little Foot on a quest to find the Great Valley, but in the case of healing that journey is inward and perpetually ongoing. That being said, I have come far enough to shed light on what has helped me and where painful face-plants have occurred along the way.

The path to unshakable self-worth and living in alignment with your values is not for the faint hearted. It’s a journey that continues for the entirety of your life, but it becomes considerably easier to navigate once you stop following a society or peer-driven GPS system towards the destination you think you “should” be headed. Siri can’t lead you to happiness. Only you can. And if you want to stay on the proper path, you need to have boundaries in place.

Boundaries are a concept that I've learned to reinforce kindly and with respect, both for myself and other individuals. I grew up in a loving home but one in which boundaries were borderline non-existent. Subsequently I did not develop strong ones and felt threatened when people around me enforced their own. If someone declined an invitation or simply had the audacity to say “No” I was completely taken aback. I didn’t think no was an option. How could you make sure everyone likes you if you say no??? (insert eye roll).

The area in which I personally struggle the most with setting boundaries is romantic relationships. My divorce was in part due to a breakdown in communication. For years, I convinced myself I was complacent with things that, in reality, really bothered me. Resentment built up, and when my feelings did eventually escape, it was not pretty. There was a lot of damage done both to my faith in the relationship and to our connection as a couple. As anyone who has been divorced knows, there is typically a lot more than one issue that leads to the end of a marriage. However, in my case, not setting boundaries is something I avoided taking accountability for so it was a considerable problem that needed to be faced. I have since dedicated time and effort to knowing where I stand and ensuring the boundaries I have are in line with what I believe and what is most important to me in any relationship. These important factors include honesty, loyalty, time, attention, and effort.

I recently had to voice a boundary. For a moment, I hesitated. I didn’t want to cause guilt, make that individual uncomfortable, or come across as needy or demanding. Then, I took a deep breath and decided to have my own back knowing that none of those fears were rooted in truth. I don’t ever need to ask permission or justify my need for boundaries, and I knew the feeling I needed to share (that sense that something is just off when one of your boundaries is challenged or crossed) was very understandable.

I’d love to say that this experience resulted in a deeper connection with someone and ultimately made me jump up and down with happiness. It didn’t. It resulted in the abrupt end of an exciting new possibility. I’m human. I got upset, I listened to some of my favorite songs, I called my best friend, I went for a very long walk on the beach, and I cried a little. My younger self would have gone down a destructive rabbit hole of anxiety. Why did you say anything? Why did you have to ruin something? Why do you let things bother you? But I didn’t do this. I honored my feelings, I expressed them rationally and without anger, and I was told that what I needed in order to feel respected could not be given at this time. Then, I had to let go and walk away.

I do not regret being honest or allowing myself to be vulnerable. I don't believe I did anything wrong, and deep down I don't believe the reason for this individual's sudden departure had anything to do with me. We live, we learn, and we take a piece of each experience with us.

 

This series of events gave me pause to reflect on my boundary journey to this point. Below are the most important 5 lessons I've learned about identifying and asserting boundaries:

 

#1 – It’s not easy, but it builds resilience. Expressing what I am not comfortable with goes against a lifetime practice of avoiding conflict and seeking external validation. If you’ve ever felt the pressure to appear laid back and cool, you understand where I am coming from. The truth is, I am actually laid back about a lot of things. However, I let my quest to be the “cool girl” when it came to dating get to the point where I was a living, breathing doormat in my younger years.  I had no problem asserting myself at work or in the classroom, but I crumbled in the face of a love interest. It was a terrible habit that I’ve successfully broken. Every time I stand by my boundaries I get a little stronger and a little wiser.

 

#2 – You have to believe in what you stand for. I’ll use dating as an example here also. I used to have a mental checklist of “dealbreakers”, almost none of which had to do with anything of true substance. After meeting, dating, and in one case marrying someone who passed the dealbreaker test, I was left unfulfilled and unhappy. Today, that list has been replaced with an open mind and healthy boundaries. I believe in what matters to me because I took the time to determine what my values truly are instead of claiming to have values that looked good on paper or setting standards rooted in superficiality.

 

#3 – Focusing on the lesson will make you grow. When you hesitate in communicating your boundaries, it is likely tied to a deep-rooted negative belief about yourself. I long held the belief that I was not enough and not worthy of being loved as I am. Giving Oscar-worthy performances of the perpetual victim was once a skill I possessed as a result of this mindset. Victimization kept my focus on the pain so the suffering felt endless. It was not until I began to think of every situation, no matter how good or bad, as a lesson that I began to flourish mentally and emotionally. The more difficult a situation was the more it made me face the reflection in the mirror. Those dark times forced me to face the demons and gain new perspectives. Those were the situations that made me grow the most. The boundaries I have today are a result of those times of deep self-reflection. I now accept who I am and am excited about the person I am becoming.

 

#4 – If someone can’t respect your boundaries, let them go with grace. It’s easy to demonize anyone who pushes back or disappears when you assert yourself. However, I find it’s much healthier to take a graceful approach. Be thankful for the lesson learned and let this person go with love and understanding. By all means… call your best friend, cry it out, blast 80s music while dancing around in your underwear, and spend some time going all out in a Soul Cycle class to shake it off (those are some of my go to coping mechanisms when I’m feeling down or anxious). Attacking the person is not only unnecessary, it won’t make you feel any better. If you won’t take my word for it, perhaps Buddha will resonate with you… “In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” Amen.

 

#5 – It’s good for your health. I believe suppressed emotions and a lack of connection with dreams, values, and inner guidance are related to physical illness. Pretending to be “fine,” while you let resentment build inside you is a recipe for disaster. What you do not express freely will find a way to manifest itself, and in my case it came in the form of autoimmunity and disordered eating. I am very optimistic about the alternative therapies I am currently undergoing for Hashimoto’s and I am incredibly happy to be free of the cycle of ED. I have no desire to go back to that state, and enforcing my boundaries helps to ensure that never happens.

 

It took a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of self-awareness to learn to turn my back on what is not meant for me… this includes relationships with anyone who is unable to respect my boundaries. You teach people how to treat you by showing what you are and are not willing to accept. Sometimes your boundaries may not align properly with someone else’s. Sometimes you will encounter people who test your boundaries to a degree that drives you nuts. Sometimes you will be forced to let go of something or someone you were excited about. This is life, and it’s not always easy… but I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. I know the lessons coming will sometimes be hard, but I trust that what’s meant to be will find a way as long as I stand behind my values and continue to put in the work for my healing journey.

 

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” – Brené Brown
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