I get anxious all the time. I tend to avoid telling people how I feel and, therefore, get irritated and avoid others when they do something I don’t like. For the most part, speaking up for myself or even expressing dislike is hard; I’m a super polite people pleaser. Does this resonate with anyone?
Those of us with porous boundaries probably suffer from burnout, depressive episodes, and other issues like resentment and rocky relationships.
It turns out, boundaries are essential. I grew up in a dysfunctional childhood with an absent father, young mother, abusive stepfather, and then spent the rest of my childhood and teen years with a grandmother that kept forgetting she wasn’t my mom. I had a boyfriend in high school who abused and manipulated me, yet I was desperate to keep him. It’s all here; the reasons I’ve struggled with boundaries connect back to the early days.
Some people say you can’t blame everything on your childhood, but actually, yea, you can. Until you become aware of how something is involved and affecting your life, until you have the know-how to identify and work on yourself, then yea, of course, you can blame the roots of your problems on childhood. The key is, at some point, you’ll realize you have a problem and have to do something about it. Things can get messy as you begin to take control.
I recently listened to an audiobook called Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab. Nedra is a therapist and expert in relationship boundaries. She recently spoke on one of my favorite podcasts, Girls Gotta Eat: a sex, relationships, and dating comedy podcast. Nedra talked about how loose boundaries can bring us misery and how to set stronger ones.
In her book, she talks about how porous boundaries lead us to avoid people, feel anxious and depressed, and other long-term problems. Nedra helps readers identify the roots of these problems and goes through friends, family, work, romantic relationships, and ourselves.
Yes, we even have to set boundaries for ourselves! Think about food, exercise, tv, social media, spending money, free time, and even how we talk to ourselves. All of these things need boundaries.
If you’re like me and realize you have deficiencies in all of these areas, it might stem from the early years and lead to an inability to create healthy boundaries.
I worked for a company that glorified a no boundary policy. It was an ESL company in Korea known for its “cult” culture. They continuously abused their power with extra meetings (unpaid), illogical assignments, and cultivating a culture of undying loyalty to the company. They literally perpetuated the idea of a teacher being like a flame, consuming itself to light the way for students. Plus, the work-drinking culture was strong, so on top of a crazy day, you might then be encouraged to go out drinking until all hours of the night and then repeat the madness the next day.
My sister also works in a company that glorifies workaholism. She works in product production, and they too, want to keep meetings until midnight, stay connected to phones on days off and vacations, and foster a work-first mentality. She is constantly in a push and pull with higher-ups who make comments about her weekends.
Where do we draw the line? How much of ourselves are we supposed to give to a job? At the company I worked at in Korea, they would host lectures (mandatory and unpaid) on finding joy at work and making your job your vocation. This culture is prevalent in the US as well. Yet more than ever, I’m seeing burnt-out folks on social media who are disillusioned and looking for more in life.
Oh, let us count the ways in which we avoid setting healthy boundaries in relationships because we are scared of losing our partners.
My last boyfriend and I quickly started spending every night together. I need a lot of alone time to do whatever the f*** I want, like watching SVU, eating pizza or pasta, and decompressing. However, every time I would suggest that I needed a night off or alone time, he would shut down. I would panic and change my mind, and he would return to being happy. We didn’t last. I know, I know, I should’ve established boundaries.
The boyfriend before that was an alcoholic. The ones before him were verbally abusive. There is a pattern here; it’s me; I keep choosing this.
Men struggle with boundaries too. Too many of us tip-toe around what we need. My biggest hope is that we learn to communicate better and feel safer with each other.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been better about saying no to friends, but it’s taken me a long time to get to this point. I had a habit of leading friends on about whether or not I would do something. I would go back and forth, and I became known as flaky. I now realize that I struggled to protect my time and needed space to think about which social events I really wanted to attend.
Friendships are special, and thank goodness for them. However, sometimes they can be toxic as well. What’s more, it can be easy to fall into a specific role within the friendship, one that might not serve you.
Family can build us up and break us down in a particular way, almost superior to the other categories. It all starts with family. They’re the ones who shaped our early years: how we think, how we see ourselves and the world, and how we react to others.
When I was little, my mother would take me everywhere she went, like a little sidekick. I witnessed things that happened to her, both good and bad. My stepfather would put his hands on my mother and then would discipline me physically as well. It was here that I witnessed a physical boundary being crossed. It’s taken me years to get out of the mindset that I’m constantly in trouble.
After I went to live with my grandmother, she would tell people she was my mother, right in front of me. I would always correct her, but it’s like she blurred the line within her own mind and thus, tried to blur it with me.
Some people are blessed with healthy families that foster healthy boundaries. I know a few of these lucky people. But more than anything, I know people who have families riddled with addiction, chaos, codependency, trauma, and a lack of respect. As an adult, it can feel impossible to cope. That’s one reason Nedra’s book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, is useful. She goes into detail about what might be the most challenging category for some, family.
My personal boundaries have been out of control for too long. I’ve been guilty of excess in ways that have been detrimental to my growth and health, such as too much drinking and eating, too much dating, too much spending, and too much TV.
So many of us tune in to shows or apps as a way of avoiding time alone, with ourselves. Our own mental loops can be toxic as well. Understanding thought patterns and learning to see them as just thoughts, not truth, is revolutionary.
What it means
Why are some of us crippled by bad habits and loose boundaries? Everything goes back to fear: fear of pissing people off, losing them, fear of the uncomfortable. But by ignoring our limits, we’re already uncomfortable and consistently put ourselves in a situation to remain this way.
It’s okay to need your own time in romantic relationships.
It’s okay to set boundaries with family.
It’s okay to want separate identities from friends.
It’s okay to regulate how you treat yourself.
THIS STUFF TAKES PRACTICE. I don’t have this boundary thing down completely, but I’m learning, and I’m trying.
Reflecting on the aspects of relationships that bring discomfort and breed resentment has other benefits. We can begin to understand what might be a boundary for others. I realize the people in my life need more phone calls and contact than I’ve been giving them. I’m willing to bend a bit to keep these relationships while respecting my own boundaries.
It started in childhood, but maybe it ends with us.
Nedra’s book is worth it, especially in audible form if you like to listen on your walks or while making morning coffee.
It can be sad to identify these problems and see how they’ve affected our lives. But, I think we can’t be too hard on ourselves. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Sometimes once we recognize an issue, the awareness doesn’t automatically negate a lifetime of experience.
It can take years of step-by-step practice to make significant changes. That’s what I’m doing. I’m understanding my own humanity and am trying to nurture that part of me who wants to do better. I have faith we can all do better.