life with boundaries

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past few weeks reading blogs and articles about boundaries. A lot of those writers speak to the issue of boundaries a whole lot better than I do, but thought I’d add my own experiences of how crucial boundaries are.

I first became aware of my boundaries in a toxic relationship with someone who trampled and dismissed any and all that got in his way. I didn’t really have defined boundaries at that time—nor had I ever stopped to consider what my core values were. I only knew that in this two-year relationship, I felt invaded, taken advantage of, disrespected and devalued, and I blamed myself for all of it. I felt totally unable to validate much less even begin to enforce my own sense of OK/not OK, I could just feel my trust being violated over and over again. It’s an experience that doesn’t get easier over time. My stomach still turns a little at the memory.

When I was finally able to surface and tear myself free of my user of an ex, I began to read books on break ups, narcissistic and covert manipulative personalities, self-forgiveness, codependency and healthy boundaries. One led me to the next, which led to the next. It was startling and mortifying to understand how accountable I was for allowing my values and self-respect to be compromised—I wasn’t responsible for my ex’s choices and behavior, but I was responsible for allowing it to be imposed on me. And not once, but over and over again. My continued acceptance of and belief in him was my tacit acceptance of his disrespect.

I realized it’s up to me to define what is and is not acceptable, to learn to read what my gut/instincts tell me and to act accordingly without second-guessing or rationalizing or ignoring. Looking back, I knew from the first date with my ex that he was dangerous and wrong for me. I saw big flashing red flags. Rather than trusting in my instincts, I managed to convince myself that I was crazy—and to nearly go crazy in the process of surviving the conflict between what I knew in my very bones to be true, and what I wanted to believe.

Emerging from that two-year struggle to deny myself was like coming out of a dirty, stuffy, smoke-filled room into clean fresh air. “I can breathe again,” I found myself thinking. “I’m me again.” I knew I’d never make those same choices again—but wanted to take some time to understand why I’d chosen to be with him in the first place, what I’d been looking for inside that toxic black hole. And what I learned was how to live by new rules, to understand and maintain my own boundaries, to define my core values, and to explore what in me had led me to desperately seek love and validation from a person who inspired me to feel only anxiety, fear and pain.

It would have been really easy to go too far with my boundaries after that, to create huge fortified walls to keep me safe from ever being violated again. I took a year-long break from dating, allowing myself that time to recover and discover some truths. When I did start to date again, I was extremely controlled and wary, having to consciously push myself to say “yes,” learning to listen to my gut over the voices of fear or lack. Boundaries require flexibility and commitment, awareness and adaptation. They need to be strong enough to protect us and supple enough to move with the changes in our lives and ourselves. They relate to our core values as people—how we’ve defined what’s most important to us through upbringing and experience. For me, integrity, loving-kindness, respect of others, personal accountability, self-expression, optimism and gratitude are all core values. That doesn’t mean I always live up to them, but my intention is to do so, and these are what help define my boundaries.

Recently I had the upsetting and disruptive experience of someone I trust—a friend of three years—crossing a very real line for me. I didn’t believe this person meant to do it, but it was disturbing all the same. I took a few days to figure out what was really bothering me, listen to my gut and confide in a few other close friends, and finally decided to talk to her about it. This wasn’t about my friend behaving in a way that was “wrong” or a chance to blame or condemn her, it was about the fact that her actions had violated a boundary, and because she mattered to me, I wanted to give her the opportunity to know that, to hear her response, and to find a solution that felt good for both of us. I needed to feel that my boundaries would be respected going forward, and was prepared to respect her wishes if she chose not to be my friend anymore. Unfortunately, rather than trying to empathize or understand what I was asking, she got angry and defensive and went on the attack. I was wrong for bringing it up and wrong about my reading of her behavior, and at the same time, I was insecure and threatened by that same behavior. After an uncomfortable and circular discussion, we left it there. Two days later she sent an email that ended our friendship.

It was extremely hard to read—offensive, condescending and dismissive. What she chose to write to me violated my trust even more by attacking my character and judgment, telling me my issues, and continuing to defend and excuse the original line-crossing, all in the name of friendship. I know it was written in anger, and we can all get hotly defensive when we feel unfairly (or even fairly) accused. The problem isn’t that she felt hurt and annoyed, the problem is she sent the email. She felt entitled to openly judge and demean me, to explain my situation and expose what she considered to be my insecurities, taking no accountability for the fact that her actions had affected me.

Many books and blogs discuss conflict in friendship, and recommend speaking openly to your friend about what bothers you, using only “I” messages, so they have the chance to understand, own and modify their behavior. Most of the articles stop there, with a vague nod to “if the friendship is worth it, you’ll forgive each other and move forward together, trust will be rebuilt, good friends are rare, etc.” Very few go into what happens when the friend doesn’t own his or her own part in it, but decides instead to tell you exactly what your problems are, and that you need to just get over it. My friend made it clear that she would continue to behave the same way she had previously, because this was my issue to fix, and I had no right to draw this line. Even had she sincerely believed I was overreacting, and even had my other honest confidantes agreed with her, that isn’t the point. The damage had been done in the way she chose to respond.

The last time a friend lashed out at me that way, we were in the 4th grade. I’ve walked away from very few close friendships over the last 20 years. I’ve had friends pull away or stop talking to me without an explanation, and had others tell me that I hurt them by something I said or did. But never as an adult have I experienced the disrespect of feelings and betrayal of confidence that this woman felt was appropriate. It isn’t about forgiving her; I can forgive what happened. But I don’t see my way to ever trusting her again, and I really don’t want to try. This first conflict has shown me that our values are wildly different, as is our interpretation of friendship. So in the words of Natalie Lue, I “pushed my mental flush handle” and moved on.

It’s pretty horrible to be in the position of having to actively enforce our boundaries with those we care about, to have no choice but admit to ourselves that someone we trust has trampled over our feelings, intentionally or unintentionally. The thing is, the only other option—allowing it—is immeasurably worse, even if we’d rather chew staples than take a stand. So much of our experience is open to interpretation involving different perspectives and opinions, my intention in all of this was never to be righteous or play the wounded victim. I’ve crossed lines both knowingly and unknowingly and felt awful afterward; we all fail and flounder at times. If I hadn’t learned my lesson the hard way, I’d have avoided a confrontation entirely, believing that my friend meant well and deserved the benefit of the doubt, suppressing my anxiety and disappointment.

But that’s not enough. It doesn’t work to close our eyes tight and hope for the best. It only tells people that we’re willing to negotiate on what matters most to us, that we aren’t truly committed to honoring ourselves or our feelings.

And I’m no longer prepared to compromise my values or my self-respect by allowing anyone, no matter who or in what context, to violate my boundaries. It’s my responsibility to draw the line for myself, whether or not others decide to respect it.



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