In my early twenties, I could shout into a megaphone at a political rally of thousands, but I couldn’t decline drinks from strangers at the bar. I could perform original music for an attentive audience, but I couldn’t tell my friends when I felt hurt by something they’d said. I could start a business, advocate for new laws at City Hall, and share deeply personal poetry on Facebook, but I simply couldn’t speak up for myself in moments of conflict.
At the time, I had no idea that boundary setting and speaking up were systemic issues millions of people struggled with. I didn’t understand that my inability to set boundaries probably originated in my childhood as the cumulative result of my untended emotional needs.
I just thought I wasn’t trying hard enough.
I judged myself mercilessly for being unable set boundaries. I spent many mornings scribbling viciously in my journal, unpacking the previous day’s events. These are unedited excerpts:
“She asked to reschedule our meeting, and even though I promised myself I’d never schedule an early-morning phone call again, I did—for 7:00am. Ugh. Why didn’t I just ask her to reschedule?”
“I resent him so deeply for how he treated me, but when I saw him in the coffee shop yesterday, I acted like everything was peachy keen. What the hell? I’m so frustrated. How do I get better at standing up for myself??”
Woven tightly around my self-judgment was a thick mesh of confusion. I was the type of person who looked forward to therapy, hoarded self-improvement books, and spent evenings with girlfriends unraveling the scrappy tangles of our psyches. I liked understanding myself. You can imagine, then, that I was totally and completely flummoxed by my inability to understand—never mind remedy—my people-pleasing habit.
Most of the time, the thought of saying no—to friends, family, lovers, and colleagues—simply didn’t enter my mind space. No matter how uncomfortable or unsafe I felt, the only future that felt available to me was one in which I pleased the offending person and later felt victimized and resentful.
Other times, when I felt brave enough to simply entertain the notion of saying no, I felt a heaviness in my chest and a closing in my throat. The words literally couldn’t escape my mouth.
My friends who had no issues setting boundaries were wary of my explanations. To them, setting a boundary was like swatting an annoying gnat. But to me, it was like battling a saber-toothed tiger.
I wish I’d known then what I know now: that boundary setting isn’t a simple box to check off of your self-care to-do list. It represents a complicated matrix of issues related to one’s family of origin, socialization, limiting beliefs, and, most importantly, one’s relationship with oneself….