The last time I saw my cousin Emma was in November 2019 at our grandpa’s funeral. The moment I saw her, I extended my arms for a hug but she recoiled. Emma’s mom was offended by her daughter’s “rude manners” and asked why she didn’t want to hug her cousin. All she replied was, “I don’t want to.” Emma was 8-years-old at the time, and I was so fucking proud of her. *
Many of us were raised to be polite at any cost and not want for anything. I was taught to respect my elders without question. It was looked down upon to WANT anything I didn’t NEED, and those needs only included food, water, air, and shelter. To want was to be ungrateful and selfish. After all, our immigrant parents and grandparents worked tirelessly so we’d have an easier life.
Growing up, I attended 3 elementary schools across 2 cities and could never hold onto any friendships long-term. I was painfully shy and faded into the background with my undiagnosed anxiety and depression. When I interacted with people, I realized they liked me more when I rolled over and let them make fun of me. I became a people pleaser with no boundaries or self-esteem.
Fast-forwarding to the beginning 2021, I was divorced, jobless, and had just entered a non-monogamous relationship. The amount of judgment and unsolicited advice from friends and family was nonstop:
- “Isn’t it too soon for you to be dating again?”
- “I knew your marriage wasn’t going to work out.”
- “Why did you marry him in the first place, then?”
Not once did these people ask how I was doing or feeling. They pitied me, when in fact it was the first time I could truly be myself and experience unbridled joy. And it was finally my amazing therapist Fiona who gave me a framework for handling these relationships. She introduced the concept of establishing boundaries for myself, which is vastly different from creating boundaries for others.
Many of those in my circle are fellow givers. We’re teachers, providers, volunteers. We navigate relationships at the cost of ourselves because our self-worth is linked to our ability to repair and make others happy. But what if we took everyone else out of the equation and drew lines around our own wants and needs? What would it look like to respectfully advocate for ourselves and allow others to be responsible for their feelings?
I tested this out a few times when the above judgments were passed, once with a friend and once with a family member. Essentially I said, “I appreciate how much you care about me, but just because you say you love me and want what’s best for me, you don’t get a free pass to say whatever you want.” I felt fucking liberated. Neither person liked or expected me to stand up for myself (because I never have before) but those were their feelings to own.
The way I saw the world changed drastically. I realized that the majority of challenges we experience in our relationships with others is due to lack of boundaries. It’s fucking hard to identify and reinforce boundaries, especially with family members. Having difficult, clearing, candid (whatever you call them) conversations is even harder. I have yet to meet a single person who thinks they’ve mastered this skill, unless they’re a sociopath or narcissist.
In my relationship, my partner and I have a shared document of our needs and boundaries to keep ourselves and each other accountable. Setting these expectations has been life-changing. There are smaller ways I’ve done this with friends, family members, and coworkers, feeling more comfortable with saying no while still exercising empathy. Like many other habits, setting boundaries needs to be practiced regularly. I dare you to bring it up more often in life and see where it takes you.
To learn more about boundaries, read this incredible Mark Manson article. If you’re more of a visual or auditory learner, here’s an impromptu speech I gave for my Toastmasters club:
* There wasn’t a place to add this soap box into my blog post, but LISTEN TO CHILDREN! Especially when it comes to stranger danger and fucking politeness, sometimes their instincts are right. This is one of the reasons CSEC and child abuse by family members happens… because adults can be ignorant and self-righteous. If you haven’t read my previous blog post, this is why I feel so strongly.