“Is that your dad again?” my husband asked me.
I felt a knot in my stomach. “Yep. Third time today,” I said. I felt torn. Do I answer the phone and annoy my husband or do I ignore the call and hurt my dad? In a split second decision, I pushed the green answer button on my phone. “Hey, dad. What’s up?” My husband, visibly annoyed, walked out of the room.
After I hung up with my dad, I found my husband in the kitchen. “Why can’t you just not answer the phone when he calls? You need to set better boundaries, Courtney.”
“I know I do,” I told him. “I just don’t know how. What am I supposed to do? Just ignore him?”
“Yes!” my husband exclaimed. “You’re married now. He doesn’t need access to you all the time.”
Logically, my husband’s argument made complete sense. But there was something that just didn’t seem to compute. Why couldn’t I just set better boundaries?
Here’s what I didn’t realize then but have a greater understanding of now.
Many of us grew up in a household where healthy boundaries were not modeled. In fact, I’m sure many of you were like me and were told to “share with your sister” when you didn’t want to or “just give your uncle a hug” when you had no desire to. When my “nos” were met with resistance, I complied. I shoved down my feelings of discomfort because I knew that I wasn’t in a position of power to disagree and protest. And that became a pattern. One I was willing to follow because I knew it meant I’d receive my parent’s love and approval. And as a child, we depend on this for our survival. It’s a biological need we have as humans to be loved and accepted by our primary caregivers. Boundaries can threaten this bond. So we choose the tribe over ourselves. Again and again.
So when you’re contemplating, do I tell my sister that she can’t drop by the house at any time she wants to (setting a boundary), consider what’s at stake if you have to enforce that boundary. It’s easy to flippantly tell someone to stand their ground and enforce a boundary. What many fail to consider is what is being lost when that boundary is enforced. Oftentimes it’s a relationship. And that can trigger a lot in an individual with relational trauma. This doesn’t mean that you CAN’T set boundaries. But having an awareness of your boundary setting history can influence how you show up and set them going forward.
Here’s what I really want you to remember. You don’t need better boundaries. You need confidence in the ones that you already have. Confidence spurs conviction and conviction is what leads an individual to enforce their current boundaries. Want those boundaries to be respected by others? You have to respect them first for yourself. And that requires confidence. A belief that protecting your people or values or possessions are worth the discomfort of other people’s disappointment. Because you will disappoint or upset or irritate someone with your boundaries. It’s important to remember that that’s not your responsibility-to manage other people’s emotions.
Your responsibility is to identify what you’re wanting to protect. Is it your physical or emotional health? Your children? Your car? Your beliefs? Only you get to decide what is worth protecting. And then you get to decide how you’re to protect it. Is it by limiting the time your kids are around certain people? Is it by alerting someone that if they do something then you will respond a certain way (ex: if your aunt smokes in your house then you will ask her to leave). Boundaries aren’t about controlling the behavior of other people. They’re about communicating what we value to others and what we’re willing to do to protect them. Not from a place of fear or anger. But from a place of love and respect.
I hope you will have the confidence to set boundaries that stick. Because you are deserving of protecting that which you care for so deeply. Acknowledge the discomfort when it appears (because it will). Accept that this is part of the boundary setting process. And remember that you have the power to decide your boundaries.