The first time I was called a pushover by a concerned friend, I didn’t want to believe it. But then another friend said it. And then another. The more people pointed it out to me, the more I noticed it in my relationships: so-and-so expecting a huge “favor” they had no intention of returning; so-and-so dumping their problems on me without taking the time to listen to mine; so-and-so assuming I needed the obvious explained to me, as though I were a child. It was as if I had bold red paint on my forehead blaring “Disrespect me!”
Finally, about two years ago, I accepted the fact that I was being used by many people I thought were trustworthy. Frustrated, I confided in a friend who had admitted to having similar issues. He then introduced me to the concept of “boundaries” and told me what he’d learned on his own self-improvement journey. Boundaries, he explained, are not walls – they’re not meant to shut people out. They’re meant to protect your emotions and energy. A lot of times people don’t realize they’re taking advantage of you, because without boundaries, you give them signals that what they’re doing is okay; but boundaries let them know where the line is, and not to cross it.
Pieces clicked into place; bells chimed; light bulbs flashed. Boundaries! Of course! I need to set boundaries!
So I began reading self-help articles and books, particularly those geared towards abuse survivors like myself. I learned about assertive language; how to gauge whether someone is using you; how to communicate your feelings; and so on. The certainty of the writers led me to believe that by following these simple steps, my relationships were guaranteed to improve! Confident in what I’d learned, and excited to improve my social life, I looked for opportunities to practice.
The first opportunity came one day when my dad joked about how I must be on my period. Instead of storming off, I stayed calm and said, just as I’d practiced, “When you make jokes about me being on my period, I feel belittled. Please don’t brush off my feelings as PMS.”
The screaming that ensued was like being burned alive. Oversensitive! Can’t take a joke! Whiny, ungrateful daughter! I tried again, still calm: “Please don’t scream at me. I’m just expressing how I feel, and I don’t deserve to be yelled at for that.” That only made the screaming worse.
I left the room, figuring I could diffuse the situation by removing myself from it. But what did my dad do? He followed me to my room to continue raging. When I firmly held my ground, my mom showed up and added to the shouting, as though dad needed to be defended from my assertive statement. By the end of it, they were screaming at me about things that had nothing at all to do with the concern I’d originally expressed – and I dearly regretted opening my mouth at all.
I must have done something horribly wrong to incite this much anger! Convinced that their wrath was my fault, I promised myself I’d get it right next time.
The next opportunity to practice setting boundaries came when I invited some friends to see me perform at a talent show. Two of those friends not only failed to show up, but also failed to acknowledge their absence. I had been counting on their support, so I took my chances and contacted both of them, expressing that I felt stood-up, and I would appreciate it if, in the future, they’d let me know if they weren’t going to be able to hold our plans.
The first guy literally never spoke to me again. The other friend ignored me for days, and when she finally did respond, her non-apology quickly devolved into a slew of vicious insults she had clearly been holding back for a while.
Bewildered yet again by these extreme responses – being instantly dropped, and being straight-up attacked – I questioned myself once more. Where had I gone wrong? I thought all this Self Help stuff was supposed to help me keep my friends, not lose them!
As the months went on, I continued to practice setting boundaries with various “friends.” Each time, I tried harder and harder to be polite, tactful and non-threatening.
Despite my efforts, phone calls ended in hasty hang-ups. Conversations turned into screaming matches. The most illustrative example was when my best friend of 9 years ended our relationship by silently unfriending me on Facebook – all because I dared ask for a sincere apology after she insulted me.
In two years of setting boundaries, I lost more friends than some people make in a lifetime.
Setting boundaries and losing so many “friends” initially felt like my life was ending – but looking back, it was more like wiping my life-slate clean. Even amidst the suffocating smoke from all those burning bridges, a handful of friends had the maturity to respond to my boundaries with grace and compassion – and even call me out when necessary. Those are the friendships that have lasted, that I treasure, and that continue to flourish to this day.
I’ve also come away with plenty of lessons – lessons that were excruciating, but necessary, to learn. For instance, I learned that setting boundaries is a great way to gauge whether your so-called friends actually respect you. If they seem shocked and angered when you set boundaries, it means they weren’t expecting you to set any.
Please, read that last sentence again. When someone gets angry at your boundaries, that anger means that they were perfectly comfortable with your lack of boundaries, and your assertiveness disrupted their comfort. Is that really the kind of friend you’d want to keep anyway?
I’ve also learned that for a relationship to improve, the effort has to be mutual. Sometimes, the friendships we want to keep are actually the ones we most need to end. While losing a large quantity of friends might seem like a punishment for setting boundaries, the hidden reward for your self-improvement is that your quality friendships will remain, once the bridge fires have died down and the smoke has cleared.
So thanks, Self Help, for ruining my life. The garden growing from these ruins is tentative, but with patience, I know it will thrive once again. Sometimes things have to be destroyed before they can be recreated.