If you’re a people-pleasing, so-empathetic-it-borders-on-painful personality type like me, then odds are you’ve had a hard time throughout your life setting boundaries; a hard time declining invitations to events that overfill your calendar, saying ‘no’ to requests for help that you really don’t have time for, denying requests for small financial loans and help even though saying yes means running your account down to uncomfortable levels, and overall just putting your own goddamn needs ahead of others once in a while. It’s not easy!
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make others happy, of course. But as with everything in life – even applesauce – there can also be too much of a good thing eventually, where what in the beginning made you happy ultimately leads to you being exhausted, resentful, and drained at the end of every day.
On the flip side of course, there are people out there who seem born to set boundaries. Who care so little about others that they never bend to the needs of others, even if there’s a whimpering puppy pressing its’ face against the glass to be let in from the cold. Who have no problem saying ‘no thanks!’ when asked to help with something (even if it’s helping an old lady cross the street) or telling you they don’t like the pie you just made so they don’t need another piece, or bluntly asking for the return receipt on the gift you just gave them because after all it’s not in their ideal color.
Those of course are the assholes among us.
And I am not suggesting either of these examples is the best option. Rather, as always in life, I’ve found that a healthy middle ground is preferable; not so selfish that you ignore the needs of others all the time, but at the same time not so lacking in self-worth that you never take care of yourself and push your body until you drop dead from exhaustion. (Seriously, fellow empaths…we’re people, not doormats!)
Personally I’ve learned a lot about the importance – and the unselfishness – of boundaries in the past few years…mostly because I was so bad at setting them for a while that in the end I found myself emotionally, mentally, and spiritually battered and bruised within an inch of my life, bank accounts depleted, and overall so deprived of joy, love, or happiness that I barely had the energy to get out of bed. It wasn’t pretty.
But the one good thing that’s come from it is I’ve been forced – through therapy and reflection and talking with friends and family – to take a new look at boundaries and their role in my life. How they aren’t just an excuse selfish people use to say ‘no’ because they don’t feel like helping with something…but instead they can actually be viewed as a personal defense shield against the darker, more negative things that seek to tear you down and deplete you of positive energy.
Truthfully, had I been better at setting boundaries throughout my life – had I valued myself enough to feel I was worthy of setting and maintaining those boundaries – I might have had better protections in place against Randall when he came into my life. Or at least might have had better protections in place once his more abusive personality emerged and he started treating me worse and worse. Because that’s what abusers do: they rip apart your boundaries in order to dismantle your senses of self and worth……but imagine if you had boundaries strong enough that they never buckled? What would that be like?
(Side Note: Saying that doesn’t mean Randall is not responsible for being an abusive asshat…but that does mean I’m saying in hindsight there are ways a person can help shield themselves from the abusers and the narcissists and the psychopaths of the world. And one of those ways is through healthy, firm personal boundaries.)
Let me give you just one of a million examples I have from my abusive relationship for this:
We’d been together about a year when he asked me if I could possibly help his younger sister Jennifer pay for an apartment, so that she could move out of her mother’s home (a mother he and she were both painting to me as being controlling and abusive…oh the irony). It was a stretch for me, and overwhelming to consider because while I was doing okay financially, I still was hardly gliding along on gold-paved roads just yet…but in the end because I had a misguided eagerness to please, after crunching numbers I came up with a figure I thought was more than generous to contribute each month: $700 (with a bit of arm twisting Randall got me up to $900, but I insisted it absolutely wouldn’t go higher than that).
I figured she could find a place where that was the rent, or she could find a room to rent and have extra for other bills, or put that towards partial rent and pay the difference herself, or even take that each month to pay bills and save 100% of what she was making at her job to eventually move out on her own. Whatever she wanted to do with it; I didn’t care. Point is, that was my number…until it wasn’t.
Randall went home to visit family, and while there went apartment hunting with Jennifer. He’d call and text me updates on places they were looking at, and to my discomfort almost every single one was well above $700-$900 per month in rent…and I knew that wouldn’t even start to include utilities, security deposits, or other moving expenses. I assumed (falsely as it turned out) that Jennifer was making enough to pay for the difference, and so didn’t think too much about it.
And then I got hit upside the head. He called me one night while out to dinner with Jennifer and her boyfriend (in other words they were sitting right next to him listening to every word of our conversation), and dropped two bombshells over my head: first, that she’d picked out an apartment that was $1,100 each month, and that plus utilities meant she’d need $1,500 for living expenses and he’d told her we’d cover that (no ‘we’ about it, it was me who’d have to find a way to cover it), and second, to get approved, he’d gone ahead and had Blanche (the ex who he never had appropriate behavior/boundaries with and who made me extremely uncomfortable) added as Jennifer’s cosigner to the lease without a word to me first.
Oh! And it was a fourteen month lease instead of a twelve month lease, too.
I didn’t know what to say. When I first started to attempt a protest, his voice hardened and deadened to a hiss as he said “Don’t you be f*cking backing out now, man…you promised me and so I promised my sister we’d cover her rent…she’s excited about this! Unless you lied to me, and don’t want to do it or don’t have the money! Did you f*cking lie to me? Don’t you make me break my word to my sister!”
He was hissing but his voice might as well have been as loud as a thunderclap as I heard the hostility and aggression in his tone. I felt myself shivering, even though he was 1,700 miles away; my heart racing and I felt anxious, like I’d done something wrong.
No, I’d not lied; I’d told him I could manage $700-$900 each month for twelve months; I’d certainly not said I could do $1,500 for fourteen months. And I’d also not agreed with the idea that Blanche would be involved and therefore in the background of the whole thing like she was with everything else (I already felt stressed by the inappropriately intimate relationship between Randall and Blanche for all kinds of other reasons).
(Might I add he also violated another boundary with that little exchange. I’d told him he was not to visit Blanche’s house while he was home; that if he wanted to spend time with her children, they could meet at a mall or a restaurant or a park, but he was not to go spend time in her home. But of course, in order to ‘discuss’ adding her as a cosigner, Randall had felt compelled to go spend an hour or two at her house to talk about it. He casually dismissed it as necessary, and my anger over it as silly and petty.)
So in the end…because I didn’t have a good sense of boundaries, and because I didn’t feel confident enough in myself to stand up for my needs, I acquiesced. I can still recall the way my voice fell into a resigned sigh of “Ok I guess…” and how even as I said it, my stomach clenched and I started to panic on where I’d find the extra $800 each month I was going to need to cover it all. (His demeanor instantly shifted back to warm and loving, because he’d gotten what he wanted…he got to spend time at Blanche’s house and he got to bask in the light of being Jennifer’s hero for giving her a shiny new apartment.)
I on the other hand was terrified, because I understood the gravity of it all. Jennifer was a 21 year old girl moving into an apartment based solely on my ability to pay her expenses. If I couldn’t pay, she got evicted. Period. She wasn’t my relation. I barely knew her. But I wasn’t cruel…and I absolutely understood the gravity of this.
In hindsight…obviously I needed to stick with the boundary I’d set. I needed to hold my ground even if he shouted and screamed and bellowed. I needed to insist I had not lied, but rather that he was being manipulative. I needed to remind him I’d committed to $700-$900 for twelve months, a far cry from $1,500 for fourteen. I needed to say that’s all that would be coming from me, so if she still wanted that lease, she’d have to find another way to pay for the rest.
And then if he’d threatened to leave me over it, or thrown in my face that maybe he’d ask Blanche to take care of it since she was so much better/wealthier/kinder/more capable than I was (as was his way any time I tried to stand by a boundary)…I needed to value myself enough to end things and be single. To let him and Blanche have one another, because I was worth more than being treated that way and having my boundaries violated so thoroughly.
But I didn’t do it. I didn’t value myself, or my own financial health that this boundary was erected to protect, enough to keep it intact. Instead I allowed it to get blown to bits…and like every other boundary that was destroyed in that relationship, in the end I had extreme regrets about it.
Boundaries are there to protect you. They are there to help you. They are part of who you are. Your boundaries don’t have to look the same as others; but they need to suit your needs and your personality. They’re a kind of test: if you’re not okay with something, and you assert a boundary as a result, how the person before you reacts tells you whether or not they’re worth your time. If they care about you, they’ll respect it. If they don’t care…you’ll ultimately find yourself getting pushed and poked and prodded into a corner.
So if having boundaries makes you a bit more ‘selfish’…then that’s okay. I’m giving you permission to be a little bit selfish. I wish I had been, before it was too late…I’d have far fewer regrets or traumatic memories to contend with now if that were the case.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. To learn more or to work with her personally, contact her through her website for a free consultation.
**Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities