(You have to start somewhere.)
In my new book, The Self-Love Superpower, I share two stories of times when I set boundaries.
The first story is about the time I asked my mom to go to therapy with me to discuss some feelings I was having about the abuse I experienced as a child. (In the book, she’s called an “older female relative.”)
The second is about a time a woman I had just met at a party tried to get me to chug a bottle of lukewarm liquor in front of the rest of the people at the party. (It was a white elephant gift exchange and I had unluckily chosen her gift…Which was, you guessed it, a bottle of booze.)
Neither situation was comfortable and neither situation involved me acting suavely or smoothly. But acting cool wasn’t the point. I acted awkwardly, but I set the boundaries I needed to set. I had my own back. In turn, I trusted myself more. I felt safer in my life and more comfortable in my skin.
While I’ll save the details and outcomes of the above-mentioned stories for the book, here are some excerpts from that same chapter that will help you to understand what healthy boundaries are and to get in the habit of setting them…possibly awkwardly. At least, at first. Because you have to start somewhere.
First of all, in order to have healthy boundaries, you need to know what you are thinking and feeling. It sounds so simple, but when I think back to my adolescence and early adulthood, I can see that I had no true sense of what I wanted, needed, or preferred in any given situation. It never even occurred to me to take a moment to check in with myself. Instead, I was busy thinking of what everyone else thought of me: did they value me? Did they need me? Did they feel comforted when I was around? What could I do to help them feel better, and in the process, to get them to like me, love me, and approve of me?
Action Step: Breathe and Write
There are many useful ways to check in with yourself and to cultivate a cherished relationship with yourself. Taking even just five minutes of alone time every day to breathe, relax, and listen to your body is a vital key. Your self-love altar would be the perfect place for this simple exercise. You might even consider placing a mirror above your altar so you can gaze lovingly into your own eyes while you do it.
Another practical tool for the purpose is journaling. I like to freewrite three notebook pages every morning without stopping. This is an exercise recommended by Julia Cameron in her seminal self-help book The Artist’s Way, and it’s been an essential part of my self-care practice for years. While I write I often surprise myself to learn what I’m actually feeling. And then once I fill a notebook from cover to cover, I look back over what I’ve written and notice the overarching themes: what I’ve worried about, what I’m dreaming about, and generally what’s been going on with me mentally, emotionally, and physically. Three pages is a lot for most people, so if you prefer to do two pages or even just one, that will be wonderful too.
Once you’re more in tune with yourself, the next step is to prioritize yourself. From experience, I know that if you aren’t used to the idea of prioritizing your own experience over the experience of others, the very idea will sound unforgivably selfish at first. You may even be tempted to reject it. If you are, stay with me for just another moment so I can illustrate what I’m actually talking about.
Imagine you’re having lunch with a friend. While you’re finishing up your meal, you get the idea that it would be nice to go for a walk around a nearby lake together afterward, so you suggest this to your friend. Unbeknownst to you, your friend has an important doctor’s appointment within the next hour, and she won’t be able to make the appointment if she goes for a walk around the lake with you. Would you want her to tell you about the appointment? Or would you prefer that she paste on a smile and agree while silently thinking, “I really need to get to that appointment, but it will hurt my friend’s feelings if I don’t go for a walk around the lake, so I guess I’ll have to skip it.”
Obviously, even if it caused you momentary disappointment, you would very much prefer the former—for so many reasons! By being honest with you about the appointment, she would not only get to take care of her health, she would also be connecting with you in a sincere way by letting you know her true thoughts and feelings. Because how would you guess? You couldn’t. And when you know what she is really thinking and feeling, your relationship becomes more authentic. This is an example of how healthy boundaries help you connect more with people—not less.
Now, not everyone is as generous and as authentic as you are. Some people would want their friend to put on a happy face and go along with whatever they wanted to do. If you happen to be in a relationship with someone like this, your honesty about your thoughts and feelings will not go over well. But, ultimately, this is a good thing! Even if it’s uncomfortable in the moment, it will reveal that your relationship is not a healthy one. If a relationship becomes too uncomfortable after you begin to speak your truth and to speak up for your needs, it will be a good idea to let go of that relationship to make room for a healthier and more equal one.
Of course, sometimes your truth won’t be as straightforward as, “I can’t because I have a doctor’s appointment.” Sometimes a date will ask you if you want to stay the night and you simply won’t want to. Sometimes a dear friend will invite you out for drinks and you’ll sincerely want to stay in and read a true crime novel in your pajamas. Sometimes your parents will want you to visit for the holidays and you’ll realize you’d much prefer to visit literally any other time of the year. But even these truths are worthy of being spoken. (Not that you have to be blunt about it. For example, instead of, “I’d rather read a true crime novel than hang out with you,” it would be just as true to say, “I really need to stay in and rest tonight but I’d love to take a rain check.”) When you honor yourself and your desires first, you will actually be a better friend and family member because you’ll be offering who you really are, and not who you think you should be.
Action Step: Boundary Audit
While sitting near your self-love altar with your journal or notebook, make a list of your primary relationships. Take a moment with each and ask yourself: do I feel in tune with my own emotions and desires when I’m with this person? Do I feel safe speak- ing up about what’s true for me? Or do I prioritize their emotions and desires over my own? (If you end up feeling drained or uncomfortable after hanging out with them, that’s an important clue. For example, before I realized I was in an unhealthy pattern with the female relative in the story above, I used to develop a headache almost every time I spent time with her.)
If you identify one or more relationships in which you regularly lose your sense of yourself, or value the other person so much that you forget to value yourself, lovingly consider ways you might remedy this dynamic. Perhaps you can make a point of breathing consciously and checking in with your body and emotions while you are around this person so you can begin to have a frame of reference for how you actually feel when you are around them. Or, perhaps you might realize that you need to have a heart-to-heart with that person, ask them to go to therapy with you (as I did), or even let that relationship go. If you’re not sure, feel into it and let yourself learn as you go. There’s no need to take drastic action right away, as long as you do your best to tune into yourself and honor what’s true for you, with a sense of curiosity and the comfort of knowing you’ll be looking out for yourself to the best of your ability from this time forward.
In general, wherever you are and whomever you’re with, do your best to remember that you’re safe because you have your own back. If someone suggests that you do something that you really don’t want to do, remember that you can brave any temporary awkwardness and decline. If someone subtly or overtly pressures you to do or say something that doesn’t feel authentic, see if you can notice this pressure and override it in order to put yourself first. If you get the sense that speaking up for yourself or taking action according to your intuition will not be received positively in certain company, notice this and consider how to move forward in a way that feels authentic to you, whether that involves leaving the relationship(s) or beginning to show your true colors and seeing what happens.
Remember: this is a process. Be patient with yourself and don’t feel like you need to do it perfectly. If you realize after the fact that you violated your own boundaries by doing or saying something that wasn’t in alignment with your truth, or if you realize you could have handled something in a different way, congratulate yourself for the fact that you noticed. Then, lovingly coach yourself on how you might handle a similar situation in the future.
If you liked this post, you’ll love the book it’s excerpted from: The Self-Love Superpower: The Magical Art of Approving of Yourself No Matter What.
Did this post inspire you? Or do you have any questions about it? Please speak up in the comments below.