I’ve never been a “color outside the lines” kind of girl. I am a rule follower, a rule enforcer, and a general lover of all things black and white. Gray is not my favorite color. I also like clarity when it comes to relationships. I don’t like to try and figure out where I stand with people, or what their expectations are, or how they will interpret things. Passive-aggressive and I are not pals.
It seems so strange to me that while I accept boundaries—actually crave them—in my relationships, I have a terrible time setting them and enforcing them in my own life. I’m not a pushover. I stand my ground on things I am passionate about, and will speak out and protect others if I think they are being mistreated or that their boundaries are being crossed. But for most of my life I have totally crumbled when it comes to setting and enforcing my own.
I don’t like to upset people. I like to be thought of as dependable, productive, and “easy” to get along with. However, not speaking up for myself has led me to take on roles that I never signed up to play.
In my professional life, I have let co-workers and managers manipulate my inability to say no into piling more work and responsibility onto my plate without asking, and I have taken on roles I was not given financial or professional credit for. With friends, I have been a “yes-girl,” the one to always be there to answer the phone call, to run the errand, to show up to help—even to the point of neglecting my own needs.
With my family, my desire not to disappoint has led me to reschedule my events to attend theirs, be the go-between in family communications, and be put in situations that were emotionally draining and anxiety-inducing. In none of these situations were any of the parties looking out for my best interests and yet I went ahead with them. Why did I let my boundaries be steamrolled? Because I didn’t want to upset anyone. And no one likes saying or being told “no.”
It took about a thousand sessions with a very compassionate therapist, whom I will refer to as Martha (because that’s her name). The first time I went to Martha, I was suffering from panic attacks during my job managing a physical rehabilitation department at an inner-city hospital.
By the time I met Martha, I would start the day by throwing up, drive the 30 minutes to work, throw up again and then feel this weird mix of fear and claustrophobia throughout the day that made it hard to leave my office and even harder to set boundaries with my co-workers and the people I managed. I asked Martha to help me mentally “pad the room” that I felt trapped inside, so I could stop feeling the overwhelming fear and anxiety that was crippling my ability to be what I would consider effective.
Instead, she gave me the key to the room and helped me walk out of it, and most it our work together in the beginning had to do with establishing and enforcing boundaries: with my co-workers, of course, but also with my friends and especially with my family. And she gave me a tool that I will use for the rest of my life.
Martha drew a simple triangle on a piece of paper with the letters A, B, and C in the corners. The letters represent:
- A: Ask for what you need (the ask is the hardest one for me)—these are the boundaries!
- B: Benefit: this is the outcome if the ask is addressed
- C: Consequence: this is the outcome if the ask is not addressed or addressed incorrectly
If I mentioned something that was bothering me in a session, Martha always referred to this chart. Here’s the newest edition of this triangle:
As you can see by the glare, her drawing has since been digitally rendered and laminated. She has to use it a lot–I’m a bit remedial when it comes to this particular topic. And if you look closely, you’ll see a little bunny at the bottom of the page.
When I was in the baby-steps of establishing boundaries, this bunny came in handy. I would come to Martha week after week and explain how I thought people were upset with me, or that I looked like I wasn’t a team player, or that I thought my friends or family would be angry at me. Martha would say, “Maybe so, but where are you in the triangle?” and she would refer to the bunny.
I would roll my eyes (I am such a lovely patient) and say “outside the triangle” and she would say “Exactly. This is how boundaries work. You ask for them to respect your boundary, you don’t decide if others receive the benefit or the consequence, it is up to them to choose one or the other and be responsible for the outcome of their choice. Stay outside the triangle. Be the bunny.”
“But what if my friends/family/co-workers don’t like it? What if they don’t like me?”
And to that, this was always Martha’s response:
This triangle has been so simple but absurdly helpful for me. It helps me to say “yes” to me and “no” to things that do not serve me well. It helps me not to worry that I am going to be looked at in a certain way, because as long as I am holding true to what I believe is right and good then it’s none of my business what others think about me. I can’t expect anyone else to put my needs first, so I need to do that for myself. Be the bunny.
People who are not accustomed to your boundaries–or don’t like to be told no, or are used to running the show and everyone in it—will tell you that putting yourself first is “selfish,” and try to make you feel guilty about your new way of doing things. Be the bunny.
Friends might try to guilt you into going to things that don’t serve you well, telling you “we miss you” or “can’t you come to this just once” or “you’re really not going?” Be the bunny.
Family members will tell you that you are upsetting everyone, that they are worried about you, that you are making things difficult. Be the bunny.
Boundaries are amazing things. They set clear expectations and take away guilt. They make life more manageable and take away unrealistic thoughts of “maybe this one time it will be different.” Putting up a boundary with someone is an expression of true love, although the person you are asking might feel not that way at the time. Be the bunny.
When you establish a boundary, you are committing to this person, giving them the opportunity to have a relationship with you that is built on mutual support and emotional stability, not guilt and dependency. A relationship built on WHO YOU ARE and not WHAT YOU DO. Be the bunny.
And you will lose friends. You might have to leave a job (or two). You might have to miss some family events or choose not to be around or talk to a family member that unhealthy for you right now. The first part of showing love to others is showing love to yourself. This is worth all the struggle, I promise. Be the bunny.
If you’re looking to learn more about boundaries, why they are important, how to set them and how to enforce them, I highly recommend the new and expanded version of Henry McCloud and John Townsend’s book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life. It will be worth the read, and the reread.
Go ahead. Give yourself permission to set boundaries. Then get out of the triangle.
Be the bunny.
What has been your experience when setting boundaries? Any tips you can share with me or others? Please comment below!