Boundaries were never easy for me, until I learned that freedom can come from setting them.
As usual, I am not a quick learner in life lessons so when it came to setting boundaries, fear usually stopped me. And it was fear – a greater fear – that drove me to learn to set them…eventually.
I feared that boundaries, set too strictly, would leave me alone with no one in my life. Not liked. Not accepted.
So I chose not to set any. None. Thus for years, I sat in the stew of my own making. I had no fence around myself, no protection from the onslaught of the world. I was at the mercy of others’ lack of boundaries.
Then came the Underwear Incident.
No Boundaries – Fun!
Lori was one of those friends who, when she decided to be your friend, was sold-out to the idea. Head over heels. No holds barred. She was honest and direct and playful and loyal, and at first, I thought I had met my first real kindred gal-pal. I was wrong.
Lori had no boundaries.
At first this was kind of exhilarating. A pinball, no focus- perspective on life. She was always at the ready with chatterings about herself (tear-inducing self-degradation), her marriage (excruciating complaints), her kids (mind-numbing bragging). And she had no qualms asking all of that of me, fully expecting I would vomit up the same level of transparent detail. (My level of detail was a bit shallower than hers!)
And then it changed. I learned a valuable life lesson that has not left me.
No Boundaries – Not So Fun
One sunny Saturday, we had a picnic with our kids’ soccer team and their families at a park that was less than a mile from our house. The park had bathrooms (unusually clean ones) which were unlocked when someone used the park. For some reason that day, the bathrooms were not opened in time for us to setup, so we worked for an hour or so setting up without them being open. Not a big deal until Lori had to go to the bathroom really bad. So I gladly offered that she just shoot over to our house and use our bathroom. So she did.
When she came back, she had a pair of my husband’s underwear. It appeared that her purpose, as she waved them in the air, was to show everyone (until I grabbed them out of her hand) that my husband wore ‘tighty whities’ not boxers. (Told you it wouldn’t be so bad!) It was a pretty absurd thing to do, and maybe seems a bit silly and innocent.
My husband’s underwear was not strewn around the house (at least not on that day!), so to get a pair she would have had to go into our bedroom, into his dresser drawer (and countless others until she found that one). She had to go into our personal space, without permission. And she thought that was OK.
My brain went into hyperdrive…
* What was she thinking? How dare she?
* What gave her the right? Who does she think she is?
* Was her intent to embarrass my husband?
* What did he, or I, do to deserve that from her?
* And then finally…the big one…why would she think this would be ok?
It was that last question that took a couple of days to digest.
Lori thought that invading our personal space would be OK because I gave her that impression. I had let her enter into too many personal conversations that would make her think that getting into my personal space, getting real personal publicly, would be OK. Never telling her that she had gone too far in our conversations led her to believe that she could now DO anything.
She was wrong. But so was I for not clearly defining the lines.
The good thing about bad things, sometimes, is that they can teach you stuff, if you let ‘em. In this case, what I learned has stuck with me for decades.
Here are three life lessons I learned from the Underwear Incident. I am sure there will be more as I continue to learn from it!
Lesson 1: Boundaries enhance true friendships, they don’t break them apart, if they are your friends to begin with.
With Lori, I realized the drawing of boundaries was long overdue. I knew going in that it carried a high risk of rejection, of not having her as a friend, of being alone. Big hairy fears of mine. But it had to be done.
I started by drawing subtle lines, little steps, with Lori. Not taking her phone calls at dinnertime. Not calling her at all. When we did talk, changing the topics of conversation from the uncomfortable things (for me) to other things. In just days (not even two weeks), she stopped calling. In fact, I learned later, she almost immediately began spewing nasty gossip about me.
Hmmm…what kind of friend unfriends you in less than two weeks? (I know, on Facebook, it takes just seconds!)
Side learning…I should have had a conversation with her before pulling back. But knowing Lori, the outcome would have been the same. I chose to try ripping the bandaid off slowly.
Lesson 2: You never need to lose friends over a boundary crossing if they are your friends to begin with.
I was so traumatized by the Underwear Incident that I couldn’t trust myself to identify appropriate boundaries with anyone. So I cut off just about everyone, hurtful as that must of been for some who truly loved me.
In the doing, I learned that some people refuse to be cut off. My friends fought it, and some understood and honored what I was struggling with. Some even let me help them set boundaries with others in their life.
Lesson 3: (and this is such a Biggee): There is freedom and greater self-awareness in boundary-setting.
The question – why would she think this would be ok? – continues to be a personal mantra of mine. I ask it whenever a friend irritates me, or even mildly annoys me because the majority of the time it is boundaries – or lack of – that drive my annoyance or hurt.
In most cases, I am irritated not by the person, as much as by some unconscious permission I gave them that let them think that crossing a line was acceptable. If they had crossed one, it was probably one that I had not communicated to them, or one that I didn’t even know I had (yes, we humans often learn as we go!)
Side note: sometimes I have to just admit to myself that it has nothing to do with them or boundaries; I am just being a bitch! Hey, it happens to the best of us!
More on Setting boundaries.
As a writer, I see this need in my life just like setting a margin on the printed page. You need whitespace for your eyes to see the words – the contents, the guts – of the page. You need the restraints of the margins to know when to avert your eyes to the next line. You need the margin at the bottom to know how far to go, when to stop.
Boundaries are the same.
In order to enjoy the page that is You, people need to know how far they can go.
I will leave you with the words from a fave book of mine on this topic that says this so much better than I.
Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me into a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. ~Henry Cloud, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life (Check out Cloud’s short video.)
More on Diane
Believe.com is so happy to have Diane writing with us. Diane is a writer and blogger and has authored Losing the Mask: Overcoming the Fear of Failure. She lives with her husband in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has two adult children, both married, and one incredibly cute and loveable granddaughter.