“Care what other people think, and you will forever be their prisoner.” ~Lao Tzu
Because it’s so truthful, I love this quotation. However, I am also aware of the difficulties and uncomfortable emotions that can arise from living out this quote.
There’s a reason why it feels so hard to set healthy boundaries, and that is what this article is going to show you.
Discovery #1: Understanding our hard wiring
It is not in our nature to be concerned about maintaining healthy boundaries. You don’t believe me? Let me explain.
Since the beginning, humans have always been hardwired for connectivity. Humans aren’t isolated creatures. We can be likened to other herd animals. Back in the caveman days, we needed a hive or a pack because we were more powerful when we were together. If we didn’t lean on our tribe, we were eaten by a saber tooth tiger.
Our DNA was designed to be able to care for others and rely on them. We stayed safe by staying in our tribe, our herds, our packs, and our hive. It worked.
Back then, our survival depended on the strength of our tribe. If your pack wasn’t happy with you, you were outta there. Your tribe is what kept you alive, and so the human brain learned, “Oh, we must keep people happy with us and then we get to live.”
You may struggle with people-pleasing if you are like me. They are part and parcel of our survival setup. This is part of human nature. You are perfectly fine to feel the need to please people.
It is wonderful and a good thing to want others to be happy. The problem with people-pleasing in today’s world is when we don’t have good boundaries to go with it.
Our brain today says, “Let’s do whatever keeps the tribe happy. Let’s do whatever we need to, to be part of the gang.” Most of the time that looks like acquiescing, going along to get along, and doing whatever we can to “not upset the apple cart.”
As children we gain information from all types of sources around us—our traumas, personality, health status, our race, ethnicity, gender, family of origin, our class, economic status, and more! Every one of them comes with their own set of rules to help us behave and think, how to act and what words to use to please our tribe. The poor brain must somehow put these parts together in a way that is understandable and maintains our existence.
The Rulebook: Discovery 2
In simple terms, the sweet part of our brain creates a kind of guideline for how to keep ourselves safe. From the moment we are very young, it becomes obvious that we don’t feel safe if we aren’t happy around others. We start to notice this in our bodies, our feelings, the look on someone’s face, the tone, what is not being said, the iciness of the room.
As children, our caregivers are 100% dependent on us. We rely on them for everything. You remember the tribe, pack and hive I mentioned earlier? These are the first tribe to us as toddlers.
It is our caregivers’ job to mirror to us who we are in the world. With healthy caregivers we can be shown we are important, loved, cherished and worthy. This is how we build self-esteem. This is how we know that our contributions matter.
These are written in the rule book, or the rolodex of the little brain.
But, not everyone grew up like this. Some of us may have had caregivers that were unkind, cruel, distant, uncooperative, unpredictable, or even abusive. Our little minds created a new set of rules for our life.
This may sound like I am not loveable, I don’t matter, I’m a nuisance, I am a bother, I should never take up space. You might think it sounds like I’m loved as long as I’m good, or performing, or agreeable.
Please note that our parents tried to do the best with what they knew and the tools they had. However, to our innocent, little, childlike selves, it simply wasn’t the message that we needed. It was misinterpreted and made us feel like we were not important.
This is often passed on generation after generation.
So now are you starting to understand that the mind’s idea of boundaries is to do whatever it needs to do to keep you alive?
Maybe you remember being told when you were a child to keep quiet or that you are too loud or too heavy, and then your mind formed a belief in this. The rule that you should not continue disrespecting your elders by being noisy or taking up space was established.
Problem is, this rule is absurd. You were simply being sweet and normal as a child. But you didn’t question it. Santa Claus and Easter Bunny were questioned by you. The Tooth Fairy was also questioned. But you didn’t stop to question your beliefs or rules about yourself. These things were your absolute truth.
Your mind doesn’t care that you are older now and that the situation is different now. The mind sees a rule as a rule. Remember what happened to those who challenged the rules of the past? They didn’t survive!
Let me tell you a little bit about my own rulebook…
I used to be terrified about what people would think of me many years back. I grew up in small towns and it was written into my rulebook that everyone would be watching you. Boundaries was one of my greatest struggles. It meant letting go of the people-pleasing patterns in order to tell my truth.
Having struggled with codependent patterns and low self-esteem, I didn’t even know what my truth was, what my needs and values were, or what mattered to me.
What I did know was that I needed people to like me, to not talk ill of me and to think of me in a certain way—nice, kind, giving, good.
I couldn’t excuse myself from a phone conversation.
I couldn’t end playdates at the time I needed to even if my kids were throwing a full-blown temper tantrum.
I couldn’t remove myself from a conversation that made me uncomfortable because of the topic.
I laughed at jokes which I considered offensive deep down.
I agreed with others’ opinions because I either didn’t know my opinion or if I did, I didn’t feel confident sharing it.
It was impossible to keep my mouth shut when silence seemed so unbearable.
I couldn’t even be on time, because I was rushing from one activity to the next, just trying to show face and that I was doing my part to be the nice girl and make everyone around me feel good.
It was difficult to speak my truth, so I had a 7-hour coffee date with my mother many years back. I didn’t wantIt was a 7-hour coffee date. Our idea was to meet up for coffee and chat for about two hours before we move onto the next day.
However, the woman came quickly right after the children left for school and was still present when the boys returned home at 3:00pm.
I can recall the massive headache I felt because I wanted so badly to ask her leave and tell her I had things to do, but I couldn’t.
I don’t remember ever inviting her back, even though I knew she was an amazing gal. I was clueless in how to handle these situations, so my answer was to cut the relationship off and move forward by avoiding her.
In my youth, I was a single mom to a man who worked very long hours. I felt alone. I wanted so badly to connect with other women and be a part of a community, and I thought the way to connection was through self-abandoning any of my needs so that I could focus on appeasing what other people in my life needed.
All of this was written into my rulebook. I was overwhelmed by all of the worry about others and worrying that they might think.
It was difficult for me to live on breaded adrenaline and walk on eggshells. It showed in my relationships with my spouse, with my kids and most importantly, with me. However, there was always something that drove me to continue pleasing and to appease. That leads me to the next discovery.
Discovery 3: Why do I feel guilty all the time?
We feel guilty every time we set boundaries. The mind sets a huge, alarming alarm whenever we go outside of the rules.
Our mind believes that the rule was created to protect us. This is so you can relax and see that you are not in danger. Your mind is simply perceiving danger.
From there we may experience bodily reactions—our palms get sweaty, we have a million butterflies in our stomach, our temperature rises, our throat constricts.
Our brain’s one and OnlyIts job is to maintain our health. Therefore, it uses guilt often to make us feel better and to encourage us to continue to live.
You can’t count how many times you have been invited to baby showers or barbeques on Saturdays and hated it. You’ve worked fifty hours this week, you coached soccer two nights, ran the carpool this week, and are utterly exhausted. The truth is that you are exhausted and need some downtime. But there it is—guilt lurking around the corner, “What will Aunt Betty think if you don’t show your face at Cousin Amy’s shower?”
You feel guilt and that you have done something wrong. What do you do now? RSVP to let them know you’re there. You will make the punch and also bring it.
It’s a pretty effective tactic to convince you to obey the rules.
Because of this, boundaries can feel difficult. They’re not part of the original hardwired.
How do you set boundaries that are healthy?
1. Understand that boundaries are first and foremost an internal job.
Yes. We create boundaries with people and institutions. We must start at the innermost before we can do this.
When we aren’t taught how to properly do the internal work, our boundaries come off as rigid walls and we are left isolated and lonely. I have been that person because I didn’t understand what boundaries were, how to set them, and I certainly wasn’t going to entertain any sort of an uncomfortable conversation that looked like any type of repair or reconciliation work. I was miserable and left to my own devices.
The first step in boundary work is to address our own problems. As the inner work becomes complete and healing takes place, this naturally flows into new behaviors, choices, and habits. It is possible to be empowered and have compassionate, loving conversations which build connections instead of walls.
2. It is important to recognize that healthy boundaries can be beneficial.
If you don’t believe this then it will be hard to lean into them. Set boundaries that are healthy and agree to them.
3. Know your needs.
What are your real needs? Did you ever think of them? Many people don’t, so if you haven’t, know that it’s not uncommon.
Start by thinking of what a “good” parent would do for their child. Which needs does their child need to be met? I.E. even though the child doesn’t want to go to sleep, they calm them down and help them get to sleep. Make a list with the child’s needs and help them to fulfill it.
When you’re done with that list, circle the needs that you are not meeting for yourself (or inconsistently meeting).
Respond to these questions about each need:
- This is what I need to do.
- What is preventing you from being responsive or consistent?
- Comment can I help other people who have the same need as me?
- What would happen to my life if this was answered?
Create an intention to meet each need. If necessary, set limits. To meet a specific need more consistently and fully, you should focus on one intention per week. You may want to accomplish more but your mind is going to fight for you. It wants to keep you safe and healthy. It will douse you with that guilt working you toward acquiescing and shape shifting, so let’s just focus on nailing one for now. Keep it simple.
Complete the sentence stem to write down your weekly goals
I have the following intentions
If you’re working to build up the strength to bring more integrity to your relationships and set healthy boundaries, please understand that you don’t have to go it alone. Your hard work on your boundaries journey will be rewarded if you are consistent.
Krista Resnick, a master coach for women is Krista Resnick. They are supported and empowered to speak their truth, set boundaries, and create them. Her passion lies in helping women to create the space and connections they desire. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram where she talks about people pleasing, boundaries, and codependency, but sometimes likes posting pics of her wild adult-ish sons and salty English Bulldog. Get The Secret to Empowered Boundaries.
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