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In my last post I discussed our very real need for good boundary-drawing skills in our fight with anxiety. I wanted to share some examples of good boundary-drawing (and learning to deal with the consequences, good and scary, of that work) in today’s post.

Good Fences make Good Neighbors

As I have said in earlier posts one of the debilitating things about learning to be an anxious thinker is also learning that self-care is selfish, or cruel, or ungodly, or some other untrue thing. Let’s make sure we’re all clear on this: learning to draw healthy boundaries IS self-care. I would argue that good self-care can’t really flourish in the absence of our ability to draw clear, self-respecting boundaries where other people end and where we start…

One of the most common places people walk over our boundaries is the use (and abuse) of our personal time/support. Those people will ask for baby-sitting help, a long-suffering listening ear to stuff you’ve already heard, assistance with a project they want to get done, company for them to an activity they don’t want to do alone, etc.

Here’s the thing: them ASKING isn’t the problem. It is us not thinking we can say NO, thank you that’s the problem. They are actually allowed to ask all they want. We humans don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a community, a culture, a city or neighborhood or town, and we both have the need and the right to ASK.

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But we also have both the NEED and the RIGHT to say no, I’m sorry, I’m not going to help you with that. I know. That sounds a lot like “I hate you and wish you were dead” to some of us. 🙂 We learned deeply in our younger days that ANY no was risky, selfish, arrogant, mean, or other silly and untrue words.

It was certainly true with me. I can say (with a certain amount of embarrassment these days) that I couldn’t tell anyone in my universe a simple, direct “no, sorry, I’m not willing to do that.” So instead what I did was made stuff up – that was one tool I used to avoid having to say no. Holy crap, I had to build some pretty elaborate stories!

You might know some of these tall tales. I was already committed to helping someone else (makes me sounds pretty great, yes? Can’t help you because someone else got to me first, and I just can’t cancel on them to help you.) I didn’t feel well (like anybody believed me – but I used it a LOT.) There was a crisis at work and I HAD to take care of that. (I wonder what my friends thought of the companies I worked for – clearly they were in crisis a LOT.) And one of my tried and true favorites: a friend of mine was in crisis and had asked me to come over. (Again, I come off sounding anything but selfish, right?)

Go ahead, ask me how often those people found out or figured out that I wasn’t being truthful with them. Ask me how that impacted those friendships. Ask me about the complicated stories I had to remember and maintain – lies, really – and how often I failed to keep them all juggled.

Maybe more to the point ask me how frustrated and angry I was at the people who were asking me for having the sheer audacity TO ask me. Yikes! And all of this because I didn’t feel safe simply saying “no, doesn’t work for me – love you, ask another day, but today, no, I’m not going to help you.”

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But wait – the story gets better. As I found the tools to get under my what if thinking and challenge the assumptions that had been scaring me for two decades I also began to realize that I needed to start taking into account what I wanted (see my post HERE on this basic human need and right.)

Which meant that if I was really listening to ME then I had to also start RESPECTING me and my needs/wants. Guess what happened? I stalled, I found reasons to not say no, all the while getting more frustrated and more annoyed, both with myself and the people that were asking stuff of me.

Finally, driven by desperation, I started one day saying no. A friend really wanted me to help them move. (Let me tell you, I’ve done a LOT of time as a semi-pro mover for my friends. Sometimes it was great fun and it was something I wanted to do – but sometimes it was the last thing I wanted to do, I did it anyway and then bitterly resented the person I was helping…)

Heart in my hands, voice shaking, I said “uh, listen, I, uh, I don’t have the time to give away right now. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help you move.” I waited for the upset, the shouting, the accusations of how bad a person I was, etc.

What I got, however, was “Oh, OK. No worries. I’ll find someone else.” I felt like I had just been let off with a not-guilty plea after murdering someone! 🙂

It wasn’t always that easy. People got upset with me too. And some of THAT was on me too. After all I had been the guy who always said yes, yes? They had counted on me to be the Yes Man again. THAT DIDN’T MEAN I HAD TO OBLIGE THEM.

I was in a real sense changing the rules on the people in my life. And that was MORE than OK. It was time for new rules – for how I managed my own time and energy. It was more than legal – it was vital to my health and the health of the relationships in my life. It took some practice. I wasn’t great at it for a while. I sometimes gave in to fear and said yes when I needed to say no.

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This is an art, way more than a science, and we can only get better if we’re willing to practice.

It isn’t Just about Doing or Not Doing

And of course boundaries are not just about what we can DO. Boundaries are also about what we think, what matters to us, what our opinions are, etc. These are also places that healthy boundaries help us maintain good self-care.

Liberal? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Conservative? That’s OK. That’s what you think. Don’t like shrimp? Legal – totally legal. Hate shrimp? (Man, I HATE shrimp. It’s like serving erasers for dinner!) It’s legal to hate shrimp too. Want to be a professional Alpine Skier? Knock yourself out. Want to build a child-care center, or be an art critic, or get a 20-hour-a-week job because the kids are gone and you want to make some cash for YOU? Go for it.

The challenge with this is that almost everyone in our lives has THEIR opinion, expert as they are, about what you should think, want, feel or believe.  And while that’s nice it is still up to YOU, dear reader, to make your own evaluations, your own decisions about what you think, want, feel or believe.

Here’s some weird news: if what someone else thinks or feels or wants makes you upset guess what? You’re what iffing about their stuff. Same thing is true about other people’s reactions to you. Here’s some more weird news: just because other people don’t like what you think or believe or want or feel doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have those thoughts, beliefs or feelings.

I’m not saying that all thoughts, beliefs or feelings are equal! Far from it. The validity or accuracy of a thought or belief is very much something that can be weighed and measured and evaluated. But guess what? You STILL get to have it. You STILL get to decide what to do about it. And as far as feelings are concerned, well, NOBODY gets to decide how you feel. That doesn’t make all your (or my) feelings true or useful – but they are still things that belong to us, and we still get to have them.

Will people get upset with us for having thoughts, beliefs or feelings different from the ones they have? You already know the answer to that. Just look at Fox News, MSNBC or any of the daytime shows like Maury to see what happens when frightened people disagree. Ugh. Not useful.

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Here’s an example: my partner loves to go to parties and gatherings of people he only barely knows, or doesn’t know at all. He’s got that never-met-a-stranger thing in his soul, and he’s great at meeting with and chatting people up. He loves it.

Me? Not so much. I can do it when necessary, and now and again I enjoy it, but I’m much more the hang-with-my-peeps kinda guy. My partner thinks I’m a crazy person for not wanting to meet lots of new people. I think he’s overextending himself and missing opportunities to get to know a few folks well.

Guess what? That’s what we think! Who says we have to agree? And more importantly we have the need to respect our own boundaries. He might change his mind one day. He might not. Same for me. But we each get to think what we think.

That doesn’t mean I can’t sometimes make an effort to change his mind. (I don’t when it comes to this topic, but there are so many other things he’s thinking wrong about I HAVE to try on others…) 🙂 Same thing for him with me. It’s utterly OK that we sometimes work to get people over to our point of view.

That doesn’t mean we have an obligation to take anyone else’s perspective! We can also choose to listen or not listen when they try to change our minds. NEVER listening probably isn’t useful, all the time. On the other hand you may decide that some people DO need to get tuned out, at least for a long, long time. That’s legal too.

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Putting up fences – drawing healthy boundaries – will trouble some people. They get over it. That might mean they move on to other folks that don’t have healthy boundaries (adios, I say – better for them and for us if they make that choice.) They will more likely go hey, that’s cool, once they get over the news that you’re no longer a doormat.

Yes, but it’s SCARY to say no…

Sure it is. We learned to literally think we were at risk for injury when we first learned that we shouldn’t or couldn’t say no. Lots and lots of people have trouble with boundaries – either enforcing their own, respecting other people’s or both.

Maybe we’re afraid we’ll wind up alone if we say no, sorry, not going to do or think the thing that someone is asking of us. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll have to look after ourselves, take care of ourselves – and we’re afraid that we can’t. Maybe we’re STILL afraid, consciously or unconsciously, that we’ll be hurt, beat up or otherwise threatened with harm if we say no.

The real question is what do we need to do to respect ourselves, take care of ourselves? If, God forbid, we’re actually physically at risk, well, that’s one thing, and we need to think through and take steps to get clear of that context. But even THAT is an example of boundary-drawing. Nobody should have the right to physically abuse us, trap us, control us.

And that’s an interesting thing to extend to our personal boundaries. Because if we’re NOT at risk for physical injury then it’s time we started drawing the boundaries that work for us.

Some of that will be a negotiation process. Sometimes, because of how we live, who we live with, the obligations that we have taken on, etc., we may not always get to, 100% of the time, have the boundaries we’d like. That’s OK too, because we’re still the ones in the driver’s seat. And nobody says we can’t go back to the negotiation table and reopen discussions, yes?

You’ll feel MUCH Better – and you’ll BE Healthier too

Self-care 1

Let me close this discussion by recommending a brilliant book: Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. Don’t let the title stop you (in case you think it applies only to people who wrestle with co-dependency.) This is a book about drawing boundaries, big, medium and small. She’s a great, straight-ahead writer and she won’t pull any punches. It’s a great instruction manual for the understanding and practice of drawing healthy boundaries.

Expect this work to make you uncomfortable. Expect to find yourself reverting to old behaviors rather than holding these new boundaries you want to hold. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself mad, or frustrated, or just pissed off, and maybe not even being sure why in that moment. This is scratchy work – anxiety-creating, in a great way, work, for awhile.

This is a skill (just like overcoming anxiety is a set of skills) and you’ll come to be very, very glad you have it.

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