If there was one fundamental principle that I would recommend to anyone starting (or continuing) on a journey of personal growth it would be ‘work on your boundaries’.
When I look around me at people’s lives (and my own), it’s the inability to speak their truth that gets people most into trouble. It’s the moments when people say yes, but actually mean no, that slowly erodes (or better said: never allows to develop) their healthy relationship to self.
How often have we been there? We don’t feel like doing something and yet we can not get ourselves to say that out of obligations, which is another way of saying guilt.
This sense of guilt is what we continuously come up against when we are put in a moment of needing to affirm our boundaries. It usually appears in our heads as thoughts and conflicts like:
Am I selfish if I say no to visiting my grandmother?
Am I lazy if I choose to sit on the couch and relax while everyone is working?
Am I mean if I tell my friend that I don’t want to talk to her right now?
In the end what these thoughts are showing us, is the confusion about whose needs and feelings are more important: yours or mine?
Guilt in these moments is the experience of your own life force- your own needs and desires- being in conflict with that which you perceive the outside wants and needs from you.
It’s not that we are doing something wrong when we feel the doubts of ‘guilt’ moving through us, even if it may feel like it. It’s that we feel unsure of our own needs being valid. And if we actually understand that, we can take it as an opportunity, an invitation to investigate if this is true.
I remember an old friend of mine who had great boundaries. Whenever I came over to stay with her she would just put it clear straight away: You are welcome to stay as long as you like, as long as you contribute to sharing the costs of food and help with the cleaning.
I was really impressed with it because at that stage I would have never been able to do that myself. Not only did it make me respect her boundaries but I also trusted her more. I trusted her to let me know when something changed and that allowed me to relax. I could just completely be myself and didn’t have to make myself small, because she would let me know if I was too much.
That was a gift.
Now I understand that she was only able to do that because she was in touch with her own needs and she honored them. She knew that if she didn’t do that, she would eventually start holding onto grudges and resentments and that would come between us as friends, taking away from the quality of our interactions.
Her expressing her boundaries was actually an act of love, an act of respecting our friendship.
You cannot have a healthy relationship of any kind if honesty is not at the core of it. So rather than looking at boundaries as a potential for ‘disappointing’ someone and for feeling ‘guilty’, we have to see boundaries as a way to build trust.
If I am honest with myself and with you, I give you permission to be honest too and that’s how we can truly learn to trust each other.
This means that both my needs and yours are valid and important, but I’m only responsible for the ones I have control over, my own.
If you haven’t learned how to do this, it will be challenging and confronting at first. The fear of disappointing another runs deep. Most of us have been conditioned to be good little girls and boys and to make sure that everyone is happy with us. But we pay a dear price for it. The price of not being intimate and nourished in our relations. That also costs a lot of energy.
If you feel guilty about not being able to give someone what they want, for example, speak to that: “ Listen, I feel guilty inside, but I want to be fully honest with you because our relationship matters to me, I don’t feel I can do this for you right now”.
First, you will notice that as soon as you express your ‘guilt’ out loud, it dissipates.
Second, most people don’t want to receive anything from us if it comes with a sense of guilt and obligation and will be more than happy to let us off the hook as soon as we express our inner conflict to them.
People will appreciate knowing where you are at, what’s going on inside your world. It will release them from having to second-guess themselves as they usually can feel that something is up anyway.
Third, the beauty of boundaries is that they don’t have to be rigid but can change from moment to moment. Oftentimes just expressing our needs in the moment can be a doorway to finding a way of having them met and thus our boundaries can change like shifting sands.
Once we start realizing that most of our unhappiness comes from this ‘not-attending’ to our own needs, not being honest with our own capacity, we get the opportunity to do it a different way, because, simply put, the old way doesn’t work.
But like any new skill that you acquire, after the initial discomfort, it will become second nature. The countless benefits (more energy, more self-worth, more respect, and intimacy) will make it well worth the practice.
We need healthy boundaries if we want to maintain our well-being and that of our relationships.
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