When I started therapy in college, we talked a lot about boundaries. I was away from home, but the issues that my family was dealing with, or rather the issues I was dealing with about my family, were still with me. We spent a lot of time talking about those boundaries – what they are, how they protect you, and how to create them. I don’t think of boundaries so much as walls, but more like force fields. Because the truth is, you still see what is happening, you are still involved, but your level of involvement and your emotional protection is something you build to protect you. I tried to create boundaries with my family, but honestly, I think I cheated since I was 3,000 miles away. It’s easy to protect yourself when you are physically too far away too see anything.
I’m still really shitty at creating boundaries to protect myself. And not just with my family. While my mother jokes that we have signs on our foreheads that say :”Tell me everything and more,” I think I allow people to take advantage of my sensitivity and empathy, and stomp way past my comfort zone, and straight through my force field of safety. This leads me to feeling enraged and frustrated, resentful, and very uncomfortable.
I have noticed, when I look at the people in my life whom I don’t feel respect my space, they are usually narcissist or strong-willed. (Not surprising.) And I think often fear upsetting them and the guilt of not providing help to them keeps me from setting relationship rules that I’m comfortable with.
But I’m going to be 34 soon and I’m tired of people taking advantage of me and me allowing it. It’s almost like they decide we are friends without me agreeing to it? Friendship should be a consensual relationship where both parties give and receive. These force field-breaking relationships are often pushed upon me and they are a one-way street where I give my time, my energy, my empathy. I leave exhausted, a bit raw, and resentful.
But when I sit down to think of how to tell someone no, to keep my field up and strong, I’m not sure how to frame it. Here’s an example. I decided to take swim classes. I signed up for four half-hour classes. I arrived petrified and was relieved to find a young girl – I would say mid-twenties. I explained my goals but I often look to the teacher as they have more experience and as they watch me, I imagine they see my weaknesses and can make suggestions. The first class was great – I still was a mess in the water, but I was proud of myself for having done it. The second class, she was late. She didn’t apologize or say why. I really wanted to ask if I could have an extra 5 minutes at the end or ask where she had been (a passive way of really saying that I paid for a half hour and expect a half hour,) but I didn’t. I’m not sure if it’s because I look like I’m in my twenties, but during the second class, she had me practice the moves from the first time, and she was talking to me about her personal life. An older woman complained that we were not following the form of the lane. Honestly, she was correct. We were in the slow lane and it was lap swimming. I assumed we would move to the recreation area or have her pass us, but I stood there in the water watching my teacher proceed to ream this woman out. I was embarrassed and kind of scared. She’s supposed to be a representative of this organization and she was literally turning her back on the woman and saying “just turn around and swim, miss. it’s fine. you’re wrong. just turn around and swim.” And then turned to me to roll her eyes as if to ask for my agreement in her technique. I guess now I know what I would have been like if I had ever been in a clique in school because I smiled and rolled my eyes back even though I thought she was unprofessional, the woman was right, and if she had been more kind, I think the woman wouldn’t have gotten so agitated and the process of them arguing wouldn’t have taken yet another five minutes I was paying for away. I kept asking how my form was, and she kept asking me how it felt. She gave me an exercise to try and work on my breathing and then left exactly at 10 to see her 7-year old client. The third time, she was late again. Not only did she not apologize but she spent the first five minutes talking about her boss, and this training, etc. I was listening but the whole time I was really pissed. I’m on disability and found the money to take this class – what the fuck?! But I didn’t say that. At one point, I said “So just to reevaluate my hopes for these sessions, I want to…” and she agreed and tried to show me another stroke. I was floundering underwater to the point where she had to hold me. I told her I was frustrated and asked what I was doing wrong. She told me to just do the breast stroke. She didn’t continue to work with me, I’m still pretty sure I’m not doing it right, and while I don’t know how to teach someone a swim move, that’s why she’s the teacher!? She had another student to which she said “This kid really tests my patience” and she was off. I got out of the water and realized I had a question. I came back and she told me to meet her at the showers. She briefly gave me a tip of what I could do, and then proceeded to wash off for 10 minutes while discussing her cable situation. I’m standing there in my bathing suit, not getting ready for work, and she’s telling me about AT&T. Since when did we become friends? Since when did I ask about her internet woes? She knew I had work, so why wasn’t she saying anything and why couldn’t I just say “I have to go.” I was so worried about being rude I stood there with a grin on my face meanwhile in my head really hating her. I spent the rest of the day in a pissed off huff. She also asked me what time I went to a certain spin class and I stupidly told her. Now I’m worried she’s going to come to my class.
Perhaps because I didn’t speak up for myself, she thought that I was interested in what she was saying and therefore thought we were creating a bond. It’s an odd feeling to think someone sees you not only as closer than you feel, but thinks you feel the same. A part of me feels guilty.
But still, this is about people who when I offer an inch, take a mile. This is about me being polite and talking with my fellow renter below me, and having him text me the next weekend (he lives below so he can hear when I’m home) telling me to “come down now and hang out.” This is about people not listening or attempting to understand my interests and likes, and continue to invite me to things I have no interest in but then are offended if I say no too much. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings because I don’t think any of these people are malicious or even realize what they’re doing.
While I believe the people who have abused my physical boundaries of safety are to blame, I don’t know whether I feel the same about these people. I almost want to be like them. I want to be strong-willed enough to say “You know what. I paid for this and you are not providing it. You are unprofessional and I want my money’s worth.” But then she might mess up my lessons or yell at me, or critique me harshly based on the fact she knows I’m insecure. Maybe if I tell people they are taking too much of my time and energy, they will think I am selfish, or rude, or that I don’t like them. But without my boundaries, I do grow weak. People take without giving back and I find myself tired, sad and frustrated. I am losing myself without getting the energy and fuel back to maintain a steady energy flow – to keep the force field strong.
I only have one more swim class. I can’t afford anymore. I thought about complaining but she’s going to know it’s me because I don’t think the five-year old is mad, and I know her boss is already mad. Sometimes, I want to be a bitch. I think it would strengthen my force field. Every time I tell someone I do not want to do something, I am not interested, I cannot do something they want me to, I actually feel stronger. I feel like I am marking my space, time and self. And I really think if I’m going to manage in the world, while I don’t want to put up walls, I am allowed to say no, and I suppose I need to learn to take care of my own feelings even if I know it might hurt the others.
But it’s a tricky thing. If people need help, I want to help them. Especially if they don’t get that support from anyone else. I do like knowing that people like me and think I’m kind. I’m glad people trust me so easily. But I do not need it as much as I did when I was depressed. I know now that I would rather be lonely than spend time with someone I don’t like.
I recently made a comment to someone about how I was noticing the more I got to know people, the less I liked them and how I wish it could be the other way around. Maybe as you get older, and you get to know yourself better, it takes less time to know who you want to spend your time with and who just does not tickle your fancy. But sometimes those feelings aren’t always mutual. And I worry I give mixed messages because while I do not care for someone, in order to not be rude or hurt their feelings I still laugh at their jokes, nod and ask questions, and even if I don’t agree, allow them to feel entitled to their opinion. And maybe in that behavior I am telling people I like them and they are allowed to proceed.
How do you stick up a stop sign? How do you maintain your force field when people are pushing you hard, and at your weak spots? Why does it feel like sometimes I want to put up a wall of space or time, just so I can catch my breath and sort myself and my needs. How do I learn to stop being afraid of upsetting people and start putting my foot down. This isn’t about asking for what I want – it’s about saying no. And I think it’s a skill set that would be so empowering and I have no idea how to strengthen it. Any ideas?