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May 28, 2017

7 Words That Helped Me Establish Boundaries

Growing up I was an only child and my parents divorced when I was 2 years old.

As such, they were both single parents for a while and working full-time, and so I got shuttled around quite a bit—to neighbor’s houses, extended family, family friends, after-school daycare and babysitters. I never had any problem with it, it was just “the way it was,” and in so many ways I’m grateful because it socialized me at an early age, helped me become a bit of a chameleon in social situations and certainly boosted my self-sufficiency.

But, it also taught me that I just did what I was told, went where I was sent, had no problem being inconvenienced (I wouldn’t have even known I was), and never put up any argument over any of it. I was a passive child on the whole—going where my mom and dad needed me to, and not putting up a fight. I always wanted them to be proud of me, never to be disappointed in me, and so I was very go-with-the-flow.

But something really interesting happened after I graduated from college.

I went to live with my Dad in Washington DC for 6 months, when I was 21. I worked a crazy-early shift at a corporate fitness center, 6am to 2pm everyday, and my commute to work was an 1h 20m each way. I had to wake up at 4am every morning to get there on time.

Well, living with my dad for an extended amount of time was new—I’d only ever stayed with him for vacations and holidays growing up since he lived out of state, and well, I idolized him (still do in many ways, ha!). Growing up, I’d eagerly await his visits and when he was in town, we always had the best time.

So when he invited me to come live with him along with his now-wife, rent-free after college, I jumped at the chance and we were both pumped.

But living together proved a little different than the special dinners and weekend vacations. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay up late talking or grabbing a drink. My ability to be social was limited since I always had to get up so early.

For the first time in my life, I found myself having to … disappoint my dad.

I wasn’t really available for evening social time, and with a boyfriend in North Carolina, I was spending most of my weekends down there.

Dad was fine, but I’d always feel a pang of guilt or like I was disappointing him when I was unable to do the things he wanted for us to do. Besides, I’d always been an amendable child, easy-going, flexible, and always happy to do whatever was on the menu.

But now I had my own life, and I needed to live it in the best way for myself.

And it was hard to not say yes to everything. It was challenging to feel like I was letting someone down whose approval I always wanted.

By the way, he never made me feel bad or got upset, and it wasn’t like these things came up all the time, but it was just my feeling about it that brought up guilt and fear. It was a new way of being with him, and those feelings I didn’t like enduring.

This was the first time I confronted the uncomfortable feelings that arise as a result of having boundaries.

Most of us don’t establish boundaries or don’t enforce them because we are scared of the fallout.

We don’t want people to be mad at us or disappointed in us. We fear letting people down or the potential scary outcomes that might transpire as a result of saying no. We don’t want to feel responsible for another person’s negative emotions.

But what’s the alternative?

The alternative is not honoring our very real wants, needs and desires, and instead literally living someone else’s life. Saying yes only to placate, please or to avoid ruffling feathers.

And that might work for a while. I know, because I’ve had clients in their 40s, 50s and 60s who still avoid implementing boundaries with their parents or friends. But it’s not without consequence, for all involved.

Byron Katie says, “A dishonest yes is a no to yourself.” When you keep saying no to yourself, and yes to things you don’t want, over time you start feeling resentful. Or like you’re being taken advantage of, or not feeling seen or appreciated, or feeling “done wrong.”


And here’s a truth that might be a little hairy for you—I warned you ;)—there’s nothing worse than feeling resentful towards others because you didn’t do what you needed to in order to set the tone for the relationship.

Resentment is caused by not getting our needs met. Aaaaaand … wait for it … how can we expect to get our needs met if we don’t ever express them??

Am I taking crazy pills? Lol.

Look, this is not to make us feel badly about not knowing we should’ve expressed our needs more clearly or earlier, it’s simply a prompt to start doing it now.

Your boundaries are an expression of the things you want, need and are willing to do. And of the things you are not willing to do.

It’s objective. It’s honest. It’s not a threat and it doesn’t mean other people necessarily need to change, but instead, a simple recognition that YOU will start interacting with them a little differently.

Stating your boundaries is just clinical, clear communication, with room for the subsequent fallout.

Others will respond (or not). Allow them to. Taking away their opportunity for response is robbing them of the full learning experience. Don’t do that.

It’s scary, yes. But here’s one key phrase (7 words!) that I used that helped me tremendously in soothing the change in how I behaved around my loved ones when I started stating my boundaries:

“It doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

I know, it might sound strange to have to say that, or, if you are not the expressive type, it can feel awkward. But stating your boundaries and then adding this qualifier is hugely helpful.

It helps frame up your preferences for your loved ones so they don’t take them personally and they know that it doesn’t have anything to do with how much you love and appreciate them.

In fact, establishing and enforcing boundaries through clear and honest communication is THE THING that helps you love and appreciate them even more because your relationship is not clouded by resentment and feeling underappreciated.

Sometimes our relationships need a rebrand.

No problem. Clinical. Objective. Nothing that some clear and honest communication can’t elucidate. Doesn’t mean anything about how much you care about one another, it just is.

My dad is one of my heroes. And we have a better relationship than we’ve ever had—and I’d wager one of the closest of anyone I know—precisely because we’ve had numerous honest conversations, some uncomfortable AF, ha! But we’ve both come out on the other side with a greater respect for one another and a deeper connection. I cherish our friendship more than I ever did at 21. There’s nothing I can’t trust him with.

So, the point?

Start with one single person in your life. Don’t make it about they “won’t let you say no” or “you can’t do what you want,” that’s martyrdom shit. Instead, take ownership of the interactions and start asserting your preferences, not in accusatory or resentful way, but in a way that is clear, honest and open.

And then let the chips fall.

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