“Care what other people think, and you will forever be their prisoner.” ~Lao Tzu
I love this quote because it is such truth. But I also recognize the difficulty and the uncomfortable feelings that arise when working toward living 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
Our minds were not created to care about healthy boundaries. Say what? Let me explain.
From the beginning of time, we humans were hard wired for connection. We are not solitary creatures; we are similar to 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.
We were built to care about others, to rely on others, to let others watch out for our safety and for us to watch out for them too. Staying in our herd, our hive, our pack, our tribe is how we stayed safe. And it worked!
Our tribe was important to us back then for our survival. 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.”
If you struggle with people-pleasing, I hope you will understand that we come by our people-pleasing instincts naturally. They are quite literally part of our survival set up. It is part of being human. It is perfectly normal to have the urge to people-please.
Wanting to serve and please others is a perfectly good and often wonderful thing. 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! Each one of these alone comes with a handbag of rules that instruct us how to behave, act, what to think and what to say in order to please our tribe. Our poor mind has to put all of these pieces together somehow in a way that makes sense and keeps us alive.
Discovery #2: The Rulebook
In essence, our sweet mind creates a sort of rule book in terms of what will keep us safe. We start to notice from the time we are small that if our people are not happy with us, we do not feel safe. 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.
When we are children, we are 100 percent dependent on our caregivers. They are quite literally everything to us. Remember the tribe, the pack, the hive that I talked about earlier? Well, to our little toddler minds, they are our first tribe.
It is our caregivers’ job to mirror to us who we are in the world. And hopefully with healthy caregivers, we are shown that we are loved, cherished, worthy, important. This is what creates our self-esteem. This is what relays the message to us that we matter.
This gets written into the rule book or the rolodex file of our little child brain.
However, many folks did not grow up this way. Those of us who may have grown up with caregivers who were harsh, unloving, absent, unpredictable, neglectful, and even abusive, their little, sweet mind recorded a whole different set of rules into the rulebook of life.
It may sound something like I am not loveable, I don’t matter, I’m a nuisance, I am a bother, I should never take up space. It might sound like I’m loved as long as I’m good, or performing, or agreeable.
(Please note, much of the time our parents did the best they could with the skills and tools that they had in their awareness. However, to our innocent, little, childlike selves, it simply wasn’t the message that we needed. The message was misconstrued, and we wound up feeling as though we somehow did not matter).
Often this gets passed down 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?
Perhaps when you were little, if you were constantly told to be quiet, that you were too loud, too much, or to simply go away, then the mind created a belief that came into agreement with this. A rule was filed away that it was better to not disrespect your elders and continue to be loud or to take up space.
The problem is that of course this is nonsense (you were just being a sweet and normal child), but you never questioned the rule. You questioned Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Yet, you never stopped or questioned your rules or beliefs about yourself. You wrote those things in the rule book as absolute truth.
Your mind doesn’t care that you are older now and that the situation is different now. To the mind, a rule is a rule. And remember what happened to humans who questioned the rules in the past? They didn’t survive!
Let me tell you a little bit about my own rulebook…
Several years ago, I was deeply terrified of what other people thought of me. Growing up in a small town, it was written in my rulebook that all eyes were on you. Boundaries were one of my biggest struggles because it meant breaking free of the people-pleasing pattern in order to speak 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 that, deep down, I found offensive.
I agreed with others’ opinions because I either didn’t know my opinion or if I did, I didn’t feel confident sharing it.
I talked incessantly because silence felt 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.
Speaking my truth was so uncomfortable that many years ago I actually had a seven-hour coffee date. I didn’t want a seven-hour coffee date. The idea was come over for a couple hours, chit chat a bit, and move on with our day.
However, this woman arrived promptly right after the kiddos left on the school bus in the morning and was still there when they got home on said school bus at 3:30pm.
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 remember that I never invited her back again, even though she was a great gal in many ways. I was clueless in how to handle these situations, so my answer was to cut the relationship off and move forward by avoiding her.
At the time I was a young mom with a husband who worked long hours, and I often felt lonely. 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.
This was all written in my rulebook. All of this worrying about what others thought and not wanting to upset anyone caused me severe stress, anxiety, and overwhelm.
I was trying to function on fried adrenals and walking on eggshells. I was unhappy, and it showed up in my relationship with my partner, my kids, and mostly, the relationship I had with myself. But there was something always driving me to keep pleasing, keep appeasing, and that leads me to our next discovery.
Discovery #3: But why do I always feel so guilty?
Why do we feel so darn guilty when we try to set a boundary? Well, anytime we step outside the rulebook, the mind pushes a great big, huge alarm bell.
Remember, our mind thinks that this is a rule created for our safety. I share this because hopefully you can start to relax and realize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. The mind simply is 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 only job is to keep us alive, so it often uses guilt to get us to acquiesce and once again, go along to get along.
How many times have you been invited to a baby shower or a barbecue on a Saturday and absolutely dreaded it? You’ve worked fifty hours this week, you coached soccer two nights, ran the carpool this week, and are utterly exhausted. You know you need a day to get caught up, sleep in, and take a little time to yourself. 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?”
That guilt pushes on you, making you feel as if you are doing something wrong. So, what do you do? You RSVP that you will gladly be there. Oh, and you will also make and bring the punch.
Pretty effective strategy to get you to follow the rules, right?
This is why boundaries feel so challenging. Because they are not part of our original hardwiring.
So where do we start if we want to set healthy boundaries?
1. Understand that boundaries are first and foremost an internal job.
Yes, we create parameters and limits with institutions and people. But ultimately, before we can ever do that, we have to start on the inside.
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 left alone and miserable.
Boundary work starts by addressing our own issues. And as the inner work is done and healing occurs, it organically flows into changed outer behaviors, habits, and choices. We can be empowered to have loving and compassionate conversations that build bridges of connection rather than walls of isolation.
2. You have to realize that boundaries are in fact healthy.
If you don’t believe this then it will be hard to lean into them. Make the agreement right now, or work toward believing, that setting boundaries is healthy for you to do.
3. You have to know your needs.
Do you know your needs? Have you ever thought about 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. What needs do they help their child remember to meet? I.E., even if the child does not want to go to bed, they help them to calm down and go to sleep. Start by making a list of the needs a good parent will help a child to meet.
When you’re done with that list, circle the needs that you are not meeting for yourself (or inconsistently meeting).
For each circled need, respond to the following questions:
- How do I respond to this need?
- What gets in the way of responsiveness or consistency?
- How do I respond to other people when they have this need?
- How would my life improve if I responded to this need?
For each need, create an intention that you will honor by setting boundaries if necessary. Focus on one intention a week to get a need met more fully and consistently. I know you want to do more, but remember, your mind will fight you because it wants you simply to stay safe and alive. It will douse you with that guilt working you toward acquiescing and shape shifting, so let’s just focus on nailing one for now. Keeping it simple is key!
Write out your intentions weekly by finishing the sentence stem:
My intentions are:
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. Be consistent and trust that your hard work in your boundary journey will pay off.