“Agreeing to things just to keep the peace is actually a trauma response. When you do this you’re disrespecting your boundaries.” ~DJ Love Light
Two years ago, I moved from New England to the Pacific Northwest. It was time for a change, and though I was excited to begin a new chapter of my life, I was sorry to leave my old friends behind.
The first year in my new home was hectic. I hopped from hostel to hostel on the hunt for an apartment to call my own. Eager to make friends, I spent my evenings attending meetups of all varieties. My business grew as I welcomed a new influx of clients. Atop these external pressures sat my anxiety, a presence whose intensity ebbed and flowed like an unpredictable tide.
I struggled to maintain consistent contact with my New England friends during this time of transition. One day, I needed to reschedule a phone call with a friend because I felt utterly overwhelmed. I apologized and rescheduled for the following weekend, despite the fact that it would be my first free weekend in months, and I would need time to recuperate. “I’ll make it work,” I told myself.
Lo and behold, when the next weekend arrived, I was anxious and exhausted from yet another stressful week. The thought of a phone call felt utterly overwhelming, and so I cancelled. Again.
This time, my friend was rightfully upset with me. He viewed my persistent rescheduling as lack of investment in our friendship, and we slowly lost touch.
Even now, months later, I feel deep shame for how I handled that interaction. It was a painful loss, one that taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: making promises you can’t keep is a surefire way to erode relationships—relationships with others and your own relationship with yourself.
Since then, I’ve learned how to break the overpromising pattern and trust myself again. Here’s how.
Why Do We Overpromise and Under-Deliver?
Generally, overpromising stems from our desire to be liked or accepted. We believe that we are most valuable to others when we give 110 percent, and so we overpromise —we make a commitment that is unrealistic given our present circumstances.
Overpromising might look like:
- Agreeing to complete a work project by an unrealistic deadline
- Promising to call a friend even though your schedule is totally bonkers
- Agreeing to attend multiple parties in one weekend even though you have social anxiety
Overpromising is a specific form of people-pleasing, a phenomenon in which we act against our natural impulses in order to garner another’s approval, acceptance, or love.
When we overpromise, we attempt to become an idealized version of ourselves—a version who does these things, effortlessly, on a certain timeline. By doing so, we deny our natural limitations and prioritize what we believe others want from us instead of what we need from ourselves.
Somewhere along the way, most people-pleasers learned that their authentic selves were not lovable enough, so they believe —consciously or subconsciously—that the only way to secure the love they crave is to be different. They may put great effort into seeming more sociable, more productive, more accommodating, or happier than they really are. In the case of overpromising, they put great effort into giving more than they comfortably can.
As a result, those of us who overpromise either do the agreed-upon task—albeit resentfully—or back out altogether. Either way, it causes serious damage because we learn that we cannot trust ourselves. We’re left with a nagging sense of shame and a conviction that we must do better next time, and so the cycle repeats itself.
The secret to breaking this guilt-filled cycle is to communicate our needs, limitations, and desires from the outset with proactive boundaries.
The Power of Proactive Boundaries
When we think about boundaries, we generally think of what I refer to as retroactive boundaries: responding to someone else’s behavior with a clear assertion of what is, or is not, acceptable to us. We might feel threatened, angry, unsafe, overwhelmed, or triggered, and we respond accordingly. For example:
On a first date, your companion puts his arm around your shoulders. You feel uncomfortable. You remove his hand and say, “I’m not ready for public displays of affection yet.”
Your father asks you who you’re voting for in the election. You say, “Dad, I’d like to keep who I’m voting for private.”
Your friend Barb asks if she can borrow $100. You reply, “I’m sorry Barb, but as a rule, I don’t lend money.”
Retroactive boundaries are a form of verbal self-defense. They’re powerful and effective, but many find them horribly difficult to set. It can be challenging to speak up for ourselves when we already feel threatened, bullied, or pressured. If we were raised in an environment where we were harmed when we spoke up for ourselves, we may find the very idea of setting boundaries impossible.
To circumvent the awkward process of setting retroactive boundaries, I have learned the art of proactive boundary-setting. Proactive boundaries require us to consider, in advance, what our needs, limitations, and desires will be. We then communicate those needs in the early phase of the relationship, effectively incorporating our needs into the relationship’s very foundation.
A few examples:
- You exchange numbers with someone you meet at an event. You’re hopeful that this could turn into a friendship. When she texts you the following day, you reply with enthusiasm and let her know that you tend to take a few hours or days to reply to texts.
- You have a history of trauma. Before your romantic relationship gets physical, you tell your partner that you prefer to take physical intimacy slow. You explain that you wait to have sex until you feel safe and comfortable.
- You’ve been offered a new job. You also have a toddler in childcare. You tell your new employer that, should your toddler get sick and need to be picked up from childcare, you will need to leave work early to do so.
Setting proactive boundaries requires self-acceptance. We need to be able to acknowledge and accept our own needs in order to convey them to others. In doing so, we create an opportunity for others to be authentic and share their needs with us.
Sometimes, both parties will be willing to meet the other’s needs or find a manageable compromise. Sometimes, after we share our proactive boundaries, we may learn that our needs are not compatible with the needs of our new partner, friend, or colleague. And that’s perfectly okay. Wouldn’t you rather learn that from the outset instead of six months—or six years—down the road?
How to Set Proactive Boundaries
Scenarios like this might make a good fit for proactive boundaries:
- Negotiating how quickly you reply to texts, calls, and emails
- Discussing the rate of intimacy in a physical relationship
- Limiting how many extra responsibilities you take on in the office
- Negotiating dating as a single parent
- Determining how you will manage money when you move in with your partner
Finding the right language can be the most challenging part of boundary-setting. In my experience, opening a two-way conversation where both parties can express their needs without judgment is the simplest way to create a healthy conversation. You might try the following:
When setting proactive boundaries in new friendships or new romantic relationships:
“I’m excited about this connection we’re building. I’d like to have a conversation with you about what we each want this relationship to look like. I’d love to hear a bit about your needs and share some of my own.”
When setting proactive boundaries in existing relationships going through a transition:
“I know we’re about to enter a new phase of our friendship/romantic relationship/working relationship. To make the transition easier for both of us, I’d like to have a conversation with you about what we each want this new phase to look like. I’d love to hear a bit about your needs and share some of my own.”
When setting proactive boundaries at work:
“I’m really looking forward to working with you. Before we get started, I’d love to schedule a conversation to discuss how I can best meet your needs, and vice versa.”
Setting proactive boundaries doesn’t eliminate the possibility that your friends, colleagues, or loved ones will overstep your boundaries in the future. However, in those circumstances, it’s far easier to reference a previously agreed-upon boundary than to set a fresh boundary from scratch.
Proactive Boundaries Have Changed My Life
I used to carry a heavy burden of shame for the trail of broken promises I left behind me. Now, I understand that accepting my own needs is the key to keeping my word.
I use proactive boundaries daily. My friends know that I am slow to respond to texts, emails, and Facebook messages. My partner knows that I have a trauma history and need to set the tone of our physical interactions. My clients know that I work four days a week, 10am – 5pm, and do not reply to emails outside of that time frame. My immediate family knows that I will not discuss politics at home.
Setting these boundaries has allowed me to love myself. Before, I hated the fact that my anxiety prevented me from keeping in better touch. I hated the way my trauma surfaced at the least opportune moments. I felt guilty and lazy when I didn’t reply to my client’s emails on the weekends. Now, I accept that these are my needs, and I give others the opportunity to accept them, too.
Those who know my boundaries and choose to connect with me anyway are a powerful reminder that my needs do not make me unworthy of other’s affections. They remind me that I am lovable and enough, just as I am.