When I was a camp counselor, it was common knowledge that the “soft” cabin counselors were less beloved by the kids. In a co-counselor situation, the more strict counselor was always the favorite. The kids, away from home and experiencing new and often challenging things, wanted security when they went back to their cabins, and reasonable rules, enforced fairly, helped them feel safe.
My therapist has been talking to me for ages about creating boundaries in my life. Just like the kids at camp, boundaries made in relationships are a way of keeping oneself safe, so that no one gives too much of herself, gets lost in the relationship, or starts to feel resentful.
It took me a long time to understand enough to apply boundaries in my own life and (here’s the key) to do so without feeling guilty. In spite of two close friendships starting to feel like a burden, making boundaries while maintaining contact (with the help of my therapist), and coming out of it all certain the friendship had deepened, I still didn’t buy it. Cultural expectations exist (for women especially, I think) that we should sacrifice ourselves for others. And not just sacrifice our time or energy, but in a lot of cases, our comfort and enjoyment. Example: I shouldn’t tell my friend (labmate, partner, boss, sibling, parent) that she’s driving me crazy because I need to be supportive and nurturing to her. And not only should I not tell her, I also should continue to spend time with her, even though it really isn’t fun for me and in many cases makes me mad.
The solution to the above example is to make a boundary with the crazy-driving person that she doesn’t even need to know about. Because the second key to making boundaries is that they are only for me. To make the boundary, I play therapist in my head and ask myself, “What do I need to feel safe in the relationship?” or “What would help me feel less resentful?” Usually the first answer that comes to mind is “if she would stop being so DAMN crazy-driving,” but then I have to ask myself the questions again with the emphasis on I and me because I am the one with the frustration and it’s me that needs to feel safer.
So I might work on adjusting my expectations (because expectations are a boundary in themselves) or I might decide that I need to see someone less often for a little while or when my extremely negative labmate brings up something else that is WRONG in his life, I might nod politely and say something positive or I might even go do an experiment (because let’s be honest I could always be doing more of those).
After a while of operating with this boundary in place, I probably notice that I don’t feel as resentful. The drop off of resentment could be because my more realistic expectations are no longer being disappointed regularly or because what I really needed was a break. But what’s even better is when I notice that the friend has made strides forward in her own life because I stopped enabling her negativity (or other toxic behavior). Because the final key to making boundaries is that they help EVERYONE (just like the rules at camp). Not only do they help me feel safe in the relationship, but the boundary helps the other person relax, too, because she can tell I’m not resentful any more or because she knows that whatever I was doing before that was really a lot of ask of a friend isn’t expected of her anymore.
So I finally bought in, and I don’t feel guilty making boundaries in my relationships. Everything that I give now, I’m giving because it’s available within me to give. (You might say I’ve had another breakthrough).