“The only real conflict you will ever have in your life won’t be with others, but with yourself.” ~Shannon Adler
I sat in my chemistry class during my junior year of high school staring at the periodic table and wondering if I was going to make it through. Bored and lost, I struggled to find value in the class or make sense of why I was there. It felt purposeless.
Until I met Kevin.
Kevin sat a few seats away from me and was a senior. I knew of him, but I had never really noticed or paid attention to him. I can’t recall why I even started paying attention to him other than his seat’s proximity to mine.
Maybe it was because he wasn’t like the typical guy I was attracted to and I was ready for something different.
It could have been because he was a bit aloof and kind of distant and his attention made me feel like I was winning some sort of game. Either way, it wasn’t long before I was hooked.
He was the “jealous type,” which was also new for me. He wanted me to only pay attention to him and scolded me when I spent time talking to my large group of male friends. I received his jealousy as his expression of adoration. I wanted him to want me. He wanted to claim me, and I wanted to be claimed.
It didn’t faze me when he began to put me down and make me feel like I was doing something wrong when it didn’t involve him. When we were drunk and he accused me of being disloyal, I was sure it was just his way of saying he cared.
And when he cheated on me, it made perfect sense why. I blamed the girl he was with instead of him— because she clearly was jealous of me.
The day he broke up with me, I was determined to do everything I could to win him back. Make him realize I was good enough to be chosen. Make him see that letting me go was not really what he wanted. Make him realize that life without me was never going to work.
The cat and mouse games we played were thrilling. The highs high and the lows disturbingly low. The dopamine and adrenaline rush made me feel alive, and the eventual crash left me craving more.
My adolescent brain identified this chemical combination as “passion” and a feeling I wanted more of. More importantly, it taught me in order to sustain my relationships, I would have to put others’ needs over my own. A pattern that began in earlier childhood but was reinforced when the stakes felt high. I unconsciously chose partners who would not, could not choose me.
Because I was too afraid to choose myself.
It’s not that I was afraid of creating a boundary, a line, a point of no return. It’s just that when someone crossed that line by treating me poorly, I didn’t feel ready to follow through on what may have followed.
I wasn’t ready to feel the repercussions of my choice. If they didn’t like my boundary, I might lose them. They might reject me. They might punish me. They might leave me behind.
I had plenty of examples of when that had happened.
And then I’d have to feel the inevitable pain of loss and loneliness. I’d have to feel the grief and the space it would take up in my life. I feared I’d have to put my other priorities on hold because the overflow of emotions might be too great. Too overwhelming. Too depressing. And I didn’t want to deal with that.
So instead of asking for what I needed and what would have made my relationships holistically better, I allowed men to treat me with disrespect, inequity, and blatant disregard for my well-being. All in the name of maintaining the status quo and not having to feel the unsavory emotions I masterfully avoided.
This fear of holding a boundary led to years of crippling anxiety, layers of depression, embarrassment, and lots and lots of hidden shame.
The feelings I avoided not only became constant companions, but they also intensified with my decision to ignore them and pretend like they didn’t exist.
I had weird physical ailments that no one could quite grasp. My alcohol consumption increased just so I could feel “normal” and less anxious. The emotions of anger and fear dominated my thoughts, and my passive-aggressive response to them became my go-to reaction.
I was furious at those who wouldn’t choose me. I blamed them for my choices and lack of follow through. But I didn’t dare ask for what I needed, to keep myself safe from the unknowns that might consume me. My silence and avoidant behaviors became my cozy home base and the only way I seemed to know how to cope.
There was no one moment when I recognized what I was doing. Unconscious responses are well hidden in their motives as quiet protectors.
But I did spend a lot of time shaming and blaming myself when the repercussions of my avoidance caught up to me. Questioning what was wrong with me and why I was so broken. Never quite recognizing my behaviors weren’t meant to hurt me but to shield me from the discomfort of feeling emotions I’d rather run from.
It’s taken a lot of slowing down and observing my reactions and thoughts to see why it’s so difficult for me to hold a boundary, even when I know it’s the healthiest action for both myself and another. It’s also taken a lot of compassion to judge myself less, knowing my desire to feel loved and accepted often outweighs my desire to stand my ground.
Most of us experience this as humans. And that’s okay.
Learning to hold a healthy boundary is a continuous practice for me, and one that starts with being honest about my own motives and fears.
When I am resisting asking for what I need, it becomes an opportunity to pause and check in with myself and ask: What are you really scared of? What do you think will happen if you ask for what you want?
Most of the time my fear is of rejection, abandonment, or being verbally attacked as a way to manipulate me. Having experienced these things intensely in the past, those fears of avoidance can get quite loud.
Once I identify the fear, I’ll ask: What you do you need to feel safer in this situation? If you can’t control another’s response, what will help you feel more ease before and after? What supports would benefit you? Who can you ask to aid you with this? How can you soothe yourself through the discomfort that may arise?
When we do this, it allows our very real fears to be seen and acknowledged and enables us to set up a plan of support for before and after. It also builds our tolerance for holding discomfort. A skill many of us struggle with.
Our fear of being abandoned asks that we don’t abandon ourselves too. The parts of us that are afraid of being left behind are looking for evidence that someone will show up for them. If we create a plan to not abandon ourselves with reinforcement and supports, our need to protect ourselves decreases. Our sense of safety improves and slowly we begin to trust our own follow through.
It’s also something we can support our friends and children with. Telling someone to hold a boundary is not nearly as helpful as modeling or showing them how to.
Our seeming inability to hold a healthy boundary is not a sign of weakness. It’s not a character flaw and it’s not something to feel ongoing shame around. It’s a normal response to deeper fears that are asking to be seen, acknowledged, and supported, which is well within our control.
We have the power to stand up for ourselves, and for others, and ask for what we need in a way that is loving, compassionate, and kind. We can do this by starting with ourselves.
How easy is it for you to hold a healthy boundary that benefits you and another? What are the deterrents that keep you from following through? How do you support yourself through the challenge? How will it feel when you reach the other side?
Let this be your guide while you practice choosing you.