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how do i set boundaries with...myself?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
hi mixed feelings,
My mother is fun-loving, sarcastic, affectionate, anxious, organized, easily hurt, perceptive, judgmental, and can fly into very intense rages. As a child, I used to see her yell at my father, and she occasionally insulted him in front of me and criticized him behind his back. I don’t think my mother is abusive… but I do think she was struggling with a lack of support from my dad and with powerful emotions that she didn’t know how to express in a healthy way. As a teen, I struggled setting boundaries with her…As a young adult…I am now realizing that her anger issues may have affected me more deeply than I realized…especially because I have also been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.
I often feel responsible for creating a safe environment for my friends and making sure everyone around me has a good time. I try hard to draw shy people out of their shells, to diffuse tension, and to make everyone laugh. My tendency to plan and over-organize has gotten better, but I still feel like I take up too much space and am too domineering and judgmental. Former friends have told me that they resented my tendency to ‘mom’ them (and in those friendships, I felt like I could never be vulnerable and soft). I wish I could be more chill and don’t want to keep feeling responsible for everyone’s emotional wellbeing all the time. I feel like, at my core, I am actually someone who loves relying on others, loves being babied, and letting others do the organizing. Every time others take the lead, I feel safe… like my heart is glowing. I wish I could just let go. How do I accept that it isn’t my job to ensure my family and friends’ wellbeing? — coquelicots, she/her
In middle and high school, my best friend and I spent every day together. I let myself into her house, ran up the carpeted stairs and into her room where we’d play Polly Pocket or listen to Hilary Duff CDs. She was someone I admired deeply; she always seemed in control of herself and her emotions. She was kind and friendly without seeming to need the attention I craved. She did her homework on time. She was reserved in a way that made her seem wise and important, and I was desperate to keep up. When we faced outward together, she took on the role of responsible caregiver, selfless, composed. In turn, I felt I needed to be wilder, louder, more ostentatious, more fun. I had to prove to our friend group, and to my best friend, that I had value, too — I could be outgoing and silly and crack jokes endlessly if they needed me to.
Then a guy I liked told me that I was being too much. He seemed to see through me, to my darkest fear at 17 years old: that nothing I did would be enough to make people like me. That I should be more mature, take up less space, keep my emotions less close to the surface.
As I grew into my mid to late twenties, I pulled it off. I began to be seen by new friends and coworkers as wise, confident, and restrained — even quiet, something my first grade teacher would have never believed. I became known as an advice-giver, someone who was reliable and intelligent, able to keep my emotions at bay among all but my closest friends. I could work through stress. I could bottle everything up. I love being a counselor to friends and colleagues because I truly enjoy cheering people on and seeing them thrive — but it’s also safer here, in a persona where I’m not too vulnerable, where I can be a wise old owl and never need anything from another person. Never have to admit I’m hurting, or struggling. Solve problems instead of causing them.
Strange, how we form our identities in relationship to other people without even realizing, until it’s so ingrained it feels like a habit that can’t be broken. Identities may seem fixed, but the truth is we change in little ways all the time, and we can shift what no longer helps us into something that does.
thank yourself for keeping yourself for safe — and then move on
“Sometimes I say to clients, what helped you cope and survive growing up might not be helpful today,” says Alegra Kastens, a licensed therapist who founded the Center for OCD, Anxiety, and Eating Disorders. When I think about young Claire, and how she adapted in order to be liked, and then how independent she became as an adult, I try to move past my embarrassment at my past self and into something like gratitude. What an incredible thing it is to create safety and comfort for yourself in times of stress. You’re keeping yourself alive.
But as Kastens says, the things that once were vital to our survival might not be needed in the same way as we grow and change. If you had to act as a mediator for parents who lacked emotional control, it makes sense that problem-solving would continue into adulthood. “Maybe growing up her mother made her the parent and her role was to diffuse the tension,” she notes. “Look at that behavior today and ask, is this actually helping me now? The most helpful thing might be allowing yourself to feel anxious and not self-abandoning.”
Everything has a line. Creating a warm space where you and your friends can have fun together is such a beautiful trait. But an obsession with needing to be liked, or to make sure there’s never any conflict, can turn into feeling responsible for other people’s feelings. Ironically, Kastens says, when you don’t set boundaries for yourself, and when you’re not being authentic to what you want, people around you start to feel uncomfortable.
take criticism, but don’t overcorrect
When I’m doing something wrong, I feel the urge to do the complete opposite to prove I’m intelligent and worthy of love. A tiny example: my roommate once gently suggested I load the dishwasher more effectively, and I became a hyper-vigilant dishwashing machine expert, determined to do everything right so I’d never feel embarrassed again. But that response isn’t sustainable, and feedback from friends — as long as it comes from a place of love — can be useful without being internalized. If you’ve surrounded yourself with people who care about you, they want you to be happy and to be yourself. They don’t want you to let anxiety rule your life either.
It’s hard to let go of the identities we’ve crafted for ourselves and still hold on to what makes us, us. Take it slow. “If you were to let go a little bit, what would that look like?” recommends Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety. “At the heart of social anxiety is perfectionism. Test out rolling back the over-responsibility…Put behavior first, and then your brain will catch up.” You don’t have to intellectually or symbolically let go as your first step, and you don’t have to act completely different with your friends. Next time you go out, let a friend choose the restaurant or pick the movie. Start small, and build up to the more equitable friendship you and your friends want.
lean into discomfort
Habits become more and more comfortable over time, so it’s going to feel awkward at first to make changes. “If we repeatedly offer advice without being vulnerable or let [our friends] be the expert for a while, it separates us,” Hendriksen says. It turns into an expert/student dynamic, or a parent/child dynamic, as opposed to just being friends and letting each other make mistakes. The discomfort is okay. Setting a boundary with yourself is hard, because it requires acknowledging a bit of risk — you can’t control how people act or feel, or how they’ll treat you.
But good friends, long-time friends, aren’t trying to threaten your safety. We’re all moving through our own issues together, and the discomfort of a hard, vulnerable conversation is worth it for me. My best friend and I are now going on more than 15 years of friendship — years of arguments and difficult discussions, years where I realized she was hiding and hurting as much as I was in those fraught teenage times, years we learned (and still learn) how to take care of ourselves and each other. But also years spent crafting something together that is lasting, a patched quilt that is uniquely beautiful. A blanket to keep us both warm and safe, taking on life side by side, as equals.