How I Learned To Set Boundaries
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
For a very long time I tried to be someone I wasn’t so that people would like me: so that my family would think I was doing the right thing; so that other women would accept me and include me; so that men would accept me and love me. But every time I skirted away from myself or changed myself to try to win the love of others, I somehow ended up lonelier. And the lonelier I became, the more uncomfortable it was to be alone. I dated one man for far too long, making excuses for him along the way. “He made me dinner,” I told my therapist one day. “And he drove all the way from Beverly Hills to see me.”
“How often does he come see you?” therapist asked me.
“Almost never,” I admitted, before putting a positive spin on the situation, “but we like when I go see him because he doesn’t have a roommate.”
Ugh. I hated how weak I sounded. I hated that I was defending a man who did not deserve my affection, but somehow had it. This wasn’t new behavior, but I was becoming more aware of what I was doing.
“Sarah,” therapist said, leaning toward me a bit, “it sounds like he’s doing the bare minimum. Don’t sell yourself short.”
After each failed relationship, I’d promise myself I’d take time to be alone. To really enjoy singlehood for a minute. “I’m done with men,” I’d tell my friends, and they would always support me. “That’s good!” they’d say, or, “Totally. Maybe some alone time is just what you need.” Then, a week later, I’d be back on a dating app, telling my friends, “I met a guy named Mike. He’s so sweeet, look at this text he sent me.”
I hated how easily my emotions could change because of someone else. I hated that I needed male approval so badly. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always needed it,” I told my therapist. “Male approval, that is. From my coaches, my bosses, my teachers, the men I date.” I didn’t say it, but I wanted his approval too. He was my first male therapist, and he was hands down my favorite. I wondered if I preferred him because he was good at his job, or because he was a man. I couldn’t say.
I was crying now, tears quietly running down my cheeks. Therapist was watching me close. I was holding my breath. My silent cry eventually burst, and I had to breathe. I took one of those long, hard gasps of air that sounds like mixture of grunt and scream.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said.
“I think you do,” therapist answered, “and you need to know that it’s okay to cry. Nobody is going to punish you for feeling things.”
I suppose that was a big turning point for me, the moment I stopped judging myself for all my mistakes and off-putting behavior. I was a big feeler. I always had been, and that was okay. My big feelings may have been misunderstood for drama or petulance when I was young, but I was learning understand myself better. It wasn’t easy, though.
“This is all so exhausting,” I said.
“That’s how we know it’s working,” therapist answered.
Just because I’m aware of some of my unhealthy behaviors or self-destructive tendencies doesn’t mean that I don’t still engage in them, sometimes. But as more time passes, I’m better able to recognize them and nip them in the bud.
Months after I ended my engagement, I went on a date with a trumpet player. He seemed funny and smart over text, but when I met him in person, my infatuation dwindled. He talked about himself too much. He wasn’t a good listener. I felt as if he could have been talking to anyone—he just wanted someone there to listen. Maybe he was lonely. Maybe I was too good at being a chameleon. Maybe I was becoming a ghost.
We had dinner and an old fashioned. We walked his dog. He invited me inside, and I said, “I better go home.”
“Just for a minute,” he answered.
I found myself on his couch listening to him talk about trumpets and orchestras and students. His hands found their way up my bare thighs. Eventually, his mouth found mine. My body wanted intimacy, but I didn’t want it with him. Either way, I didn’t say no when he pulled out a condom. I didn’t say no when he entered my body. My body wasn’t saying no either, but my brain didn’t want this. My brain knew this was a bad idea—not the intimacy necessarily, but the intimacy with him, in this way, on this night, when I didn’t feel heard or understood. I didn’t want to give myself to him in this way, and yet, I couldn’t say no. I knew I should say no. But, and this is a big but, I was scared. Not that he would hurt me physically, but that he might be angry or dislike me. My desire for approval was so deep that I shunned all my needs to please him, and I didn’t even know him.
After it was over, we cuddled for a few minutes, my hair splayed on his chest, his low voice droning on and on about everything and nothing. How asinine. I cried as I drove home, a rare, Southern CA rainstorm spotting my windshield. I didn’t see him again, and I didn’t want to.
But after that day, I promised myself not to sleep with anyone on a first date ever again, for no other reason than I needed to practice setting boundaries, and this was a relatively easy one to set. Boundaries around our bodies are important, but I was never explicitly taught that, and I was never taught how to set them. I wonder how many men and women, boys and girls, are just like I was—walking around with soft, squishy boundaries. Allowing input from other people to determine their thoughts and actions. Putting the happiness and comfort of others ahead of their own happiness, or even safety.
More than a year after I met the trumpet player, I went on a date with a marine. He offered to pick me up, and I said no. After a relatively mundane dinner, he walked me to my motorcycle and leaned in for a kiss. I didn’t want to kiss him, so I turned my cheek. He leaned in again, and I turned my head the opposite direction.
“What, you don’t want to kiss me?” he said.
“No, I don’t.” I answered. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t.” I felt a bit scared and uncertain, but I also felt annoyed and self-protective. Part of blossoming into adulthood is understanding that sometimes, nobody is around to protect you. You must protect yourself and guard your heart ruthlessly.
Me saying no though, made him angry.
“Did you just want a free meal?!” he said, “God, I’m so sick of this!” It was dark, and the parking lot was empty. I took a step toward my bike, “Thank you so much,” I said, “really, it was lovely to meet you.”
I put the key in the ignition, letting my bike warm up a bit. He was still standing there, staring at me. From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple walking by. “Hi!” I said cheerily to them, waving as if I knew them. The woman smiled back, waved, and said, “Hi hun! How’ve you been?” She took her partners hand and the couple stopped walking. The marine broke his gaze, “Sure,” he said, turning away, “Take care.” And he left, heading toward the other end of the parking lot where his car was parked. The couple walked toward me, the woman lowering her voice, “Are you okay?” she said. I nodded, a knot forming in my chest. “Thank you,” I whispered.
The man spoke up, “Do you know him?” I shook my head, then realized I did, sort of, know him. “I just met him tonight, we just had our first date.” The couple watched the marine drive away. “Thank you,” I said, “really. He was making me uncomfortable.”
“We’re going to watch you leave,” the man said. “Drive safe, okay? Nice bike, by the way.”
I got on my bike, wiping condensation from the visor of my helmet. “Thank you,” I said again. “Really.”
I felt like I should say something more, but I didn’t know what. Another part of growing up is realizing that even when you try to protect yourself, bad people still exist. And, there are many more good people in the world, who are more than happy to help.
As I drove home, my anxiety melted into pride. I was proud that I’d set a boundary and kept it. I was pleased that I hadn’t appeased him, like I had so many times before.
When we find things about ourselves that we don’t like, it can feel difficult to untangle the why-what-when-where-how. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Some of them have hurt me greatly. Some have hurt others. There is no easy way to recalibrate your life, and sometimes, no apparent reason why. I have changed so much in a few short years, and most of that change has been good. I hope you are growing and changing, too. I hope you’re shedding old habits and nurturing new hopes. I hope you’re chasing your dreams and defining life on your own terms, setting boundaries and letting strangers help you.
P.S. Watch this Ted Talk about setting boundaries, read this article about boundaries or read Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life.