My husband and I were talking for hours this morning about some current relationship stresses I’ve been feeling. Unfortunately, this is nothing new — it seems as if I always have relationship stress with just about everyone. It’s long been puzzling to me that, although I value the health and happiness of my relationships above all else, I have so many burnt bridges behind me. I try so hard, but feel as if I more often leave relationship ruin in my wake. WHY?
As Kyle put it: “Boundaries are your superpower. You see and feel the violation of them (for yourself and others) where most people don’t. It’s a great gift to be a strong, boundaried person … but it’s also your weak point.”
Like all learning and growth, I feel as if together we analyzed ourselves back to a place we’ve been before, but on a deeper level of understanding: strong boundaries are my kryptonite because I’ve historically taken it so personally when others don’t share them.
When I look back on my college experience, grad school, my truncated year in Germany on a Fulbright Grant, past employment, and numerous friendships the pattern starts to emerge: 1) I felt my boundaries were violated 2) I took it personally, thinking the other person was willfully harming me and otherwise wished me ill 3) I precipitated confrontation as graciously and skillfully as I knew how 4) Everything blew up in my face.
What has previously troubled me when I’ve tried to make sense of my destroyed relationships was that I would come to the conclusion “So, I’m just not to have expectations and other boundaries? That way, I won’t be hurt or disappointed? … But I can’t do that.” And I’d feel at a total loss as to what I could change so as to break the pattern.
I realize now that a HUGE part of my chronic issue is that I would get stuck in a blame & shame game: I wanted someone to be at fault for the nasty stuff happening, and, of course, I didn’t want it to be me! So, that’s where the taking things personally comes into play.
Instead of unemotionally saying “Hey, this situation is working out to be different from what I expected — not your fault, not mine — and I’m not feeling like we’re a comfortable fit. So, I’m going to go my own way now and I wish you well!” I would feel as if the world was against me — others wanted me to fail, to suffer, and concentrated their efforts to make that happen (a very ego-centric way of thinking) and they needed to be called out on it because boundaries are my superpower and I’m not putting up with this crappy treatment!
I’m still all for having solid boundaries — knowing who you are (and aren’t), what you want (and don’t), what treatment you’ll accept (and won’t).
But now I want to learn (I hope relatively quickly) how to not feel so darn offended when someone treats me other than how I want. People can’t read my mind and everyone has a very different idea of acceptable boundaries anyway. I want to better learn how to give others little bits of kind feedback on how I want to be treated (ideally receiving the same sort of info from them so that our relationship can truly grow) and if that repeatedly doesn’t work, I want to just stoically say “OK, this isn’t working out — no big deal — and I’m going to re-prioritize” (and hope *they* don’t take it personally … but not making it my problem if they do [boundaries, ya know!]). I want to get away from all my assumptions that other people see the world the way I do and want the same things.
How different could things have been for me if, during grad school, I had still been honest with myself (“I’m not happy here”) but instead of taking it personally — as if my professors and everyone else were intentionally making me miserable for the sheer glee of it — I had just had the courage say ‘thanks, but no thanks and goodbye!’?
Or what if, while in Germany on the Fulbright Grant I had first tried harder to gently steer things in the direction I’d wanted and then, if that still didn’t work, had also just said “Despite everything you’ve done — and I’m grateful — I’m not feeling like a good fit here and I’ve decided that I need to leave; I apologize for the inconvenience. Lebt wohl!”
Instead, in these instances — and pretty much all the rest — I tried too long, and especially too hard, to change the other person(s) involved. Why? Because I was taking it personally that they were different from me — different thoughts, feelings, perspectives, values, and goals. And that felt wrong. They were wrong (i.e. to blame — for shame!).
Maybe part of it is also an entitlement complex issue? That I felt owed my master’s degree or my dream Fulbright experience because of the work I had already put in or simply because of how I had built it up in my head? Or maybe that’s just pure cost aversion at work? I didn’t want to ‘fail’ at something that seemed objectively important, but was probably not subjectively important (otherwise I would have been more flexible and less confrontational?)
Although the basic (yet oh-so-difficult) nugget of truth “don’t take things personally” resonates with me a lot, even more so I like the idea of trying trying trying to get it through my thick head that I can’t change other people. The second that I recognize that’s what I’m wanting, I need to step back and re-evaluate.
Granted, this isn’t going to be simple (what worthwhile thing is?) because both parties in any healthy relationship do receive influence from each other. It will be a huge challenge to me to gradually figure out where to draw the lines (i.e. boundaries) between how much (or which) of my influences need to be received in order for me to feel good about the relationship and which differences can I accept. It’s hard to not envy people who don’t struggle in this arena — determining stuff like this keeps me up at night.
- I need to learn how to pick my battles more carefully.
- I need to learn how to appreciate that lots of people actually respect my advice a lot of time on many topics and that it’s more than OK that no one follows the Laura Bible 100% of the time (gracious!).
- I need to not erect ironwalled boundaries the first time someone really hurts me — I need to learn how to give some second chances.
- I need to learn how to still warmly connect with someone when we disagree — i.e. not feel defensive because I feel rejected because my ideas have been rejected.
- That said, I need to learn how to separate (at least on some level) people — including myself — from their ideas/beliefs.
- I need to learn that when people persist in differing from me, it’s not with the intention of us thus not being able to be so close — no one is trying to shut me out by having different values or opinions!
- I need to learn that a relationship can still be safe and secure even where there are a lot of differences, maybe even big ones (I’ll get back to you on that one).
- I need to conquer this aspect of my perfectionism that causes me such distress when there is disagreement between me and someone else — I don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ and perhaps there is not such thing (at least not in a lot of categories — I’ll get back to you on that one, too).
- I need to become less terrified of being wrong about something and taking that as a reflection of some flaw in me — there is no shame is finding that grad school or a Fulbright grant or a given relationship isn’t your thing. There is no shame in getting out and moving onto to something else that is better for you. Quitting isn’t failure — if you’re quitting the wrong things so you are free to start the right things, that’s success!
My next challenges to myself are to reach out to a handful of specific people with whom I have rocky, but not unsalvageable relationships, and experiment with still sharing/confiding in them — especially in subject matters I’ve been avoiding — yet without any expectation that if I say the right thing (<– what I believe, oooobviously) in the right way, they will change their minds and we will thus have a deeper relationship because we agree. I need to open myself to trusting more and guarding less.
Wish me luck!