I’ve been dwelling a lot recently on the connection between holding firm to our personal boundaries, and the negative energy that can sometimes come with it.
We talk a lot here about the importance of defining, articulating, and holding firm to our boundaries. We’ve dug into what it looks like to find our outer limits, when to say no, and even the importance of embracing inflexibility when it means protecting our own well-being.
And through one lens, these things might look and feel liberating and empowering. (That’s the goal!) But through another, that same list of ideas can feel rigid, negative, or even standoffish and defensive. Say ‘no’ more often. Defend your boundaries. Be aware of when you’re not feeling respected or nourished, and be prepared to fight to fix it.
Recently, I was driving downtown to a meeting, and my mind started wandering. As I sat stagnant in the DC gridlock, I slowly became aware of some quiet, salty feelings that were bubbling up somewhere within me. I sat there making a mental tally of all my contributions to one particular relationship, and I could see them all with laser-sharp focus. It was by no means my proudest moment, but I sat there smugly, quietly rattling off a list to myself of the ways in which I was pulling my weight. All the ways I was ‘unfairly’ doing more than my fair share, or going above and beyond, or putting in (what I was sure was) more effort.
The fact is – and I think we can all identify with this – it’s easy to focus on all the things we are contributing to a relationship, to the point that it can start to feel one-sided, and breed resentment.
It was a gross place to be, and as soon as I recognized what I was doing, I started coming down on myself for it. Why am I being so negative? When did I get this way? And if setting boundaries in our relationships and standing our ground is healthy, why does this feel terrible?
The more I chewed on it, the clearer it became why I felt so uncomfortable: dwelling on the negative, and finding reasons to pit myself against the people I love is precisely the opposite of how I want to feel in my relationships. As naturally soft and empathetic people, we share an impulse to give, to help, to share, and to connect. This moment in traffic, on the other hand, felt like the grumbly, disconnected opposite of the harmony and connectedness I aim for in my relationships.
But! I don’t want to completely abandon my newfound willingness to speak up and give voice to my concerns, either. And I don’t want to fall back into a habit of silently swallowing the urge to speak up when my needs aren’t being met, when I really am giving more than my fair share, or when I’m stretched too thin. I’m not willing to go back to a place where ‘taking one for the team’ was my way of life, purely because discord or uncomfortable conversations felt like a worse alternative.
I sat there, fully recognizing the importance of being both generous and firm in my relationships - but why did it feel like those two things were in direct conflict with each other?
That’s when it occurred to me: finding a healthy sweet-spot between two extremes is a process – one that involves swinging like a pendulum, a little too far in one direction and then the other, until we start to find balance.
We might first start in a place where we’re giving too much.
We are naturally big-hearted, intrinsically compassionate people, born with the big, beautiful understanding of what it means to step into someone else’s point of view, and how to elevate someone else’s perspective above our own. We know what it means to be generous, thoughtful, and willing to bend in the name of helping someone else. It’s in our DNA, and we often do it so naturally that we fail to notice an imbalance of the emotional labor where it exists. Meanwhile, we may notice we feel emotionally stretched and exhausted – we just aren’t always sure why.
Then we have our awakening.
We recognize that tendency in ourselves to give too much, to stretch ourselves too thin, and how it eats away at our center and our sense of self. And so, we start to overcompensate in the other direction. We learn what it means to be fiercely protective of our time, our energy, our right to not-have-to just to please someone else. We develop a keen eye for balance. Tit for tat, give and take, saving some for ourselves. Slowly, everything becomes a question of, "am I pulling more than my weight again? Am I being taken advantage of? Should I be standing up for myself here?"
But that's not where we want to land, either.
We don’t want to feel like a doormat: but if we constantly tell ourselves we’re being wronged, we risk becoming so focused on fighting back that we forget how to give, and love, and connect. Moving between these extremes is all part of the process.
It’s natural to swing toward a more defensive, or otherwise negative mindset as we start to awaken to the things we need and what it means to use our voice and our strength. I’d challenge you to give yourself permission to swing through that phase, without beating yourself up, and with a promise to yourself that you won’t get stuck there. Because while it can be tempting to dig into the ways we feel we’re being ‘wronged’, clinging to negativity and making it the focal point of our lives is bound to get in the way of building the kinds of rich, loving, connected relationships that we are so equipped and wired to have.
Recognize what’s unfair; feel the defiance; notice what upsets you, and honor it; then release the anger, and see what happens if you let yourself swing back the other way.
Because the truth is, you will level out eventually – and this is where the part about hanging onto your softness while discovering your strength comes back into play. It's all about finding that place in the center of our being where a balance is possible, and we have to be gentle with ourselves as we figure out how to be equally committed to firm boundaries and fierce compassion.
And it's natural to dip in and out of that clarity as we find our way, and to experience fleeting glimmers of that wholeness as we move from one headspace to the other. But trust that the swings in either direction will gradually become less extreme, until eventually, they level out and ease us into a place of our natural equilibrium.