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Boundaries Strategy: What Would X Do?

Back in August 2005 when I had my major epiphany and was given a poor prognosis, seeing how compliant I had been with others and how I’d effectively been asleep on the job, forced me to see people around me and the concept of boundaries very differently.

I’d always operated from the position of wounded child Nat who didn’t want to displease, disappoint, or experience rejection, but looking not just at my friends and colleagues but also my family and exes (the people I had the worst boundaries with), the blinders were lifted by a shocking realisation:

All of these people had boundaries.

They all had limits and they all most definitely said and showed no. Some were like me and pleasers but I could certainly pinpoint instances where they most definitely had boundaries. It would have been easy to home in solely on their interactions with me but I had to remember: It’s not all about me. Instead, I considered them in a wider context and the realisations shook me.

Here I was effectively being a doormat and living life in fear of reprisals if I didn’t comply with all of my rules and expectations regarding unfavourable outcomes, only for these people to have ‘No’ in their vocabulary and in their actions. No wonder I felt shortchanged! I was living with a code of conduct that had no application to real life, not least because my expectations were based on trying to control the uncontrollable.

The people who I loved and respected had boundaries with me and with others, some to lesser and greater degrees. For instance, many of my friends have issues with one or both parents or just have a less than Brady Bunch family (which is ironic as I used to feel mortally ashamed of my own background and upbringing) and yet they had boundaries in other areas of their lives or even had boundaries with their parents at that point in their lives.

The passive aggressive and aggressive people in my life also had boundaries albeit the former were covert about it and the latter were a mix of covert and forceful.

When I thought about what the people who I loved, respected, and who had boundaries would do, and I also considered what the passive aggressive and aggressive folk would do, I realised that I would rather be in the other camp and that at times, my boundary issues had resulted in unhealthy behaviour that belonged to the latter camp.

In situations where I needed to step up for me, I had a bit of a game going:

  1. What would Old Nat do?
  2. What would ___________ (somebody who loved, respected, and had healthy boundaries) do?
  3. What would my mother do? (I had poor boundaries with her and she had boundary issues but still did show or say no, albeit not necessarily in a healthy manner)
  4. What will I (true Nat who is trying to live more healthily) do now?

What #2 taught me is that I respected and still respect people who know who they are and who also know their limits.

That’s important because it dismantles this idea that boundaries are this ‘terrible’ thing. It stops a double standard from existing plus, you can recognise where you're getting mad at people for actually knowing their own line and feeling that because you don't, that they should be that much more willing to put themselves out to the same degree.

These people, like me, do not get the whole boundaries thing ‘right’ all of the time (no one does) but they have boundaries and like them and respect them. When things go awry, even if it takes some time for the understanding to come, they eventually listen and learn. These people loved and respected me so I was either making them out to be mugs for caring about me (even when I didn’t care about myself) or maybe it was time to start seeing it myself and treating me in a decent way.

I've mentioned this before on the course but it's worth mentioning again - assertive and respectful people in your life will not seek to enjoy benefits that come about as a result of you not knowing your line. They might point out where you need to step up (which may be annoying at the time) but it's because they actually care about you and want you to care about you too. They don't want to cross your line.

The key to being authentic with boundaries is not about trying to be somebody that you’re not – it’s using the information from understanding what others do to ensure that you’re being authentic with your next move (what you do with the boundary, i.e whether you have an active response).

As an example: Nat starts dating a guy and after a few weeks, the blowing hot and cold begins and suddenly things are very ambiguous.

1. Old Nat would up the ante because she would assume that her flaws had scared him off and made him unavailable. The self-doubt would kick in and she’d convince herself that she was now crazy about him. She wouldn’t ask what was going on or see it for what it was and end it; she’d automatically go into auditioning and convincing mode.

2. My friend Fiona would stop engaging and not so that she can coerce him into doing what she wants but because she doesn’t believe that the sun rises and sets on guys. She's not prepared to be with a guy who only seems to be interested when he's in danger of losing her or is looking for an ego stroke.

3. My mother would likely back off and then try to switch the powerbase. Then she’d go into pleaser mode and once she felt like things were secure, she’d feel pissed off and switch to passive aggressive / aggressive to get him out of her life or to at the very least, teach him a lesson.

4. New Nat checks in with herself and realises that she’s had some fun but that it’s not the end of the world that he’s backing off. She does call him up (at that point I would likely have still wanted to have a say) and he denies that there’s anything weird going on and then backs off again. She doesn’t reach out and when he attempts to get in touch, she doesn’t reply.

Note: I haven’t lost any friends in the 9.5 years since I left the doctors office and began making changes as a result of reclaiming myself. Sure, there are friends that I'm not as tight with anymore but it's got jack all to do with having higher self-esteem.

There are times when my mother has stopped talking to me and yes, I did have boundaries on those occasions but the boundaries were not the reason for the fallouts and I realised that these problems would happen whether I had boundaries or not. The difference is that with boundaries, there was a healthy boundary between us both and I could distinguish between the two of us instead of seeing me as an extension of her.

My father hasn’t really spoken to me since our wedding and truth be told, after 35 years of chasing him around before the wedding and always making the overtures, I’ve decided to stop. Yes me having boundaries hasn’t gone down well but again, boundaries are not the cause of our fallout.

Boundaries have been nothing but beneficial professionally – I still need to actively work on it including with my own self-discipline. Occasionally people get annoyed with me because I won’t do something or because I’ve imposed a limit – 9/10 the person apologises or at the very least acknowledges that I am more than within my right to do so.

You will feel a lot better about you and feel less owed and even resentful, when you start operating with intention and using healthy boundaries to express your self-esteem. Use them to guide and direct people on what is and isn't permissable because you know what? If you don't, other people will end up inadvertently deciding for you and you can't co-pilot any relationship if you don't show up.

What Would X Do? is a means of role playing. It makes you aware of your present state and the conditions of the actual situation as well as what a more assertive person would do and what the passive aggressive and aggressive alternatives are.

You have four options. Pick the one that will leave you with your self-esteem and integrity intact.

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