How I Learned to Have Boundaries
I used to have a hard time saying no. And being direct about what I wanted.
I often found myself accommodating others, doing things I didn’t want to do. This would lead to lingering resentment, and if it persisted, an explosion of blame and victimization.
If I finally confronted someone the response was usually, “Well, why didn’t you say something?!”
It’s a good point. People are not mind readers, nor should we expect them to be.
Why didn’t I say something? What was stopping me from speaking my truth, stating clearly what I wanted or didn’t want?
For me, the explanation came when I read John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory and realized my pattern of self-denial started early in life.
Bowlby believes primate infants have an evolutionary instinct to form attachment bonds with their primary caregiver. Young children are vulnerable and helpless. Staying connected, in proximity, and in favor with their caregiver is paramount for survival.
But not all caregivers are the same. Children intuitively adapt to their circumstances, adopting and emphasizing behavior that facilitates attachment and eliminating behavior that threatens it.
Just as a tree bends to find the light, so do we shape ourselves to optimize our survival.
At twenty-seven, my mother was single with two young children, working as a waitress, and far away from the support of her family. I was a precocious, strong-willed child. I would scream if I wanted something and stubbornly refuse anything I didn’t want. There were times, overwhelmed, my mother just couldn’t handle me. She’d explode in anger, out of control. It was scary. And in those moments I felt the untenable threat of disconnection from her.
And so I adapted. I became a good boy, compliant, sensitive to her needs.
It worked. I found I could manage her moods and stay in her good graces, creating the safety and security I was longing for. And I was rewarded with love, praise, and attention.
The lesson I learned and internalized was that connection and love require me to prioritize the needs of others while denying my own.
This paradigm was the perfect strategy for the circumstances of my childhood, but when I carried it into my adult relationships, it was a disaster.
It wasn’t just that I was unable to ask for what I needed — a fundamental skill for healthy relationship s— it’s that I wouldn’t allow myself to know I even had needs! I’d buried them long ago, shaming them, denying they ever existed.
But they did exist, and the only way I knew to get them met was by taking care of others and hoping they’d return the favor — without me asking, of course. If they didn’t, or didn’t do it the way I wanted, I’d find a way to punish them for it.
It was a painful and frustrating cycle, leaving me unfulfilled, disconnected, and lonely.
It was only when I became conscious of my childhood conditioning that I began to unravel this pattern.
It started by acknowledging that it was okay to ask for what I wanted. That sounds simple, but to my inner child, expressing my needs was wrong and humiliating. It took time to reframe this perception; but with practice and awareness, I learned that being clear and direct, without demand, was a virtue. It empowered me, bringing more truth to my relationships, romantic or otherwise.
I also had to learn that it was okay to say no. As a child, asserting my boundaries risked reprisal. I projected that fear onto my adult relationships, unconsciously believing that my desire for personal agency was wrong, selfish, a threat to the relationship, and so not worth the cost.
This self-betrayal was the source of much suffering and confusion. I didn’t know how to be in relationship without abandoning myself. And so, of course, I avoided relationship.
I’m still learning to be clear and direct with my boundaries. Old habits die hard. But I’ve learned that I when I speak my truth, with integrity, it almost always leads to deeper connection and intimacy. People know where I stand, what I think, what’s okay and not okay for me. This builds safety and trust.
And if people do react negatively, that’s okay. Unlike the child, unable to feel the pain of disconnection, the adult can tolerate disapproval, disappointment, or loss, without the need to demonize the other.
None of this is easy, of course. Undoing our conditioning takes time, awareness, and patience. It’s work to change old patterns and establish a new skill. But once you do, you’ll feel the freedom and power of being in relationship and being all of who you are. And in doing so, you’ll give others permission do the same.