when boundaries become harmful
I’ve realized over the last few months that these walls I’ve built — these boundaries I’ve put in place between me and others — have served their purpose well… Maybe too well. They’ve allowed me to separate myself from other people’s perceptions of me, but they’re also keeping me emotionally distant from the people I love and the people I want to be known by. They’ve become all-or-nothing, as is so characteristic of someone like me (someone with OCD). In order for me to heal and actually become my own person with an identity and worth, I had to put those boundaries in place. But they have no doors, no windows, no cracks. No way in. My feelings and thoughts and ideas are mine and no one else’s, and someone else’s perception of me is examined and usually dismissed, because that’s how I got well and have stayed healthy. That’s how I’ve survived. But isn’t there a healthy level of self-reflection that we all need that comes from someone who sees us differently than we see ourselves? Shouldn’t I constantly be examining my ideas about myself to become a better person? Shouldn’t I actually consider someone else’s perception before I discard it?
My therapist and I have been discussing perception a lot lately. How does perception translate to reality, if at all? Whose perception is “right”, the one that determines the narrative? How can I not take on other people’s perceptions of me as fact and let them inform my self image? How does perception function in a therapeutic relationship, where there is an inherent power dynamic? If my therapist perceives me as “crazy”, does that make me crazy because HE is the therapist? We all know crazy is a loaded word, and it’s a word I don’t like, condone, or identify with. But somewhere in the deepest recesses of my mind, that’s still my biggest fear. To be branded as “crazy”.
For most of my life, I haven’t had healthy boundaries. Other people’s perceptions of me were the true ones, the RIGHT ones just by virtue of the fact that they weren’t mine. I grew up being told and even knowing that the way I experienced the world was wrong. Although I know enough now to know that my experience wasn’t wrong — maybe just a little unusual. But for me, different or unusual equated to wrong, and that was something to be hated and eradicated. So when a family member or a boyfriend or a friend would say that I’m unstable because of my perception of the world around me, I agreed with them. I became that, I lived that every day. All of the forms of love I knew felt conditional. You tell me that I have to get it together for someone to love me? I agree with you. You tell me that I’m too much? Right there with you, I can barely even stand myself. I want to be less. You tell me that I’ll never be a functioning adult? I know, I should really just give up already. And trust me, the thoughts playing on an endless loop in my head were infinitely worse than anything you could have thrown at me.
Therapy has helped my thought patterns change, but they’ve swung kind of far in the other direction. I don’t allow people in because that’s how I’ve learned to maintain my boundaries, to find my identity, to say “this is who I am and your opinion of me won’t change that”. I know that isn’t healthy either. There has to be a middle ground in which I can take someone else’s opinion or perception of me, evaluate it, and incorporate it into my experience of myself.
I don’t think I realized how much of a problem this was for me until recently. My last therapist went on maternity leave in early 2017 and found me a new therapist to see locally while she was out (since moving away from San Francisco, we’ve talked on the phone every week). Through the course of seeing someone new in person, I realized that phone therapy wasn’t working for me anymore. It didn’t require enough of my focus, and I often found myself folding laundry while on the phone with her or find my mind wandering because a phone call didn’t really require me to be fully engaged. But anyways, in our last session together before permanently transitioning to the new therapist, she told me that she was often afraid to challenge my thoughts because she was afraid I’d just walk out (or hang up, as the case may be) if she said something I didn’t like. She said she often felt pressure to agree with me because she was afraid of my reaction. This is someone I deeply trusted and had a long relationship with, and she never told me that until our relationship was ending. I felt like her perception of me was that I’m a bully, and I never even knew it. To be fair, I was never given the chance to know it, but how could our perceptions be so far apart? How could I have not known that she felt that way? Do I come across that way to everyone and I’m the only one unaware of that? Has everyone just been to afraid to tell me? I consider myself a very empathetic, selfless, and kind person. Yep, I’ve got a strong personality and I have beliefs and principles that I can’t compromise on, but I’ve never (ever) thought of myself as a bully.
I told myself it didn’t bother me, that I know that’s not who I am so I can discard her perception of me as flawed or incomplete. But the more my new therapist poked at the issue, the more I realized how much it truly did bother me and how inflexible my boundaries have made me. I haven’t allowed for the possibility that there isn’t always a right and a wrong. Our perceptions can both exist without either of us being wrong. I realized how much I’ve felt unable to trust anyone and how much I’ve felt unable to trust myself. Because all of my relationships in the past have felt so conditional and fragile, I’ve never been able to trust anyone to love me, and I’ve never trusted myself to let them. If I want to be in relationship with others, I have to make my boundaries more permeable or flexible. I have to be able to take in people’s “I noticed that…” and really examine them to see if they have merit.
My attitude attitude of self-reliance has invaded all areas of my life. I make a decision and then tell others about the decision; I never ask for or want their advice, because I used to let other people’s advice sway me into making decisions that didn’t feel right to me. I trusted others over trusting myself, and that only led me to the darkest places. So I’ve learned to put everyone at arm’s length. I give people outs. “If this is too hard” or “I know you didn’t sign up for this” or “If this is too much, I’ll understand”. I’ve tried really hard to convince myself that I don’t need anyone.
I’ve been realizing this more and more recently as I’ve entered into a relationship with someone who loves me unconditionally and treats me well. It’s a foreign, very disorienting experience. I feel like I’m holding my breath, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But I know I’m not the person who wants an easy out. I’m a thick-and-thin partner and friend, but I can’t bring myself to expect that of others. Why can’t I believe that there are other people like me out there? What will it take for me to truly trust someone? I don’t want him to feel like he is constantly having to prove himself to me, because that’s how I’ve felt for most of my life and I know how much harm it brings. I know how unfair that is. There are going to be times where I disappoint him and he disappoints me. There is no getting around that, unless I never to have any friendships or relationships for the rest of my life. And that’s the exact opposite of what I want.
So how to I start to let people in? How do I start to learn to trust? I’ve already recognized that this is an issue for me, and that it has the potential to harm this new relationship. Every time I give him an out, he says “I wish you’d stop saying stuff like that. I’m not going anywhere”. I’m going to start by not giving him an out anymore. Relationships are hard, they take work, but he has shown me that he’s not going to run. So I should stop expecting him to, because if that’s my expectation, that’ll just turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eventually he’ll take that out because he’ll know I don’t trust him. And how can you be in a relationship with someone you don’t trust? You can’t. So I’ve got to learn to trust.