Posts Tagged ‘boundaries’

I write a lot about friendship.

A few days ago I saw someone share an article about friendship, and someone else responded to their post by saying that this was literally the first article about friendship they’d ever read. This made me feel good that I’m already writing about it, and also sad there is a relative dearth of information and thought about friendship out there.

When I write about boundaries and friendships, I know some of you are wondering what kinds of boundaries are common to need to set in the context of friendship. I think this varies a lot from person to person and from friendship to friendship, but I do have some general thoughts on what I look for in my friends and what kinds of boundaries sometimes come up.

Kinds of issues that come up in friendships that sometimes require boundary setting/enforcing:

  • Responding to invitations
  • Responding to favor requests
  • Having to cancel plans due to illness or emergency
  • Arranging logistics (including scheduling, timing, transport, choosing restaurants, choosing activities, issues of payment)
  • Addressing mobility/health issues
  • Asking for empathy instead of advice
  • Negotiating the flow of the house guest (either being one or hosting one)
  • Figuring out frequency of communication/visits, response time, safeguarding work time, etc.
  • Seeking safe spaces at public (or semi-public) events
  • Dealing with problematic behavior in communities and friend groups
  • Responding to sexual requests
  • Responding to peer pressure
  • Asking for and giving emotional support
  • Speaking up on issues of social justice
  • Asking for consideration
  • Taking someone into your confidence

I’ll be honest for you: I look for friends who don’t need much boundary enforcing because that’s the part I find the most difficult and tiring. I can often set a boundary now, especially if I have a little time to consider, but enforcing it against push-back wears me out extremely fast. And no wonder. Boundary enforcing means your boundary has already been crossed (or is not being taken seriously after being stated), and it often involves hurt feelings, or at the very least disappointment, especially if it’s a repetitive issue. So it’s much easier to reach a point of diminishing returns if you’re having to enforce regularly. (Also, one way of enforcing is to introduce space into the friendship, and if you have to introduce enough space, you’re not interacting much with that person anymore anyway, so selecting for low levels of enforcement tends to happen at least somewhat organically.)

I look for friends to whom I can say no. Sometimes that will be no to a favor, and sometimes that will be no to an invitation. In an ideal world, I could say yes to everything, but the reality is that I have lots of commitments to fulfill, as does any adult: in my case, to my work, to my own physical and mental well-being, to my dog, to my boyfriend, etc. I have idiosyncracies to work around for maximum well-being, like my general dislike of driving too much, especially in traffic, and my sleep issues. I have budgetary restraints. I get sick and injured. All of these things mean that sometimes I have to say no, and I look for friends who will understand that it’s not personal and that I would help them or hang out with them if I could.

I look for friends who will make a commensurate effort. This doesn’t have to be equal in an obvious sense: for example, I have friends who always come over to my place and other friends who I always visit at their places, and as long as everyone is cool with that, it works fine. But both people have to be willing to find time for each other and to care about how the other person is doing. And both people have to be getting some of their friendship needs met.

I look for friends who are generally kind. I used to think, oh, it’s okay if my friend is sort of an asshole, as long as they treat me well. But I’m not as on board with that line of thinking anymore because it’s so easy for that kind of behavior to eventually spread out to include you. Obviously no one is perfect, but I think kindness is probably the most important trait I look for in friends.

And in that vein, my closest friends are generally pretty good at empathy. I become closest to people with whom I can be honest and genuine about myself and my life without fear of judgment, with whom I can share openly and who will share openly with me, who can listen well, and where there is interest and care on both sides.

Finally, one of the great part about friendships I’ve learned while negotiating these things is that they can be flexible. They do not need to be all things, all at once. While my closest friendships are usually built on empathy, I also have great friendships based upon a shared interest (shocking, I know!) and great friendships based on compatible senses of humor. I have friends who I get to see one-on-one and friends that I almost always see in groups. I have friends who I talk to all the time and friends I only get to see once a year. I have friends who I don’t ask for certain things because I know they cannot give them to me, and I appreciate what they do bring to the friendship and ask for those other things elsewhere.

I used to think friendship came in one certain mold, but in learning the many ways friendship can present itself, I’ve found a lot more interest and connection with the world. I thought by setting boundaries I’d be limiting myself, but instead my boundaries allow me to be more present and more accepting of who my friends are.

Even myself. Maybe especially myself.

Oh look, it's my best doggie friend.

Oh look, it’s my best doggie friend.

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Several months ago, a friend came up to me and said, “Hey, you know how you’re always writing about boundaries and stuff like that? I don’t really get what you’re talking about. That’s never come up in my life.” And I wasn’t surprised, because this friend has great boundaries and is one of my boundary role models, so boundary situations don’t come up very much in his life, and when they do, he doesn’t notice that’s what they are because he has healthy instincts and just, you know, sets boundaries and goes on with his life.

I remembered this conversation when I read the post The Asshole Filter, which is about how you can go about unconsciously arranging your life so you end up dealing with assholes a lot, even when you’re not an asshole yourself. (Warning: that post is yellow font on a purple background and causes my eyes some pain. It may or may not also cause your eyes pain. But it is super interesting.) Anyway, the post is mostly in the context of accidentally developing an asshole filter in an organizational context, but a lot of it is also true in an interpersonal context.

So, here is one way to unconsciously develop an asshole filter in your personal life:

You start out with poor skills at setting and enforcing personal boundaries, probably because your home life as a child was kind of dysfunctional.

Then, as an adult, you meet a random bunch of people. Some of these people are mostly great. Some of these people are mostly assholes. You might be starting out with a few assholes from childhood as well.

What happens next? Well, the assholes will be thrilled to know you. Meanwhile, some of the great people aren’t going to end up being very close to you because the fact you can’t set boundaries makes them uncomfortable. Others of the great people are going to watch you not dealing effectively with the assholes, and this is going to train them into acting more like assholes to you too, because they’re going to think that kind of behavior doesn’t bother you. Also, a lot of people are pretty great overall…except when they’re not met with firm boundaries, in which case everything gets really messy instead. (When boundaries aren’t clear, mess tends to result, even if all people involved are otherwise amazing.)

Finally, dealing with assholes takes up a lot of time and energy. A LOT. So you end up being exhausted all the time, and therefore you aren’t putting that time and energy into your relationships with the great people, because they don’t need that much maintenance, so they gradually drift away. And you become more and more tired, even while you keep making excuses for the bad behavior that seems to be becoming more prevalent and thinking that if you could only be more patient or more kind or more understanding or more [fill in the blank here], everything would improve drastically.

At some point, you maybe stop and look around you and realize your situation is really unfortunate. You might even realize the whole “it’s always all my fault and everything in the world is my responsibility” thing isn’t ever going to bear fruit. But at this point you are incredibly tired, and it kind of seems like everyone in the whole world sucks, or at the very least takes an awful lot of energy to deal with. All you want is to be less tired all of the time.

So then, acting in self-preservation, perhaps you begin to isolate yourself. Which, unfortunately, makes complete sense given the faulty assumptions the data seems to imply but is actually a terrible idea. Because then you are cutting off ways of ever figuring out that actually, there are some really great people out there. All you can see, at this point, are the assholes.

Dark night of the soul time.

Then, if you’re really lucky, the writing community steps up and shows you incontrovertible evidence that not everyone is an asshole. People are unexpectedly kind to you. You start working as hard as you can on learning how to set and enforce boundaries and begin building a community of people who care about you and are good for you.

And then your asshole filter starts working in the opposite direction, and life is infinitely better.

No assholes beyond this point. (Photo Credit: derekbruff via Compfight cc)

No assholes beyond this point. (Photo Credit: derekbruff via Compfight cc)

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A year ago I imagined a better life for myself.

I didn’t really believe it could happen, but I did believe it was what I wanted. So it was worth going all out for, even though I thought my efforts might very well end in failure.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as intensely social as I have been during the last year. I’ve been to so many parties and so many events, so many dances and movies and shows and luncheons and bruncheons and dinners and coffees and teas and outings. I’ve had the same small talk conversations maybe hundreds of times, and I’ve gone deeper whenever I saw the chance. I’ve spent time with hundreds of people, many of whom I’d never previously met.

I thought, I will find my people. I will find my balance. I will figure out what gives me joy and what does not. I thought, I will practice setting boundaries until it gets a little bit easier. I will practice saying no until that gets a little bit easier.

I thought, I will find the people who believe me and are patient with me and love me as I am. I will find the people who see me. I will find the people who make me feel safe, and I will love them with everything I have.

I thought, I know these people exist because I’ve already met a bunch of them. And I want to spend more time with the ones I’ve already met. And I want to meet more of them. And so that is what I’ll do, even though I kind of hate humanity right now and all I really want to do is wrap myself in a blanket and watch Pride and Prejudice over and over again. (The A&E miniseries version, if you really need to ask.) And maybe also Star Trek: The Next Generation because I’d just started watching that and it seemed like a good idea.

I thought, do the things you know you should do and be as hopeful as you can, and then if it all ends in misery, you will totally have an excuse to do something drastic like become a hermit or move to a foreign country or write angsty beat poetry.

And now a year has gone by, and it turns out it did NOT all end in misery. It turns out all those things I knew I should do were actually great ideas. It turns out all that social time resulted in me starting and/or continuing some fabulous friendships and feeling connected and getting a lot of practice and becoming more and more clear on what is important to me.

And now I am very happy with my friends and my communities and my boyfriend.

And I am also really freaking tired.

Nala is also tired.

Nala is also tired.

I get invited to large events where I’ll know hardly anyone, and I think, do I really have to go? And then I think, hahahaha, no, I do not! And that is very exciting for me. I look at the week ahead, and I know I should schedule-fu things up. And then I think, hahahaha, no, I can take things easy this week. And, you know, maybe wait for people to invite me. And in the meantime do an Orphan Black rewatch, because when is that not a good idea?

My sprained toe has forced me to take a slower pace, but once I realized that didn’t mean I’d be sitting around in enforced isolation for two months, it’s actually been kind of nice. Well, minus the pain and frustration and cabin fever, anyway. The slower pace has been nice. The reduced volume of small talk has been nice. The permission to focus more on self-care has been nice.

I’m so glad I made all the efforts I made, and they have paid off in spades. Enough so that now I can give myself a little break.

And soon I’ll be going on vacation, and it feels like the perfect time. But, more about that next week!

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I feel very protective of my close friends.

I forget this is true until one of them tells me a story of some awful thing someone else has done to them. And I don’t even have to think about it. I want to tell them how amazing they are and how much they don’t deserve that kind of behavior, and I want to listen to them vent if they think that will make them feel better, and I want to validate the hell out of them.

And I’m angry on their behalf. Much angrier than I would be if the same thing happened to me. And none of the weird delayed reaction anger either. I’m pretty much angry right away. Angry and sometimes indignant.

One time a close friend of mine called me up on the phone with this story of some really bizarre and inappropriate behavior of a mutual acquaintance of ours. And I realized this mutual acquaintance could, no doubt, use his access to me to make things even worse for my friend. And I knew the mutual acquaintance would have no qualms in doing so.

I decided then and there to let that mutual acquaintance go. It was one of the easiest interpersonal decisions ever. If there had been inappropriate behavior directed towards myself, I would have agonized over it, and wondered if I was being reasonable, and wondered if I needed to give some more benefits of the doubt, and worried about possible repercussions and burned bridges, and worried about what people would think, and wondered if it was somehow all my fault. But because it was about my friend, doing the right thing was easy. To this day, I think about the boundary I set with satisfaction and zero doubt.

This, then, is what it means to become your own best friend. It can be a powerful thought experiment. It is advocating for yourself the way you would advocate for your actual best friends. It is wanting for yourself the kind of respect and appropriateness you would want for your actual best friends. It is stopping and telling yourself the story of what’s going on right now as if the story was happening to your best friend instead of to you, and then noticing the difference in reaction and allowing that to guide you accordingly.

And it is also about learning to see and appreciate yourself the way your best friends see and appreciate you. I think my best friends are fabulous. I am blown away on a regular basis by all their good qualities, and I feel so lucky to know them and have them in my life. I love hearing about what they’re doing, their successes and their failures, their joys and their sorrows. I want them to be happy, of course, but when they are having a hard time, I see how courageous they are. I see how hard they’re trying. I see the risks they are taking. I see how deeply they feel and care. And I admire them so hard.

To be my own best friend, I need to admire myself that hard. To be my own best friend, I need to be blown away by my strengths, not only be bogged down by considering my weaknesses. To be my own best friend, I need to remember that my hard times don’t automatically reflect poorly on me.

To be my own best friend, I need to embrace the idea of being as protective of myself as I am of the other people I love.

One of my amazing besties!

One of my amazing besties!

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When I was getting divorced, I read a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since.

“A ten never marries a one.” Apparently a divorce lawyer delivered this line to Penelope Trunk, and then she blogged about it, and then years later I stumbled across it, and now it is burned into my brain.


A ten never marries a one. Let’s break this statement down, shall we? I don’t know what the divorce lawyer meant by it, but to me, this statement has nothing to do with actual numbers or a ranking system (ugh). It has nothing to do with particular traits or talents or some idea that people marry others who are exactly the same as they are.

No, to me, it simply means this: a relationship is made up of two people, and both people contribute to it. So when we look at a dysfunctional relationship, both people are contributing to the dysfunction. This does not excuse certain behaviors. It is not a value judgment, and it is not a statement of blame (although it can feel like one). It is simply a recognition that a dynamic takes two people to exist.

It is a harsh truth, and I took it to heart. In fact, I recall repeating it at inopportune moments to friends trying to console me. (Sorry, friends.) But while it might be painful, it is also a truth that restores agency. In being willing to take some responsibility, we can explore how we might act differently in the future.

And that is what I did. I asked myself some tough questions. I looked deep inside myself, and I tried not to flinch. In particular, I looked for my behaviors that were preventing me from getting what I wanted, and I looked for the cracks and old wounds that contributed to those behaviors. And then I began the slow process of trying to change.

This is incredibly tricky to do. Partly, this is because humans love our patterns, and we fall very easily into dynamics that feel comfortable. Mind you, they may not make us happy or help us fulfill our long-term goals. There is comfort in familiarity, even if it is a miserable comfort. As a result, we tend to repeat ourselves again and again.

And even if we’re watching for our patterns, they are not always obvious. Sometimes things can look very different on the surface, only to end up rubbing against the same old wound underneath.


So, this is a hard thing I’ve been working on. Totally possible, but also challenging. And I’ve learned a couple of things about myself during the process:

I learned it’s important that I know what I need. This means I had to figure out what it is I actually need versus what I thought I might need but it turned out wasn’t all that important. And I had to learn to accept what I need instead of feeling like I should be constantly apologizing for it.

I learned it’s important to be picky. I set out with the goal of being as picky as possible because I knew in the past I hadn’t been picky enough. My hope was by deliberately trying to be picky, I’d balance things out and come closer to the center on this spectrum. And also, you know, that maybe this would give me the necessary time and space to find someone who would actually meet a bunch of my needs.

I learned it’s important to be willing to walk away. I will probably always hate walking away. I will probably always hate even the idea of walking away. But what matters is not how I feel about it, but that I know I can and will do it if and when it becomes necessary.  

I learned it’s important to be happy on my own. And it’s important to believe I am a ten for myself, even if I have a lot of doubts about that. In other words, it’s important to believe you are worth it.



So what has come of all this work, you might be asking. Last you heard from me, back a couple of months ago, I was talking about dating fatigue. I was, truth be told, feeling like dating was kind of a waste of my time.

Well, life, it has been changing once more. And on Thursday, I’ll tell you the story of how I met my current boyfriend.

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Because I am a writer, it will probably come as no surprise to learn words are very important to me.

As such, it’s been something of a struggle for me to clearly delineate the difference between actions and words, and to make personal choices accordingly. For me, words tend to carry more weight than is helpful, and actions less than they deserve.

That’s not to say words aren’t still important. Indeed, some time ago I dated one gentleman who indulged in almost zero Words of Affirmation (we are all familiar with the Five Love Languages, yes?), a situation that was, as it turned out, intolerable to me. Words do carry a certain amount of weight and are also intrinsic parts of many actions.

However, I have observed that it is much easier to adjust words away from the actual truth of a situation than it is to adjust actions. Meaning, actions tend to be a more reliable gauge of what’s actually going on and a more accurate reflection of a person’s feelings and priorities. I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story for the past week, and he emphasizes again and again that deep character is revealed through conflict; that pressure is placed on a character, forcing her to act, and it is in that action that the viewer/reader learns who she truly is. It’s not what the character says that matters, but what she does.

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dean Hochman via Compfight cc

This is not a new insight for me; in fact, I’ve written about it before. But it’s been getting easier to apply it in my actual life, and I think the feedback loop that is causing this improvement is interesting. It works like this: as I’m surrounded more and more by action and behavior that is respectful and positive and affirming, the instances when action and behavior is not acceptable stick out a lot more clearly. Basically, my baseline has shifted.

This shift has resulted in several differences. For one thing, I am much more capable of identifying unhealthy situations and acting on this information. I am more able to clearly state when I’m not okay with something when I think that is the right thing to do. And I am able to figure out what it is I need in order to take care of myself in a more timely and efficient way. All of this means that smaller issues are less likely to spiral and grow into bigger ones. Which is pretty great, even if at the time it doesn’t feel all that wonderful.

I am even able to notice much more quickly when these kinds of circumstances begin to push me down an unproductive thought path. “Oh no, this person isn’t going to like me,” I think. But then, an hour later, “Wait a second. Maybe it’s okay if this person doesn’t like me. My job isn’t to make sure everyone likes me. My job is to set boundaries to keep myself healthy while doing my best to remain compassionate. Right.”

All of this, incidentally, supports being more compassionate. I tend not to associate firm decisive action with being compassionate, especially when said action involves saying no or otherwise disappointing someone. But I think I’m wrong in this. Modeling healthy behavior is ultimately a net win for all parties, as it nips issues in the bud that might have otherwise stretched out into longer periods of suffering for everyone. It sometimes allows for the potential for the relationship to heal and grow stronger. And since you are taking care of yourself, you are opening up more emotional space for noticing what the other person is going through and genuinely feeling for them, even if (and this is often the case) there is nothing much you can do about it.

Words are still important to me. But so often it is the associated actions that make all the difference.

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One of my most popular posts is one I wrote back in September of 2012, entitled “Nice vs. Kind.” And this week I received a note about it from a person I recently met, so I thought it would be interesting to provide an update to you all.

In the post, I talked about the distinction I perceived between being nice and being kind, and I talked about how, while I was making the shift, it could sometimes be difficult for me to be kind at all, because then I’d just fall right back into being nice instead, which was something I was trying to change.

What I neglected to say was it was also difficult to be kind because I was so angry from the decades of not getting most of my needs met and receiving repeated messages of how unimportant I was. In other words, I had to learn to be kind to myself before being able to easily be kind to other people too.

Fast forward almost three years, and it has definitely become easier for me. I’ve created a kind of checklist for dealing with situations that feel fraught and involve setting boundaries. (Because honestly, the rest of the time, it’s not very hard for me to be kind.) This thought process has become mostly habitual at this point.

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: a.drian via Compfight cc

Step 1: Figure out what I need/want.

If I really don’t care, then I get to be laid back, which is lovely.

If I don’t know, then I usually need some time. I’ve gotten better at simply saying I don’t know and getting the time I need to figure things out. Sometimes, when I’m really confused or emotional, I also need to talk things over with one or more friends to understand what it is I really need.

Step 2: Be clear and firm.

Step 3: Be kind.

Steps 2 and 3 are in that order for a reason. They reflect my priority, which is to be clear and firm FIRST, and kind SECOND. This helps prevent me from accidentally falling into niceness and wishy-washy-ness. It also reminds me not to soften or change what I need in order to be nicer, which is pretty much always an idea that crosses my mind at some point. (The Step 1 checking in with friends part is pretty helpful for this too, as it helps me not be too nice to begin with and builds in some accountability.)

I should note that if for some reason Step 3 is not possible, that doesn’t give an automatic pass to being UNkind. In general it is possible to be clear and firm without decimating someone in the process. To me, the main drawback of not being able to engage with Step 3 is it can feel a bit…robotic, but if that’s what necessary to express myself clearly and firmly, well, it’s not so bad. And luckily it doesn’t come up very often.

I should also note that following these steps doesn’t instantly solve all my interpersonal problems. The fact is, if someone wants something and I decide I don’t want to give that thing, then sometimes no amount of clarity or firmness or kindness is going to change the fact that the person isn’t going to be happy.

Still, each of these qualities serves its purpose. I practice clarity so I can get my actual point across with, I hope, fewer misunderstandings. I practice firmness so I’m less likely to have to revisit the same conversation and issue repeatedly or have someone try to change my mind. And the kindness? I believe it is ultimately helpful to the other person, and also, it’s simply the way I want to be.

“Be firm but kind, Amy.” This is the advice that runs through my head now. It isn’t foolproof, but it helps me remember how I want to be.

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